Monday, September 28, 2009

Those Extra Pounds: The Real Story

A few weeks ago, I told the story of Moy Moy's mysterious weight gain. After some clever detective work, we decided it was due to her seizures finally getting under control and we gave full marks to Dr Sebastian for the transformation.

Moy Moy is still virtually seizure-free and Sebastian is still our hero but the weight gain, it turns out, has another source, and my sister Mary, Dr Anti-Cholesterol herself, will back me up on this one.

But first, as is usual with any story originating in India, a little background.

Let's just say we don't have supermarkets here. When we buy milk, for example, we don't go to the "Milk Aisle" of Stop and Shop and choose between skim, 1/2%, 1%, 2%, whole milk and half and half. Here we go to the corner shop, a rabbit warren full of sacks and boxes and the odd mouse scrabbling about in the background, and we say "Milk" and Mr Rana hands it over in five plastic pouches.

Every now and then, those plastic pouches get too offensive and I go back to the local dairyman who delivers to our doorstep. He vrooms up on his big black motorbike, with enormous milk cans strapped on both sides, and doles it out straight into the pan we will boil it in (for it is neither pasteurized nor homogenized) and there is a pleasure in the immediacy of the transaction.

However, there is also a fair amount of water added in and sometimes the milk cans don't look too clean and sometimes the milk has a funny smell and invariably I end up back at the corner shop for the plastic pouches.

Six months ago, even the pouch milk started to smell strange. Ravi and Vikram were convinced the dairy supplying it was adding caustic soda or potash (and in fact, right about that time, a "spurious milk factory" was raided in Agra where those very items were discovered). Just as it became simply unbearable to drink or even look at what we were buying every day, a new brand of milk hit the market.

It was more expensive than what we had been getting, but according to its advertising, it was processed by "European standards" and its quality was guaranteed. I decided to give it a try and found it was all it claimed to be and more. It was amazing.

It was also "Full Cream". That was obvious on the very first day. To the uninitiated, raw milk must be boiled before it is safe to drink. Boiling unhomogenized milk brings the cream to the top and the quality of the milk is gauged by how much cream rises. This particular brand was unbelievable. There was a full inch and a half of cream. We soon ran out of things we could do with it. We made butter and then we turned it into ghee, but there is a limit to how much of this stuff you can use.

Yet still we soldiered on. It took me SIX MONTHS to decide that this probably wasn't the best choice for our health and during those six months - at last! she gets to the point! - Moy Moy managed to gain her six pounds. Yessiree, six months, six pounds, just like Dr Mary has always said.

In food as in life, it's the little things that add up. We may think it's a small decision (full cream over low-fat, an extra glass of wine, the lift rather than the stairs, the justification over the truth), but six months down the road, the facts speak for themselves. And Moy Moy's extra weight doesn't just mean that neither her diapers nor her clothes fit anymore. It also means that we can no longer move her with ease, which means that we think twice and thrice about whether to move her at all.

Somehow, the fact that Moy Moy's size is totally in our hands makes this a much more serious dilemma. We believe so strongly in choice and in living with the consequences of our choices that when OUR choices determine something as personal as the size of pants another person wears we realize we are more connected than we thought we were.

Anyway, the amazing "European Standards" milk company added lowfat milk to their line a few weeks ago and we have made the switch. We expect that Moy Moy will slowly but surely taper back down to the thin girl we know and love and that all the size 6 Pampers we have been stockpiling will fit her once again.

In the meantime, we are working on our lifting muscles. Because Moy Moy, God bless her, has the right to go wherever she wants to.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Instructing the Ignorant

This morning while walking to the store, a young woman on a motorbike passed me, wobbling and weaving. I glanced up sharply and saw she had her head down and was TEXTING.

"Are you crazy?" I shouted at her back.

She turned her head, looking startled, called out "Sorry!" and continued along, utterly undisturbed.

