India – five days

India five days in

So, having caught my breath and girded my loins, Monday morning was my first ‘official’ visit to Manav Sadhna, the NGO (Non Government Organisation) I am going to be working with for anything up to a year. Arriving here was a complete headspin – my journey was planned in detail up to this point, and also in relatively familiar territory – OK I had never been to the States or Canada before but they are Westernised societies like any other. This however was the jumping off point into the unknown, the area on the charts that has a few mysterious wiggles and sea monsters and ‘possible continents here’. Scary stuff

I had also arranged to be met by and stay with a complete stranger, excepting almost a years worth of email conversation, in a totally alien country, and a city that is about as Indian as you get. I think I have said this before, there are no tourists to speak of in Ahmedabad – what ‘sights’ there are are widely scattered across a huge industrial city of about 7,500,000 people and growing. I’m pretty doubtful and anxious, missing my family, wondering whether this was a completely stupid and selfish thing to do.

A sleepless night on an Air India Boeing 777, a transit in Mumbai’s fairly shabby airport, and said onslaught of “Oh my goodness what on earth am I doing” left me shattered on arrival. Fortunately I am not staying at the ‘Volunteer House’ and so didn’t have to go in until I was ready. More on the house later.

Manav Sadhna is only five minutes walk down a wide and busy road, Ashram Road, from the flat. We are behind a small collection of shops, including a Reliance Market (corner grocery store, bit of everything but you can’t actually rely on them having everything), a post office, a bank, a guy doing stuff with bamboo that I haven’t figured out yet on the pavement, auto rickshaw’s hoping for a fare, always lots of motorbikes parked there, and a little boy selling fags. Out of there, turn left to the south, past a really smelly bit of wall (public urinal?) and along the wall of the Gandhi Ashram grounds. There are small cottages in the grounds still inhabited by families who were there during Gandhi’s time, the old lady who sweeps the compound inherited the job from her mother who had it in turn from Gandhi. Entering the gates it is peaceful under the trees, scattered white buildings, a walled terrace overlooking the river. Later in the day, a guy with long grey-white hair dressed all in white is always at those gates, he hates the white man apparently, and certainly doesn’t smile like most other people!

Walking through the grounds you reach another collection of buildings past the museum, and this is MS. A deep stone flagged verandah, off with the shoes, and into a large, cool, again stone flagged room with a high wooden beamed roof. Ladies in their wonderfully colourful sari’s or salwah kameez are sweeping and dusting ready for the day, and greet us cheerfully, we sit in a smallish alcove off the main area furnished with two mattresses and a charpoy arranged in a U shape against the walls of the alcove, covered in fresh cotton cloth and with really comfortable bolster cushions for your back. The alcove is lined with pretty decorative plasterwork and photographs of Gandhi, and is cooled by fans, it’s a great spot to sit and watch what’s happening.

It’s also the focal point of Prathna, or daily prayers, every morning at ten. This was so weird the first time, I had no idea what to expect, and knew I was to be introduced and have a red dot placed on my forehead at some point – sitting cross-legged on the charpoy, I kept my eyes down and just listened! A large cotton rug had been spread by the ladies on the flagstones in front of the alcove, and by the time I did sneak a glimpse it was full of cross-legged Indians and western volunteers. The prayer session is almost compulsory – the volunteer guidelines do in fact say it is, but since some of the volunteers are working on projects that start early in outlying areas, not everyone is there every day. They play a tape of sung prayers from every religion – Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, there’s even a sung version of the Lord’s Prayer in there. Most sing along, and then there’s a reading, first in Gujerati and then English, from the Bible I think. Two minutes silence, then newcomers are introduced in a nice little ceremony involving drumming and a red dot being painted on your forehead.

Having done Prathna a couple of times now, it is actually a really lovely start to the day. It’s a steadying twenty minutes or so to contemplate, pray, think, whatever turns your crank… I’ve taken to running through all my loved ones and friends in my mind, concentrating on each of them for a minute and remembering special moments and sending you all love. Don’t worry though kids, religion hasn’t got me yet!

