On Monday afternoon from Kolkata we headed out to a village further south to visit a community served by a mission of the Church of North India.
The city gave way quickly to a more rural setting. As the high rises disappeared, the roads narrowed. Bicycles began to outnumber motorized vehicles. Roadside shops became smaller, simpler and less diverse. The mix of colors and fabrics became more dissonant. Eventually we wound our convoy of mini-vans and SUVs past a fragrant fish market, around a bend in the road and into a maze of ponds, rice paddies, and rough "roads." The trees become tropical - palms of all shapes and sizes, some heavy with bananas and coconut. As the vegetation grew denser, the roads were narrower, and finally we parked the cars to head down bricked paths too narrow for anything on more than 2 wheels.
In a complicated network of ponds and canals, there were canoes - some built, others hollowed from some sort of tree. There were some bamboo homes built on stilts along the water, along with small enclaves of mud and thatch huts. Every now and then we would pass a tree or wall dotted with small, consistently shaped cow patties drying for fuel. Children and adults hovered at the edges, smiling and returning our greetings and waves. Clearly the sight of a trail of white and black Americans was as unusual to them as their villages and canoes and clothes and faces were to us.
We entered the village passing between two lines of beautiful Hindu women with gorgeous, excited smiles. The greeted with a haunting sound with small conch-type shells. Each of us was marked on the forehead by a rosebud dipped in sandlewood paste. We were invited to sit on benches and chairs. Once we gathered, we were formally welcomed by a translator, and the women sat on the ground across from us. They had used their writing skills to make a welcome sign, and we were each presented a rose and given a paper sack (made from newspaper) full of crisped rice puffs and some sort of spicy fried vegetable snack (Sathi suggested we not eat the fried item, but we are getting brave. They were hot, tender, spicy, good!) and tea (of course, tea). 20% of this community lives blow the minimum income standard, calculated by how much it costs to provide a minimum number of calories per person in a family. Their generosity was overwhelming. We also were asked to sign their community minutes book used for community meetings.
The women in the community have been helped to develop their own leadership and literacy skills. They operate a micro-finance program. They were sharp, and one was clearly a natural leader, taking charge as the group's voice when we asked questions. We asked about their dreams for work children (they want them to be self-sufficient). They asked us about where we had been in India. They knew Barack Obama would be inaugurated soon. They shared that they buy their saris in Kolkata. Next to the area we were meeting in, a bamboo aviary housed about 50 blue, green, and yellow parakeets which they breed and sell, a business started with funding through the micro-finance program. The women manage the loan program within the community, receiving proposals, making decisions, collecting payments and hearing the challenges of those who might be struggling to pay the loans back. We asked about family dynamics, and they forthrightly shared that they practice family planning (families typically have 2 or 3 children), educate all of their young children in schools (fewer girls go to high school because it is 8 km away - a transportation challenge), and determine whether men or women lead the household based on skill and ability. The men of the village are raising fish in several ponds. These fish are then harvested and sold at market. We were then treated to some dance by youth of the church nearby.
We left the women, shaking their hands and waving at their babies to walk a little more to see the fish ponds. Along the way we also saw the local "corner store," several different grades of housing from thatch and bamboo to brick and brightly painted stucco, the pump run by a generator, power lines strung amidst the palms and homes, a variety of bikes and children, a makeshift Kali altar, goats and cows, cell phones, and many, many, many curious stares and smiles.
There was a simplicity here that was breathtaking. While the technology and infrastructure seemed primitive, the societal structure seemed balanced, healthy, respectful, nurturing and strong. Again I find myself marveling at what technology might rob from a society in terms of community sharing, interdependence and relationships.
The ride back was tough - like re-entering the real world after a week of vacation.... And it was somewhat hair-raising, winding our way out of the rural area in darkness on unlit roads with lots of pedestrians, bikes and scooters. I was exhausted by the scope of life here....the first evening I've felt dead tired with the day not yet over.
More about the rest of the day in another post. Currently on a plane en route to Delhi on Tuesday afternoon.