Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Connection

The woman sitting across from us passes a hollowed gourd that has been sealed with fire. It is filled with alcohol made from fermented rice and brought by her tribe to sell at this weekly market in the hills. She is a Bonda, and we are now in Orissa, a lush green state on the eastern coast of India, to study her tribe along with the other indigenous groups that still populate this region. Our guide is Samar and our driver is Dija. They are Hindu, but both seem to have a deep respect and love for the tribes in this part of their home state. Shortly after picking me and Chris up at the train station in Visha, as we drove through ridiculously beautiful hills and valleys, Samar told us, "Maybe we will make a connection." Huh? "A connection," he said again, as if it didn't need much explaining. I was too tired from our overnight train ride from Kolkata to ask to many questions, but now I've been wondering. Where is the connection?

Our new tribal friend’s name is Bubhai, which means Wednesday in the Bonda language. It is customary for all children in the tribe to be named for the day on which they were born. She, like the other Bonda women who have come to the market, is draped with hundreds of beaded necklaces which conceal her breasts and stomach. Beside this, she wears nothing but a short sisal skirt tied around her hips and a bright lungi tied over her shoulders. Bubhai’s hair is shorn, as is customary for married women and her scalp is wrapped in more strings of beads. A pile of thick aluminum necklaces rests on her collarbone, bangles are stacked along both of her forearms, and she is barefoot.

Of 8.15 million tribes people in the state, the Bonda only account for about 5,000. They are considered among the most primitive tribes in India. To get to the market, they walk hours through the forest from their village in the hills with urns of the fermented rice alcohol they produce perched upon their heads. They also distill a mild beer from the sago palm trees that grow in the area. At the market they set themselves up in a small field along the road to sell their wares. Samar, explains that many of the tribes people stay on after the market has finished to drink and dance into the night. Afterward they make their way on narrow paths back through the forest to get home. But now it is monsoon season. Today, the sky opens up periodically, sellers cover their goods and we get wet, so there are not as many people here as usual. Bubhai tells Samar that this means it is not worth it for the Bonda to stay long and try to sell their alcohol, let alone stay to celebrate.

Samar sends us to explore while he reconnects with some old friends. The market is a carnival of color, sights and smells. Spices hang in the air, and goats wander past. Women in saris and assorted styles of tribal dress sell their wares and see to their shopping. As we pass stalls of everything from brass pots to chickens and tarps scattered with vegetables, it is clear that we, big and sunburned and curious, are the oddities here. All eyes seem to shift with us as we crouch to examine some okra and bitter gourd. When we stop and talk to someone, a small crowd gathers. The Bonda prove to be among the most forward of the tribes people at the market when two women approach us and cajole me into buying them snacks. No less persistent than the women who sold me some of their beaded necklaces as soon as we entered the market, they pull me over to a stall and point to their open mouths until I relent and buy them a few plastic baggies of what looks like Chex mix. The men hang back, and the guide books warn that tourists should not try to take their pictures. Like all the tribes people gathered here, the Bonda are thin but muscular, lithe from hard work and walking.

While we wander, Samar finds a clearing in front of a neglected looking Christian church where we can talk to the Bonda. When we do finally sit down together, we regard each other with curiosity. Bubhai is joined by a woman with a sweet, self-conscious smile who looks about her age, as well as another woman who looks ten years older and lacks the colorful attire of many of the Bonda. Once we begin talking, a Bonda man appears and keeps trying to interrupt Bubhai as she answers my questions. Eventually the women shoo him away. Bubhai does not ask me about where I came from or why I want to talk to her. I realize that even if she did, my answers would mean nothing to her. How does someone who may have never held a book visualize a school? Suddenly my students in New York seem very far away. My life seems far away.

Bubhai has had six children in all, but two died as infants. The infant mortality rate among the tribe is about 14 percent. When I ask through Samar what kinds of stories her mother told her as a child, she looks puzzled for a moment. Samar rephrases the question and after thinking Bubhai says,

“When I was young, and I would not go to sleep, my mother would tell me, ‘If you don’t sleep, the tiger in the forest will know. He will smell you and know you are awake and he will come and eat you up.’”

This confirmed what my research before meeting the Bonda had suggested. Their stories are not about once upon a time or happily ever after, but are instructive about the lives they live and the world they live in. It’s a hard life. The Bonda still rely on hunting and gathering. They lack safe drinking water, are malnourished and live in poverty. It is easy to romanticize the lives of the tribes, especially when they are as striking as the Bonda. What is more difficult is determining how to preserve their culture, but at the same time help them to live better lives.