After Prathna, it’s time for various people to ‘share’ what’s happening in the projects they are involved in, what’s coming up; there are frequently visitors, for example, an American Gujerati girl who had been a volunteer previously had come with all her family who were visiting India so they could see where she had been, and the same day there were a young couple from Texas who had just ambled in off the street to see what was going on.

Coming from Corporate World, probably the hardest thing to get my head around is that there is no apparent organisation at all! There is no agenda, no chairperson, its really difficult to get a grasp on who does what, or how the timetable or expectations work. I asked one of the three trustee’s, Virunbhai, how the whole thing was funded, and he just answers “Oh we have friends” – they do, large contributions from again mostly the USA but also the UK, Canada, and Australia. Indian religion and tradition expects everyone to do seva (or service) at some point in their lives – the Jain religion for example directs you to, when you no longer need it, give everything away to someone who does. I had an interesting conversation on the flight from Mumbai to A’bad with an affluent appearing Hindu Gujerati lady from London, who told me she and her husband would come back to A’bad in retirement, because that’s what they do – come back to do seva. Kind of what I came here for, some of you will remember me wittering on about having had a lucky life, which I have, and wanting to give something back. Well it turns out I’m doing seva! Still not quite sure how, which leads me to…

What am I actually going to do! As mentioned, it’s very loose, ‘organic’ is the word they prefer. There are various projects going on, you can work in a street school for example, or with different women’s empowerment projects. I have met a trippy American guy who has studied some arcane medicine in Japan, so arcane it has no name, and is doing this in the leper colony attached to MS north of the city; a Spanish boy working on getting organic gardens going in and around the slum and the Blind School, a Gujerati American who has produced their travelling song and dance show that goes to the States and UK to rise awareness and funds, and at Volunteer Co-Ordination, was told you can go farming in the morning and organising rubbish bins in the afternoon…. Mmm. Not sure about any of that! They have the impression I am an English teacher, and I am certainly happy to do that, but more in the way of improving the spoken English of the MS staff – that’s the job Dave has sold me to them on. It was quite sad and funny to see the embarrassment with which the lovely Ajay diffidently asked me if I would help him to speak better English as he is completely self taught from listening to Westerners. Bless. We’ll do that.

Anyway, talking to Virunbhai, he tells me to just take my time and figure out where I can help. Excellent. Loving the dis-organisation at that point!

MS provides a vegetarian lunch for all the staff and volunteers each day, it’s prepared by the same lovely ladies that sweep in the morning, and is taken out on the wide back verandah overlooking the river. It’s lovely and cool out there, we sit on mats on the floor, and eat “chat” (vegetable curry), rice, dhal, chappattis. All this cross-legged sitting is beginning to play havoc with the old knee’s but I soldier on, scooping up curry with my chapatti like a pro. The same lunch is served to about 8000 children across the city as well, including the kids in the school attached to MS – the sight of a four foot diameter cauldron seething away with one of the cooks stirring it with a flat spade-like implement is memorable.

Beginning to get to know other volunteers. Only one other in my age group, a sixty year old from Paris called Marie, very bubbly and enthusiastic and working on the organic garden project in the Tekro that’s the pet project of the Spanish boy, Jose, who’s been there a year. Newly arrived are a 30-year-old Gujerati London GP, Deepa, a Dutch lass from Singapore on her gap year, Amber, another couple of young American Gujerati’s, another from Toronto, Canada – getting the picture? Most of them are in the 18 to 30-age bracket, I’m a novelty, more so because I’m not living in the volunteer house either but at Dave’s flat. This is a very good thing, and I’ll tell you why – I can have a cigarette – smoke free at and in the ashram – there’s a kitchen with a coffee machine, I have my own bedroom instead of a bunk in a dormitory. I’m sorry, that really does not appeal! But these kids are brimming over with excitement and enthusiasm and signing up for everything. I’m more cautious, and going to do exactly as Virunbhai said, take my time.




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