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Life in Sleeper Class (a.k.a. O Christmas Chai)


For the twenty-five-hour journey from Delhi to Kolkata, I promise myself theĀ upper side berth, a precious commodity with a guaranteed window seat during the day and a slight privacy advantage at night. I’ll watch the Delhi plains turn into Bengali woodland and think deep thoughts.

I’ve just settled into my forward-facing window spot when a young woman arrives with a baby and a giant suitcase. It’s a movie moment: her hopeful look and my hopefully-hidden hope that she is just passing through before adjusting to make space for her on the bench.

Maybe she does have a seat somewhere, and is waiting for everyone to settle in first.

My Hindi is still terrible but we can communicate without much language, giving the general idea of who we are, where we come from, why we are on this particular train in early December and subjecting ourselves to long distance land travel. The bench is not quite six feet long; I’m on the end, then the baby, then her, then a man who appears to be in his thirties and not at all traveling with them.

The first round of chai begins, and biscuits come out (I can’t remember who starts that, but we pass around different packages to dip into the hot milk tea). The rest of the people in our open-air section are men, but they seem to be respectful, even smiling and waving at the baby (who is able to sit up but not walk, so how old would she be?).

The train has officially been moving for a bit now, and that’s that. The young mother is one of those in-between passengers who have a ticket but no seat assignment. I pull my bags from beneath the lower side berth where we’ve been sitting and one of our “cabin” (non-enclosed section of eight berths) mates lifts my backpack up onto the upper one. We wedge the young woman’s suitcase under the berth, and it’s official. I leave my shoes below with her suitcase and climb, stepping from a bunk-bed-bar to another berth, into my side berth. We pass snacks up down across between. I make silly faces at the baby and the mother laughs. Then more chai and biscuits.

To some, it might look like she took advantage of us by joining our compartment-area. But to have that thought means that you come from a particular cultural background. In the West, your ticket is your ticket, and you sit in your spot, and anyone who does otherwise is being rude. In India, sure, there are assigned seats, but that’s only a guideline and, in reality, if there’s a person who needs somewhere to sit — they sit, and everyone makes space. There isn’t the same sense of property and privacy.

Marie, the best of the India foreign travelers, arrives: a slender woman in a salwar kameez taking one of the upper berths on the other side of our compartment-area. I love her frank cheerful attitude; her stories and persona brighten our space.

This is, of course, a twenty-five (in reality, twenty-seven) hour train journey, so the cycle repeats itself. Sharing stories, offering food, the repetitive sounds of chai-wallahs moving down the aisle. Marie makes noises and smiles at the child. At one point, the mother steps away, leaving us to monitor her baby for a few minutes, and I ponder community.

Night settles in and activity in the train fades into light blankets spread under stretched-out legs. Someone lightly snores on the floor space between the opposing berths; it’s as if there’s been a massive sleepover party on wheels. A baby in an adjacent compartment-area cries, and I think about how we have the best, quietest baby on the train.

Rounds of good mornings, and then breakfast. I’m reading, writing, thinking in my little cubicle, trying to not remember how long I’ve been on the train.

We have another round of chai, we’ve been taking turns to pay like a round of beer in a pub, and Marie succeeds in getting everyone in our compartment-area to take a cup. “Do you want chai, take a chai, it’s Christmas, o Christmas chai” — and everyone smiles and laughs and dunks biscuits.

When people from different cultures interact with open minds, their ways of living can rub off on each other. I am still a little too loud, oh American self, a little more friendly than a woman in India would be, but, like extra people on the train, that is accommodated. And, in turn, we foreign travelers pick up the head wobble, the chai rhythms, and the food-pushing.

Happy Life.

[I set the blog aside to work on other projects, but am taking it up again after the encouragement of a good friend. Thanks, Jenn.]

On Chai and Perspectives

My travel experiences do not capture typical life in India for the average person, as far as I can tell. I can touch on commonalities and strive for understanding, but I am always coming from a particular history and culture (this is the case for all of us). My race, gender, and nationality can never be ignored or overcome, to bring me into any sort of “authentic” experience. Every story is translated through foreign eyes, and potentially only exists because of my unusual status: technically in the “indecent” category, yet also privileged, slipping past normal boundaries, liberated and isolated by my difference.

The outsider, privileged status allows me to move through many layers of Indian society, the novelty factor giving me a buffer space in which I can meet the economically disadvantaged — a strange enough presence to slip into people’s lives for a moment.