The state of Utah has just passed the toughest anti-texting law in the United States. As a result of an accident in 2006 in which a 19 year old boy killed two people after losing control of his SUV while texting his girlfriend, a law was passed which carries a penalty of 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

On the story I heard on NPR, a teenage girl was interviewed who, giggling, admitted happily that she texted all the time while driving and that she really couldn't help it. She and her friends call it "Driving While Intexticated."

So I'm wondering how to get through to all those people who think it's funny. Because there are an awful lot of them, and I seem to meet at least two or three every day.

My brother-in-law Fabio has an answer. As a highly skilled carpenter who works on large building projects, Fabio is a safety maniac. There are few things which incense him more than people who don't respect the dangerous power of machines, particularly when they put other people's lives in jeopardy. If children are involved, he can be pretty dangerous himself.

One day he saw a very small child riding in the front seat of a car - no seatbelt, no car seat. Outraged and righteous, he walked up to the man at the wheel and vented. "Are you CRAZY?" he shouted. "Don't you care about your kid? Don't you realize he could be killed this way?"

"F*** you," the man replied, gunned his motor and pulled away, leaving Fabio in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes.

Not very effective, he thought to himself.

So the next time it happened (unfortunately, it doesn't take long), he tried a different approach. "Hey, man," he said, walking up to the guy in the driver's seat. "I got a $500 fine for not having my kid in a car seat just last week. Just thought I'd let you know."

"Hey, thanks a lot," the guy said. "They're pretty strict, hah?"

So thank goodness for the state of Utah and the institution of the law. Righteousness, reason and concern for the welfare of others are all very well, but when money talks, nobody walks. Or texts.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Romance on the Road

I've been telling this story for over three decades now and like all good stories, it just goes on gathering depth and new layers of meaning. Since today is the 33rd anniversary of its occurrence, it seems like a good time to tell it once again.

33 years ago. I was 18 and a wide-eyed peace movement activist. I had just dropped out of college to join a march for disarmament and social justice. We were walking 440 miles (from Boston to Washington, DC) and I, at least, was quite sure the world would never be the same. Certainly my world would never be, though I didn't realize that at the moment.

On September 21st, we had our usual morning meeting before beginning the day's hike. The organizers of our walk (the New York based War Resisters League), in addition to explaining the route and the plans for our reception in the evening, made an announcement and a request. The announcement was that another group, called Indians for Democracy, was also on a march (much less ambitious - theirs was from Philadelphia to New York, a mere 81 miles). Since our paths were likely to cross in the next few days, they wanted us to be aware of their program and their shared concerns. The request was for two volunteers who would be willing to go to Trenton, New Jersey where we were scheduled to arrive three days later, and help with organizing the reception and publicity events. I had a cold coming on and organizing seemed easier than walking, so I raised my hand.

The next day, September 22nd, 33 years ago today!, I was in a car (a Volkswagen Beetle) with one of the people from Trenton when I saw a small group of people approaching in the distance. As we got closer I could see they were carrying signs and walking in a line. "Stop the car!" I shouted to the driver. "Here come the Indians!"

We came to a screeching halt right in front of the group, which had just stopped walking and seemed to be having a heated discussion. Without pausing to think, I jumped out of the car and threw my arms around one of them. There were four men and one woman and I have no idea why I chose the one I did. Neither did he. He told me later his first reaction was consternation and dismay. As an Indian, he was not used to public displays of affection, and certainly not from a total stranger. To make matters worse, one of the others in the group was a much older man whom he regarded as a guru. "What must P K be thinking?" was what - he also told me later - was running through his mind. "Does he think I've been womanizing all this time I've been here in America?"

But the next thing he thought, all in split second formation, was "If someone is going to greet me so affectionately, who am I to hold back?" And he hugged me in return.

After this auspicious beginning, the rest was just detail.

Ravi, for it was he, invited me to attend a meeting they were holding that evening, which I agreed to do. After the meeting, he invited me to join his walk the next day, which was, providentially, a rest day for mine. I met them all the next morning at eight and walked with them for five miles, most of it spent talking with Ravi. As I turned to go back to my own group, he asked me for my address. I wrote it down in a tiny little spiral notebook he kept in his pocket (as he still does to this day!), we said goodbye and he carried on North, while I flagged a passing taxi who gave me a free ride five miles South.

