Stone Age dwellers in the 21st Century

This morning, as I walked into the community towards the library, (I decided some time ago too refer to the slum as ‘the community’; these are people’s homes, after all), I saw….

Two women creating a foundation of sorts for a new shanty dwelling. With exquisite care, they were making mud patties, creating a platform, smoothing the surface and packing it down hard with their hands.

A pair of small girls under an acacia, one patiently sitting naked in the dirt while the elder knelt behind her, meticulously picking through her hair for nits. Grooming.

A little boy squatting in the dust just off the path voiding his bowels. A woman outside her hut, scrubbing her cooking vessels with sand and soap; another sitting cross-legged in front of a small fire of sticks, cooking flatbread on a flat disc of iron.

I recently had a Western visitor who walked this way with me to visit the library. He had had little or no prior exposure to this level of existence, and was deeply affected as he saw the reality of what is, in so many ways, a way of life almost unchanged since the beginning of time. Save for the metal utensils, the tarpaulins covering the homes instead of thatch or skins, the elements that comprise the rubbish strewn everywhere, (mostly plastic), these people are living a life not dramatically altered since we first hopped down out of the trees, in the middle of a nation that is currently celebrating the success of it’s mission to Mars. My normally loquacious friend was rendered almost speechless, and his reactions, and his comment about it being like the Stone Age, caused me to view afresh many things that I suppose I have become so accustomed to that they barely register any more.

Now monsoon has passed, the community dwellers are gradually effecting repairs to the damage caused by the heavy rains. Cracks between the carefully arranged flat stones in the passages between the more substantial, brick shanties, are being carefully filled with clay and sand. Tiny local mandirs, temples, are being refurbished ahead of the Navratri festival. Washing is strung everywhere possible. If you close your eyes to the plastic debris and the satellite dishes, the scene is Biblical in its antiquity, dusty and unchanging under the heat of the Indian sun. My friends visit gave me a fresh perspective, and reminded me not only why I am here, but, once again, how bloody lucky we Western women are.

Another sight from this mornings commute; an injured, elderly, cow being dragged and shoved from a diesel rickshaw onto a handcart. It had a rope tied around its nose, and was bleeding badly and covered with flies around its rump. I stopped to watch for a while, wondering what was being done, but I suspect there may have been a nefarious purpose as the cluster of men gathered around dispensing advice and pushing and shoving clearly didn’t want me around.

There are two really bad things about India. The rubbish is one; the other, the men. There are a lot of really nice, ‘evolved’ men, but the majority are, I’m sorry, juvenile arseholes. They hang around in their little gangs on the lanes in the community, eying the women passing by, passing comments and sniggering, generally being lecherously unpleasant. Just the other day, an Australian friend was stopped and asked directions by a man who then grabbed at her breasts and ran away, taking advantage of her shock and disbelief to effect his escape before, like the sturdy Aussie lass she is, she punched him.

The same happened last year to my daughter, but more surprisingly, in Goa where they are much more accustomed to Western women but equally, probably more ‘inflamed’ as they see thousands of young female tourists baring pretty much all on the beach. Exactly the same thing – her breasts were groped by a young Indian man in a crowd into which he rapidly disappeared – and I hasten to add that she was very modestly dressed at the time.

Discussing these incidents with an Indian friend, she is furious, horrified, embarrassed. She sees as I do that despite all the hard work we do within the community, nothing will essentially change until the men realise that although they may live in Stone Age conditions,   Stone Age attitudes are no longer, if in fact they ever were, acceptable. The example set by the ‘evolved’ men, especially those working within our projects in the community, must surely eventually filter through to the general population. The women who participate in our projects are attempting to raise their sons to treat women better, often fighting against their immediate male family members and their communities to do so. Boys are being exposed more and more to a different way of regarding women, with respect; and more and more women are gaining an education, avoiding marriage in their early teens, seeing the chance of a brighter future. But it’s bloody hard for the women.

To cite an example, I recently visited and had tea with another friend and her mother, living within the community. Their spotlessly clean two room home is comfortable by local standards; but still early Saxon to those of us accustomed to Western dwellings. No running water, it’s fetched from a standpipe every morning, and she tells me the entire family are having stomach problems because the water is bad, but thats a whole other issue… Her mother is exactly the same age as I, but was married before she was sixteen, is illiterate, and now widowed.

Their main problem at the moment? My friend is educated, has achieved a degree, speaks good English, works full-time. But…she is now in her late twenties, and not married…and in this community, that’s all wrong. She has been in a relationship for almost six years with a colleague, but in all this time has only met his family twice to discuss a possible marriage…as they are from different communities, or castes, and this will be a love marriage.  Her potential future in-laws spent the time letting her know what they expect from a daughter-in-law, which does not include her continuing to work. And her family? My friend recently had a phone call at 2am from the extended family in their home village to let her and her mother know that the entire family were preparing to get on a bus and come to Ahmedabad and ‘beat’ some sense into them both. My friend says simply that “He is my best friend, and if I cannot marry him, I will never marry’. On top of this, every day, on her walk to work, she is ‘Eve-teased’ by the local men hanging out in the lanes as mentioned before. Good God – this is the reality of life for so many women here in India, in 2014.

What can we do? I don’t know. I do know that in my time here I have achieved much, but I shall still leave with a deep-seated frustration, a desire to ‘fix’ things. And I begin to consider potential ways to address the “Man” issue. Persuading more decent, clean, hard-working Western men to come here and do a stint as a volunteer, demonstrating through their actions and conduct that women are not second class citizens, would be a great thing – we seem to have far more women than men prepared to give up their time to work voluntarily here. Other than the son’s of expatriate Gujarati’s, or local volunteers from colleges and universities, the Western males we see tend overall to be young, between school and university, or doing an internship. What we need are builders and mechanics, electricians and diesel fitters, honest, hard working Western men who are able to become positive role models, who are adult and secure enough to shame the fools in the lanes.

I have great respect for a friend of mine, an ex US Marine, who spends half his time here working towards addressing some of these issues through The Bindi Project, and encourage you to discover more about what he is achieving by liking the projects page on Facebook and visiting the projects website, at

http://www.bindiproject.org

There seems to be a complete disconnection between these mens perceptions of how they behave towards women, and how they would feel if their sister, daughter, mother was treated this way. And while they continue to believe that they are demi-gods, they will also continue through example to raise another generation of sons and nephews who believe a woman’s role is solely to serve a man. And as for the rubbish….

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