University of Wollongong student Casey Madigan volunteered in India with the 40K Foundation, an organisation that makes a difference for children living in poverty.
We walk out from the gates of the Oberoi, a palace in the middle of Bangalore city, and jump into the autorickshaw of the unrelenting driver who thinks he has found a good deal in us visitors. Little does he know that we have been living here for a month now and not only do we know a rip-off when we hear one but I’m almost clean out of rupees.
We agree on a fair price, much to his disappointment, and set off back to the hotel to say our Indian goodbyes to those heading back home. Only a few hundred metres down from the haven for the privileged, I see a group of tired-looking men, with their simple lives set up on the side of the road. One of them has no legs. He is fixed on a thin sheet of wood with makeshift wheels attached to the bottom, wheeling himself dangerously across the road. I can see the men looking into our rickshaw as we stop at the lights. But I turn away, I can’t look anymore. I sit guilty and uncomfortable knowing that I had just treated myself to a decadent four plates of food at the five-star brunch, only metres away.
That cruel contrast that I had read so much about is clear in my mind now. That ridiculous gap between the rich and the poor is a reality. And it’s hard to swallow.
I am grateful for that experience. The food was lovely and so was the company. I was treated like royalty – receiving bows, glass upon glass of sparkling wine and a new, shiny plate for each visit back to the starters table. But I am most grateful to realise that the ‘Oberoi’ life is not the life for me. If the man outside, struggling to get from one side of the road to the other, can’t have a classy weekend brunch, for no other reason but geographical placing and bad luck, then why should I? That day I was reminded once again why I came to India.
There is no denying that India is rapidly advancing in global economies: it holds a seat at the G20, it is now the eighth biggest economy in the world; and it has established its own international aid budget for other developing countries. But for a nation that prides itself on its growth figures, to the point of rejecting Britain’s aid last year, comparing the nine figure sum to ‘peanuts’, why is there still roughly a quarter of the world’s poor living in India?
Economist Arvind Virmani, believes that “bad governance, misplaced priorities and unchecked corruption are to blame”.
He is right. Let’s play the blame game because the fact is that India does have the economic capacity to help its own, but for complex reasons like Virmani suggests, those who need help simply don’t get it.
The majority of these people live outside the cities, in rural villages, far from the sparkle of the Oberoi’s chandeliers. Home, instead, to smouldering mountains of garbage, exhausted and underweight looking men and hole-in-the-wall kitchens for a 20Rupee bite to eat (less than 50¢).
Deepa, 23 years old, lives this life of struggle in the granite quarries of Marenahalli. She has been working in the quarries today, breaking rock, like the rest of the men and a few women in the village. But she has come home to prepare lunch, catch up on the washing and ‘rest’ before she gives birth to her third child under five years old. She would not live anywhere else, 14-year-old Baghya translates. Her family is here and her mother and father live only a few thatched huts away.
But, she’d like a bigger house, she says. Her 2x3-metre home is too small for her growing family. And she’d like to spend more time with her husband who works six days a week, twelve hours a day. And she’d like to visit her childhood home and relatives back in Tamil Nadu. And she’d like to end her family’s struggle. She explained this as she stood hunched over the washing stone, thrashing the clothes against the rock.
Deepa knows that education is the answer. It is too late for her and her husband but not for her children. She understands that education can free her family from a life dictated by a hammer and a chisel.
It is on this very premise that the 40K Foundation was created and continues to thrive. Passionate about the power of education to break the monotony of the poverty cycle, the 40K Foundation now has 10 centres set up in the villages of Bangalore – enrolling over 300children from government schools and employing local females, mothers or young graduates, as teachers. A centre is called a ‘Plus Pod’ and a ‘Plus Pod’ hosts after school education, from 4pm-6pm, aimed to bridge the gap between the quality of private education and that of government-funded education, where the biggest incentive to attend is a free meal at lunch.