And that, we both thought, was that. Just one more interesting event in our two interesting lives.

But no. There was more in store for us.

For two years, we had no contact whatsoever. I continued on to Washington where I was arrested for the first time; he continued on to New York, where he made his case for democracy in India to the press. I moved to a commune in Massachusetts and a full-time career as a social activist; he returned to New Jersey where he worked half-heartedly at his PhD in metallurgy while devoting his real energy to the struggle against the Emergency in India. How likely was it that our paths would cross again?

In 1978, there was a special session on disarmament at the United Nations. Mobilization for Survival organized a huge demonstration to mark the opening and I attended and was arrested once again. When I got out jail, there was a reporter (oddly enough, he was from India) from the New York Times waiting, and he wanted to interview a woman. I was the one selected, and the story appeared on the front page of the next day's paper.

Ravi happened to read the story. The name sounded familiar to him. He got out his little spiral notebook (nver throw anything away!), found my address and sent me a letter. I replied. Within weeks, we were both hooked. I will never forget receiving his 3rd note - a postcard, with an orange border. As I read it, I said to myself, stunned, "I'm going to end up marrying this guy."

On September 22nd, 1978, two years to the day of our first meeting, Ravi came to meet me again, this time in Fall River, where I was then living with my parents. Two days later, we were engaged to be married. Today, 33 years, 3 children and 2 mini-Empires later, it is still our favorite story in the world, for all its unlikeliness and romance and impulse, for all that it says about faith and leaps and certainty and for all that has come true because we believed in a force greater than ourselves.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bucket Baths

There is a scene in my favorite American television series (West Wing) in which two characters are shown going through their normal morning routines. The point of the juxtaposition is to illustrate how Donna (a lowly White House assistant)  is much more organized and together than her former boss, Josh (a high-powered Deputy Chief of Staff). Donna has everything down to a science while Josh oversleeps, then spills the coffee, can't find his shoes, etc. I love Donna, and in general, I would root for her over Josh, but in this particular scene I can hardly sit still.

Here's what she does: since every second counts in her busy morning, she walks into the bathroom and turns on the shower. Ever efficient, while the water is running, she turns on her mini coffee percolator, fixes her toothbrush, turns on the tap in the sink and starts brushing her teeth. Two separate taps are on now, yet she hears something on the television and goes out to the bedroom to listen, leaving the faucets running.

I can't watch this. I fast forward it. 

For most of the time we have lived in India (almost 29 years now), we have not had a shower. 

Hmmm. That sounds pretty bad. 

What I mean is that our bathrooms, in most of our rented houses, did not have showers. So we took "bucket baths." You fill the bucket with water and ladle it out over yourself one cup at a time.

Now we are in our own home and we do have showers, but lately, we have reverted to the old bucket system in an attempt to save water. There is an excellent article from Orion Magazine called "Taking Shorter Showers Doesn't Cut It: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change" and I agree with what it says. It's true that my little gesture is just that - a gesture. Taken to an extreme, it could even contribute to the problem by getting me, and millions of others like me, to believe that personal enlightenment is a substitute for political action. 
And in fact, that is exactly what representatives of corporations and agribusiness have been pushing for years. At one level, taking a bucket bath is no different from finishing what's on your plate because children are starving in India. It is agriculture and industry that use 90% of our water, not individuals, and the child who dutifully cleans his plate is probably obese and about to have an ice cream cone for dessert - not much help to the hungry kid in Rajasthan.

But at another level, the bucket bath keeps the problem of water scarcity front and center in my awareness. As a metaphor for waste, the shower works pretty well: turn it on and let it run while the hot water gets to the temperature you like. Add some cold, then fiddle again with the hot. Finally, having sent several liters down the drain, get in and take your leisurely time, enjoying the warmth and the pressure and staying a lot longer than is strictly necessary for cleanliness (because you're worth it). 