Of course, correct me where I am wrong.

My brain adapts to my environment, and over time I began to be more comfortable in grittier environments. With an extraordinary ability to tunnel-vision, I can forget that the United States exists, forget the shiny, tailored world of mainstream America, the manicured public space and extensive (and expensive) grocery stores. If I am away from middle-class India for long enough, I slip into a reality bound by train compartments and chai stalls, hand-washed clothes and cold bucket showers.

For some reason, the lowest economic class accepted me with less fuss than its more privileged brethren. I was less an anomaly…or, rather, equally out-of-place but less likely to made to feel the distance.

Every day in Bodhgaya, walking down the dirt road from the Bhutanese temple, I received a smattering of female voices calling out, smiles across generations — a mother and her daughter at least, if not more women gathered in their multipurpose tent. The front acts as a restaurant of sorts, a homemade bench-like table supporting pots, utensils, and a kerosene stove; two or three mismatched plastic chairs set out for the customers, all open to the air. A bed occupies the back of the tent, a wooden platform draped in mosquito netting. Every time I hear them calling out, inviting me to come in and eat, I smile but do not stop.

The last morning, I build in time to have a chai.

The young-looking girl turns out to be fourteen; she takes my order. Her mother rolls up into a sitting position on the bed, bursts into a smile, and points to one of the chairs, inviting me to sit. Her daughter prepares the chai with confident, practiced movements: pouring water and milk, measuring out the rolled black tea (it’s alright that it’s part artificial, the cup will only cost five rupees), taking out a beaten tin canister of masala spices, pumping the ancient stove and setting the pot on to boil. The mother and I can only gesture and smile without a common language, but her daughter and I are able to chat: encouraging education, discouraging early marriage. Not a lecture, just attempting to use my celebrity status to celebrate her dreams and ideas rather than standard social roles. I applaud her English skills and focus on discussing her studies. Her mother is all warmth and welcome, the daughter performance and maturity.

The chai is delicious.

For the Press

The workshop (radical in nature and advertised openly via the internet/flyers/personal asks) got some attention. We received requests to reproduce it in other cities, and were interviewed by The Sunday Guardian, a weekly newspaper published simultaneously in Delhi and London. It was a brief article but terribly exciting for our duo. Below is the email I wrote in response to the reporter’s surprisingly dense questions, which produced answers the little article could never accommodate. Thought I would post it here so it could see the light. [Note: Occasionally delicate writing considering the audience, was more careful than I would have been in an American context.]

1. Could you tell me about your role in the conceptualization and organisation of the workshop?

Charnita had invited me to be a content developer (from a distance, of course) in the areas of gender and sexuality. It was her suggestion that we formalize our ideas into a workshop. I was an equal partner in the conceptualization and organization of the workshop; after initial brainstorming, we divided the sections between us for a deeper focus, and then returned to compare and revise. I was concerned about the ethics of engaging such a project as a foreigner. How could I criticize another culture that is not my own? But working in dialogue with Charnita has assuaged my fears, since she was able to ground and direct my approach through an Indian perspective.

2. What is the purpose and goal and what are the means of achieving this (both in context of this workshop and of your work in general?)

The purpose of such a workshop is to create a safe learning environment that empowers young women to interrogate the system of oppression that affects their lives, and in doing so promoting well-being, awareness, and knowledge. The goal is that each woman leaves the workshop with a greater sense of self, the affirmation of her social criticisms, and the knowledge and inspiration to further develop her own ideas and perspective. To do this, we narrowed down our extensive list to the most essential pieces of information necessary to begin understanding how women’s voices and experiences are oppressed. The workshop was structured in an interactive and experiential fashion so as to provide the highest level of engagement and education. For example, examining the depiction of women in media can reveal extreme manifestations of gender roles, and therefore open up a discussion on the unhealthy effects of a divided society. By including the participants in the generation of ideas and analyses, more effective and enduring change can be produced; the process itself works to counteract the suppression that young women so frequently experience. This kind of project, although not entirely similar, is very much in line with the material and focus of my work in general.

3. Charnita also told me you took the Banana Talk session – could you tell what your experience was like? What was it that you talked of and how was the response? What was your impression of the young Indian participants – how aware (or not) were they?

