After breakfast we go with Chandra, Mitali, and Ravindra in the car to a small building on a dusty road. Inside, there are posters on the walls. “Do you face violence at home?” and “NO MORE SILENCE”.
Chandra says, “This is 181 Chhattisgarh, part of the Aman Movement. Women call here when they’re in trouble, and this place offers help. Before 181 Chhattisgarh, the police would ignore these problems but now it’s changing. All the people who work here are women.”
As with so much I see here in India, I am speechless in the face of so much gentle goodness. A simple equation – women in trouble + people with time = 181 Chhattisgarh.
“Sometimes the victims call, sometimes others call to report violence they’re seen,” says Chandra.
You’ve probably heard the starfish story. Once, a little girl was standing on the beach throwing starfish who had been stranded on the shore back into the ocean. There were starfish as far as the eye could see. A man walked by and said, “What are you bothering for? You’ll never save all of those starfish.” The litle girl picked up another one and threw it into the water. “Well, what I’m doing matters to THAT starfish.”
So often I see charities with a grand vision. HOUSING FOR EVERYONE. 6 BILLION BIRTH CONTROL PILL PRESCRIPTIONS. END WORLD HUNGER. Which, you know, idealism is nice, but unlikely.
And then here’s 181 Chhattisgarh. “Call us, we will help.” And then, they do.
Once a call comes in, a case file is begun. An advocate is assigned to lead the woman through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the legal system. Women and children leave bad situations. Sometimes educational scholarships are awarded. And change begins to happen.
I meet the women taking calls today. I ask if it’s hard to trust men after hearing all day, every day about violence. One woman says, “No. Men call to report when women are being hurt, too. So I think better of men now. Not worse.”
I ask what one woman likes best about working here. “How grateful and happy women are to have their problems addressed. After so much suffering, confidence happens. Hope happens.”
It matters to THAT starfish.
Back in the car, we pass a man pushing a cart filled with pinwheels that turn in the wind, sparkling. A man on a scooter zooms past. He’s wearing a denim jacket with an embroidered tiger on the back. We stop at Gadh Kalewa, a large courtyard filled with people making local Chhattisgarh dishes. Groups of people are sitting everywhere, chatting and laughing, sharing food. There’s little evidence of phones.
At the far end I see a real treehouse, stairs winding their way around a gnarled tree. There’s a gate blocking access, though, and Mitali says it’s because there was too much chaste canoodling up there. We sit and eat fara (it isn’t pasta, but it reminds me of ziti very much) and sabudana vada (a fried snack for dipping made with tapioca), both local dishes. An older woman has been eying us from a distance and Chandra beckons her over. She and her grown daughter come and sit with our group. The woman tells us that she’s a doctor, a medical officer in the government. She calls her daughter “Sweetie” and I’m tickled by this tender nickname from this very serious, high-status woman.
I watch a man sitting behind two large pans called kodhai. One flat, one deep. He fills a cloth bag with dough, then squeezes it out a hole in the bottom into the flat pan which is filled with oil. The dough cooks, then is tranferred into the deep pan, which is filled with hot, sweet syrup. He is making jalebi, a dessert so popular it’s as easy to find in Toronto as a chocolate bar.
Back in the car, we pass bristly black piggies rooting around. We pass a scooter passenger casually carrying a metal gravy machine the size of a bar fridge. There’s a woman driving a scooter with three children riding behind her and a traffic cop wearing a cowboy hat with one side bent up (also known as a slouch hat in Australia). We get out at a big building and take a walk around the edges. I see three boys with hair cut short in the front and long in the back. They are studying Sanskrit in a nearby temple and bring us to see their classroom. All of the boys have variations on the same haircut. There’s no adult with them, but the boys are studying hard anyway. They are silent while we’re there, but burst into excited conversation the moment we leave, just like any kids anywhere in the world.
Mitali says that these kids leave their families and move here to study. When they grow up, they will perform wedding ceremonies, death ceremonies, they will chant holy mantras. They work hard every day, up early in the morning, no phone, no tv, just learning. (I think of the Western version of the 1970s Transcendental Meditation movement that my dad and by extension me were involved in when I was a kid picture someone asking the participants to do any of the above and laugh and laugh, picturing their response – “I’m sooooo spiritual that I could not POSSIBLY wake up before 10 AM because… uh… energies. And auras. Can you pass me the tv remote?”)
And then it’s time to go to the train station.
I don’t cry when I say goodbye to anyone. But I am a sobbing mess at the Raipur station. Having been enveloped in the warm kindness of my brand new friends for days I am very sad to leave them. We hug, and hug again, and wave goodbye through the train window as the train pulls away.
Our car (class AC2) consists of four bunks on the left and and two bunks on the right, repeated all the way down. The four bunks have their own window and can be separated by a heavy red curtain from the rest of the car. The two bunks have their own window and their own curtain too. We lock our luggage to the train itself using a chain and padlock just like a bike on Bloor Street West. We’ve lucked out, we have a two-bunk curtain instead of a four, which means we can sit together on the bottom bunk with the curtain drawn and watch the world go by in our own private moving blanket fort.
On the other side of the curtain we can hear people murmuring in Hindi. Though it’s only six p.m., the moment the train starts we both fall asleep almost instantly, me on the bottom bunk and Todd on the top, hugging our backpacks just to be sure.
When I wake up in the night, I look out the window and can see stars. Covering the sky like a blanket.