Guest Blogger : Ashwati Menon :
I have been working with the Nalanda Foundation for quite a while now. In my first introductory meeting to the group, five years ago, I was taken through a presentation which talked, in detail, about a project in Ghazipur, East Delhi. Graphic images of a multi-storeyed waste pile, animal carcasses and busy markets remained etched in my mind.
Soon, I was showing guests and partnershow our project, Gulmeher, brought together rag-picking women and waste flowers. When Gulmeher products were sold at various exhibitions, I rallied behind the counter to push sales. The project, the products, the people—I knew them all. Or so I thought.
In May 2017, I visited Ghazipur for the first time.
An oasis of purpose
Ghazipur overwhelmed me, and “overwhelmed” is not a word I use lightly. The Gulmeher centre was bigger than it seemed in the pictures and presentations. The “centre” was a building—three huge floors humming with activity and purpose!
Walking in from a lane filled with cow dung and plastic waste, the Gulmeher centre suddenly presented itself as a clean, purposeful place where its inhabitants were cut off, for some time, from their surroundings. Women sat on two rows of stitching machines neatly sewing bags, children recited the alphabet in the corner and the queue at the bank sat patiently under the breeze of an electric cooler.
Magic with petals, snip by snip
The second floor is where all the Gulmeher magic is created. I sat with the women of the handicrafts unit and tried my hand at making a small poster. It always seemed simple. What I hadn’t realised,however, was how much effort it took to make one single product.
Dried petals were painstakingly cut into diamond and triangle shapes and then stuck one by one ona sheet of paper. One by one. I lost my patience by the time I reached the 10th petal.
When I had bought these products for my house, I hadn’t realised how every product had been imbued with so much effort and patience. The Gulmeher painting in my house suddenly had much more value.
After this, I decided to sit at the Panchi section, where children from the Ghazipur slums are provided with academic support and helped to enrol in school. The batch of youngest children were at the centre at the time and they were all learning the names of birds. Excited shouts of “mor” and “kavwa” filled the room.
In the corner, away from the group of children, a much older girl was sitting and reading her book. I sat next to her and asked her name. “Amina”, she said.
Her mother had sent her there to study. I asked Amina a question one often asks children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. She said her mother had told her she would become a darji (tailor). Fantastic, I said. Does your mother know how to sew? She responded in the negative. I told she could bring her mother to the centre as they had sewing machines and she could learn as well. Amina then told me that wouldn’t be possible as her father did not let her mother come out of the house. I nodded to show how I understood, but honestly, I had forgotten.
I had quoted statistics on gender inequality, read academic papers on unpaid work, and, as a woman, encountered the misogyny of patriarchal Indian society. But I had forgotten to feel this fact. I had forgotten what it looked like when it was a daily lived experience of many. I had forgotten its intensity.
We then got around to talking about Amina’s family. Amina’s father worked in the poultry market. Amina was the second of four children. I asked her what her elder sister did. “Kuch nahin. Woh toh goongi hain.” What else would she do, was the undertone of that statement. I nodded, again.
Where life learns the skills to live
It was time to go to the next project area—the iDream centre, two kilometres away. The iDream centre provided a group of 70 girls, 10 to14 years of age, training in life skills and support in their academic work. I thought I knew what life skills meant; I did not.
I asked a girl,of all that she had learnt there, what did she like the best. “I have learnt to make friends.”What did she mean? “We have learnt that there are three qualities you need to make friends—empathy, sensitivity and the ability to listen.”That was one skill I could use in my life, for sure.
On our way back from the iDream centre, my colleague pointed out a nearby place where two weeks ago, a teenage girl had been abducted, raped and then dumped back. “Many parents of our girls were obviously worried. We had to reinforce our measures to ensure that our girls never moved alone.”
At this is place, where violence against women is the norm, this was life and it took the skills we were teaching them to survive it. How to be confident, how to educate themselves and how to defend themselves. Small drops in the ocean, but significant drops.
On my way back to the hotel, I felt despondent, sad and angry. And I was grateful I felt all that. Working in the field of development, one can often forget the lived experience of inequality, the stench of the poultry market and the reality of violence. We forget what it meansto make friends and how lucky one is to get a shot at education.
Ghazipur made me remember.