By Tina Romenesko
Early Thursday morning, we are met at our hotel by Ayesha – the director of the next project we are visiting, which lies near Sainthia, about 3 hours west of Kolkata by train.
She maneuvers us to the train station where we wait in the “First Class Waiting Room”, a rather dank room that thankfully has a few Western toilets, and a large balcony where many travelers are drying clothes they washed in the bathroom and are now quick drying in the scorching mid day sun.
The train itself is simple, and a wonderful way to see India without a filter. Vendors sell chips, chai tea, hard boiled eggs (which they peel and slice for you in their hand), magazines, even a shoe repair man wanders through with safety pins, shoe laces, and shoe polish. Taryn and I finally acquiesce and order the Indian version of Coca-Cola, called Thumbs Up, complete with the expected mudra, or hand gesture. (Merudanda Mudra) It tastes kind of like Tab on steroids and is actually a Coke product. When I take a closer look at the label, I notice that the name is actually “ThumsUp!” We dissolve into laughter at the misspell. Miraj. Mirage. Kwality. Quality. Anything goes with spelling, as it is mostly used to aid pronunciation.
The scene out the window is pastoral, and a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of Kolkata. The landscape is mostly rice paddies and water birds – egrets, spoonbills, and the like. It seems that all the animals are having babies – kids, lambs, calves, even puppies, everywhere frolicking in the open air. Although it seems pastoral, this is obviously a hard life for the humans that eek out a living in this edge of the world. The fields are filled women, men, and children, doing manual labor in the fields or on the streets. The roads are often unpaved and full of potholes, and their shacks are so small that most of their time is spent in the street. Many cook over open fires and gather around small storefronts.
After our arrival in Sainthia, we take two jeeps to the village and are greeted by the entire Santali tribe! The drumming begins as six beautiful women with vases of flowers on their heads sway and dance in unison. “It’s a processional for you!”, say Ayesha, so we follow behind them as the young children throw marigold petals AT US, laughing, shaking our hands, and yelling “hello!”. I think I shook about 53 little indigenous children’s hands – many of them came up later and handed us a marigold, shaking our hand again. It was so dear. We are celebrities!!! A gorgeous welcome.
In the training room, Ayesha explains the basics of their program to us in lovely English. The organization is called, MBBCDS, an acronym for Mohammed Bazar Backward Classes Development Society. “ Backward “ is a government term used to describe poor Muslims, poor Hindus, and Native peoples. Ayesha has been trying to change the moniker – to no avail – so they always use the letters only, which people now recognize as her project. The reach of this program is extensive and sees no boundaries between the three groups. They work together, go to school together, and may even live in the same village, each in their own area as they share customs and food. Over 800 children are served by the schools, but MBBCDS’s work includes social work, advocacy, kitchen gardens used to sustain families, nurseries which bring in revenue, training, community projects, and more. Many of the Muslim women and children they serve were previously cloistered in their tiny homes. Enter Ayesha and her team, reminding them of their Indian rights of freedom and education. Issues like child marriage, prostitution, illegal divorce and polygamy are dealt with straight on. Her actions takes great courage as Ayesha is Muslim herself, has suffered threats from the government and has been physically attacked 15 times in the past year. “ Pick up a pen and write! “, is her cry! Get educated. Write about your feelings and frustrations. Make a difference! She is also a poet and accomplished novelist in Bengal, but her books are unpopular with the government and consequently she gets no positive publicity in the press. She is a strong voice for those who are just learning to talk, to write, to act, and believe.
Our last stop is a visit to a Native home. The small shacks all have cement floors (as cement is very available here in Bengal) – a huge improvement over dirt. The walls are made of straw bales or and what appeared to be the local clay, with thatched roofs. Five people live in this small space. Items like clothes and utensils are in piles around the perimeter, as are the bedrolls. It is small and cramped, but clean. In a side room, the owner proudly shows us her bed, made from weaving inner tube tires to form a lattice. Nothing here goes to waste. She lays woven mats out on in front of the door, and under a nearly full moon we share puffed rice and sweets. She is so proud to have foreigners visiting her home – and I think how lucky we are to be invited into her personal space. As we wander the maze of paths toward the jeeps, I am filled with gratitude for the wonders of the day – and the many tiny hands that couldn’t wait to shake mine – grinning from ear to ear and proudly announcing, “Hello!” in my very own language.