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Namaste

In Hindi there’s no designated word for “goodbye”.  I like that.  Instead, people use the universal greeting, “namaste”.  Namaste means, I bow to you.  It acknowledges the meeting of minds – and the parting of them.

Mom returned to Arizona last night after three weeks in India.   My stepmother was here for a month before that.   It was strange to see the guest bedroom door open this morning, the room within vacant.  I didn’t have to “shush” at the kids as they maneuvered through their morning routine.  Today we fussed and dressed and stomped without fear of waking a slumbering guest.

When you have someone to help clean the house, change the sheets, do the laundry and cook – guests are a Joy.  I have been lucky to have my life filled with cheerful faces and good company for six weeks.   And the kids have had devoted attention.

Mom and I were sitting outside yesterday evening, listening to the birds return home after a day of doing whatever-it-is that birdies do.  Every night they roost in the trees around our house and chatter until dusk, when all goes silent.  We pined about how short her visit, how fast it went and we made plans for next year, to do all the things we didn’t manage this year.

Simple moments, big plans.  They are always a comfort.

So is the meeting of minds.

Namaste, mom.  Next time isn’t that far off…

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No big ventures this week, readers.  It’s been a busy month.  Time to slow down and look for four-leaf clovers.  How lucky was I to find one this week, right here:

We were visiting a farm and guesthouse just outside of Delhi.  Here’s a litter of orphaned piglets.  The owner says they’re destined for ham, pork and sausage:

This poor rooster was attacked by a dog while we were there.  He survived. The drama was high entertainment for the boys:

What’s lunch look like with nine kids?  Take them to McDonald’s and they behave as though they’re in McDonald’s.  Dine with fan-fare, al fresco and they are surprisingly civilized!

I love this photo.  We were driving home from the farm when I saw women picking cauliflower:

Lala in the tree near our front door:

Antique-ing with mom.  I couldn’t resist a photo next to all of those BIG linga!

Grandmaw and her featherless flock:

My kids love to put on shows.  My favorite line in this one came when George adopted a lost lion cub (Eddie) and told him “We’re veggies dude – get used to it!”  Of course, he meant to say “vegetarian”.

With mom, listening to the avian happy hour:

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Gender Injustice

Last year I asked a friend to come with me to the red-light district in Delhi.  She’s a writer with interests in women’s issues.  My motivation for going wasn’t foolish curiosity but rather a need to know and to understand the face of prostitution in Delhi.   I’ve heard that most of the women are stolen from poverty-stricken villages in Nepal and across north India, sold and resold and forced to work until their bodies age prematurely.  They wash-up on the streets of Delhi, homeless, diseased and broken.

Delhi screams of gender injustice.   Everyday I see the ravishes of poverty – class politics and class economies that keep the poor, particularly poor women, disenfranchised.  It enrages me to see women carrying loads of bricks and sand in perfect balance on their heads at construction sites – guided by men, equally poor but more worthy of less strenuous work because they have a Y chromosome.   Injustice roars at all levels here.  Poor women don’t get educated enough to get entry-level jobs or they’re not allowed to work outside the confines of their caste, if they work at all.  I asked one supervisor at a catering company whether he would hire a woman – he insisted he would but he said that  a woman has never applied for a job.   The truth, The lie – both say a lot:   Women don’t apply for entry-level jobs;  Men won’t hire women.

The middle class and the wealthy  have access to sustained education and the white-collar jobs that come with that education.  There are plenty of powerful and professional women in India’s booming economy.  But does the boom trickle down?   It’s also a highly conservative place and it’s easy to see that women face inequality at best and basest oppression at worst.   Honor killings and rape are permanent headlines in the papers here.

Back to a year ago when I wanted to visit the red light district – I couldn’t find someone to take us to GB Road, the area near Old Delhi where brothels line the street atop plumbing and electrical shops.  So we didn’t go, life took over, we put the visit on hold.

Collapse months and lots of related stories and you arrive at this week.  I decided to give the proceeds of the play that I wrote about last week to an organization working with trafficked women in Delhi.  I met with a group that is opening a home for young girls below 18 who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

The stories brought me to tears and the need to see GB Road roared again.  Mom agreed to come with me and we went this week.  Maybe it was a stupid thing to do but I figured that if we walked with purpose and met people’s eyes, we would be safe.

We were.

