For me, visiting Jaipur feels a lot like coming home. I stay with the same family every time, play with the children, and volunteer in the nearby NGO. I’ve been to most of the tourist attractions I want to go to so my days tend to enter a really wonderful comfortable routine.
Even in India, on vacation with my sleep schedule completely reset by jetlag, I end up being an early riser. By 6:00 AM and sometimes earlier I wake up. My friend’s mom, Hema is also up at this time as she has an early morning yoga class that she goes to. If she notices I am awake she brings me a small cup of chai. In December this is especially welcome. Even under two heavy blankets, both folded in half, sleeping in a sweatshirt with a winter cap on, it’s a bit chilly. So a warm cup of chai is the best thing. With a little bit of sugar and fresh ginger, it tastes a bit like heaven.
As I drink my morning chai, I chat with Sage online. It’s nearing her bedtime back home so we only have a few minutes so we make the best of it, telling each other about our days. When she goes to bed I start writing – sometimes entries for here, other times for Ashanari the NGO. Soon, by about 7:30, I hear stirring elsewhere in the house. The children are waking up and getting ready for school.
School in India seems a bit more difficult than what I’m used to from home. First off, it goes for 11 days every two weeks so every other Saturday, children are expected to go to school. Looking at their homework, I estimate that they’re working at 1-2 years ahead of their North American counterparts in terms of reading (in both Hindi and English), math, and science.
Both kids come to say hello. Gauranshi, the elder of the two always asks “Are you writing again?” and I tell her that yes, I have lots to write – and I do. And still, I always seem to be a bit behind.
Deepti takes the kids to school on her scooter then comes back and offers me and any other guests breakfast. It’s always delicious – sometimes it is parathas, other times roti and veggies, sometimes there is fruit, and one morning a guest brings marmite to have with toast. On my favourite morning, Deepti makes poha – one of my favourite breakfasts made of pounded rice. It is light and spicy with onions, spices, peanuts, turmeric, and fresh coriander. It looks a little like fried rice but is lighter and tastier. You can see my version in the photo below.
As you can see, my poha (the yellow item) sticks together. This is not as it should be. The grains should not stick together at all but instead are light and fluffy. So I ask Deepti to let me watch her in the kitchen and she shows me step by step how to make it. She diagnoses my problem immediately. I soak my poha far too long – and so instead of being light and fluffy, it becomes sticky glop.
After breakfast, Deepti goes to work at the sewing centre and I finish my writing and then go out for a morning walk. The houses in India are made of heavy concrete and stay cool really well. This is excellent in Jaipur in summer when the temperatures can get to 45C, but in the winter this means the house never quite warms up. However, once the sun is up, the weather turns lovely and can get to the low to mid 20’s (low 70’s for my American friends) and so getting outside is a must. As I walk outside, Hema asks me where I’m going and I let her know. And then she asks “khana khaoge?” (Will you be eating?). I usually say yes and she tells me to come back by 1:00 PM. I walk to a nearby cafe, order an Americano and a couple of ajwain biscuits, and relax.
Hema is an excellent cook and after several visits she knows I am a huge fan of her homemade pickles. One day for lunch I am treated to homemade parathas, curd, and four different kinds of homemade pickles: mango, green chilli, red chilli, and amla. I am in heaven. The parathas keep coming until I say “When!” which is usually about two parathas after I’m full because it is just too delicious to stop.
Around 2:00, Sharde gets home from school. I ask him how school was and make sure he’s got his homework packed in his backpack. Then we go outside. It’s time to go to the sewing centre to meet his mom.
When we step outside he always asks: “Can we take the long-cut?” He prefers a meandering route through small neighbourhood streets, walking across people’s steps and grass while I walk in the road, always coming back to me to take my hand when it is time to cross the street. One day we pass a man standing next to a thela – a large cart with four wheels that look like wild west wagon wheels. People use them for portable shops from selling veggies and fruits to collecting recycling. This man has a small stove and a big wok in which he’s making popcorn and peanuts. Sharde wants peanuts and so he marches up to the man and says “English bol sakte hain?” (Can you speak English?) and the man says no. “Theek hain – vo Hindi ata hai.” (That’s OK, he understands Hindi.” Then Sharde asks how much peanuts are – they’re Rs.20 – about $0.40 for a big bag. I buy them for him and he brings them with for an after school snack later.