Some of their practices, while alien to me, actually make a lot of sense. For example, a Bonda woman of about age twenty-five will choose a ten year old boy as her husband. It is not a sexual relationship, at least not at first. The match is made with the understanding that the bride will take care of her husband at the beginning of his life, when he is vulnerable, and the groom will take care of his wife later, when she becomes weaker.

Before we go, Bubhai and the women sitting with her start to sing a song that a bride’s friends and sisters sing to her on her way to get married. They are shy in their singing, bowing their chins slightly and looking at me a little sideways. I am taken off guard by the sadness in the harmony of their voices. I’ve never heard anything like it. The notes go down where I expect them to go up. It is as unfamiliar and surprising as all of India itself. It is beautiful.

I ask what the song means and Samar translates:

“It means the women are sad their sister is leaving. They know that this step, getting married, will take her away from them and bring her closer to dying.”

This somewhat same existential idea comes up in “Our Town,” a play by the American playwright Thorton Wilder. The story takes place in a small town called Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It follows the courtship of two high school sweethearts, George and Emily. When the couple gets married, Emily gives a soliloquy in which she professes her own fears about the transience of life as she approaches the altar. She sees her steps down the aisle and away from her girlhood as steps toward her own mortality. It’s one of my favorite plays, for its sweet depiction of life in a simpler time, but also in its reminder to appreciate life while you live it.

So I listen to the Bonda women sing a song which in its own way is so much like Emily’s speech, and realize that, even here, in a clearing in a forest in the hills of Orissa, where life seems to be lived as it has been for hundreds of years, time is fleeting. Our time will end. In itself, this is not the idea that I’ve traveled thousands of miles to bring back to my students. Rather it is this understanding that however different the Bonda may be from us on the surface, there are still fundamental experiences that we all share: birth, death and singing our song.

Try This at Home

Mayna Chitrakar, wearing flip-flops and a bright, multicolored sari, is walking purposefully around to the back of her square, two-story concrete house in Naya, a small village in the Mindapore district of West Bengal. Slightly less than five feet tall, she is a pretty woman in her late twenties or early thirties, a bit rounder than some of the other women in the village with a gold earring in her nose. She grabs a hoe on the way, and when she arrives at the edge of what could be a small pond or a large puddle from the current monsoon, she begins to dig up a plant.
"Tumeric," she says, holding the root for me to see.
Mayna then heads back toward the front of the house, pulls a few blue flowers from somewhere along the way, as well as some broad, flat, green leaves. She squats next to a stone slab she has set on the dirt path leading up to her doorway, and as some of the villagers gather around to see the show (the American lady has her camera out again), she picks up a pestle and begins to grind the tumeric, creating a bright yellow paste.

While she does this, Prabir, another member of the Chitrakar clan, snatches up the large green leaves Mayna picked and begins rubbing them between his hands. He is around seventeen or eighteen years old and a new father, but he grins like a child when he holds up his two palms, blood-red from the leaves, a sight worthy of Lady Macbeth if anyone in the village were familiar with Shakespeare.
Mayna crushes another kind of leaf to make dark green paste, grinds up the flowers to make an unsatisfying blue, collects her pallet together and heads into the house to demonstrate how traditional patachitra scrolls are painted using natural paints and a basic pallet.
As she paints the forms of four figures in the stylized fashion of the pats, her mother, Jamuna, joins in and paints a beautiful large bird by her side. Her long, loose graying hair, glasses and smile as beautiful as her daughter's, despite a few missing teeth, give a good sense of what Mayna will probably look like in about twenty five years. I was suprised, watching them, to realize that they block in the shapes of each form first and paint the outline last.

After the presentation is over, Mayna shoos us out of the house to make lunch and we head over to her sister Manimala's house. Manimala also lives in a sort of concrete bungalow, rather than a mud hut, singifying that she has done well with her srolls. To get there we step gingerly across a makeshift footbridge of bricks set in the soggy mud. We learn that we were supposed to visit her the day before, but the rains had flooded her front yard. She proudly shows us her passport while we are there, and when we leave she gives us a business card that the crafts council may have printed for her.

When we arrive, Manimala immediately begins pulling out scrolls, then sits and begins to sing as she unrolls one. She is the most convincing performer we have encountered, and she sings in an emotional way that demands silence, even from the young children who had moments ago been running around.