The girls are stolen, sold, raped into submission, burned with cigarettes and tortured until they comply.  They service up to 30 men a day in dark, squalid rooms.   Very young girls are the preferred and illegal commodity and they rarely leave the buildings.  Men are stupid enough to believe that the younger the girl the cleaner the vagina.  It’s also believed that young girls make men more virile.  The police know that the brothels teem with the underaged but they extract bribes from the pimps and business thrives, uninterrupted.  In fact, the police have a satellite office in the middle of GB Road and a precinct at the top of the street.  For the children of prostitutes, life is misery.  They hide under the bed while mom works.  Adult prostitution is actually legal with caveats that are ignored.

I urge you to watch this extraordinary documentary.  It will haunt you:

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/day-my-god-died/

Here are photos of the visit.  First a view of GB Road.  The brothels line the upper floors of the buildings.  Notice how some windows are bricked-in with only very small openings:

The women were not pleased with my presence and they hissed or gestured for me to get away.  Most scattered or covered their faces when they saw the camera.

Pimps sit on stools at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the brothels. Sometimes there was an older woman near the stairs – perhaps a madame steering business.   I’ve been told that during the busy hours, men line the hallways inside, drinking and waiting their turn.

Your faithful police, here to help (and extort):

Women shout at the men below:

The men:

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Happily changing the subject – Earlier in the week I went to Little Lhasa, the Tibetan refugee colony in Delhi.  It’s home to thousands of immigrants and Tibetans born in India.  Tibetans here are not granted Indian citizenship.  They live stateless, administered by a government in exile.  In December,  India granted citizenship to a woman born here to Tibetan  parents.  It was an important milestone for Tibetans refugees in India.

There were Buddhist monks and businesses catering to Tibetan tastes:

With mom in front of the temple:

George has named my three house guests (Grandmom, Barbara and Kiki) the “Gran-Bar-Ki’s” .  Here are the GranBarKis at a friend’s rug showroom:

And me, holding the most expensive piece of clothing that I have ever touched:  a ten-thousand-dollar ($10,000.00!) beaded wedding skirt.  I didn’t buy it.  Too heavy.

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“One Man In His Time Plays Many Parts, His Acts Being Seven Ages.”

Someone asked me the dreaded question the other day – What do you DO with yourself here? I say dreaded because the answer isn’t as easy as saying “I work”.

My defenses prickle when I get this question – take a forensic look at an average day, the nitty-gritty details of a mommy life anywhere, and you will see the endless juggling.  India adds its particular challenges.

The luxury of a mommy life, of course, is choice.  Yes, part of my juggle includes yoga or running or an occasional adventure.  The rest of the juggle is a string of boring, necessary routines that keep this family fed, organized, enriched.

This year I shook things up when I became a supply teacher at the American Embassy School.  Some weeks I don’t work at all, last week I worked three days, this week one, next week two.   Despite an unpredictable schedule, it’s a great gig.  I teach mostly in the middle school.

And then the projects.  I’m highly selective when I commit my precious time.   The opportunities to volunteer are endless, as are the requests.  My rule is to avoid anything that takes me beyond my capacity to enjoy it.   If it stresses the schedule it falls into this category.

Sometimes there are projects that feel “right” and the commitment becomes an opportunity to stretch the day effortlessly.   I compare it to falling in love – the details simply don’t matter.

Meet my latest love: Seven.

Seven is a play that I saw performed at a leadership conference for women last fall.  It gives voice to seven women from seven countries who have extraordinary stories to share of challenge and conflict and ultimately, triumph.  The women in the play find the courage to fight oppression and the strength to lead and empower women worldwide.

I left the theatre deeply moved by the performance and for weeks couldn’t stop thinking about the stories.   The conference provided scripts of the play and I took one home with me.   I don’t have any theatre experience beyond sitting in an audience but I knew that I would do something with that script.

It takes a bit of serendipity to make what’s “right” work.   Chatting one day on the sidelines of Eddie’s baseball game, I met a dynamic woman with a theatre background.  I put the script on her desk  – She read it – It haunted her, too…

Now, we are in the middle of pulling together a staging in March.   We will donate the proceeds to a group working with women in Delhi and let the organization discuss with the audience the particular challenges facing women in India.

There’s still lots of work – a clichéd labor of love if I carry the theme.    The actors have the toughest job, though.  These are not easy stories to slip into.  If I get permission to share, expect more on these incredible women as we near the performance.