I've been down this road many times and it always makes me feel ensconced and well-off, at one with the world and the cosmos, content and optimistic. Especially when the bathroom is shiny, the shampoo and soap smell delicious and the towels are plush and "thirsty", whose thoughts would turn to scarcity and drought?

A bucket bath alters the equation. First of all, you know how much water you have to use. Oh, you can always add more if you have misjudged, but that's an effort. And besides, we are programmed to manage within what is given (how many of us eat more than two slices of toast for breakfast? Why is two the magic number? Because it is.). 

Second, you are an active participant in the process. You aren't just standing there letting the water stream over you. You have to bend down, ladle the water, stand up, pour it, put the mug down, use the soap, put that down, ladle the water, etc. etc. It's not difficult, but it requires attention. You are connected physically to the water going down the drain. You are aware that each time you fill the mug, there is less in the bucket. You can't delude yourself into believing there is an endless supply and that you are entitled to all of it.

And third, unless you actually do go on filling and re-filling that bucket (which you won't do because it's too chilly to stand there and wait while it fills), you use a lot less water. You realize that less is possible. That realization seeps into your consciousness and affects other parts of your life. You change.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Autism: The Musical

Watch this movie. You can buy it secondhand on amazon and believe me, it is worth it if only to hear the painful and poignant words of a boy named Wyatt (that's him with his arms crossed in the photo).

Wyatt and the four other kids pictured here are part of a troupe of children with autism who were recruited to be part of one woman's inspired idea: Elaine Hall dreamed of a musical production in which kids with autism would find their own unique voices to come together as an ensemble. 

It's an amazing movie. A group of us got together in the Resource Centre to watch it today and many of us were in tears at many points in the screening. The kids were adorable and funny and fully themselves - no doubt - but their bravery and sadness and desperate longing to be accepted, to have friends, was so heart-wrenching I cannot think of the movie without starting to cry again. 

Little Wyatt, a highly intelligent boy with a remarkable sense of humor and an uncanny ability to find precisely the right words to convey his thoughts and emotions, is, for me, a prophet for our times. There is a scene in which he is pictured sitting on a swing and talking about other kids with autism who "go into their own worlds".  

He can't understand why they do that. He keeps wondering out loud why they do and suddenly, he ducks his head and wonders why he does it.  And then the truth tumbles out: about how the other kids bully him and how he loves being with other people and how he wants to be able to talk to them and be friends and yet he doesn't have any. And so he goes into his own world. "Sometimes I have no one to talk to. Like let's say I'm outside by myself, I have no one to talk to, so I just have to go into my own world. I just love having someone with me, but sometimes that just doesn't happen. You can have play-dates, you can have sleep-overs. that's different. I'm talking about being with somebody. I'm talking about a friend."

Isn't that how we all are? We look at other people and wonder why they act the way they do and suddenly we realize they are acting just like us.

Disability is a mirror. Look into it and understand that you aren't perfect and you never will be. Then reach out to those who can't hide it as well as you do.

That's all there is to say.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wasting Time

For the past two weeks, I have spent a good part of each day trying to disentangle the Foundation from two bureaucratic messes.

The first involved a visa application for one of our staff who has been selected for admission to a prestigious course in London but had her visa denied.

The second has to do with an enormous customs duty levied on a box of speech therapy software and equipment which was donated to us by a volunteer who has arrived her herself from the UK to train our staff in how to use the programs. The only "duty free" software allowed in is that specifically designed for the blind and the deaf - the law can be read rigidly and the customs officer chose to interpret it as such.

Both issues were time-bound (the course starts on the 27th of this month; our volunteer is only here for eight weeks), hence the urgency and the need for me to devote the better part of each morning to their pursuit.

Well, I have given up on the first. The visa has been denied, but the man in the Embassy has promised to re-consider the case once the institution where the course is being held gets its accreditation (this is all to do with post 9/11 suspicion and fear and the need for Western countries to "protect" themselves against potential terrorists).

