Friday, November 30, 2007

Holy Varanasi


After being warned countless millions of times about what a vile and wretched place Varanasi is, I found out that everybody was wrong. Without a doubt, this ancient city is one of the most beautiful and amazing places on Earth.

After the long and trying train ride from Kolkatta, (which is known for it’s vileness and decay and I can not agree more), on a roach infested three tier coach, we were met at the station by the hotel clerk in order to avoid the so called ‘Varanasi shakedown’ of scandalous touts and potential thieving murderers. After zigzagging through the mad streets, breathing in the heavily polluted excuse for air, we were dropped off at the no vehicle zone with no porters to take us into the maze of the old city. We managed to pull our luggage through the tiny streets, avoiding the piles of sacred cow dung that dotted the path. When we reached the top of the stairs to Scindhia Ghat, I shook my head and said, “No More!” This is a land where porters are vying for your every rupee and the cost of hiring someone to carry the ugly American load down the steps is very small. But in India, that cost, say 50 rupees, is just about a hair less than the 55 rupee a day minimum wage. At the current exchange rate, it’s a fraction over a dollar. Never was a dollar better spent.

Up the tiny staircase and into the hotel room at Scindhia Guesthouse we plodded, through the room and out onto the balcony and then, (a chorus of Indian song accompanied by sacred bells) there it was, the sacred Ganges opened out into the mist and all sins became absolved in an instant. Boats dotted the river and nary a sound of an auto or motorcycle ensued because, praise Shiva, the vehicles are not allowed.

“This is the real India”, I said to my companion.

For two days I listened to the bells, I hung out and drank tea with sadhus, I walked the path along the ghats, I took a boat ride down the Ganges, I explored the tiny narrow streets which were shared by cows and a multitude of newly born puppies, I watched bodies being brought to the burning ghats and cremated, and I watched fishers fish for food and thousands of people take a daily bath of purification in the holy, horrifically polluted, sacred Mother Ganga.



A plea:

Indian Government are you listening? If you are, please take some of the country’s money (that has been unethically pilfered away into Swiss bank accounts) and build the badly needed sewage treatment plants that are needed to restore the Ganges to health. That is my request.

And while you are at it, please continue on the path of enlightenment and fix the water problems, roads, wiring and other basic infrastructure that are in such a sorry state of disrepair all over India. Oh, and as long as I’m asking please continue to demand education for the 800 million folks who are badly in need of some, who are obviously clever yet are not given the time of day by those in power. Give them medical facilities, and staff those facilities with doctors and nurses and medicine. Is that so much to ask considering how much money India is making these days?

Why India? Why do you have to be such a mess? You have such amazing potential, why should you be allowed to just crumble away into dust?

Friday, November 23, 2007

What's In Your Cup?

A GLOBAL VIEW OF SOCIETY

The elite and richest class of people live perched on the top of the economic triangle of the society that supports them. I remember seeing this triangle as it was drawn and explained by a literature teacher in college, many years ago. I thought of myself in the big broad band somewhere near the bottom, burdened by the weight upon me. But I was wrong. If the triangle stopped within the borders of the country I come from, then yes, I am somewhere in the lower part of the middle of that triangle. And that view would be true if everything produced within those borders supported that triangle. But it doesn't.

The truth is that almost everything produced for consumption and feeding the top of that elite band of wealth is produced outside our borders in what is commonly called 'The Third World'. A misnomer because actually, that world is the same one world we all live in. There is no getting away.

To feel the burden of all that wealth upon the inhabitants and laborers of that 'other' world is to understand your place in the triangle as far closer to the top band of wealth then you could have possibly imagined. A say 'you' because, yes, I mean you. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of tea and think about where it came from.

LET'S TALK TEA

As I continually defended my lack of wealth to the Indian pushers of handicrafts and other souvenirs, I knew innately that I was lying. That became clearer to me as I researched the plight of the Indian Tea Workers, women laborers mostly, who are often the only employed person in their large families. The pay in the Darjeeling region of tea plantations is 52 rupees a day; that equals a little more than a dollar. This is essentially the Indian minimum wage. For tea workers, supplementing that income is supposedly housing, food rations, and health care. These terms are written into the laws governing tea plantations, which should make tea picking a particularly appealing job for a laborer. Sadly, as the tea industry in India has faced economic hardship, many workers have been waiting years to get their housing, and are living in squalid conditions. This is true in the Darjeeling region, I know because I interviewed a woman who is facing this problem.

