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Travelblog: Once in a lifetime voyage to the heart of India.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Closing files.

I contemplated the idea of a blog for days. I feared it might just be added stress to my summer. In the end I decided to keep a blog because I knew this would be an experience I would only be able to share in the moment. I'm glad i did. I actually enjoyed writing and maintaining the site. On my bus ride from Gadchiroli to Nagpur, I thought of a million things I wanted to write about. Five days have passed since that thought, and I haven’t had the time or the desire to write. Writing and books are not as appealing as music videos at the moment.

I wanted to share my experience of rural India. The task is accomplished, so it's time to close the files. It’s back to a life of braoadband Internet, cell phones, and to-do lists. I have to go finish my errands. I need to cross of everything on my list before boarding a train to Delhi tonight. It’s a long list.

I’ll be traveling with school friends until August 23rd when I board a plane to San Francisco. I look forward to spending time with some of you later this month and hearing about the details of your summer.

Kudos to those of you still reading. Hope I made it worthwhile. I'm out.

Random: The current hit songs in India are “Let’s chill” starting fruity Salman Khan and “Love over SMS”. J I have been a TV junkie since I arrived in Ahmedabad.

My summer of unknowns…

I came to India knowing one thing—I would have to go with the flow and make the best of whatever it was I had committed to. I left my familiar world in San Francisco knowing that a taxi would pick me up outside of Nagpur’s domestic airport and transport me to this mysterious place, Shodhgram, located outside of Gadchiroli, Maharahtra. I arrived with my travel backpack, very few expectation and a million questions.

Low expectations and mental preparation for anything are the essential ingredients for a good experience. I had both. What has transpired over the last 8 weeks has been better then good. It has suprassed all hopes and expectations. This summer has been absolutely surreal. The experience has felt like a dream. I wake up now wondering if it really was a dream.

At the end of my last discussion with Dr. Bang regarding my study findings, he told me what one of his professors once told him, “good research raises more questions then it answers”. If trips are measure with the same method then this journey has been widely successful. I left SEARCH with more questions then when I arrived.

Rural women, men, and children are more of a mystery to me now then before I arrived. Their thoughts, their motivations, their lifestyle are so much more complex then I fathomed. I thought I had figured out a few things about the way the world works over the last 26 years of my existence. The last few weeks have left me scratching my head in confusion. I’ve realized I haven’t figured out much at all.

There is one more think I know… I now know what happiness feels like. As expected, the feeling of contentment is fading as fast as the clarity of the memories made in Gadchiroli. It was nice while it lasted.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Mission accomplished

Title of study: Food consumption habits of women in rural India: A community-based exploratory study in SEARCH intervention area, Gadchiroli, India.

Summary of my finding:

-Prevalence of eating down is 4.5% in the Intervention villages.
-Prevalence of eating down is 8.7% in the control area.
-21.6% agreed taking tablets will lead to difficult delivery in the intervention area. 40% agreed taking tablets will lead to difficult delivery in the control area.
-Women receive contradicting advice regarding tablets. To appease both the doctor/nurse/health educator and community members they find a middle ground. Many take half the dose of tablets. Some will take pills every other month or every other day. Others stop taking pills the last few months of pregnancy.
-The most common cold foods avoided were potato, yogurt, gavar ke sing and milk. The most common cold foods avoided were eggs, and meat products.
-Overall quantity of food consumed is more in intervention area compared to control area.
Women know they should eat more in both control and intervention areas, but the majority don’t actually eat more.
-Women get hungry between meals, but do not eat.
-Too much work and no time.
-Extended family.
-Not enough food.
-No work, no hunger. Housework is not seen as “work”.
-Women ate a lot more when encouraged. The belief system of family members impacts a woman’s decisions, particularly the husband’s beliefs.

Smells and Sounds of rural India.

I left my rural abode Friday, August 5th. I spent two days in Baroda with my grandparents, and now I’m in Ahmedabad visiting my uncle. I still wake up before my alarm in the morning, but only because of noise pollution--call of prayer blaring across the city at 5 am, people talking, rickshaws, cars, horns, and vegetable vendors screaming the names of the various vegetables they have brought. I haven’t had time to think about what I’ve left behind, but when I do I miss it terribly. I’ve been keeping a list of sounds and smells since I arrived. Notice it’s really short. The list of sounds and smells from the from the last two days is twice the length of the one from two months in Gadchiroli.