The second rages on. The details are too boring to go into here, but what struck me very forcibly one afternoon last week was what a total and utter waste of time such hassles are and yet how easy it is to get pulled into them, as into a vortex, and begin to forget the nonsense of the first principle in the excitement of the chase.

That afternoon, after having spent the whole morning on the phone and fielding emails, I felt thrilled with myself. WOW, I said, pleased, I got so much done today! I managed to get through to three PAs to important people, actually got one of those important people on the phone, received emails from seven friends who had promising leads, wrote three official letters and a case for support. A good day's work.

Except, I suddenly realized with a thud, I shouldn't have had to do it in the first place. The good day's work, the real work, was actually for our staff member to do when she went on the course or for the speech therapist to do when the software arrived and she used it to train the teachers in how to use it with the kids.

I thought about these experiences, oddly, when reading a review of the new movie "The Hurt Locker", an Iraq combat film which focuses on the work of a three-man bomb squad. I hate both violence and suspense in movies and I have no plans to see this one, but over and over, just in reading the review, I was struck by the amount of time and effort that must go into being in a bomb squad, time and effort naturally resulting in soaring exaltation when things go right, as if defusing bombs is a worthy calling, something deserving of our attention and care, enough to do as a life's work.

The work that suspicion and mistrust creates spins gloriously off on its own axis, creating a whole new kind of employment - whether on the front lines, where the bomb de-fusers are, or back in the safer non-combat zones like the customs office or the embassies. All the related employment has to be counted too - people like me, spending hours and days trying to figure a way around the roadblock the suspicion has created.

At least for me, though, it's a diversion and a nuisance. I worry about those people who do nothing but this, who spend all their working hours judging and labeling, who see every person with a cell phone as a potential terrorist about to set off a bomb, who see every visa applicant as at best a possible refugee and wanna-be, and at worst, again, a potential terrorist and who see every customs exemption request as a fraud and a tax evasion.

It's a wicked world and we do well to be "as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves". The serpents bit a lot of people seem to have gotten down perfectly. But where are the doves?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Breakfast of Champion (One, AKA Me)

Little did I know when I posted that last uplifting piece about the rights of domestic workers that I would so soon be forced to prove myself.

This morning, Padma called in sick. Yesterday was her day off, so that's two in a row (Hmmm: Maybe I should fire her. Hire someone else before she returns!). 

Anyway, so much for a relaxed Sunday. 

I got up and trudged into the kitchen to organize breakfast. And this post is about that meal. Because, believe it or not, I had walked over a MILE by the time that little interlude at the table was over, just in going back and forth between the table and the kitchen (around twenty steps, but believe me, they add up), bringing the things I forgot.

Here's the menu. See how many things you can remember just reading through once.

Lassi for Masiji, a half glass, no salt, no sugar.
Lassi for Ravi, sugar.
Tea for Mummy, Indian style, with cardamon and not too sweet.
Coffee for Dad, with hot milk.
Coffee for me, cold milk.
Water for Mummy, room temp.
Water for me and Dad, cold.
Ensure for Moy Moy, warm
Toast for Masiji and Mummy, barely warmed in the toaster (too browned and their teeth can't handle it)
Toast for Dad, Ravi and me,  well-browned.
Tomatoes for Ravi, sliced
Tomatoes for me, chopped
Apples, peeled and chopped small, except for Mummy who takes them grated.
Other things needed on the table:
Black pepper
Peanut butter
Margarine (butter crisis continues!)
Meds for Moy Moy
Meds for Dad
Meds for Mummy

If you are wondering where Ravi was during all this to-ing and fro-ing, let me assure you, so was I.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Space We Occupy

Moy Moy has always been a thin person. A few times when she was ill, she virtually stopped eating - it seemed she just didn't have the energy to open her mouth, chew and swallow. Twice we had to resort to a naso-gastric feeding tube; the third time, when it was clear that swallowing had become too difficult for her to manage reliably and that choking was now a present danger, we had a permanent tube placed right into her tummy and the slow switch-over from real food to formula began.