It was here that I and 17 other 40K Globers from the University of Wollongong, University of Technology and Macquarie University volunteered for the month of January. Backs were aching, voices were breaking and jaws were shaking after our very first lesson of piggy backs, sing-alongs and big smiles. And for the most part, it stayed that way. There were days we left the Pod fist pumping the air, “best lesson, they smashed that song”. Other days we left frustrated and exhausted, “the kids don’t listen, Rakshitha is the naughtiest child in India and Honnappa is way too smart for his own good”. Teachers have my full respect. But in the end it was rewarding and our smiles only grew bigger when our children performed six dances from around the world in front of their parents, screaming at the highest imaginable pitch, “WE ...LIKE ...TO ...DANCE!”
Our facilitator, Kavita, would put her hands to her ears, laugh and shake her head.
For Monique Beaver, psychology major at UOW, it is her Plus kids that she is missing the most as she plans her next trip back to the country. “I’m hoping to go back within the next year and I never thought I’d be saying that”.
Coming from a tight-knit family in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, Monique could not even imagine being away from her loved-ones for five weeks.
“It hit me when I was packing to leave in January. I hadn’t ever been away from my family for as long as a month and I thought that would be my biggest challenge. But I said this would be the year to challenge myself and I think a month in India with complete strangers fits the bill”.
But Monique ended up learning more than she bargained for, finding out just as much about India and its colourful culture as she did about herself. In the first week of our trip, our work was left at a standstill when one of our much loved and hard working teammates, Maddy, was involved in an accident, hit from behind by a motorcycle.
It was the afternoon of Election Day, an important occasion in the villages, especially for the men. In India, Election Day is less about the politics than it is about pride – so whatever the verdict, alcohol is involved: to wash away the pain of losing or to aid the celebrations long into the night. So it was no surprise to find out that the two men who caused the accident were drinking that day. They were the sons of the losing party’s representative.
She broke her jaw, foot and four front teeth, and her skin was lacerated all over. She was found unconscious by the four Globers with her that day, including Monique, and they were absolute champions, performing CPR, talking to Maddy until help arrived and controlling the crowd of around 100-200 villagers, each of them fighting for a spot in the scene.
“Illa”, they would scream, as the crowd gathered and intensified. The one word of Kannada learnt in the first week had become the only word necessary: “no”.
It was thrilling for the people of the village. There was an accident involving a young white woman and it was probably the first and hopefully the last they would see. But more so, it was distressing – a visitor to their country, to their home, was seriously wounded by one of their own – they were deeply disappointed and felt a sense of responsibility to fix what they had done.
This meant that Maddy took priority; actually she became the only priority that afternoon. It was humbling but upsetting to know that the other two, injured and unconscious, were pulled to the side of the road and brushed onto the cement – regardless of whose fault it was. Apparently road accidents in India (involving Indians) aren’t that big of a deal. But dignity is. And so it was another blow to the pride of the losing party that day. Not only had they lost the election, they had humiliated the village and brought shame to their family.
In the days to come, the team was down and anxious – down on the project and about Maddy’s health, and anxious about living in India for another three and a half weeks. It was easy to blame India though, to blame the roads, the traffic, the lack of rules, the crowds, the dust, the carelessness, the impatience.
But we were soon reminded that India was not a land of disaster and chaos, it was a place capable of a mass display of compassion, generosity and humility – the very concept that Maddy was discussing the night before her accident.
Up until our very last day in the villages, three weeks on, the beautiful people of Marenahalli and surrounding areas would invite us in for chai, ask about the accident and how Maddy is going. “Miss, hospital, girl, ok?”
“Yes, she is ok, back in Australia now with her family”, we smile and thank them for asking.
And she is ok. She is recovering very quickly. She’ll be back to India, this will not stop her. And next time around, she will have her time.
Monique was wrong when she thought being away from home would be her biggest challenge. For days, weeks, after the accident she struggled coming to terms with what had happened.
