Week 3.

I am officially halfway through my time in India. 15 days til home. And right now, in an act of rebellion, I’m wearing jeans. Take that, Goodwill skirts.

There is plenty to write about, so this will be a bit disorganized.

1. This experience has been so full of ups and downs. Every day is an emotional rollercoaster, and I’m finding that the littlest things can totally set me off. I’ve written about this before. A few days ago, we had such an India moment that perfectly captured the highs and lows that we have been experiencing. On Tuesday, we spent the afternoon at a nice coffee shop with our professor. We had some fun frappuchino-type drinks, discussed our research projects, and enjoyed the air conditioning. Things were going really well–I finally felt like I was getting somewhere with my research (more on that later), and I think Cynthia and Liz were starting to feel more comfortable with their projects too. We left the coffee shop to head over to Park Street and find a restaurant for dinner. Of course, Kolkata traffic prevented us from crossing the street, so we waited and waited. When the road was finally clear, Cynthia stepped off the curb…into a gutter full of human feces. She completely panicked. We quickly dumped our bottles of water on her feet, drenching her cute sandals and poo-covered toes. It was a mess. She was able to wipe the excrement off her feet and ankles with some wet wipes that she was carrying in her purse, but the experience scarred us all. I got some splash-back from the puddle too–it was disgusting. After we rinsed off, none of us could stop laughing. It was the perfect metaphor for our time in India. One minute, you’re in a fancy coffee shop. The next minute, you’re ankle deep in shit.

2. I have a research project! FINALLY. After 3 changes, I went to Sr. Cyril and asked what I could do that would be of use to her and to Loreto Sealdah. Cynthia, Liz, and I had been talking about how short-term volunteers are usually in the experience with fairly selfish intentions, at the core. I couldn’t help but think about my week-long service trip to Appalachia this past fall break. Short-term volunteers tend to arrive, work (mostly) hard for a little while, and then leave feeling good about themselves. I want to make an impact during my time here, so rather than taking on a project with my own interests in mind, I figured that the best way to leave my mark would be to just ask where Loreto needs help and support.

Sr. Cyril told me that she had a group of 10 Class X girls, sophomores in high school, who had failed their June exams. The way that school is set up here, students have unit tests in January, February, March, and April. Then, when India gets unbearably hot in May and the beginning of June, the students have a 6 week holiday. During their break, the students are supposed to study for their June exams, which are cumulative tests of all the material covered in January through April. The girls that Sr. Cyril wanted help with were special cases–most of them had passed their unit tests, but all of them totally bombed the final exam. She charged me with figuring out the reasons why the girls failed and determining how to help them to succeed. Great.

With my research assistant Cynthia, who got roped in to the project by Sr. Cyril, I interviewed 8 of the girls on Monday and Tuesday. Brief conversations with these girls led to fascinating insights in to their studies and exams. Some of these girls just need a kick in the butt to motivate them, but some have real issues–issues beyond their control–that are preventing them from achieving to their fullest potential.

For example, one girl lives in one room with her parents, siblings, uncle, aunt, and cousins. The uncle and her father are fighting, and shortly before exam time, the uncle kicked the Loreto student’s family out of the house. During the 6 week holiday, while this young lady was trying to study, her cousins ripped up her books because they were jealous that she was attending a prestigious English medium school while they were stuck at the government Bengali medium schools.

In another case, the Loreto student was unable to come to school to study over the holiday because her family was having a major crisis–the oldest sister was getting married, but to someone she loved. Her parents didn’t approve of the love marriage, and instead, wanted the sister to marry a different boy–her COUSIN. When a 16-year-old girl who is struggling to pass the 10th grade sees something like that happen, what motivation does she have to continue schooling? If she sees her sister being forced into marriage, what motivation does she have to go to college? How can she possibly plop down in the middle of her family’s one-room home and review for an exam when an argument of that caliber is taking place?

I’m in the process of developing an interview protocol and classroom observation protocol for this project. I’m really excited about my new research because even though it’s taking a completely different shape than I had anticipated, it’s real research. I’m finding out things that these girls have never told anyone before, and I have an opportunity to make a huge difference in these girls’ lives.