One of the immediate side-effects of this decision for us was that we relaxed. We were no longer constantly worrying that she wasn't getting enough to eat. Before, mealtimes were a constant struggle: she was hungry and she wanted to eat but every third bite would set off paroxysms of coughing. Our doctor reckoned she used up most of the calories she took in by the very process of taking them in. 

With the tube in place, we realized how many of our calories had been used up in the process too. The relief was palpable. Meals became social occasions again with Moy joining us at the table as she always had, only that now she was full and happy.

Before the tube went in, Moy, at 15, had dropped to a frightening 23 kilos (around 50 pounds). Her arms were so thin I could encircle them with my thumb and middle finger. Her hip bones jutted out so sharply you could get hurt if you accidentally bumped into them. But within three months of tube feeding, her weight increased by 12 kilos (26 pounds!). 

An increase like that takes some getting used to. Although at 76 pounds, she still seemed very thin to people meeting her for the first time, to us, she appeared plump and almost roly-poly. None of her clothes fit her anymore! It took two of us to get her into her stroller!

But gradually, we got used to the new look. We even agreed that she was, in fact, still thin. Because her intake was the same each day, once the sharp rise was over, she plateaued at that 76 pounds and stayed there resolutely for almost four years.  We were convinced she would never change.

But a few months ago, we realized she had again put on more weight.  It was Cathleen who pointed it out - home for a few weeks this summer and seeing Moy after a year, she was struck by a difference that we, with her every day, hadn't even noticed.

A mystery! How could she have gained weight when both her activity level and her intake was exactly the same (no midnight snacks for Moy Moy!)?

We finally figured it out: over the last year, Moy's doctor, Sebastian, has been methodically and patiently experimenting with her anti-convulsant medications. By little and by little, he has played with the dosage and with the schedule, increasing one, decreasing another,  all the while keeping careful records of how she was responding to the changes. And one day, to our astonishment, we realized she had gone a full two days without a single seizure. Two days became a  week and a week became a month. 

And, it turns out, seizures, like coughing and choking during meals, take energy. They use up calories. Moy Moy often had five or six seizures in one day. No wonder she was bone thin. No wonder she was tired and listless. 

Now that her seizures are mostly under control, she is a new girl. She has gained four more kilos. Her skin glows. Her hair shines. She is more alert. (Dr Sebastian: go to the head of the class.)

But still I wonder about the space that we occupy. This young woman, who, even now, takes up a fraction of the space that most of us consider our right, who weighs 39 kilos and consumes a tiny amount of food and water to keep those kilos intact, has, against all odds, made a difference in this world - a difference which is far beyond her size, her earning power or her value to the market economy. 

She's made her mark. What about the rest of us? Maybe it's just tonight, but I see it somehow in terms of space taken. My being here, in this space, means that someone else is not. Am I worth it? Am I pulling my weight? Am I playing my part? Am I doing enough? 

Friday, September 11, 2009

Domestic Help

India's upper and middle class homes (mine included) keep running because of the efforts of domestic workers. 

On the days when they do not show up, our lives come to a screeching halt. We seem to spend the entire day in the kitchen - and when we emerge, it is only to wash clothes or sweep the floors. There are no dishwashers and very few vacuum cleaners in India (though you know I now have one - after 28 years here!). Although most of my friends have washing machines, I don't know anyone who has a dryer. Convenience foods are rare, but in homes like mine, where elderly people abound, regular meals are still expected three times a day: parathas, lassi, fruit and porridge in the morning; dal, subzi, dahi and roti at lunch and dinner.

We depend upon domestic workers to keep us from being slaves to the house. Without them, we would be run ragged: forced to rise at 4:30 or 5 just to accomplish the day's tasks before going off to our "real" jobs outside the home. Many of us would have to give up those outside jobs without them - elderly people and small children can't be left alone at home, just for starters. Life would be come a drudgery, in which we would drag through the day keeping just one step ahead of impending chaos. 