“Bouncing back from the mental trauma of the accident was my biggest hurdle”, she says.
“An accident like that, especially involving a friend, is something that no one ever expects to witness or act upon.”
On the last few days of the trip, Monique realised that she is alot stronger and far more capable than she originally gave herself credit. She left India proud of her efforts and her new-found strength.
“To love being outside my comfort zone and my nice, little home bubble for so long and coping as well as I did has been a real eye opener for me. I’m at a point where I want to be back there right now. I miss the simplicity amidst the chaos, living and working in a country where everyday turned out to be completely different, new and exciting”.
For Eve-Sorelle Bailey, medical student at UOW, working within such a big team and accommodating opinions was her biggest challenge.
Before leaving India, we were given a project to complete – an impact project. For the girls, it was ‘Roka’, an idea forged by former Globers last July, making necklaces using the dust at the granite quarries and employing the women of the quarries to make the necklaces for sale back in Australia. The hope is that the sales from Roka can fund the running costs of the Plus Pods, so that the Pods can eventually run without such a heavy reliance on philanthropy.
It was all hands on deck with the team divided up to tackle design, packaging and research into the health and legal implications of Roka production. UTS is our number one potential customer, interested in the purchase of 3000Roka necklaces, which means funding for an entire Plus Pod for at least two years.
We would spend our days from the moment we woke until 3.30pm, just in time for our Plus lesson, running around Bangalore, sourcing materials, seeking quotes from confused Indian businessmen and asking helplessly for directions.
“Thirteen girls and a whole lot of passion can make for stressful times. But it’s also something that I miss the most. The amazing friendships made along the way have been worth all the stress and the occasional bicker. In the end, we were all there to do the same thing; it was just a matter of reminding ourselves. And I realised that I have more patience than I thought I did,” Eve says.
But it was the three-day quarry stay that will remain with Eve for the rest of her life: “absolutely, my favourite and most memorable experience of the trip”, she comments.
We stayed in leaf-thatched huts with cement floors, no light, running water, electricity or sanitation facilities, with the families who live and work in the quarries.
“The inclusive, open and warm sense of community is like no other I have felt. Their generosity is raw and untainted. They give everything they have to make you happy, for no other reason but to see you smile. No hidden agendas like we see in our society, just pure kindness. Here, what they have, we lack.
“The women dressed all twelve of us girls in their very best saris, tugging, pulling and spinning us around like dolls, in a room filled with chaos, colour and laughter. It was hilarious. And a night I’ll never forget,” Eve says.
It was at the quarry stay where I met a beautiful family who I would go back to visit a further three times in my last week, where they fed me dosa upon dosa to the point where I could nearly roll my way back to the village.
Their names were Ashwini, Subishwini and Dinesh and the Mother’s name is Palini. The father’s name I am unsure of as he was always working late in the quarries.
On my last visit, it was the birthday of the eldest daughter, Ashwini. We celebrated with cake, loads of fruit and the best lemon rice in India. For the first time in all my visits, Palini joined us as we ate, foregoing her usual insistence to stay in the kitchen. She held my hand tightly as she sat down next to me, laughing at her youngest trying to take pictures on my camera. I wanted her to know that I appreciated her hospitality, her home and her beautiful, intelligent children. And she wanted me to know that she appreciated my visits. We were communicating, without language.
I left looking as Indian as possible, courtesy of the girls, with a bindi stuck to my forehead, small flowers threaded through plaited hair and wearing the new Indian outfit that I had bought during my souvenir shop that day. It was very sad to say goodbye. Palini hugged me tightly and cried on my shoulder. I still think about those goodbyes and what they meant for Palini. Maybe my visits meant more to Palini and her family than I knew? Maybe she is lonely? Maybe no one had ever shown so much attention to her family before? But maybe I’m wrong altogether, maybe she was just sad to see me leave.
I think about them every day.