Kamala lives a mile or so down a narrow path, which is muddy and slippery in the rain. There is no electricity down where she is, because she can't afford the 2500 rupees (about 65 dollars) it would take to bring the electricity down the hill. Her house has holes where windows should be, and she cooks her food in a fire pit. When I was there, she made a fire to boil water for tea, which she offered my assistant and myself, along with some biscuits. The thought of the cost of the biscuits made me shudder, as I knew the money could have been used to feed her four young children, all of who were coughing badly.

This coughing is a concern because according to Nalin Modha, a consultant and former plantation manager, many of the tea workers and their families are suffering from TB. Without proper health care and treatment, this is surely a global concern as TB is highly contagious. However, most workers, unless they are so sick as to need hospitalization, can be seen plucking tea even while very sick. To miss a day of employment is to miss a day's wages; a luxury that she can't afford. If she is hospitalized, half of her wages will be used to pay the hospital for up to 14 days, and after that...?

Kamala's husband is a day laborer and is often without employment. When he does make money, it often goes toward alcohol, and when he drinks and is very high, sometimes he hits her. Kamala pays for her older children to go to school, but feels she can not afford it much longer, and her oldest son, all of about 13, will probably be forced to leave school to find work to help the family. She asked me if I could help her by finding him a job.

But Kamala is lucky, for she is still employed.

Four hours by car from the mountains of the Darjeeling Tea District lay The Duars, nestled in the plains of the Jalpaiguri District where common black tea without distinction is grown. Many plantations have closed in this region leaving workers and their families destitute. The result of these closures has seen women entering the flesh trade amongst other unfortunate outcomes, such as untreated illness and starvation. Of the plantations that are still open, many threaten closure to the women who attempt to stand up for their rights as written into the laws which are meant to regulate the plantations; rights such as housing, health care and food rations, which are being denied to the workers of many of these still open plantations. Even the minute salaries are often delayed, sometimes for months. The unions which were set up to protect the rights of these women, are in the hands of the management, meaning that no one at all is fighting for the rights of the tea workers; rights which are written into the laws are treated as if they do not exist.

Although there are plantations that are benevolent and are doing a good job of maintaining an ethical system, sadly they are not in the majority. According to Dr. S.S. Choudhury, Sociologist and author of the book Challenges of Tea Management in the 21st Century, the current plantation management system in India is a feudal system, is no longer cost effective, and is not capable of sustaining itself. He says that plantations that answer to corporate owners are far more successful than those run in ways set up by the Raj well over a century ago using the same systems of the slave plantations in USA's deep south of 19th century. Those plantations are subject to the whims of the 'lord' that is running them. If he is benevolent and opting for healthy, sustainable planting practices that keep the garden's healthy, and offer fair trade type policies for the laborers, then the workers have it good. If not, the workers suffer greatly. Furthermore, if the plantations do close, the worker is completely out of luck with nary an option in this country of extreme poverty and lack of employment.

In addition, in all of the above circumstances, the female worker often has to deal with an unfortunate home life consisting of unemployed husbands who drink away the salaries and are sometimes abusive. Furthermore, a serious lack of education is rampant throughout this class of population, leading to lack of knowledge about rights, family planning, health care, or the ability to ever be able to do anything else should the job disintegrate. As far as educational options, Dr. Choudhury asserts, there are more opportunities for the current generation of children to go to school than there have been with their parents. However that though there may be opportunties, the truth remains that many parents will simply not allow their children to go to school, possibly due to superstitions and mistrust, or the lack of understanding of education's importance in lifting their children from the generations old plight, and the child may have his or her education cut short if an opportunity for that child to be employed is available.

"It is so disgusting," said Dr. Dutta of the lack of health care and facilities for the people who occupy this region. Her husband, Dr. Anton Das chimed in, "We went there and saw a boy who had something wrong with a vein in his leg. The circulation had stopped and his leg was rotting. It was covered with maggots! It was too late to help him, there was nothing that could be done, his leg had to be amputated."

We sat in their beautiful apartment looking over Siliguri, a city like so many Indian cities, with a dichotomy of tiny pockets of unbounded wealth amidst a sea of unbelievable poverty. We discussed the sad situation of the tea plantations of The Duars, "No one is doing anything," asserted Dr. Das, "Things have been getting worse there for so many years, and nothing is being done. There is a very modern medical facility in the area that only has a doctor once a year that comes from abroad to do optical surgeries. Beyond that, they have no doctors."

"People claim that girls have been kidnapped and traded into prostitution, but I think they have gone willingly. What choice do they have?" said Dr. Dutta. "If there is going to be any change, it has to come from the ground," Dr. Das theorized.

Dr. Das took me back to my hotel and while driving, he sighed. "It gives me shame," he said, "That you should be coming here all the way from the U.S. to help this situation when here in India it is totally forgotten and ignored."

HOPE

Yet there in the plains a light is growing in the form of women who have had enough. I was fortunate to meet 6 governing organizers of an emergent group called The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch (tea plantation women's "space" or gathering place) who remind me in some ways of the Suffragette movement in U.S. history. Against the desires of a society that would see this kind of thing suppressed, a group of mostly tribal women from the very lowest rungs of our global society, The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch has formed to provide support and togetherness for the tea workers. They are helping to educate them about their rights as tea workers, as women, and as humans and are leading them in the fight for these rights. I attended the inauguration with my video camera of their humble tin shed quarters this November 2007, and was honored to cut the ribbon. The speeches given by the women who are governing, were inspiring, as were the proud faces of the tea workers whose voice these women are giving rise to. This group, headed by Rita Chetri, a former tea worker who seems to be inspired by the endless threats she has endured, is at the beginning stages of a long battle for badly needed change, and demands for human rights.

These are brave women who endure tangible threats upon their lives on a regular basis. This is a region where the people are essentially completely uneducated, and have not even the ability to sign their names, let alone understand that they have a right to be heard. Basic human rights are transgressed regularly upon the women of this region. All too often rapes of children are endured, as families tell their children not to speak up, but to keep the peace. Afraid of retribution, girls and their families all too often will keep silent. The Cha Bagan Mahila Manch has helped in many of these situations, by convincing the victims to make the stories known, and help them in filing reports with the authorities.

In one case, a pre-teen girl was raped by a twenty something boy and her family did not want her to speak out. The women of the Cha Bagan convinced her family to file a report with the authorities. Finding the authorities were bribed the women went beyond to even higher authorities until justice was served to the transgressor and remuneration made to the victim. The time in between saw threats to one of the women of the Cha Bagan who was working closely with the victim, Tara, who hid for her life for two days until the situation was resolved and the perpetrator brought to justice. I asked Tara if she was afraid, and she said that no, she was just very happy to be able to do this work which is making an important difference in peopleƕs lives. "So many people live only for themselves," she said in Hindi, and I translate, "I am so happy to be able to help other people. I did not marry or have any children, so this work, for me, is like having a child. I am that committed to it."

So many of the women of this region are silenced by being at the bottom of the male dominated, planter lorded, tribal class society they live in, and are afraid to speak for fear of retribution from their own families, let alone the societies of their plantation villages. They cannot read and are thus unable to understand the outer society which surrounds them, and do not know how to rise up beyond the subjugation.

A NEW KIND OF MANAGEMENT

According to Dr. Choudhury it is not enough to simply opt for fair trade practices, such as that of the Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong that produces a fine Darjeeling Tea; the entire feudal system must be changed. We are seeing the decay of an outdated system. Dr. Choudhury's assertion is that companies such as Tata Tea in which the ownership is not involved with the daily on the ground management practices, are the only hope for sustainable economic growth in India's declining Tea Industry. In these companies, management must answer to the demands of the public stockowners. If the stockowners demand organic, healthy, sustainable farms that employ decently paid laborers and offer humane benefits, stock and profit shares, then the laborers, the gardens, the management, and the stockowners will thrive. It would be, according to Dr Choudhury, a holistic approach.