So we depend upon them. Most of us, however, don't want to pay them in proportion to their meaning in our lives. We can't function without them, yet we are willing to pay more for an evening out at a fancy restaurant than we do for their monthly salary; more for a trip to the hairdresser, more for a new outfit. It actually makes no sense at all.

Except for the fact that they allow us to do it.

I spent all day today at Astitva, a women's organization for which I am on the Governing Body. One of their projects is with Domestic Workers and after hearing about it in theory from the case worker who runs it, we were invited to go out to the field to see for ourselves first-hand who these women are and what stories they had to share. 

The area is called Deep Nagar and Astitva has been working there for a year now. The women who were assembled to meet us were an interesting collection - some hard-bitten, tough and cynical; others just arrived from other states, still unsure of the way things work here and held in some contempt by the old hands.                                 
The new women, desperate for work, are willing to take jobs at throw-away rates while those who have been in business for years won't settle for anything less than the price they have agreed is fair.

But in fact, neither rate makes sense - even the tough cookies are selling themselves too cheap. The upper classes cannot do without the services these women have to offer, yet the buyer is calling the shots. 

What I like about Astitva's approach is that they are not only inculcating a sense of worth and self-esteem and an awareness of their right to a fair wage among these women- they are also helping them to start thinking and acting like professionals. Simple things like negotiating a contract before agreeing to take a job - asking about days off, the exact nature of the job and the pay to be expected if extra work is requested . . . for many women, before Astitva, such basic clarifications seemed like too much to ask.

Without such an approach, the results are predictable: exploitation, plain and simple. At the meeting I attended, one woman told how her employer had withheld her entire month's wages because on the last day of the month, she had broken a glass. Another related how she could never take a day off as her due - she always had to beg for it and then listen to the employer's resentful complaining. Yet another shared how when she had missed two days work because her daughter was sick, she returned to find that another woman had been hired in her place.

Listening to their stories, however, the Astitva team did not just murmur sympathetically or start trashing the employers. "Did you offer to pay for the glass?" "Did you discuss days off before taking the job?" "Did you call to say you couldn't come in and explain why?" For women used to seeing themselves as victims, this is a new approach. 

I know a few "Cleaning Ladies" in the US. They are proud professionals and they only take the jobs that suit them. They charge by the hour and they demand what they deserve. They have set days and they arrive precisely on-time. They bring their own cleaning supplies and sell them to their clients. When they arrive, the families they work for disappear, so as not to disturb them while they work. They are impeccably honest. They drive their own cars.

The best part? Many of their clients - my sister and sister-in-law among them - "pre-clean" their houses the day before they arrive because they don't want to be seen as sloppy or dirty to the cleaning lady. 

It didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen without a lot of work, particularly by cleaning ladies themselves. But it happened. It can happen again.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Austerity Practice

Here in India we are accustomed to things not being available. Suddenly, and often inexplicably, stocks of a certain item run out and are not replenished. Sometimes it's a non-essential - like a particular kind of toothpaste or brand of soap; but sometimes it's something you have a hard time imagining life without: sugar, or whole wheat flour or, as has happened this week: butter.

I am ashamed of the importance of butter to my happiness, but it's a fact. I often give it up for Lent and those forty days lack the normal sparkle I like to think my life contains. I don't look forward to breakfast as I usually do, I can't make cakes or pies, chapatties are dry and white-sauce based soups are out. But during Lent it's bearable because the end is in sight. I can count off the days. And besides, it's making me a better person. It's helping me to become less attached.

Or is it?

We are now in a time where all that practice I was supposedly getting in detachment  (let's see, I am 51, the age of reason is 7, so I have been following Lenten observances for 44 years now) would come in handy. Because I don't think this particular butter shortage is going to go away.

Over a year ago, a similar crisis hit Japan. An acute butter shortage affecting bakeries, restaurants and individual families across the country was seen in retrospect as the result of the global agricultural commodities crisis. Nothing is local anymore - countries don't get to exist in their own little cocoons. What affects one affects us all.

