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T’is The Season

I spend this last week before Christmas in a jumble of to-ing and fro-ing, shopping and cooking and up to my elbows in gingerbread houses and salt-dough ornaments.  Just as I would in Houston.

India celebrates Christmas, too:  The malls chime with holiday Muzak;  The traffic swells;  The parties abound.   December 25th is a government holiday even though only two-percent of the population is Christian.

India is generous with its days off.   There are about 17 public holidays a year.  Three of these are national holidays and celebrated universally.  The rest varies slightly from state to state, depending on local religions and customs.   Also, employees can choose two extra days off from a long list of religious and secular dates recognized by the government.

I’ve written before that India is rich in its diversity and I keep returning to this theme because it’s key to understanding this country.   India is not one place and one people.  There are 18 official languages (or there about – this number varies depending on where you look and whom you ask…)  multiple cultures, oodles of religions, a variety in landscape and space and time that spans centuries, from the middle ages to the space age.  It’s all here.  Which is why the government tries its best to please  1.3 billion people with 17 multi-culti holidays.

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This is Bahadur, the nice man who cleans and guards the offices in the building where I work.  I’m often the first one to arrive at school and Bahadur lets me in.  This early in the morning I find him on his haunches, barefooted, pant-legs rolled-up, washing the floor by hand with a dirty rag.  This really bothers me.  I asked the business manager to buy him a mop but she said he’d refuse to use it.

So I bought it myself.  My conscience couldn’t accept seeing him every day, bent and humbled by a rag.

This is the only type of mop I can find in Delhi – it’s more like a huge squeegee.   My own housekeeper ties a rag to the bottom and it works well.  I explained this to Bahadur.

He may not like the change – habits are efficient sometimes.

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It’s cold in Delhi and the homeless are struggling to stay warm.  The city doesn’t have adequate shelter.  Officially, New Delhi reports 56-thousand homeless but it’s widely believed that there are at least 150,000.  This year to help the homeless stay warm, the city decided to distribute bubble wrap instead of blankets.  It works better, officials argue.  Drug addicts can’t resell the plastic.  Oh yeah, and it’s cheaper.

The local press had a field day with this travesty and the city was forced to back away from bubble wrap and return to handing-out blankets.

The stupidity of some decisions…

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And my favorite bit of information from the newspapers last week:  The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (the governing board) hasn’t spent one penny on sanitation this fiscal year.   True or not, the perception of truth prevails:     There’s desperate need for public bathrooms, working sewage systems, clean rivers, litter maintenance, etc….

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And bringing it all back to the season:  I’m enjoying the Christmas chaos a bit more this year because it is sweet respite from work.  It’s like a Sunday morning when you don’t have to get out of bed early to exercise or to dress the kids for school, or a weekday night when the house is quiet with children sleeping and hours lay ahead for you alone.   All are moments savored.

My hope is that you, too,  find peace in your own holiday chaos this year.

Happy, Happy everyone.

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Ghosts Upon the Floor

A few weeks ago my students covered a fire in Delhi.  16 people died inside a large tent when an electrical short ignited the fabric and it quickly burned.   High brick walls bordered the lot around the tent, enclosing it, as if in a box.  There was only one  exit.

The large number of deaths, the overcrowding, the tenting – these are not unusual details in Delhi.  Here, poorly constructed buildings collapse regularly.  Roads cave in.  Manholes lay uncovered.  Electrical wires dangle, exposed.  Hazards abound.  People die.

The fire was an avoidable tragedy.  The tent wasn’t fire-retardant.  It wasn’t built to code.  The wiring was faulty.  The list of safety violations is long.  Sadly, codes written to protect people from tragedies like this one are rarely enforced.

The charred remains of the lot and the scattered clothing shared the horror of what it must have been like under the tent, in the flames.  Some say as many as four-thousand people were inside.

The tent was crowded because this was an annual meeting  of eunuchs, or “hijra” in Hindi,  a term used in India to describe a transgender person.    By definition, eunuchs are castrated.   Not all hijra in  India meet this definition, but many do.  Some have breast implants.  Most are transgender and dress as women.  All consider themselves feminine or more precisely, a third sex, another nature.

Salman Rushdie wrote about India’s hijra in a book published by the Gates Foundation called Aids Sutra.  I asked my students to read the essay after we covered the fire.

India’s transgenders live on the margins of society – shunned by their families, homeless, and desperate.  The lucky ones become members of hijra communities  – highly organized groups of transgenders who live and work and survive together.  These communities become de facto families.

Work includes begging, bestowing blessings, and selling sex.

Many Indians fear hijra because they believe that they have holy powers.  This myth stems from the blending of the feminine and the masculine in some of the Hindu gods.

Hijra exploit this impression to survive – by offering blessings at weddings, births, and other beginnings at a premium price.  They often arrive uninvited.   Three hijra visited my school soon after we opened.

That particular day I had no patience for prayer and payoffs.  The hijra refused to leave.  I firmly shooed the ladies out the front door.

After, one of my particularly devout students wouldn’t look at me for days.    She’s a believer, I think.  And my driver warns that it is best to keep a eunuch happy because she not only blesses, she curses, too.

Sex is the easiest and most profitable way for hijra to make money, but it exposes them to HIV infection and aids.  The community has one of the highest rates of infection compared to other high-risk populations.   Public health campaigns, like those supported by the Gates Foundation and the World Bank, target the community and there’s measured success in stemming the spread of infection among the Hijra.

Before writing the fire story, my class had a candid discussion about what it means to be a eunuch and the challenges of reporting this particular piece.  In the purest sense, it is a fire story.  It is a tragedy.  And the hijra?

They are victims.

But I wonder whether this story would have been covered so heavily by the press had the victims not been transgender.

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My student, Rishabh Kumar shot these photos:

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Family Stuff:

The communal Thanksgiving dessert table at our camp on the Ganges.  This is our third year November on the river:

Isn’t it beautiful?  I skipped rafting to hike instead:

We take a train to the camp, north into the foothills of the Himalayas.  Scenes from the train station in Haridwar:

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Running the Delhi  half marathon again… beautiful air, eh?  My chest was tight for hours after the race.

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I’m in love!  We’re babysitting “Buddy” for a few weeks.  He has a fetish for Lala’s underwear….

Singing  Christmas carols over the weekend: