A good friend back home, one Devin Brown, handed me a book from 1924 called 'A Passage to India' by E. M. Forster to bring along on this trip. It focuses on the strained Indian/British relations at the height of the colonial era. I'll spare you the book report and reflect further on those relations later on (also, my confusion about the game of cricket), but the coolest thing about reading this book while in India is the stunning realization that the pages are mirrors to India's past. I'll be nose deep in the spine of Forster's book when something in my peripheral leaps out. The imagery breaths! An ancient Hindu temple on the mountain's peak or a red faced monkey racing along the towering walls of Red Fort. I'm gazing into a crystal ball, seeing a world that, while updated in it's technologies, still beats an old drum, molting in real time. Spolier alert: I witnessed a boy texting and driving…a camel.
Here in Ajmer, we've been working all week with the artisans of Vatsalya, a local health and sexual education center partnered with Anchal. It's clear right away that these women enjoy what they do. They embrace the process, sewing worn saris purchased from the market into vests, scarves, and quilts. Colleen and Tricia have their hands full, but are managing wonderfully. It's not an easy job, even with the help of Archana, an astute and sweet project manager from JaipHere in Ajmer, we've been working all week with the artisans of Vatsalya, a local health and sexual education center partnered with Anchal. It's clear right away that these women enjoy what they do. They embrace the process, sewing worn saris purchased from the market into vests, scarves, and quilts. ur, Kusun, the local Vatsalaya lead, and our inquisitive translator, Amita. I've been filming Colleen and Tricia teach the women textile patterns rooted in Indian history. It's fascinating to think that many of these patterns travelled to the West, only now to return to India, re-stitched into new clothing, re-worked and newly imagined. New stitches forging new friendships. To update you on the documentary, I've made great progress on my focus, interviewing artisans that lead double lives. Some of these women are still involved in the sex trade, others left it behind. Of course the circumstances vary, but across the board, it's evident that the women who are still doing both really need the Anchal workshops. The space serves as a place for women to get together. It's a safe haven to educate and learn, to laugh and cry, to understand that they are not alone. The inequality facing women in India is a huge bull in the room. Inside these workshops, the energy is strong and there is hope in the air. As much as many of the women I talked to don't see the sex trade ending any time soon, they all wish it would, for the sake of their sons and daughters, and for the sake of a future generation in India dreaming of escape from this calloused paradigm. Many of these women, standing on the bridge between their art and their income source, know that the answers are not clear, the grey area as thick as the smog that smothers the city. But through it all, they still stand tall and are inspiring me everyday I spend with them.
There's a quote from Forester's book that I keep pondering, "The coin that buys the exact truth has not yet been minted.". The caste system that structures life in India is difficult to understand for me, a curious westerner who may have had delusions of imposing some sort of logic to the madness before, now sees it the way it is, the way it wants to be. From the markets to the mosques, it's an arranged marriage of circumstance, of cultural evolution. Dollars turn to rupees, and I am constantly trying to assess what's worth what to whom and what can really buy one's happiness. Then I realize, many of these poor Indian people I so naively believed to be unhappy or suffering, bear a smile bigger than many a privileged westerner. That's not to say that their paths are cakewalks or they don't feel with every step the anchors of oppression and despair, it's just to say that many can see through the fog long enough to know there is more than meets the eye, a deeper meaning underneath the skin you wear. Or, at least that's my general perception thus far.
Coming up in the next post, a final reflection on the workshops. Also, a wild trip to Pushkar, a town on the outskirts of the desert where the locals are preparing for the annual camel fair! I was fortunate enough to share a Diwali celebration with new friends and family. Fireworks all day and night for weeks makes David a grump but the cacophony is something that you become accustomed to whether you like it or not in India. It takes a mind tuning, a meditative computing of the auditory assault to surrender and swim with it all. In this transformation, you are free from your judging each moment as it relates to 'you.' I also promise more on the children and the animals, my camera's favorite subjects, next time. And the cherry on top: a trip to Ajanta and Ellora Caves.
And again, the food here is the best I've ever had. No real stomach failures just yet, just feeling really full. I've complimented waiters profusely until they think something is wrong with me. From avant garde paneer dishes to banana lassis, I'm salivating all over my keyboard just thinking about our next meal. Hopefully it will be spicy!! Oh yeah, forgot to mention Tricia ate some really spicy food and had to go to he hospital. The doc fixed her up with some antacids and antibiotics, the total bill was 750 rupees. That's $12.50. Yeah. Your move America. :)
-David (photos by David Matysiak)