The Banana Talk was a sensitive subject, since sex and sexuality are taboo topics. The discussion was approached from three different directions: (1) providing accurate information in the interest of health, (2) discussing healthy relationships, (3) continuing the analysis of gender roles and cultural/societal influences. To create a judgment-free space and preserve the comfort of the girls as much as possible, we distributed slips of paper and pens so that any questions could be anonymously written down. Their questions revealed distorted information and the painful effects of oppressive thought. Fears and insecurities were prevalent, and to respond to them effectively I had to cover basic anatomy and function. Proper education is essential for health in this area. As for my impression of their awareness, I would say that, in comparison to American students in a sexual education class, they are far behind. But, naturally, there was a range within the young women based on maturity level. We ought to be more concerned about the patterns of thinking that were revealed in the questions: deep guilt and shame, repression, distortions in the understanding of gender differences, and the negative effects of all this on perceptions of relationships, marriage being the most significant. Discussing sex and sexuality in such a context cannot be separated from the ramifications of society. The entire “Banana Talk” discussion was grounded in the same approach laced throughout the seminar: recognizing how oppressive systems of thought shape women’s behavior, choices, ideas, and thinking. The major discussion of the section revolves around the discrepancies between society’s rules and biology’s truth. Like any other section in the workshop, we never provided moral answers, but encouraged the women to formulate their own values based on information and critical thinking. You asked about my experience of it, which I would say is largely marked by concern. It was disconcerting to see such unhealthy ways of thinking, to see the oppression of their self-worth and right to be respected manifest in their questions. Despite the heavy work laid before me, the young women responded well, shy at first but soon encouraged and expressive. It was clearly a deeply needed and well received session.

4. How do you see this enterprise going forward? And how relevant do you think this kind of experiential education is for youngsters today?

As for taking the project forward, we had not discussed anything further than offering the workshop twice — this past weekend. Having received attention and invites to reproduce the workshop in other cities has sparked discussions of continuing it. This indicates a need, and that others are interested in doing similar work. But the most important indications to continue was the overwhelmingly powerful positive response from the participants, their intelligence and creativity, and that the process clearly demonstrated the need for such a project. Experiential education such as this is not merely relevant, it is essential. To receive an idea in the mind, either directly or indirectly, can settle heavily on the psyche given enough pressure. But to manifest true life skills, critical thinking, and well-being, students need to work through ideas themselves, in experiential ways that bring them to a deeper and more effective level.

5. Do you see yourself as a feminist? Is your work supplemented by any feminist ideology? Was this workshop in any way a feminist exercise for you?

“Feminism” is a loaded word, which can refer to any of the evolutions of the women’s movement, it as a whole, or take on different meanings in different minds. Too often, at least in America, feminism is pushed aside as the hatred of men and an overreaction in a seemingly equal society. This is a simplification that distracts from a necessary task. Feminism is Humanism. I believe in humanity, in the holistic uplifting of all people regardless of their gender identity. One of the concepts we discussed in the workshop was “patriarchy,” oppression based on a “power-over” system in a culture. A patriarchal society oppresses all members, but the manifestation of that “power-over” mentality affects women the most. Breaking down patriarchy means shifting the power structure from a “power-over” to a “power-from-within” — and in the doing, improve the lives of everyone. For example, the young women in the workshop constantly experience the “power-over.” They are inundated with unhealthy restrictions and pressures that force them to suppress their ideas, desires, dreams, and voices. Instead, a “power-from-within” approach validates them, encourages them to express themselves, and builds their self-confidence because there need not be discrepancies between what they know to be true and what they are told. This work is not merely an exercise, it is the manifestation of humanism: empowering the individual on a local level to effect change on a societal level. As for “ideology,” that is another dangerous word, as I associate it with the inflexible systemic thought of patriarchy. But if we are talking about women-positive and gender theory, then absolutely! Many, many writers and activists have contributed to these ideas and our approach. To name them all would be impossible. Major contributors are Dr. Dustin Goltz, Karen Finley, bell hooks, Starhawk, Judith Butler, Marge Piercy, and Audre Lourde.

6. Could you also give me details of what it is that you do otherwise, so that I can put this workshop in context?

I am a writer, director, performer, and facilitator. I believe in the cathartic and communicative effects of performance and focus on how the spoken word can promote healing and social change — especially for women. I am currently traveling in India for several reasons: there are some things that you must come here to learn and experience, and the country provides incredible opportunities to study religion and women’s situations in an experiential way.

Huge response, I know. But your questions could be answered in books!

in peace,

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