But this cannot happen without the listening to the demands of grassroots organizations such as the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch. It seems to me that the very bottom of the triangle of our global society are the subjugated women of the lowest classes of class dominated, male dominated societies, of which India is the epitome. It is these voices that need to be heard, and their demands listened to. The women of the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch are a small candle lighting the way toward a badly needed direction for ethical and sustainable tea production, for the equality and rights of women, and for education and equality for the lowest tribal classes of this society. I hope along with these brave women, to see the ranks and numbers of this grassroots organization join with other like organizations to grow large and to swell in a wave which sends a very positive shock throughout the ranks of tea management, the halls of the Tea Board, the annual stockholder's meetings of the global capital that purchases the tea, and engages a choir that sings in a voice so loud that it echoes through the appalling din of all of India bringing the change this country needs so badly.

CONTACT and ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I wish to thank Piya Chatterjee of the University of California at Riverside for all of her help, and for being an incredible resource. For further information on the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch, please contact Piya at piyachatterjee@yahoo.com. Also I want to rave my gratitude to Sangamitra Bomzon, my incredible assistant and translator without whom I would be useless. Also to Milan Bomzon whose contacts and organizing skills are fantastic, and to Palmu Bomzon who knows how to make a home away from home feel like a palace. For anyone wishing to travel to Mirik, the Bomzon's Hotel Ratnagiri is the best place to stay in this peaceful lakeside town in the shadow of Kanchenjuenga.

The governing women of the Cha Bagan Mahila Manch pose with me and my assistant Sangamitra.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Whirlwind Tour of the UK

It was three decades since I had been there, and nothing had changed. Only myself, who came then as a girl, now as a middle-aged woman with more ability to appreciate my surroundings. Of course the UK has changed over time, but it seems it did most of its changing long before I came the first time.

But the scenery seems to have miraculously stayed quaint and green. Take the green pastures full of sheep as an example. Once forests grew on those lands, and now they are covered with sheep. Wool, thought I, must be the reason behind the madness. But no…with all the new fibers, wools are less popular, and of the wools that are popular, they do not come from this kind of sheep. Rather the Merino and Kashmir growing flocks provide the favorites for today’s consumer. For fleece warmth, try the polyester growing animals instead.

No, it is not for wool but for meat that these creatures abound. And good meat too, to be found in the pubs that dot the landscape. Almost as many pubs as sheep.. Food has changed quite a lot since the 1970’s, then, a dismal fare was offered; things such as fish flavored chicken or gristle burgers were the mode of the day, the only good thing about it was the ease of staying thin. This time, the food finds were delicious and I’m going to have to whittle myself down again.

John, my traveling companion, and I stayed in an 18th century drafty stone farmhouse with great big rooms. The farm marm, as I like to call her, gave us the lowdown on hoof and mouth disease; the mysterious disease that jumps around, willy nilly, from farm to farm, ruining the lives and livings of the unsuspecting flockherders. It might be the badgers, according to a London Times speculation. I couldn’t help wondering if it’s the, well I guess you could say ‘ranching monoculture’ that pervades the landscape. But what do I know? Very little about that, I can assure you.

Traveling on to Ballantrae, a small village on the coast of Ayrshire in Scotland, I visited my dear Aunt Margaret, who has been inviting me to come since she married a Scot and moved there 27 years ago. The man she married, John Sanderson, I had met a couple of times in the states, but those meetings were so populated with family that I had no chance to notice much about him, other than his enthralling well schooled English accent, and the fact that he wore a kilt.

I found a kinship with him this time, as we have so much in common; from love of great music classics and a passion for travel and culture, to pursuit of creative drives made possible by the invention of electronics. From gardening and prize winning vegetable growing, to the art of choosing the right wine to go with a delicious meal, he’s a cultured and refined delight, and he enjoys cleaning up the kitchen! My aunt’s great love is a rare find indeed, the kind of man worth waiting half a lifetime for. Even if he does have differing views on global warming than I.