Here is a translation of her song about the Tsunami:


How much longer will you make us weep oh Tsunami. As soon as I start talking about it my heart weeps. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
On 26th December, 2004 Tsunami came with terrible destruction. It was terrible. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Some lost their mothers & fathers who were swept away. Indians were dying. So many children hung on to doors but were swept away by the waves. What did you spare? Nothing. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Getting the news journalists came out in droves. They wept at the scene . Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Some mothers lost their children; some kids lost their mothers; some husbands their wives. Oh what agony. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Oh Kanya Kumari, the goddess of the ocean. Tell me how you could take; so many lives. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hello. How are you?

Here are some images from Orissa. I'm about five entries behind. I never was good on a deadline.
Two Bonda women share the stories and traditions of their people.
Chris and Anneke and about 350 new friends at a home for tribal orphans, mostly girls, who are often "thrown away", because they are not as valued as men in many tribal cultures.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sweets for the Sweet

I have had some memorable meals on the road; meals I will never forget.
Couscous at an outdoor cafe in Fes with Katherine and our guide Mohammed. Fresh shrimp the size of small lobsters served with cold beer and homemade taro chips in Pinar Del Rio with Sarah and company. Daily meals cooked by my host mother, Cecile, in Archachon, France, regional delights fried and baked and topped with creme fraiche every noon with nary a thought to calories or cholesterol. Almost anywhere I have gone, there has been good food in surprising places or with surprising company. India has been no exception.
In Kolkata we were invited for lunch in the home of Ruby Palchoudhuri, the Director of the Crafts Council of West Bengal. I first discovered the organization on the internet when I was putting my grant proposal together and researching where I might be able to connect with the Patua. The mission of the council is to help the craftspeople, folk artists and artisans of West Bengal gain recognition for their crafts and work. This is no small task. For example, the council has facilitated literacy classes in the small village of Naya where we visited the Patua. They have brought the scroll painters to the United States, Hawaii and Australia to demonstrate their crafts and even helped one scroll painter, Rani Chitrakar, produce a children's book.
Ruby and I standing outside her house in Kolkata.

But I digress. We learned about most of the council's work sitting comfortably in Ruby's living room in Kolkata, surrounded by beautiful paintings done by noted Bengali artists (she later arranged for us to meet with the Bengali artist Paritosh Sen, noted for bringing modernism to India). Our conversation with Ruby, the driving force behind the crafts council, was one of our first indications of the deep pride that Bengalis have in their culture. This is perhaps the quality that we most fell in love with during our stay in Kolkata. In fact, throughout India we have found that while Indians are very curious about Americans, they are intensely proud of their country, their religion and their culture. And, as the way to the heart is the stomache, the way we have best come to appreciate this culture is through the food.
Whatever neurotic fears about eating the local food we might have harbored to this point in our journey dissipated in Ruby's elegant, curved dining room over the delicious fried bitter leaves, each about the size of the palm of your hand, that she served us as an appetizer. This was followed by hot rice and dal (a kind of lentil stew), okra and fragrantly seasoned bherar mangsho (goat). As our trip progressed we found that some of these are typical not only of Bengali cuisine, but are also common in the neighboring state of Orissa. Other popular local items include bitter gourd and fish; Bengalis and Orissans love their fish.
The meal ended with tea, a sweet yogurt custard in a small terra cotta bowl (terra cotta bowls are kind of like disposable dishes here) and what I think was shôndesh, little balls of chhena (unripened cheese) mixed with wheat flour and sugar, fried and soaked in honey or sugar. They resemble doughnut holes, but are moist and dripping with syrup.
Ruby was a grand host, urbane and witty and very much connected to Kolkata, the city that is her home. After lunch she sent us packing with her driver and a guide to visit the Gurusaday Museum, which showcases Bengal's arts and crafts and houses a large patachitra scroll collection. She arranged for us to spend time with the director and have a personal tour of the collection. Having learned that Chris is a painter, she then had us delivered to the CIMA gallery, Kolkata's premier gallery of modern art. By the end of our trip I came to see Ruby as Kolkata's hostess, someone wise enough to see the city's flaws but enough in love to overlook them.
She shared that when she had the chance to meet former French President Francois Mitterand she told him, all Kolkata can offer you is her soul, and, by the end of our visit, I felt she'd offered the same to us.

