Vijayawada is a very large city that has even been dubbed “the second Mumbai” because of its size. You would not know you were not in New York, Panama City, San Jose, Hong Kong, etc. if the signs were not in Hindi. It was overwhelming at first to be thrown into city life after so much time in small villages and towns. The rickshaws zipping all over and the incessant honking were multiplied beyond belief. There are billboards, big stores (even Levi Strauss), and restaurants everywhere. Where I stayed was right off a large roundabout called Benz Circle. It seems to be one of the larger intersections in the city and is surrounded by many business buildings. Right off the main drag on a side street is where I enjoyed my few days in Vijayawada…
After deciding that wasting the time crying over my clothes was not worth it I got to work unpacking. Normally this activity is pretty uneventful because I only unpack necessities as I will just have to repack everything in two days... but this time a little surprise was waiting for me. A dear friend of mine had stowed away in my bag all the way back from Khammam…you know the spider the size of a toddler. It was just like a horror film! I had unpacked all my wet clothes from my big duffle bag so that they could dry and had gone over to inspect my carryon bag. I opened the zipper and saw something move…like a shadow in a horror film. When I saw nothing I just assumed it was my imagination, so I continued digging in my bag. All of the sudden as I lifted my computer out, that giant spider crawled out onto my bag. I thought the rat was enough to make me loose bodily function control but this was pushing it. So I had to think fast because apparently it was smarter than my towel under the door trick and I wanted to win this match. I took one of my books and got it off my bag and onto the floor…then I thought the next logical step was to step on it. It would have been fabulous if that was possible but that freaky thing kept jumping and scurrying about. Finally it went up onto the wall and I decided it was time for some creative tactics, so I did what any girl would do….I screamed and threw my shoe at it. Thank goodness for those girly survival instincts! I think I shocked the thing into standing still and the shoe took care of the rest. I decided to leave it where it fell on the floor as a message to his little buddies and because I was way too afraid to move it. Those people who know me well will realize what a big accomplishment this is in my life and for those who don’t…I am that girl who stands on the couch shrieking after putting Tupperware over a bug waiting until someone will come kill it. Aside from learning gladiator tactics for the bugs of India, while in Vijayawada I held a meeting for widows to discuss their involvement in SHGs.
The village where the meeting was held was about two hours outside of Vijayawada. The organization that I was staying with to conduct my research had a village office where we held the meeting. This organization has done over thirty years of disaster relief in this village and the surrounding area. Many cyclones and even tsunamis have hit this area causing people to loose everything and be in dire need of food. Lots of people are killed every year by these storms and it is this organization that goes in to help survivors with their immediate needs. It was a bit ironic that a woman who was widowed only three months ago herself was uniting a group of widows to meet with me about their problems and current life situation. She was so strong and so proud of the work she and her husband had done for the organization while he was alive. She always emphasized how active he was in the programs even though it was her parents who had started the organization. I could tell immediately this organization was different from the others I had visited because there were no identifiable signs of religion. I came to learn that this was an atheist organization that believed in helping all religions and castes. None of the women wore wedding rings, traditional Hindu wedding necklaces, etc. This was the first place no one asked my religion while welcoming me and never tried to help me “find” their religion…probably because they did not have one. Before leaving the main office for the meeting, my guide showed me a room of photographs where her mother and father had been published in many newspapers for their rescue work. Her father even sat with Ghandi a few times and some of their conversations have been published . She was one of nine children who are all somehow involved in the programs or social work of some kind. Many of the children tour the world to attend and speak at atheist conventions. Even their children and grandchildren are involved and live on campus. It is amazing to see the family unity among generations, centered on helping disaster victims and the empowerment of women.
