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The Importance of Chai [notes from the field]

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Before we venture a few thousand miles over the ocean, I will bring you a brief recap: My name is Emily, I am an art teacher who, after graduating from college, chose to spend the majority of two years in Asia. The later half of this adventure found yours truly volunteering at a Dalit Rights NGO based in New Delhi, India as part of the American Jewish World Service Volunteer Corps. The following was written shortly after a series of field meetings with Dalit communities and activists in Uttar Pradesh and Harayana.

The Importance of Chai photo

3/2012: I drank eight cups of tea today.
I’m lying in a bed, not mine, in a home in Panipat, Harayana. I’m warm beneath my blanket and listening to nothing, a rare moment of near silence in the crazy, chaotic, supercharged world that is India. There are no physical distractions, but my brain doesn’t want to turn off. It’s buzzing with the homes and faces and stories of the last few hours. And I drank eight cups of tea.

As I sit and think about those little cups of sweet deliciousness, I find it hard not to reflect on my one time favorite book, Three Cups of Tea. Regardless of recent allegations of inaccuracy, exaggeration, and mismanagement, I feel Greg Mortenson was on to something when he described the importance of tea in Pakistan. Similarly, it seems the mechanics of friendship and business and everyday life in India are fueled on chai. We drink chai in the morning at home and again at work. There are chai breaks in meetings and chai before bed and chai whenever you feel like it in between. If you are invited into someone’s home or office, there will more often than not be an offer (that you would never dream of refusing) of a sweet and steaming cup. I like to think (perhaps I am correct in my assumptions) that any important conversation happening in India, is happening over chai.

As part of my work here on the Subcontinent, in an effort to better understand the realities faced by Dalit individuals, I have had the opportunity to go into the field and meet Dalit people in a variety of communities, as well as the individual activists and advocates working at the grassroots level. After a workshop in Lucknow, and on a more recent trip to Panipat, I attended a monthly meeting of a Women’s Domestic Workers Union and met legal advocates who take cases of atrocities against Dalit’s to the local district court pro-bono. I’ve also met volunteer tutors and Dalit children who study at night, having been forced to abandon their standard course of education. Due to the close connections and relationships formed by representatives of my NGO, I’ve been welcomed into people’s homes to hear their stories and into community meetings to discuss issues and solutions at the local level. And in all of these districts, in all of these homes, over many cups of chai, I’ve sat and watched and listened.

Late in the evening, I listened to women from a village outside Panipat, who work as manual scavengers (cleaning human waste from upper caste homes) for little pay in order to provide for their children’s basic needs and education. Many shared how at the end of the day, after their struggle to send their children to school, teachers in the local schools (illegally) practice untouchability, refuse to teach their children, and demand additional books and resources be supplied from home. The women, some of whom also deal with abusive relationships and alcoholism at home, want to know why their girls should go to school if it is not to be taught, and how they can possibly provide for their family and themselves if they refuse to work as manual scavengers. And I don’t have the answer. The government has promised ration cards for basic needs and scholarships for their children, but the people of Gronda (as is the case for so many) have not seen these promises fulfilled.

Earlier, I met a group of women, men and children, in a Refinery District. They were domestic workers 'employed' by upper caste (or ‘general category’) families working at the refinery. The GC families are provided homes in the district and their children attend school for 50% tuition; they are also allowed to hire a domestic worker, whose salary will be paid by the refinery. This worker, essentially a servant, is provided a small concrete room on the backside of the property to share with his or her family. According to the government, these workers should receive 3000-4000 Rupees per month (60-80 USD) for basic cleaning and housework with any additional work earning them extra pay. In reality, many of these workers earn little (a few hundred rupees) to nothing at all beyond their room. They are expected to be on call 24 hours a day, responding immediately to a bell wired from the main household to their single room. Should a worker refuse additional tasks, or ignore a summons from the homeowners, s/he will simply be forced to pack their bags and leave, loosing his or her home and livelihood in one fell swoop. One of these workers, a relative of the women whose home I was sitting in drinking chai, had been accused by the property owners of stealing. Based on this accusation alone, the person was arrested along with a few others, taken to the police headquarters where they were beaten for 24 hours, before receiving instructions to go home and keep their mouths shut. The activist I came with had become involved through work for another organization. She helped the victim receive medical treatment and later file a lawsuit under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. While there was clear evidence of police brutality, after months of intimidation, including threats from the police, threats from the land owners, and the denial of basic resources like water and electricity, the victim was forced to compromise. To date, even the small compensation granted in the compromise was denied.

In addition to speaking with various community members, I've watched and listened to activists supported by my NGO, interacting with these groups and struggling to find solutions to the great many issues facing Dalits across the country. In Lucknow, I met a young woman attempting to organize women domestic workers into a labor union. Some women have responded to her work, and moderate achievements have been seen. When organized, the women were able to pressure a homeowner who had been denying due payment to a laborer whom she had fired for being ill and unable to work. Though this activist has generated interest in the union, and women seem to understand the support it can provide workers in times of need, she is having less success helping them understand the benefits of demanding an equal minimum wage for their labor. "If I do not accept work for whatever payment I am offered," they ask, "how will I support my family and myself?" And again, I do not know the answer.

What I am learning here, what I am seeing in each and every one of these visits, is that there are no simple answers to the problems facing Dalit communities. There are questions asked that I can answer in theory, but even in my head my answers sound flat and unconvincing. My foundation does not expect me to know the answers. They don't expect me to solve the problems, for they are not problems I can solve. They expect me to learn, to educate myself so I can understand what and whom the foundation is supporting, and what I am supporting by working here. They expect me to learn, and spread the knowledge I have gained to others, and they expect me to provide support to the foundation wherever my skills allow.

And that is why I am here. I am here to do whatever it is that's asked of me, with the humble hope it will be helpful to my NGO in the work they are doing. I am here to learn and to listen. And hopefully, as I listen, I will begin to understand. And understanding, I think, is the first step in the great ladder towards progress.

For now, I am thankful to my teachers— the community members, the activists, my co-workers. I am thankful for the stories they have shared, and the knowledge I have gained from the work my NGO continues to do. I am thankful for the warmth with which I have been welcomed and thankful for the many cups of chai. And I am hopeful that, even when the problem seems too big and all-encompassing to tackle, Dalit individuals, with the support from those like the foundation, will inch further towards the path to equality. Further towards the end of caste discrimination. Further towards the finish line in their fight for basic human rights and equality. Listening and Hoping and Fighting. One day, one meeting at a time.

A version of this post was originally published on beautifulcommotion.blogspot.com in March 2012.

For more information about The American Jewish World Service and Volunteer Corps, please visit: http://ajws.org

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