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I have a three house guests this week:  My mother, my stepmother and a family friend.  “How does that work?” someone asked me.  She was referring to the mother-stepmother combination.  Admittedly, I goofed somehow in sharing everyone’s travel plans.  The combination isn’t ideal but I  am blessed with extraordinary women in my life.  I figured it would take care of itself.   There was proof of that the other night when I was in the kitchen cooking dinner listening to my guests laughing heartily.  It made me smile.

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The third house guest Kiki, was a diplomat here.  She has life-long connections to India, a daughter who is half Indian, and many friends dotted across the country.   Two men about my age whom she has known for 40 years stopped by the other night to take Kiki to dinner.   One of the men, Zafar Sareshwala, told me something very interesting.  We had been talking about his family business, Halal restaurants in Delhi, a particular story by Jim’s colleague…. when the conversation turned to Zafar being interviewed once for a story in the NYT.   It appeared last September at the height of the controversy about a mosque being built near the site of the fallen towers in New York.  Zafar recalled praying many times in a mosque on the 17th floor of the South Tower.

The beauty and sadness of a mosque housed inside the tower speaks for itself. This is what Zafar had to say in Samual Freedman’s  column on religion:

“It was so freeing and so calm,” Mr. Sareshwala, 47, said in a phone conversation from Mumbai, where he is now based. “It had the feel of a real mosque. And the best part is that you are in the epicenter of capitalism — New York City, the World Trade Center — and you had this island of spiritualism. I don’t think you could have that combination anywhere in the world.”

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Walking for Life:

Sleeping on the job:

Barbara and I having a good ‘ol drink-up at wine club.  (Clueless on the guy…)

My mother with A-Boy-Named-Penny, our adopted street dog.  She wants to take him home but I don’t think he could adapt to a life confined to a house and yard.  He spends his days free from fences, roaming the neighborhood and checking-in with his various caretakers.

That’s Kiki on the couch and Jim and I having our “How was your day?” debrief:

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Delhi: A Mecca for Afghan Medical Tourists

I was strolling through my favorite park with my step-mother when I noticed two men praying along the western wall of a 600 year old mosque.   Muslims are not allowed to congregate for organized prayer at heritage sites in Delhi but the guards don’t seem to mind the odd mid-day devotion.

The men were from Afghanistan and visiting Delhi for medical reasons.  In fact, there is a large flow of Afghan patients into India.  Delhi’s largest hospital has a wing dedicated to working with Afghan citizens  and the foreign visa office has a separate section for Afghans as well.  Why?  Because so many come here for help.

The guy on the left in the photo above spoke excellent English.  He’s from Kandahar and he works as a “liaison” for a foreign entity.   He didn’t elaborate. He seemed to want to talk about the American forces in his country.  Barbara quietly let me know that she didn’t want to tell him about my brother Cole, who is going to Afghanistan with the army in May.  I asked the man his name but I can’t remember the phonetic combination of what I recall as a long, beautiful string of syllables.  One poignant note  – while I was having my fortune told nearby (more on that below), the man told Barbara that when he leaves his family for work every day he doesn’t know whether they will be alive when he returns.  He also said that winter is a good time in Kandahar because the Taliban flee to Pakistan in the cold months.

Afghan visitors usually stay in Lajpat Nagar, a neighborhood crowded with people, toppling buildings and cars that never seem to get anywhere.   The area was a resettlement colony for refugees from Pakistan following the partition of India.   Now it’s home to people from all over the world – making it feel more like New York City than New Delhi.

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That fortune teller – he was a lazy snake oil salesman.   He gave Barbara much of the same fortune that  he gave me.  He also said that I would never be rich.   Real or not, what’s the harm in lying about this detail? (Especially if you want to get paid…)  I think it was a very Hindu fortune – why mask the truth?  Accept your fate!  Anyway, he was wrong.  I’m rich! rich! rich! in so much more than money.

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My favorite local press obsession of the week:  Indian students in the US who were caught with illegal visas.  They were supposed to be studying at a college in San Francisco that, surprisingly, doesn’t exist.  The students claim they were duped.  However, instead of returning home they decided to stay in the States and work because their visas conveniently allowed them to.  Indian papers and TV stations accuse the U.S. of treating the students like animals because some of them were radio-tagged by the police.  US authorities say this is common practice while these sorts of cases are under review.   It allows the accused a boat-load of freedom but assures that they won’t disappear into the 300-million.  I was at one party where a seemingly smart and educated man claimed he heard that the students might be sent to Abu Ghraib! Only one of the six papers that arrive  at my house every morning points out that maybe, just maybe the students knew that the visas were not clean.