After 5 days spent training in Delhi my team and I finally set of on our 45 hour journey to Tamil Nadu, southern India. This consisted of a 38 hour train journey and then another 7 hours on a coach, sounds simple enough, or so we thought. When we arrived on the platform to catch our train we were informed that our seats had not been confirmed and that one member of our team might not have a seat at all. We soon discovered that we all had seats on the train but none of them were together and we were all in separate parts of the train meaning we would have to sleep next to strangers for two days. Luckily Mitul can speak Hindi and after nearly three hours battling with fellow passengers and the train conductor he managed to bargain a compartment for all four of us although we had to pay extra for the privilege.
We were very relieved that we managed to get seated together as none of us fancied a two day journey sat on our own and sleeping in very close proximity to complete strangers, especially as on the first night we all awoke to find a lady stood in our compartment watching us.
After this first hurdle I managed to get some shut eye and did little else but sleep until we arrived in Chennai two days later, my team however did not manage to get much rest at all and were less than impressed by the time we reached our destination.
The journey from Chennai to Trichy was hassle free and again I managed to sleep most of the way. We were met in Trichy by our CEO Mahindra who drove us to what would now be our home for the next Three months.
We arrived in Deveyenari which is a Gypsy colony situated on the side of a busy main road stretching for about 1 mile. We were greeted by some of the villagers who performed a traditional gypsy ceremony to welcome us to their home.
Our new home is what can only be described as a shack/hut with very basic facilities, the hut is also very hot most of the time and it is often too hot to sleep; although we have electric fans there are at least 3 power cuts throughout the night. I can’t say that the accommodation is particularly ’accommodating’ but I wanted the experience of actually living as one of the community and I think it’s safe to say that I will be doing just that.
We have now been living in the village for nearly two weeks and it feels like we have become part of the furniture, all four of us have developed good relationships with the people here, especially the children who are wonderful and although they speak very little English we have really gotten to know each of their individual personalities, in the evenings they often come and sit on our porch and play games with us.
In our first week we found some balloons and introduced the kids to the joy of water balloon fights which caused much hysteria and excitement , everyone got very wet indeed. Water fights are welcomed by all in this incredible heat (40 degrees).We are developing good relationships with the staff here and also the village children who are wonderful and we really enjoy interacting with them.
Although we are now settled in the village and everyone is used to us it has taken a while to get to this point, for the first week we were hounded every time we walked through the village by up to fifty people at a time all very inquisitive and all wanting to say ‘Hi’ which is fine until they start pulling at your hair and pinching your skin and poking your face. It feels like we are celebrities here as people are always asking to have their picture taken with us, some parents will quite literally throw their babies at you with little warning and demand a picture, the babies often seem very put out, but the parents seem too distracted by us to notice.
We still find it strange that the people are so interested in us and all because of the colour of our skin, it sometimes feels like they put us on a pedestal just because we are white, this can feel very awkward and uncomfortable especially at the recent school function where they sat us on the stage facing the entire village as if we were members of the royal family or the judges on X Factor, we all felt very uncomfortable and eventually we were seated at the side of the stage instead.
During the recent function, Mahindra and Sitta (News CEO’S) asked us to perform a ‘traditional’ English dance in front of the whole village which would have been ok had we been given any notice, but we were expected to come up with something almost immediately, we all felt very intimidated as we had been watching the school children practicing their traditional Indian dances all week and they all danced so beautifully. We came to a unanimous decision pretty quickly and decided to go with the good old faithful – Macarena, we were very worried that it would look awful compared to the other dances that were being performed for the function but amazingly our dance was a hit and all the children went wild and cheered us all the way through.
Things are often sprung upon us at last minute and we have nick named this ‘the Indian way’, recently we were left with a classroom of 60 children aged 5- 13 without any supervision and expected to know what to do with them, It was complete anarchy and as it was our first time with the children we had no idea what to do or how to control them. Amazingly we got through Two hours without any major disasters, but it was not a particularly enjoyable experience for any of us and we were shocked that so many children were left in our care on one of our first days on the placement.
We have been working in the village school which has a hostel attached for children who come from the other villages and stay there during term time and also for the orphans of the village. It was shocking visiting the Hostel for the first time as it is made up of 3 rooms with concrete floors and a few very thin mats which the children sleep on and little else, they do not even have pillows! Often there are kids as young as 4 left unsupervised for hours at a time, a few days ago some of the school children came running to our hut shouting ‘fire’ so we ran to the school to discover a small boy had set fire to some news paper in one of the classrooms and nearly burned down the building! luckily know one was hurt! but it worries me that 70 odd children ranging from 4 - 11 are left alone for such long periods of time!
We have now been living and working here for six weeks and we are half way through the placement, without sounding to cliché it has been a rollercoaster of emotions for all of us, living and working in a small team twenty four hours a day can be very tough as there is little time for oneself and no escape from the village and the constant attention we receive on a daily basis.
The thing I have found most challenging and hard to accept here is the inequality between men and women, It is very hard for a strong willed independent person like myself to accept the way women are expected to behave here, I appreciated this is the Indian culture and I am a guest in this country but I can’t get used to how much repression women face here. While it is fine for a man to walk around in little more than a towel covering his dignity women must cover every part of themselves and even a bare shoulder is considered to be very offensive. Personally I have found it very hard having to cover all of my body as if it is something to be ashamed of especially as I have struggled for many years to be happy in my own skin, here I am wearing what can only be described as a sack. The women here are not able to express themselves in many ways and often they must sit on the floor in the presence of a man as a sign of respect while the men sit on chairs. Men are free to drink and smoke but If a women was ever seen doing either they would be disgraced and thought very badly of.
In the Gypsy communities we work in many girls will marry by the time they are 12 to men as old as 25, this is something we are trying to discourage, the charity we work for will often hold talks on the dangers of child marriage. Many marriages in India are arranged by the parents, the bride and groom will not meet until their wedding day. I cannot imagine having no choice in the man I would have to spend the rest of my life with. I have observed many unhappy marriages in the community we are living in and cannot help but wonder what goes on behind closed doors