Day 5 of the workshop in Ajmer began 2 hours late. We planned to begin the workshop at ten; however, after a visit at the office and a quick stop at a few shops, we arrived around noon. Our lack of punctuality did not seem to be an issue, giving me the feeling that India’s sense of time is extremely different than my own. It feels like it takes several hours to complete the most basic tasks such as purchasing more needles and scissors. This being our last day of the workshop there was quite a bit to finish, so the moment we walked into the workspace, we began. Within the first few minutes, eight women surrounded Colleen and I, holding out there finished pieces and asking us which pattern to use. Simultaneous to this chaos and confusion, our dear tailor, Dungar Das, came to teach the process of constructing a scarf. Let’s just say it was a whirlwind.
At this stage in the project we asked the women to deconstruct the two finished pieces and reassemble them according to an Indian inspired print. There wasn’t the most positive response to this step. Many women were so sad to cut up the pieces they had just created, but after a few moans and groans they readied themselves for the next step. While creating templates for the new patterns, I sat underneath a nearby tree for some much needed relief from the sun. In the mist of scraps of flying fabric, I felt something drop on my head. Reaching to my hair I realized I had indeed been pooped on by a rather large pigeon. Though this provided much laughter for the women I got a bit flustered. It wasn’t the actual bird droppings that were frustrating; it was that I had six more hours to work with this smell. I added the smell to the checklist of strange scents of the trip, laughed it off and kept working.
After two hours of women calling out “didi, didi” and asking for my help without any regard to order, I was beginning to lose my cool. It is very different from what I am used to. In studio, the professor would have created a signup sheet and everyone would have patiently waited their turn. This was a dog fight. Not in any vicious sense of the word, but each woman was concerned solely for herself, oblivious to how ill-mannered it came across. This, I totally understood as a cultural difference and I knew that the women had only good intentions, but I like order, I like an organized plan. One by one we answered their pushy requests, chose a pattern and went on to the next, the whole time still smelling the pigeon’s “gift.” Once every one of the thirty plus women were settled and quietly stitching, Colleen and I got our first moment to breathe. For the next few hours we sat answering questions, providing additional suggestions, and playing with the children. Over the past 5 days, we had observed some of the family relationships between the 15 plus kids who ran through the workspace each day. Very few of them would attend school. Living in the “slum” it is difficult to provide the structure and discipline the children need to attend school. I sat taking photograph after photograph of them, just to enjoy the giggling and smiles that followed. I taught them a game we played as children and I patiently answered “Maggie,” after each one asked me my name. I have come to find out that the people of India have no problem pronouncing my name because “Maggi” is a popular brand of pasta. Colleen is not so lucky. When they grew bored of us, they would go back to flying kites made of found plastic wrapping or playing a game with excess thread from the workshop tied to a rock. They would rarely bother their mothers and always found a way to entertain themselves, much different from children at home glued to Xbox or smart phones. The children were always seen with a smile on their face and seemed happy, even if they were wearing the same outfit for the third day in a row or clearly battling a respiratory infection. Yesterday Colleen and I began to see them, to look in their eyes and know how tough their lives had already been and how tough they were going to get. Due to our unintended tardiness, our day began to run longer than normal. Once the women had finished the final pattern, they were then asked to take a scarf home and practice the running stitch over the next week. This was the first time dusk had come and we were still in the neighborhood. Still playing with the children I was completely oblivious to what was happening. Colleen came and whispered in my ear that we needed to leave. The space we had been working in was provided by a very sweet woman with three children. Her husband however is clearly an alcoholic. He walks with a limp and only leaves the house once to drink. My guess is that he does not work. Last night, he had just returned home from his main voyage and our Anoothi partners told us to wrap things up and finish our tasks elsewhere. The overall mood had dramatically changed. You could feel the women’s tension, a little embarrassed but mainly worried.
Leaving the space we experienced a very new side of the neighborhood. The husbands had just gotten home and many of them were also drunk. Colleen and I looked at each other and it clicked. These women who have been coming each day with huge smiles on their faces, lived here. They had to battle abusive drunk husbands, they had children at the age of fifteen, they sold their bodies to feed their family. With the fall of a dark night it all hit me. It was so easy to forget the situation the women were in when we sat laughing with them and connecting on a basic human level. When Colleen and I sat with them each day, we never focused on their lives outside of the current moment. But looking around I realized, with a fresh perspective, how challenging and exhausting their lives actually were. It made my earlier frustrations seem so silly.
When finally we left the neighborhood Colleen and I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel. We flagged down a bus and were offered the back seat. Now if you don’t know me, I am 5 feet 10 inches, not the average size of an Indian. As we had taken the bus before Colleen, myself and our two Anoothi partners squeezed into the back. The attendant attempted to close the door and my legs wouldn’t fit! I felt like I was too big for a rollercoaster. Lifting my legs just right the door finally closed, relieved I look over at Colleen and just burst out laughing. Her head was touching the ceiling and she couldn’t even sit down on the seat. I laughed because I was exhausted, I laughed because I was so terribly sad for the women and children I had come to know, and I laughed because I realized what we are doing was crazy, amazing but utterly crazy.
Two auto rickshaws, a flat tire, and overpriced driver later, Colleen and I finished our day with two very cold Kingfishers on the roof of our hotel. Come Monday afternoon we begin it all again with our group in Ajmer.
Maggie & Colleen