Our India Volunteer Co-ordinator (IVC) Joseph Bird reflects on his work and travels around India keeping up with DiA’s placements and finding links with other grassroots charities to extend the reach of DiA.
I returned to Pune from Rajasthan and was once more confronted with the modernity, malls and multiplex cinemas which, not long ago, I’d been so eager to escape. Yet, I was happy to be back with good friends and the prospect of enjoying Janmasthami Festival which involves, amongst other things, Dahi Handi – where teams of men pile into a human pyramid and attempting to smash a pot of butter suspended in the air.
Dahi Handi was a wonderful spectacle with the teams competing after months of training and featuring a remarkable variety of body shapes and sizes. Short, stocky men with no necks forming the base and young boys precariously atop the grunting heaving mass of their sweaty, string shirted team mates. The Dahi Handi I attended, set against a backdrop of luxury apartments and malls served as a wonderful metaphor for the make-up of Pune; a blend of great wealth, privilege and progress that remains rooted in Indian tradition, and blighted by poverty.
For many visitors ‘real India’ is in the cramped winding streets of Udaipur, the magnificence of the Taj and the bustling street markets, flooded with hawkers in every Indian city, but it could be argued that there is in fact nothing realer and more representative of India than Pune itself. With the second highest capita per head in India, a Hard Rock Café and bars charging exorbitant prices for the privilege of drinking small bottles of beer listening to Bryan Adams’ ‘Summer of 69’ there is no doubting Pune is home to a great burgeoning Indian middle-class.
Yet 33% of Puneites live in the slums. Outside Malls and cinemas scattered across the city children in rags holding babies tug on the designer jeans of those leaving the latest screening of a Hollywood blockbuster eating McDonald’s and desperately trying to ignore the poverty and destitution of their antagonist by updating their facebook status on their iPhone. This contradiction IS India. A country with the 4th largest economy in the world, its own Nuclear Programme and boasting some of the richest individuals in the world yet where newspapers are filled with reports of caste discrimination, corruption is a part of everyday life and an estimated 41.6% of the population below the poverty line.
During my time in Pune the country was awash with topi-donning, sign-toting Indians, supporting what ended up being a 12 day fast by Anna Hazare, a diminutive looking septuagenarian opposing the governments Lok Pal bill and more generally the corruption that is so rife in India. School children gathered in the small hill station of Panchgani, a 65 year old climbed a coconut tree and fasted their from dawn til dusk in Kerela and tens of thousands of people amassed in the nations capital, Delhi, all to show their solidarity. Caught up in the zeitgeist I jumped on the back of a friends scooter and sped off to experience a rally first hand. Responding in all the right places with cries of ‘Zinabad’, ‘Vande Matram’ and ‘Jai Hai’ I found the rally was over all too soon. With organisers desperately trying to drum up support for the following days fast I put myself forward eliciting a warm, if a little condescending, titter from those around me.
The following day (in spite of my doubters) I lined up with almost 100 other Puneites in fasting for 24 hours in a show of support for ‘India Against Corruption’. As they day went on the press arrived and before I knew it, hungry and disorientated, I was whisked away, interviewed and pictured in various poses wearing a topi and looking more like an ice cream man than a protestor. The next day, I’d generated an entire article, “UK National Joins ‘Peaceful and Dignified’ Protest” in Friday August 26th’s Sakaal Times, though whilst the reporter had accurately recorded what I’d said he chose to use a bit of artistic licence in which way round he put them and how often he repeated them.
My next stop after Pune was St. Gonsalos Ashram a little way out of Mumbai. Home to over 80 boys, Gonsalos was a fantastic place to visit. The energy, gratitude and nature of each of the boys was hugely touching, the true mark of this being their humility and humbleness in bowling me out time after time in our afternoon games of cricket.
After leaving Gonsalos behind I jumped on a long distance train for the first time in a while. Bound for Indore. Immediately experiencing the relaxing, meditative motion of the train and calming of the mind I was reminded of the words of Robert Louis Stephenson in ‘Ordered South’:
“Herein, I think lies the chief attraction of railway travel. The speed is so easy, and the train disturbs so little the scenes through which it takes us, that our heart becomes full of the placidity and stillness of the country; and while the body is being borne forward in the flying chain of carriages, the thoughts alight, as the humour moves them, at unfrequented stations…”
Given that I was visiting organisations in both Indore and Bhopal in under a week I had little time to explore the respective cities. In spite of this, I had a fanastic time. Visiting Seva Mandirs school for deaf and blind children, seeing Barlis innovative approach in the application of solar power and recycling, the bustling intent of ASA’s head offices as they prepared for a deadline and visiting potential new partners for DiA to work with was (as it always is) absolutely phenomenal. When most people have a week of hectic work they can’t wait for it to end. In the role of IVC it’s often quite the opposite. To see so many fascinating, charitable organisations and to meet a great number of passionate, inspiring people is a huge privilege and is part of what makes this job so enjoyable and so as I look ahead at a diary bursting with meetings and long laborious travel, I can’t help but smile in anticipation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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