3. We visited one of the railroad schools from the Sampurna project on Tuesday (before the poop feet incident). The car ride was a miserable, hot, bumpy, 60-75 minutes each way, but I knew it was totally worth it when I saw the school. Once we parked the jeep, we had to wade through a small stream, clamber up an embankment, and pick our way between the railroad tracks for about a half mile. We turned off suddenly, scooted down the muddy embankment, and there we were. The community we visited is located between the railroad embankment and a wall bordering government land. The parcel is probably about 40 feet wide in total. Loreto Sealdah’s Sampurna program builds schools for communities like this one because the children who live there do not have access to a school otherwise. Loreto trains the teachers (members of the communities) and provides materials. The one-room school had 3 teachers and about 30 students, sitting in groups. In one corner, a woman was cooking over a propane stove. After a few minutes of observation, the Loreto staff member who accompanied us spoke to the teachers in Bengali. All the children stood up and sang the only English song they know–“We Shall Overcome”. I don’t think I can properly describe just how powerful the experience was, but it was really something incredible.

4. This morning, I worked with children in the Rainbow Room who I didn’t recognize. One of the little girls spoke about 5 words of English, but she was very excited to practice. Her vocabulary consisted of: “English”, “Bengali”, “Hindi”, “Aunty”, “Yes”, and “No”. We had a pretty interesting conversation. Even though she was just saying, “Yes yes yes yes English Aunty!”, her inflections made it very clear that she was saying, “Hello, how are you?” The children I’ve met, especially those in the Rainbow program, are so resilient and so creative. She pulled a book out of her backpack and indicated that she’d like for me to read to her. “Great,” I thought, “it’s in English!” Then I took a closer look at the title of the only book that this little girl owned. It was called “The Area Where We Live Is Called A Red Light Area.” The book looked like something you might buy on an end-aisle in a bookstore–it was part research project, part stories and drawings from Red Light District children. Definitely not something appropriate for a 6-year-old to be reading. As I paged through the book, I realized that all of the pictures had been cut out. The Rainbow girls were snipping out the crayon drawings that were published in the book, and they were making paper dolls out of the stick figures.

I later found out that the group of Rainbows I didn’t recognize were, in fact, not Rainbows at all. The group of girls is bussed to Loreto Sealdah from Kolkata’s Red Light District every school day so they can attend the public school near Sealdah. The government schools near the Red Light District won’t allow the children who live there to attend corporation schools because the government doesn’t want to be connected with illicit activity. Loreto busses the students to and from Sealdah so they can attend school in an area where nobody knows who they are or where they’re from.

5. We went to McDonald’s for lunch. Not a burger to be found. The chicken mcnuggets were good though.

6. Liz and I visited one of Loreto’s drop-in centers for child domestic laborers today. I was really upset by the way Loreto handled the situation. We were supposed to visit the facility with the program director, but she was busy, so we were sent off in a taxi with two other Loreto staff members who spoke so-so English. Before we left, the program director told Liz and me to interview the live-in workers and get case histories on each of them. We didn’t have any kind of form to fill out, and we really didn’t have any idea of what kind of information she wanted us to gather. Anyway, we arrived at the center and the women we were with sat down to translate for us.

We interviewed 6 children who are live-in domestic laborers. Their stories were absolutely heartbreaking. The kids we talked to ranged in age from 8- to 16-years-old, and they made between 100 and 800 rupees a month. My lunch at McDonald’s was 200 rupees. The kids wake up at 6 am and spend their days cooking, cleaning, babysitting, grocery shopping, dusting, washing laundry, and caring for pets. They eat only what is left over from the meals that their employers eat. The lucky workers get to visit their families (usually in other states of India) once a year. One little girl’s family is in Kolkata and she calls them every day, but they refuse to answer. All of the kids send their earnings home to their parents.

What really got me about the experience, aside from the tragic exploitation of these children, was the way that the Loreto staff thought it was ok for 2 random foreigners to be interviewing these children. I’m not a social worker–I didn’t even have a form to fill out! By allowing some college students to formally interview the children, Loreto effectively turned the drop-in center into a tourist attraction. The whole exercise completely stripped the children of any dignity they had. Liz and I felt awkward the entire time–there was really no reason for us to be there. Loreto employs a full-time social worker. The women who accompanied us to the center spoke Bengali and Hindi and were translating everything we said–they would have been just fine without us. I understand that the intention of bringing us to the drop-in center was very good, but it was completely inappropriate to have volunteers doing the kind of casework that Liz and I found ourselves doing this afternoon.

On the taxi ride to dinner, Liz and I were looking out the window, admiring the fruit market. Our cab was stopped in traffic and we were trying to identify various foreign-looking fruits and vegetables. All of a sudden, Liz and I looked at each other. “Is that…?” A girl in black was kneeling by a basket of greens. She was one of the domestic laborers who we had interviewed this afternoon. She looked up and saw us in the cab. We smiled and waved, and she waved back. It was a truly bizarre experience. Maybe this city isn’t so big after all.


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