The campus where the meeting was held was at the end of the village on approximately one acre of land. There were little buildings all over…for office staff, a tutoring program for the village children, a water tower (with a picture of Gandhi painted on it), a weaving classroom, and even a hut where my guide and her husband used to live and work. I was taking pictures of all the buildings (even a palm tree that was planted in commemoration of Queen Anne’s visit) and after I took a picture of that hut she told me that was where she had lived with her husband. Being a very strong woman there was a pain in her voice I had not heard before as she stared off at the house in remembrance of her husband. Up until this point she had just been telling me about the programs very robotically but this moment made her more human and I felt for her. Just then we were interrupted by a young Indian looking girl who spoke very fluent English…I came to find out that she was Canadian and had come to research the SHGs just as I had. We are close in age and hit it off right away. It was so nice to have a girl to talk to after so long away from my girlfriends back home. As we made our way from the back of the campus where the house and administration buildings were, we came to a courtyard where about thirty women had gathered outside on plastic chairs. This informal setting would prove to be very conducive to the meeting…
Myself, my new friend, and our guide sat on chairs in front of the women while one of the administrators explained the reasonsfor us being here. My friend (being Indian and visiting family every summer in this state) knew the basics of the Telugu language and so I often looked over her shoulder at her notes to get a basic idea of what was being said. Though my guide translated for me, sometimes the notes or the translation would hit points the other did not. Once the faculty had explained why we were there they asked these women to share something about their involvement with SHGs. Many were afraid to speak at first but one woman began to talk about how her husband had left her and she had joined the SHG to buy a phone that villagers could pay to use. Eventually cell phones/pay phones became very popular and that venture was no longer profitable. She had paid off that loan so she took another to start a kiosk where she sells school supplies. This business is helping her to put her two children through school and her next concern is finding someway to make enough money to put them through college. As more and more women spoke you could see that they emphasized the education of their children as the focus of their lives. They value education because they do not want their children to struggle with the difficulties of village life that they do. I will never forget a young woman who spoke (she could not have been more than 25) she told about her husbands death (he was sick) a few years back and that she had two children. She was part of a SHG where she had borrowed money to purchase a buffalo. The money from selling the buffalo milk subsidizes her income from agriculture labor. I could not believe the pain in this young woman’s face…it was like looking at what I could have become had I been born in this village. She was very tiny and had a face like a doll…if she had been born anywhere else in the world her fate would have been different. There must be reasons that some of us face these things and others do not. I always admire the courage of those that do because I believe they come out a lot stronger than many of us who have not faced those circumstances. Many more of the women shared about how the SHG was a support base for them and that the other women were there for them if they needed to borrow money to pay for medicine for their children, could not make a payment one month, etc. Most of the women at this meeting were deserted, meaning their husbands ran off to marry someone else leaving them with the children. Often in this scenario the parents of the husband kick the wife out of the house (in most cases the bride moves in with the bride-groom after marriage) and she can either return to her family (if they will take her) or she has to find a way to support herself. Most of the widows at the meeting were older and had lost their husbands from suicides or natural causes. Just as the women I had met in Rajahmundry, these women would meet regularly and approve all SHG decisions. At this meeting the women even shared with us that men in the village had tried to form SHGs but had failed because the money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, etc. (things that are unacceptable for women to be doing in the society). After the meeting I had to leave my new friend and head back to the city where to my surprise I would meet some other girls my age…
Upon arriving back at Benz Circle in Vijayawada I got out of the car to find four girls my age in the dining hall. They were students who had come from Europe after graduating high school to teach English. They were from Ireland, England, and the UK. Through the atheist organization students are placed all over India, some in villages and some at big universities. I was so excited to have people close to my age to talk about India with and hear about their experiences (especially because I could speak at a normal pace with them and use English slang that is so common to me but often trips people up who are not native speakers i.e. what’s up?). We rushed off to get some ice cream and began sharing stories. I told them of all my clothes being ruined on the bus and they told me about how one of the village children cracked their head open that day and there were no first aide supplies in the whole village. We laughed about Indian characteristics that we had all begun to take on, them even more than me because of the amount of time they had been living there (I have compiled a list below). After ice cream we returned back to the center to have dinner and then off to bed.
The next day they had to go get exit visas while I went shopping for new clothes. I had yet to be out by myself anywhere on this trip and it was very liberating. I walked down the road to a store where the sales girls pulled almost a hundred churridars of every color and fabric out from shelves for me to look at. They brought me Sprites while I shopped and kept pressing me to buy more items from sleepwear to sarees. After about an hour (which is longer than I would ever want to spend shopping anywhere) I escaped with enough clothes to get me through the weekend before I returned back to Kerala. With my new clothes in hand I navigated my way back across the big road, dodging cars and rickshaws and motorcycles and bikes and animals (cows, dogs, etc.). Though it was only a small venture out on my own, my shopping trip proved to me that I did not need translators to get around and that I could find my way in India. I spent the rest of the day in meetings discussing our village meeting the previous day and then went off to bed in anticipation of the train ride ahead of me the next day.
You know you are becoming Indian when… 1) You move your head from side to side when people talk to you (like a bobble head doll but side to side not up and down). 2) The first or second question you ask someone is how many members are in their family then what their parents do. 3) You arrive at least a half hour late to everything which is right on time in I.S.T. (Indian Standard Time). 4) You can fall asleep in a car that is going over more potholes than Swiss cheese has holes. 5) You forgot how to do your hair any other way than in a low ponytail parted down the middle. 6) A saree becomes easier to wear than your jeans. 7) In the morning you look forward to idily and dosa instead of pancakes and eggs. 8) A bath means a bucket with water and a cup. 9) Lizards become house pets.
And #10...You are so used to the current being shut off that you forget what using power is like and often get dressed in the dark even though the power is on.
India tip of the day: Charge every electronic item you have when there is power because you never know when there won’t be.