Smells and sounds of my 8 weeks in Gadchiroli:

-Smell of first rain
-Chirping of birds.
-The sound of the coyal (bird) on my evening walks.
-The pitter patter of rain on my window sill.
-The meow of the scary, sickly cat that lives in the mes, kitchen hall.
-Everyone singing together at evening prayer.
-Kana singing off key during prayer. He is a three-year-old who sings at top of his lungs. He loves prayer. So hard to keep from laughing, especially when he sits next to you.
-The ‘thali call’ signaling the beginning and end of morning community clean-up.
-The fan.
-Sandalwood incense when walking through any village market
-The generator turning on
-The mooing of cows
-The call of the roster
-Mildew smell in my room.
-The drone of the motorcycle
-The fierce wind storm that precedes heavy rain.
-The smell of chai. You can smell the sugar. In the villages, milk is a luxury, so you’re offered black chai with tons of sugar.
-The slurping of chai.
-Sound of people eating.
-My phone ringing
-Dial-up internet connecting.
-The horn.
-The chorus of animal sounds in villages before 9 am.
-The sound of the bullock cart.
-The bell around the cows ringing as they walk.

Pictures:Tribal Village

Pictures: I really was in rural India

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Irony

The life of a rural India woman is akin to that of a lioness. A lioness hunts, feeds her cubs and then eats herself. Similarly, the India woman cooks for the whole family, serves them and then eats from what is leftover.

Drive into the village before 10 am and you will find women walking in colorful saris to the wells for water, or scrubbing clothes at the closest pond. Most women haven’t had a single thing to eat, only a small cup of chai.

A typical village woman has done at least 3 hours of housework before 10 am. She has washed clothes, filled water, washed dishes, and cooked a full meal. As soon as she is done cooking the meal, serving and cleaning the dishes after the meal, she will be walking to the field where she will work for 4-7 hours (6 months of the year). She’ll return to make chai for the family at 5pm, and as soon as she is done she begins preparations for dinner. She will serve the whole family before eating herself, followed by more cleaning. This time the dishes and the kitchen. Once the kitchen is clean, she will get the kids ready for bed before retiring herself. Even then she is probably not done fulfilling her "duties".

Men also work. They buy the groceries on market day, feed the animals, and tend to the field for 6-10 hours a day. Men during hard agriculture time are in the fields by 8 am, and will work till dusk taking a break for lunch. After that they are free to do as they please. Drive into the village before 10 am or any time of the day, however, and you will always find a few men "chilling" at the pan stall, or the chai stall or my personal favorite, playing cards—rami (refer to "Men of Gadchiroli" pictures).

My first week in the village, I really thought my eyes were deceiving me. I kept asking Sanjay if men really had enough free time to hang-out with their buddies and play cards for hours. He assured me it was the reality of village life. All the household duties are seen as a woman’s job including fetching wood for the stove. It’s a "purush pradhan" (rough translation: men ruling/dominated) society he kept saying with a chuckle. And therefore men do not do housework (both men and women believe this) or take care of the children. In fact, their duties are limited to "heavy" fieldwork and "outside" work (i.e. running errands, and going to the market).

I’ve waited till the end to write this entry because I secretly hoped I would uncover some hidden truth that would prove me wrong. Instead, I found evidence backing what I have been witnessing for seven weeks.

A 1981 study by Batliwala looking at the total energy contribution to the village found the respective contributions of men, women and children were 31%, 53% and 16%. Another study in 1988 found that men had 6.7 hours of leisure time while women had 3.5 hours free daily. The study also found that women exert more energy then they take in while men take in more then they exert by nearly 300 kcals.

This is not surprising in the least as men are served first and given the lion's share of the food. As household heads, men are also entitled to have the best choice of meat. Men make double what women make for the same number of hours worked in the field. Women make 20-30 Rs. while men make 50 Rs. They do heavier work, so they should get paid more is the rational. Because they make more money, they ‘wear the pants’ in the family.

Ask any pregnant women if she prefers a boy or a girl and chances are she prefers a boy. Women have their tubes tied after two children if one of them is a boy, but usually keep trying for a male otherwise.

Mothers have their little girls cleaning dishes, chopping onions, fetching water and mopping the floor from the time they are five. The girl has to leave her mother’s house and needs to learn all these things I’m old.

This patriotically system has existed for hundred of years because both men and women allow it to exist and most believe it is the way is should be. Women in the villages are able to do everything men can do. In the tribal areas women even do all the heavy agricultural work. Without the women, village life would come to a standstill. Women do more work, yet they are treated like the inferior sex (if you only saw the way they are talked to and I haven’t even discussed alcoholisms). Men are given the lion’s share, the higher wages, the luxury of more free time, and the power to demand anything because they are viewed as the stronger, more superior sex.

haven’t figured out why the Y chromosome is favored even after weeks of investigation. A few weeks ago, a cute grandmother asked me why I had no brother. What difference does it make I responded. She gave me a puzzled look and said, "Who will carry on your family name?"