Along the way we talk about what he sees. “This tree has leaves that are good to eat. They are medicine.” he says, taking a couple in his mouth. I tell him about how the leaves on our trees change colour and fall every year and he is so surprised that he tells his mom when we get to the sewing centre.
At the sewing centre, I have a project. Every day I interview 1-2 women who are there. Most of these women have come from the nearby slum, and are dealing with various struggles. Some have been taught to read, write, and do math at Saksham next door while others have not. None speaks English so I get to exercise my Hindi skills, asking questions and writing answers in my laptop in an odd mix of English and romanized Hindi with grammar that is a weird mix of the two. When I can’t quite understand what is being said or how to ask a question, Deepti, or sometimes even Sharde will help me through. Later I will compile my notes for Nitin and Deepti to share. Here is an example:
It is 1997, and in Sikar, Rajasthan, thirteen year old Meera is getting married. Soon after she moves in with her husband’s family, about two hours away in Jaipur. Together the joined family builds a home. In the year 2000, their first child, a son, is born. Three years later a daughter is born with another daughter born two years after that.
Her husband works, and she is at home, sometimes doing housework, other times helping out at the family business, a small shop selling general merchandise – a tiny department store. In 2014, her husband approached her. There is a new school in their neighbourhood teaching children and women completely for free. He encourages her to start, and, when she is tired and would rather stay at home, he encourages her to keep at it emphasizing the value of getting an education.
When she starts at Saksham she is not literate. She can neither read nor write in Hindi and knows no English. While she is there, learns to read and write in Hindi and to speak some basic English. She also learns basic math skills, something that comes in really handy both when helping out at the store as well as when she is shopping at other stores. Now she can easily count her change and know if she is being given the correct amount. She is proud and feels good about herself that she could learn all of these things.
And then, unexpectedly, in 2016, her husband dies. When asked about it, she takes a deep breath and says “My heart was completely broken..”
Despite this, she took on even more. While she has no more time for education she handles all of the arrangements related to his death, continuing to work in the family store and taking on whatever other work she can. When it comes to earning and supporting the family, she is now doing both her original role as well as the all of the work her husband had been doing. After her father in law passes on, she has even more work to do.
Still, inside she has completely given up. For over a year she feels that there is not much hope for her future. During this time, Deepti and Nitin, the founders of Saksham often come to provide a sympathetic ear and encourage her to continue. And soon after they come with some news.
They are starting a sewing centre for women in the neighbourhood. Together women will make garments for sale and they will work together to earn a living. Those women who don’t already know how to sew, will be taught for free. They ask if Meera would be interested and she agrees to give it a try.
Though she knew how to do a bit of sewing before, with more instruction and practice she becomes really good. Now she even takes on some work independent of Ashanari. She enjoys working together and learning with other women. She enjoys the challenge of learning new skills and techniques in a supportive environment.
Today she is still very busy. She wakes up at 5:30 every morning, opens the store, does the housework, makes breakfast for hew children, mother-in-law, and her husband’s younger brother. After working at the store again for a while, she goes down to Ashanari to sew from around 11 until 4-5 PM. Because her mother-in-law needs care throughout the day, she’s glad that Ashanari is so close to where she lives. Her mother-in-law need only call out and Meera can take a break from sewing to help at home. It is a whole new level of work-life balance for her.
At the end of the day at Ashanari, her work isn’t over. She goes back to her home, does the evening housework, cooks the evening meal for her family and then goes back to the store until 9:30 PM before going to bed and doing it all again.