Here's one version of how it played out: the price of imported cattle feed in Japan went through the roof and imports of milk declined - mostly because of drought conditions in Australia. Japanese dairy farmers couldn't feed their own cattle enough to produce nor could they afford or even get adequate supplies from abroad. So butter production declined sharply.

And that was just butter, in Japan. Last year.

This year, it's all come home. Amul, the country's largest producer of butter typically supplies 250 to 300 tonnes of butter to the city of Kolkata every month. Last month, Kolkata got only 30 tonnes. Wheat prices have gone up by 130%. Dal (lentils), the primary source of protein for India's millions of vegetarians, are now virtually unaffordable even for middle-class people with double incomes. The government admits it only has enough sugar for the next two months.

That all this is the result of global climate change is undeniable. Food riots have broken out in countries like Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Burkina Faso and here in India, protesters burned hundreds of ration shops in West Bengal, angered by the conviction that their owners were selling the government-subsidized food on the black market. To be fretting about butter, a luxury item if ever there was one, is indefensible.

For most of the world's people, these hard times are nothing new. For the rest of us, it's time to confront reality and to realize that we have a great deal to learn from those who do not waste, who do not indulge and who do not expect to find butter on their table at breakfast tomorrow morning.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Not Even A Female Finch

My friend, and speech therapist extraordinaire, Anne Bruce came by this morning for a cup of coffee. She is a keen birder and enjoys sitting on her verandah early in the morning with a cup of tea and her binoculars, seeing what she can see. She was telling me about some of the birds she has spotted and something about the tone of her voice or the enthusiasm she has for the subject reminded me of my Mom. She was also passionately fond of birds and had feeders outside our kitchen window and sacks of seed in our broom closet and piles of guides in our library.

With seven children and three grandparents to look after, she didn't get many opportunities to sit on the verandah but she made the most of whatever chances she did have. When we were small, she discovered that our mailman was also a bird-watcher. Every morning when he would deliver the post, they would trade stories of what they had seen recently and we children, I suppose, took in the mysterious names they discussed without even realizing it.

One day Mary, age four and very unhappy, complained bitterly to Mom about her lot in life: "Nobody loves me," she said tearfully. "Not even a female finch."

A Walk in the Dark

Here in India you take your pick: morning or evening? If you want to exercise at all, these are your two options. During the day, it's just too hot and too bright. Plus people look at you as if you are crazy. I am not a morning person, so that leaves evening. But my evenings are a little busy.

I get home from work at around six, hang out with Dad and Moy Moy for a while, and then get started on dinner. We eat at eight, I put Moy Moy to bed by 8:45 and it's usually nine before I can start thinking of putting on my sneakers and heading out the door. 

I try and avoid the steely glares from Ravi and Masiji who think I am reckless and foolhardy going out alone so late at night. They don't understand. It's not just that I have to do my 10,000 steps each day. There is also something about being out in those streets alone that rounds my day to a perfect close, that allows me to sort and sift through everything that has happened - small and large, important and trivial - and put them in order. 

It just doesn't happen during the day. There are too many other things that intrude - phone calls and visitors and emails and text messages, of course, but also the sights and sounds of everybody else's lives. Interesting, no doubt, but also distracting and even disorienting.

At night,the streets are almost silent (nothing is ever totally silent in India). There are occasionally other walkers (always men, and they glance at me curiously as I stride by), forgotten cows resigned to a night on their own, and dogs by the dozen - it is impossible for anyone brought up in the West to imagine how many dogs roam free on Indian streets. But at night, they are all just background. They are shadow figures who have their own agendas and who do not interfere with mine. 

I do my writing in my head. I conduct arguments. I say my prayers. I find reasons and explanations and excuses and memories. Old jokes surface, lines to songs I had forgotten return. Every now and then, under a street light, I check my step counter. 

At 9200, I turn towards home. The lights are usually all off when I get there - just the one over the door will be on - and I let myself into the dark, quiet house, glad to go on in the silence, grateful for another day, grateful for my feet, for my shoes, for these streets I get to walk while my family and my neighbors sleep.