It has taken me a day to formulate my thoughts on my recent experiences before writing this post. I wasn't quite sure how to explain my thoughts, feelings, what I had heard etc. after my recent meetings. I am still not sure if I can do justice to the lives these people have lived but I will sure try to pass on their stories in the most respectful and truthful way possible. Over the past few days I have sat and cried with multiple families about their loss, held death certificates, read suicide notes, and met with the children of those farmers who chose to take their lives. It is unimaginable how these people go on functioning normally when the rug of a life that they once knew has been completely ripped out from underneath them. In this post I tell the story of four families...
The first family I met with was located about an hour outside of Nallur. We took roads that were barely large enough to squeeze the car through between the giant trees on both sides. We twisted and turned through the rice paddies of multiple villages located in the Palakkad District until we found this little house on the outskirts of one village. When we pulled up there was an older woman and her daughter standing in the yard. We told them why I was there and asked if it was ok to speak with them. They immediately welcomed us in and gave us the best seats in the house to sit on. We came to find that their son had committed suicide a few years ago before getting married due to an agriculture loan that he was unable to pay back. Though this situation did not pertain to my research I was not about to interrupt them as they shared the heart wrenching tale of their son’s suicide. They began to tell us how his mother had found him in his room after he had ingested pesticides and how ever since this event the devastation has manifested in her physically causing her to limp and be very weak. About this time the father of the family came in from feeding the family cow and was notified why we were there. The sister (pregnant and caring for the entire family/farm) pulled out loan documents and showed us the loans he had taken to grow banana plants. These plants were destroyed by floods, so nothing could be sold to repay the loan which led to the suicide. Though they did not speak a word of English I knew that they were sharing with me something that transcended language...it was primitive and distraught emotion that just flowed from them. I sat and cried with them as they told the story and it was translated to me. Though this family had nothing to do with why I came to India...the thought that this experience was a waste of time never crossed my mind. I wanted to help them even if it meant empathizing as best I could. After they shared about the loss of their son they told us that the government had helped them to buy two cows, had given them some monetary support, and had forgiven the debt. I was happy to hear this because even though I could not help beyond providing a listening ear, the government of India was.
The second family I met changed my life forever. We drove around a village that was close to the first family's house for about an hour until we were able to find their place through word of mouth. We pulled up about a half a block away at a construction site for another house and had to hike back to the house because the road was too narrow for the car. As we walked up there was a boy laying in the yard and two more boys came out of the house. Slowly more family members piled out to the front of the house to see who the visitors were. We told them why we were there and asked to talk to them. We sat down in chairs as the three boys (the farmer who committed suicides sons) told the story. While I was being told the story their uncle handed me a piece of paper which appeared to be a loan notice. I sat investigating the paper as one of the boys told us that his mother had died of cancer and his father could not bear to be without her and could not handle the agriculture debt he had taken on. At this point they also told me that the brother laying in the yard was severely disabled and could not walk or care for himself. They said that all of these things were too much for their father to handle and he too ingested pesticides shortly after their mother died. After hearing this story and observing the strong and brave nature of these , they told me that I was holding more than a notice from the bank...as I turned over the statement I saw the hand written suicide note left by their father. It detailed all the things they had told me about their mother, the loan, and how it was too difficult to care for their brother. I knew there had to be something I could do to help...but what? there was no widow! I decided that I could help by telling the story of this family and posting it on the website to raise funds to help with this disabled boys care. Pictures of him can be seen in the photos I have posted at: http://picasaweb.google.com/Heather.Lee.Murphy/Kerala .This family had shared so much and had provided me with an experience in life that I would never forget...holding a suicide note from a man you have never met changes you forever and reminds us to never take our position in life for granted because there are always those that have it harder.