I ask her if her eldest son, now nineteen is working. And even though, earlier in our conversation she said she really wished someone else could take over for her in the store, she said no. He is not working, she tells me, because he is going to school. She wants all of her children to grow up educated and to get good jobs so that they can take care of their families. She has seen a hopeful future for her and her family and is working from sunrise until well after sunset to make sure it happens.
That interview is particularly hard. I struggle to find the words to politely ask my questions, to deliver the proper sympathy, to be able to thank her at the end for talking about something that was so obviously difficult for her to talk about. And I struggle not to cry myself as she tells me this. It’s important, though. It is our hope that these interviews will give potential clothing buyers (ideally shops wanting to place orders for multiple garments) an idea of who makes their clothes and who they will be helping by supporting Ashanari.
I spend 60-90 minutes doing interviews with various women and then, at 4:00 I go next door to Saksham. It’s time to work with the kids. Every day after the school, Rachit and Dipesh, two 23 year old volunteers come by to first help women study from 3-4 and then children from 4-5. They are incredibly devoted. Rachit has a vision for what he can do in the future, expanding to teach computer skills to the kids. Dipesh tirelessly works with the kids also, telling his parents he’s going to the library to study for a government job exam but really spending his time helping others. Their energy and inspiration at this age, when many their age are on social media and worried more about dating than helping others, is inspiring.
The room is filled with kids from 5 to 15 or so, all working on homework or studying. Gauranshi and Sharde are there working on her homework as well. Dinesh and Rachit are helping kids with difficult math problems, or creating impromptu quizzes or worksheets for them.
Once the kids realize that I’m there to help and can speak Hindi several at a time come over. “Sir, sir?” they call as they tug my sleeve, handing me a notebook. I see what work they’ve been doing and add more questions. Others come over with slates and chalk and ask for the same. I am busy from the time I enter to the time we leave.
One day, I notice that a girl is having some trouble with math. Her challenge is unexpected: She can easily add things like 7+6 or 3+9 but if I give her a problem like 4+0 or 0+6, the answers always come out wrong and I can’t even understand the logic of what they’re doing. I realize she doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of zero. I try verbally explaining “Zero kuchh nahin hai.” (Zero is nothing). I try giving the answer “Zero plus kuchh bhi hamesha barabar number hai.” (Zero plus anything is always the same number. It doesn’t work. All the questions I give some back correct, but the ones with zero in the operation come out with mysterious answers. Then it hits me: I pull an old receipt from my pocket and tear it in two and put it in my hand. I point to her hand: “Kitane kagaz aapke hath men hain?” (How many papers are in your hand?) “Zero” she says. I put the two papers in my hand. “Mere hath men kitane kagaz hain?” (How many papers in my hand?) “Do” she says: Two. Then I take my papers in to her hand, point to it and say “Zero plus do kya hai?” (Zero plus two is what?” and she instantly answers “Do!” Excellent. I tear up more papers, and we do the same exercise with four, three, and six pieces of paper. She is getting it. Now I hand her back a sheet of math questions again. She gets most of them right. When I find one or two wrong I simply remind her by saying “Teen mere hath men hain, aur zero aapke hath men hai…” (Three are in my hand, zero are in your hand…” then mime putting my paper in her hands. She immediately understands.
When we finish the kids all leave, we put on our shoes and head out. Though it isn’t far, he gives me a ride home on his motorcycle. When we get home I have chai with Deepti before it is time for her to start dinner.
I help the kids with their homework a little more while Deepti makes dinner. When there is time, I take the kids to the park, alternating between running around with Sharde, pushing him on the swing and playing games with Gauranshi and her friends. As the sun sets, we head home to eat dinner. I eat dinner with the kids, and then chat with Deepti a little bit while she has her dinner.
But before bed, I tell a story or two to the children, sometimes in English, sometimes giving my best shot at translating a story I know in to Hindi. When I struggle, Gauranshi helps me as even at her young age she is fully bilingual.
Then, as the kids go to sleep, I go back to my room. It’s almost time to go to sleep myself. After a day spent with family here in India, it’s time to spend time online with my own family back home.