I had this gender role conversation with a table full of males during lunch one Saturday afternoon. Men doing kitchen, housework is okay for you city people because both husband and wife work, one said. If the gender roles were to get mixed up in the village, it would cause lots of fights he added. When we talked about distribution of work, most felt that it was equal.

I’m not advocating for gender equality, or change in the distribution of work, just wondering what happened to respect for these women as human beings. What I got in return were puzzled looks no different the one the grandmother had given me earlier.

These wonder women, as Dr. Bang calls them, in saris sustain village life, but it’s the ones lucky enough to have a Y chromosome who enjoy all the privileges and power.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Highs and Lows one last time.


- Waking up before my alarm every morning excited for my day to begin. The last 8 weeks have been one big high.

- Giving my final presentation in Hindi. Bollywood Hindi (half Hindi, half English) that is. It feels so good to be done. It hasn’t felt like work, but it has been. I’m ready to go play.

- Getting positive feedback from Dr. Bang. I get giddy when the man looks my way. Hearing words of appreciation from him just made my year.

- Sowing seeds in the field. I told Sanjay on our last day in the field that I have been able to do everything I’ve wanted except for go out to the field and do roni (sow rice seeds) and play rami (cards) with the boys in the village. He stopped the car, hollered to some people in the field and a few minutes later I was out in the field sowing seeds. He confirmed it was too late for rami.

-On my way back from the field last week we stopped in Gadchiroli for an hour. More than a week had passed since my trip to the market so my fruit stocks were running low. With only 15 rupees in hand, I walked to my usual fruit stand in the market. I was greeted by my favorite cheerful merchant who immediately started putting some apples on the scale. By now he knows what fruits I like and the amount I will be purchasing. I basically just show up to hand him the money. I explained to him that this trip would be different. He nodded and a few minutes later handed me a bag FULL of fruit. I had only asked for some apples, but here he was handing me a bag full of bananas, goas, apples and even a papaya. I gave him a puzzled look, and reiterated that I only had 15 rupees. I’ll be back tomorrow I reassured him. He laughed and told me to just pay him next week on my normal market day and the papaya is on the house he added (he’s a nice guy, but the free papaya is largely to ease his conscious. I know I’ve been taken. I pay NRI rates for the fruit).

I wait for events like this when living in a new city. When a vendor takes the liberty to start a tab it means he knows you and trusts you. It makes me feel like a local.

- My visit to Hyderabad.
I ended up with less than 20 hours in Hyderabad, 5 of which were spent sleeping, but it was so worth it. I visited Kirti, who has been living there for the past year in the lap of luxury courtesy of Google. Sometimes you have no idea you’re missing something until it’s starting at you in the face. We came back from a disco, walked into the kitchen and there in front of me is a whole counter full of delicious processed American food—wheat thins, pringles, peanut butter, crackers, and granola bars. I was in heaven. The next day she took me to the buffet at the Taj Hotel. The selection was endless. It was such a gluttonous weekend. Loved it. I basically went out, ate, used her broadband Internet and came back to Gadchiorli. I spent more time traveling to and from Hyderabad then in the actual city, but it was a really good break and a fun adventure.

- Learning how to ride a motorcycle. My first lesson lasted 2 minutes. Sanjay made me get off after I almost smashed the bike into a tree.

- Long walks

- The last day of interviews. I have spent every day of the last seven weeks in the field. The last week we were leaving SEARCH by 6:30 am to catch the women before they headed to the field. I was ready to be done.

- My toothpaste lasting 8 weeks and not a day more. I have just enough to brush my teeth tomorrow before I leave. I’m a horrible packer normally; it’s amazing that I brought just the right amount.


- Last day of interviews. I’m going to miss the cows, roosters, water buffaloes, kids, and the loving people of the villages. I would have been tired of the field (it is fun but the days are long, and unpredictable + it’s monsoon season) a long time ago if it hadn’t been for my partner in crime, Sanjay. He was a blast to work with.

- Phones not working for 10 days, cutting off the little access I had left to the outside world.

- Janka leaving. She left a month ago, but I haven’t done highs and lows in a while. We took long walk religiously at the end of our workday. She was here doing Sex Discrimination and Infertility research from UNC and has been coming here every summer for the last three years. She was doing some really interesting studies. Really bright 20-year-old.