After this meeting we traveled a few pot-holed streets over to the next house to meet with a widow and her daughter. As we got out of the car at a house on a busy street corner with cars, motorbikes, and rickshaws whizzing by us, I smelled a very familiar American smell...bubble gum! Peter (the man who cooks and drives the children to school at our campus had come along with us because he knew these villages very well) told me this was Jackfruit. This is a fruit native to India that I had never had before but only heard about. As we walked into the widow's house the smell enveloped you and welcomed you in. The woman and her daughter had heard us talking about jackfruit and asked if we had wanted some (I always feel bad taking food from the families I meet with because I know that they do not eat very often as it is but of course I could not be rude and say no to her offer). The fruit actually tasted better than it smelled if you could believe it... it is a bright yellow fruit with a large seed in the middle and its consistency is like the flat tomato. I ate one piece and then began my interview. The woman began to tell us that her husband had ingested pesticide just like the others because he had taken on loans for land and was unable to pay them back. As a result of this their older daughter had to drop out of school in the 10th standard (standard is synonymous with grade here). I looked at this young girl standing by as her mother told the story and provided us with loan documents and bank books. She told us that no one would hire her daughter with a 10th grade education and that she could not go back to school after being out so long. I began to think...how could I help both of these strong women who were held together stronger than so many families that have all their members. I saw that there was a cow in the front yard and the widow said they would be relocating to a smaller house shortly with a cow shed where she wanted to get one more cow. Perfect! Now I know how I can help mom but what about a girl without any technical skills beyond the 10th grade. I began thinking cows, goats, chickens, tailoring etc. I asked her what she thought about raising chickens and selling the eggs. She was excited by the idea which put a smile on her face. Though I know I have so much more to do, just putting a smile on that girl's face made my trip to India worth all the hard work to get here. I rapidly wrote down notes and took pictures of the girls, excited to begin raising money to help them as soon as I got back to the U.S. As we were leaving the young girl ran back in the house and wrapped up all the Jackfruit in newspaper for me to take home with me!
The last family I met with was similar to the previous one because they were a mother daughter team as well. As we pulled up children came running down the block to see who this foreigner was in their neighborhood. They said "Hi" and "What's your name?" to me and I waved and replied to them as we made our way into the house. We were greeted by a young woman who welcomed us in to sit on their finest chairs as the other families had. She had sent her younger sibling or cousin to go get her mother from working in the field (I hated to bother her and stop her from doing her work but I had to find out if I could help her). As I looked around the room from where I was seated I saw a picture of a man over the window that was visible from the front door...I was later told by the girl that this was a picture of her father. The girl was strong as she stood and began to tell us the details of her father committing suicide over agricultural debt that he could not repay. She showed us loan documents and allowed me to thumb through bank books with payments amounts, interest, and penalties etc. It was about this time that her mother entered in a tattered white saree that was falling apart from long hours working in the field. She greeted us and then her daughter told her why we were there. She instantly welled up with tears as she looked at the photo of her husband. She told us how he had said he was going to lay down for a rest and that she had found him dead from ingesting the pesticides that they were supposed to be using on the farm that day. She stayed composed as her eyes brimmed with huge tears that slowly began to spill over as she talked about their hardship with repaying the loan and the notices that had come monthly from the bank that threatened to take their house and land. Most families that I had talked to had received debt forgiveness and government aid money...this was not the case here. The local bank is trying to reclassify this loan as a business loan which will not be forgiven and must be paid back. At this point they do not know what will be decided about the loan. I knew there had to be something I could do to help them. I asked her what I could provide for them that would make their lives easier. She said they would like to acquire one to two more cows for the farm because the milking society (where farmers can go and sell their milk to be packaged and shipped off to other cities) was located within walking distance. She then told me that the people who lived across the street were family and that they helped with the cows, chickens, and land that they have. She said that her son could go to get the cow as he had done for them before. As we got ready to leave her daughter ran across the street to get the phone number from her family's house so that we would have a way to contact them. I never thought that I would be in the business of wheeling and dealing cows in India but I would do anything at this point to help this family and the others.
I do not tell the stories of the families that I meet to gain sympathy or make people feel sad... because I sure don't! I feel admiration and strength after meeting these families that could not be felt any other way. The day that I met with these families cemented why I am here and that I was meant to do this! I know I am the person to help these women and families in any way possible. The first way that I can think of helping these people is by sharing their stories with others.
On another note I would like to mention an event for WEI coming up on August 8th. The details can be found at the website, http://weicreatechange.org/events.html . This is a great way to come out and have a great time as well as help these women! Thank you for your continued support!
Also I have uploaded some new pictures which show my sarees, meetings with the widows, more of the Mercy Home boys learning to use my camera, my trip to a local dam, and lots more!
India tip of the day: When you are close enough that a honk hurts your ears jump out of the way!