Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Friday, February 18, 2011


Today I went to a little village outside of Santiniketan and had my heart blown wide open.

Chandana has been working for the last 15 years with several groups of Chantal tribes people to improve their nutritional/living conditions, educational outlook and gender equality.  So, I was going to meet with a group of young women between 13 and 27, some of whom were already wives and mothers and some who were, remarkably, still in school at the ripe old age of 17.  Over the next couple of weeks we are going to work on getting a small short story by Tagore up on it’s feet.  Today I just did a little icebreaker and saw the village while another volunteer, Kristen and some of her children, did a lesson with the young kids of the village on personal hygiene and dental health.

This town is made up of roughly 200 souls who still build their houses out of mud walls and thatch roofs and fuel their fires with dung that is dried in patties that are formed and stuck to the outside walls for drying every morning by the women of the village.
Men and women alike were hard at work today harvesting mustard seed.  Alleys and walkways were full of large bundles of freshly cut, vermillion colored mustard grass.  In one yard a man was threshing the seed with a turn style contraption run by a pedal.  In another yard, several family members were simply taking handfuls of grass and whacking it on the ground till all the seed fell out.  Several hours after we had arrived, we walked back out of the village over mounds of seed. This mustard plant is used not only for cooking, but also for fuel, thatch, and fertilizer for other crops.

The townsfolk also grow their own rice which they store in the dried stalk in small silos made out of braided dried grass and thatch.  The ancient design is both beautiful and perfect for this climate, it keeps the rice dry and mold free.

Chandana’s group from Santiniketan has brought in consultants who are teaching the villagers how to grow organically.  Actually, he is re-teaching them how to grow the way they used to plant crops before the big chemical companies came in and told them they were doing it wrong, before the chemical companies killed the soil.  Fortunately, this consultant also taught the town to harvest soil from the small lake they live on.  The minerals from the lake soil are bringing the farm plots back to life.  As long as the planet doesn’t get too hot and they can eek out enough rain for the season, this village can sustain itself all year long.  Granted, that’s a big “if.”

When Chandana took some of us on the tour, we were greeted by men and women who were all so very proud of their homes and gardens and the village.  The love and respect they have for Chandana was shinning in every face we met.  It was so inspiring to see how this woman could make a whole village smile, not just because she is a lovely person, but because they understood how much she has improved the self-esteem of their village folk and the self-sustainability of their culture and way of life.

Along the way, I started to take pictures of the townsfolk.

Rather quickly, word spread and other people started appearing around corners who were searching me out to take portraits.  Everyone was full of glee and pride.  They beamed as brightly as the green grass and the full moon that now hangs over Santiniketan when I showed them their pictures.

All through the afternoon I was aware of an electricity that ran through the village that fueled the people in their work, in the classes we taught, in how they interacted with all us volunteers.  It created a real sense of not just equality, but mutual respect.  Unlike other parts of India where I have felt catered to, or elevated because of my white skin, in this small village we were all souls learning and living and making whatever strides we can to improve our lives and our planet.

Early in the day I was hanging out on the outskirts of the school and a woman holding a very young baby walked closely by.  I reached out to just tickle the baby’s arm and found myself being handed the child.  While Kristen’s class got going, I cooed and comforted the little one.  Village mother’s checked in from afar, but no one was worried.  I was just as good a candidate for looking after this newborn as anyone else.  Unlike with Santosh and his family back in Fort Cochin, these people were not looking for anything from me.  They were sharing their way of life and briefly inviting me to participate, which I gladly did until the baby decided to pee on me; that seemed as good a time as any to hand her off to someone else.

Towards the end of the afternoon, I was taking pictures of Kristen’s class.  One man asked me to take his son’s picture, then their picture together.

Afterwards he seemed really keen to learn something about the camera.  He was studying it.  He kept pointing towards an empty stall in the yard and for some reason I thought he was trying to understand how the camera zoomed and wanted me to show him by aiming the camera in that direction.  I tried handing him the camera so he could try it out, but he declined the invitation.

During my class, which I held shortly afterward in the courtyard next to the same stalls, we had to stop for the cows to come home for the night.  The man then came up to me again, pulled on my arm and drew me over to the stalls which were now occupied by his livestock.  All along he’d been trying to tell me that he had 4 cows and 5 goats and he was trying to tell me that he wanted me to take their picture when they came in for the night.  He was showing off and sharing his life with me.  WITH ME!  I felt so honored to be able to take the picture for him, to know something more about this man’s life.

I was a person capable of capturing the pictures of his family and livelihood.  He is a proud father who keeps cows and goats.  That makes us equal.  Equal.


rotca said...

During my visit to Bengal and Kolkata we were in the urban area mostly but went out to the countryside one day where I saw the walls everywhere covered with snowball size drying dung patties arranged in a perfect grid and thought how wonderfully efficient it is since the goats, sheep & and cattle were not very efficient in digesting it. Energy first for the animals to live, then energy for cooking (and heat when necessary) for the people, not to mention keeping the roads and yards clean. It did not make me want to be the one who formed the patties. It is fascinating how stories with certain elements are complete for one culture while in another the we might expect or hope for a different denouement.

Christopher said...

I'm guessing "ashram" is defined as something along the lines of a place for spiritual growth and rejuvenation; a retreat, essentially.

If so, in your case it sounds like this place fits that definition quite well.