My aunt is a lucky woman. Furthermore, she’s a delightful conversationalist, a fantastic cook, and an amazing quilter. I enjoyed so much spending those days with her, a time that until those days, we had never had. We shared precious girl-talk, family gossip, and comforted each other in our fears. I think I forgot to tell her that she has inspired me to take up writing seriously as she is an endless font of encouragement. Since she’s probably reading this, let it be known how much it has meant to me! I was very sad that it had to end so soon, and left Ballantrae knowing I would return, sooner rather than later.

My companion John and I got in the car early on the day of leaving, and hit the motorway for an all day drive down to England’s fine and high living South, stopping for the endless stream of custard tarts to be found along the way. Sleeping that night in Marlborough, we had our evening meal in a haunted pub that resides in Avebury, a village within an ancient stone circle. In the morning, we went back to that circle and marveled at those stones, which also happen to inhabit Avebury’s pastures of sheep.

We saw Silbury mound, which is being explored currently, and renovated. How do you renovate a mound, you wonder? Well, apparently there were tunnels in it, possibly seeking some kind of treasure through the years. Those tunnels were causing the hill to collapse inward. Now, much more is understood about the mound, and those discoveries are being broadcast every few nights on The BBC. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I do know that the tunnels are being filled with chalk to keep the implosion from ruining the mound.

Then, we skirted on down to Stonehenge to admire that profound circle and gawk in awe at the mystery of the whole thing before hightailing it on down to Salisbury, visiting the great gothic cathedral there, which just happens to house the best copy of the four original versions of the Magna Carta, and then had a quick bite to eat, which was an unpleasant experience, before shooting on over to Brighton for an overnight visit with friends of my companion.

It was there that I met Kate, a woman who apparently is my British twin. We had one of those rare times where you meet someone and keep having to state, “Really? Me too!” We stood in the kitchen for at least an hour, drinking coffee and comparing personality traits, and then went upstairs to look at each other’s blogs and link them up. Once we were on our computers, we disappeared into our individual cyber realities and the world faded away without us.

John and I traveled back to London that day, stopping to admire Brighton’s Royal Pavillion, a late 19th century hybrid of highly ornate architecture and decorating styles in a modest palace built for one of the later King Georges. We got stuck on the circle motorway but still managed to get the car back a few minutes before it was due, avoiding a stiff fine.

Back in London in the warmth and friendship of John’s friends Pete and Kim and their lovely daughter Alexa, I set off to explore the town. The underground ‘tube’ is a great way to see the city, albeit expensive in comparison to other mass transits I’ve known. I saw the outside of Westminster Abbey, not wanting to brave the very long line, which is find because I remember it well from my teenage years, before they had lines. I listened to Big Ben, which really doesn’t sound like the electronic San Francisco version at all. Same melody, slightly different rhythm, and I was surprised to find that Big Ben is not as loud!

The next day, I took the trains out to Hampton Court, home of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Cardinal Wolsey and many others I’m glad I did, so grand and fantastic it was. Joining with the crying children, I got lost in the maze. That night with my hosts, I experienced the thrill of the fireworks along with a huge crowd that jammed into a local cricket field to watch in celebration of Guy Fawkes night. The fireworks went on for the better part of an hour. In many places in the UK this celebration is marked with a bonfire, allowing folks to rid their houses of unwanted girth. Not practical in London, fireworks are the replacement, and can be heard and seen for several nights preceding the actual event.

But one of the most amazing sights in England wasn’t even English. I saw them at the British Museum, thanks to the advice of my Aunt Margaret; the Terra Cotta Army, recently unearthed in X’ian, China, the companions of long buried 1st Emperer Qin, dating back to 200 year BC. The exhibit was structured in a way that showed all of the accoutrements of the era first, with the actual statues placed at the end of the exhibit. When I got there I was experiencing so much anticipation that I could not hold back tears.

Qin’s tomb is the unexplored component of the region now. But it is speculated that within his tomb, an entire mini relief of China exists, including the rivers, said to flow with mercury. But it is not likely to be known for quite some time, as excavating the site is forbidden. Perhaps with some future technology they can know without digging. Which is good, because if it is true that there are rivers of mercury underground, it could be quite a toxic adventure.

I stayed a final night at an overpriced airport hotel and boarded a plane. After 24 hours in transit, I arrived back in Mirik, India. Where a tea worker documentary was wanting to be born.

And that is where I am today.