My Indian sisters

My Indian sisters

As the peace and pace of my new Deoghar life slowly comes together, work itself remains the missing piece of the puzzle. In these early days at the small organization where I’m working, there is an alarming, and sometimes amusing degree of time required to do the simplest things – find a desk at which to work, find an outlet in which to plug my laptop, find a chair, and so on. And today, even as I arrived at work, I was whisked off to the downtown police station to do a “foreigner registration”; an unforgettable 2-hour experience in forms, questions, and endless reviews of my passport and visa. This procedure was rigorous enough to cause me to periodically remind myself that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong!

That said, the definite highlight of these early days at work are Mumta and Sujata – two young sisters whose office I share and whose English is enough to keep us in lively and entertaining conversation. I think they find me a bit “scandalous” in a way that intrigues and fascinates… After all, I am an unmarried, 30-something year old woman who is living alone in a Deoghar apartment, with no family or fiance.

In fact, moments after I revealed my single status, they told me quite flatly that they are now “in queue” to be married off, given the recent marriage of their older sister. Mumta leaned toward me, flashing her bright eyes, a mischievous smile, and asked in a hushed tone: “Do you wish to be married? Marriage makes life such a routine, doesn’t it?! Suddenly all you can do is take care of your husband and your in-laws!!” I had a definite urge to laugh out loud at the innocence of her self-perceived transgression against traditional Indian life. Still, I smiled vaguely and without commitment to her comments… careful to avoid what might have been a minefield of miscommunication.

The sisters were equally fascinated by my so-called “credentials” (that is, a very popular question when you are introduced to a workplace here is exactly what training and background you have that justifies your ability to contribute!). When I told them I had a university degree in Criminology, Mumta and Sujata gushed in unison: “Ooooo, you can read FACES!! You can read the BAD in people from their faces!! Read me! Read me! You must tell me what you see in me!”

And then there’s lunchtime… Mumta, Sujata and I eat together in our office, pulling out traditional Indian tins that fit together in two’s and three’s; and each tin is separately filled with either a spicy curry, flatbread, or perhaps rice. The tins are opened, laid out, and the rice/roti is taken by hand from one dish and used as a utensil to scoop and eat the curry from the remaining dish. They find it incredible that I bring Indian style foods and that I enjoy spices, and they say with some pride, “Our food suits you!” Then they insist that I put my fingers into their tins to taste their various curries and breads, while they happily dip their own fingers into my dishes to taste my cooking experiments. I’ve become quite accustomed to this now, although was terrifically uncomfortable the first time I had to put my hand into someone else’s lunch!

Overall, the company and entertainment afforded to me throughout the day by my Indian sisters is welcome relief. So far, work at this tiny (incredible) organization is more of an enigma than anything else. I have never encountered such a committed and active grassroots organization (with 75% of its staff working daily in the rural depths of the undeveloped world), which is at the same time, the most unstructured, unorganized and under-resourced entity that I’ve ever known. It’s inspiring and totally bewildering all at once.

I suppose, for now, the best I can do is bond with my sisters, gather information, observe and learn, and slowly, find my way to the best possible contribution that I can make to these wonderful people and the incredible work they are doing for India’s rural population in the time that I am here.

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[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in India years ago. I lived and worked in a very remote, rural town called Deoghar, near the border of Bangladesh. This specific journal entry was written on February 5, 2008.]

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