Again, we are off, Erin, I promise my next entry will begin with a full detailing of the desserts and food we've eaten on the way. True to form, we've eaten a lot. I'm about five entries behind, but today we're off to Rajasthan where we hear there are plenty of internet cafes and a cooking class to look forward to.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fish from the River

We returned late last night from two days in Naya, a small village in the Mindapore district. Our driver was Sohom Daw, and our guide was Biswajit.
As soon as we left Kolkata, the landscape changed completely. Well, perhaps not so completely. The buildings outside the city still seemed to be in varying states of construction or demolition, farm animals still wandered across the road as freely as you please, and there were still people, people, people everywhere, but less condensed. There were also fields, generally of rice, waterlogged from the monsoon, being tilled by cows dragging ploughs or shored up by men and women with picks and shovels. We drove past a river and saw boys casting their nets into the water from long, almost elegant, fishing boats.
There is a lot of horn honking in India. Most taxis don't seem to have all or any of their rearview mirrors, so drivers beep instead. If you're going to pass someone, you beep. If there seem to be a lot of pedestrians on any given street, you beep. If a goat is in your path, you beep. So we beeped along, past bikes and motorbikes laden with bags of sand or a pallet of oil cans strapped together with jute rope, trucks and busloads of people. After driving for about two and a half hours, we dropped our bags at the circuit house in Mindapore town, a somewhat large hamlet situated in the middle of the district, and set off again for the last thirty kilometers to Naya.

Suffice to say, we aroused curiosity everywhere we went. In fact, by the time we finished our visit and wandered from the last few houses we visited to our car, we had a small parade clustered behind us. Apparently, American tourists don't swing through Mindapore on a regular basis.
But Naya, our destination, and the scroll painters who live there, have seen a few. We arrived at the village and were immediately ushered into the home of Shyamsunder Chitrakar. This is when it occurred to me that we should have studied Bengali a little more. A lot more. I wasn't sure where to sit, or what to say, or how to introduce myself and explain why I was there. Anyone who knows me knows how awkward I can get at in such a situation. I was saved when Shyamsunder's wife, Rani, immediately unrolled a Patachitra scroll and began singing about HIV in India. She had a beautiful soulful voice, and as she sang and pointed to each scene on the scroll, I was able to follow, even though I couldn't understand a word of what she was singing...
Okay, that's all for now. We're off for our overnight train to Orissa in about thirty minutes. I'll write more about our visit to Naya as soon as I get the chance. And, while we haven't had any icecream since we've been here, we've had plenty of other sweets and amazing food which I'll write about later. We played it pretty safe on the culinary front for the first few days, but when a family offers you fish from their river, how can you say no?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

5 Days and 6 Nights in Kolkata

Chris was dozing on our bed at the Fairlawn Hotel last night while I washed some of our clothes in the sink. He drifted off for a moment and had a dream. He dreampt that his father, Chris Sr., was standing out in the dark, crowded street in front of the hotel calling him, "Chris, I can't move the car, Chris..."

That's how surreal Kolkata is. I was going to tell you about the autorickshaws in Delhi. I was going to tell those who know the thrill of riding the Cyclone at Coney Island, and the rickety assurance that death could be waiting around every creaking, hairpin turn, that they would appreciate the thrill of an autorickshaw ride in Delhi. But those little motorcycle cars have nothing on a taxi ride into Kolkata. Delhi is Disneyland compared to the twilight streets of the City of Joy.

We prepaid for our taxi inside the airport to avoid the tiresome haggling that has accompanied every transaction on the trip. But that measure of security did not ensure that our driver would speak English, or have any interest in our attempts at Hindi, or have a safe car, or even know the way. None of the above. And once we'd careened onto the congested highway, peering through the cracked windshield and trying to blink back the tears that came with the stinging exhaust that thickens the air here, we knew we were in for quite a ride.

At every intersection our driver stops to joke with other drivers, buys and swallows down little "energy packets" from passing street vendors, or leans out the window to spit and ask directions.

We sat quietly in the back seat as he pulled out of the way of two buses that seemed to be drag-racing down the road; we looked out the window at little vignettes of life that rolled past: women in dusty saris with babies on their hips, cows grazing on littered islands of grass wedged between the street and pond sized puddles ringed with debris left over from the recent monsoon beating. Dirty children chased each other. Beautifully painted rickshaws peddled past. Once we got into the winding streets of the city, we drove through whole blocks with no power, candles shining out of small cave-like store fronts and people, people, people everywhere.

And I haven't even told you about our hotel yet. Today we are going to meet with Ruby from the Crafts Council of West Bengal to find out the where's, when's and how's of our trip to meet the Patua in Naya. This little internet cafe will burn our photos onto a CD, so I should be able to post some pictures in a day or two. Thanks for your comments!