-Hemant Kaka leaving. He is the youngest, most energetic, gregarious 55-year-old I’ve ever met. He lived here for two years and in that short time came to know everything about everyone. There is no pretense with him, which probably explain why everyone is so quick to reveal there lives to him. We used to sit outside my front porch talking and gossiping (the people of SEARCH are more complex then I ever imagined) for hours. I miss our random conversations and discussions.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Stories from the field

We have conducted over 150 interviews of pregnant women. Most of their stories and answers were predictable. There are, however, two interviews that stand out. I’m aware these stories represent the extreme cases, but they highlight some important issues many women face. Both women share similar worlds, yet their stories couldn’t be more different. During the interview they both shed tears, but for very different reasons.

The first interview took place in the village of Churchura. She was our last interview for the morning. She walked in and sat down next to me, keeping her eyes on the floor. Most of the pregnant women are a little timid, but she bordered on hostile. She avoided all eye contact, looked very weak, and didn’t crack a smile for the entire interview. She was 8 months pregnant when we interviewed her and it was her second pregnancy. She lives alone with her husband, and the husband’s family lives in the same village.

Early in the interview we ask a hypothetical ‘what if’ question as an ice breaker/conversation starter. This question catches most of the women off guard, but they have fun with it. The answers are very standard, except for when the situation is unique. If there are special circumstances at home, this question will surely bring them to light.

As soon as we asked this woman the question her eyes started watering. She didn’t say anything for a really long time, but with some probing she revealed that there is no food in the home for her to cook. She usually has one meal a day, often made with vegetables acquired from neighbors. Her husband spends a large part of the family income on liquor and goes to his mother’s to have his meals. She complains of not having any energy yet she still fetches water, goes to the river to wash clothes and works in the field. She admitted that her husband used to beat her, but has stopped for the last 2 months. She hasn’t gone to her mother’s house for delivery like most women, because her husband and mother-in-law will not allow it. The last delivery took place at her mother’s and it resulted in a stillbirth. They are afraid it will happen again.

The health worker told us this woman’s hemoglobin was severely low, 6.5 mg/dl (>11 mg/dl is recommended during pregnancy), which explains her total lack of energy. The health worker explained that the husband’s family (particularly the mother-in-law) gives her problems because they have been unhappy with the dowry they received from her family.

We cut the interview short, sat and talked with her, but didn’t know what to do beyond that. There are no shelters to refer these women to. If the women leave their husband’s home, they often have no place to go. Sanjay and I returned and spoke with the people at the outpatient clinic. They advised us to return to the woman’s house and tell her to come to the SEARCH clinic with her mother-in-law or husband for a check-up. Dr. Rani Bang would advice his family to let her go to the mother’s or she could be admitted to the SEARCH hospital for delivery. We followed their advice, but don’t think she has come in to the clinic yet.

The second memorable interview took place a week later in the village of Indalla. She was interview number 74, and her name was Kavita Jankta. She was 21-years-old and also pregnant for the second time. Her first pregnancy was terminated early with an abortion. She lived with her husband and her in-laws. Kavita was also very timid, but she had a soft smile and didn’t hesitate in making some eye contact.

When we asked Kavita the hypothetical question, she smiled and said she wouldn’t do anything different, because she is living her ideal scenario. Sanjay and I were both startled. This was one response we hadn’t heard yet. Her family was slightly better off economically then most, but not significantly. By the end of the interview we had discovered her husband brings home her favorite foods, and encourages her to eat frequently, which surprisingly isn’t the norm. However, we both knew there was more to it. Her eating habits and patterns were very different then all the other women we had interviewed. Sanjay was as curious as I was so he kept probing without me having to ask. We told her what a unique case she was and that we were wondering what influences what she does. This is when she started tearing. She revealed that her husband eats all her meals with her (in most families, the males eat first and then the women eat), brings all her favorite vegetables, and if she is nauseous/vomiting and can’t eat then he doesn’t eat either. He encourages her to eat 4-5-6 times a day. Sanjay actually asked, “he really loves you a lot doesn’t he”. Poor girl totally blushed. :) But answered, “yes, he does and he is really good to me”.

We wondered if it was maybe because it was love marriage (rare even now), but it wasn’t. We got the husband's name and work address because we wanted to meet and interview this anomaly. We went to his work place, but he wasn’t around.

The special attention and treatment women get in the west during pregnancy from their husband’s is unfortunately reserved for the lucky few in rural India (at least the rural women we interviewed).