forgive my silence. Stupid concatenation of various strokes of misfortune e.g. stolen laptop. Have just returned from the Amsterdam/Paris trip with Dad (ah - tis nice to have re-forged some friendly bonds there) and am now attaching a newsletter article (tell me if not appropriate) and the photos you asked for. Have called GES and suggested a date for a presentation on the Kovalam building etc. Mme Berger (ex-Mme Comminot as I knew her - was briefly flooded with nostalgia for those golden kiddy-days) promises to get back to me asap.
Am horribly under pressure from a million logistical things like VSO further prep packages, making my case at the HOPELESS French mairie for a 'letter of good character" for VSO, plus the fundraising they need me to finish off on justgiving.com/gxsophie, organizing UK bank & mobile phone, getting my camera fixed, medical/dentist apptmts... arg... and yes, alas, there are only 2 weeks left for me in Geneva to be useful to Friends of India - though of course I can still WRITE while in UK. Hmm. Let me know for the FOI board meeting or whatever, and any dinner/meeting I should try and organise. The larger pamphlet, with pictures nicely inserted, should take another few days, that's all. By the way, if nothing substantial in the way of a fundraising event can be arranged before the 28th (when I leave) I could mastermind something really solid for the week before Christmas (when I'll be back) - people tend to feel charitable around that time, don't they? :-)
after so many emailed notes from Chennai, here's something for the Friends of India newsletter typed back in Geneva again by freckled hands– different hands, hands with India in them! – to make public. A testimony to my fabulous summer spent as an informal F.O.I. scout, representative and social worker...
Gap years may be gaining popularity again, but it's rare for a bright-eyed high-school graduate with a backpack and Wanderlust to benefit from luck such as mine... an enthusiastic application letter (written during the final revision period, as I yearned for India and Independence) got me taken on by the inimitable Pam and sent into southern India for three months.
Many at La Châtaigneraie wouldn't believe I was going – where?! alone? with all the dirt and disease, dodgy water, beggars, and that? And unpaid? Sophes, do you realise those traditional people think of unmarried white girls? and you don't KNOW anyone there?! Wouldn't you rather come to Mallorca on the “Grad Trip” with us, where there'll be hot water and steady lights in the hotel room, booze and boys on the beach, and freedom to roam at night?
No I would not, I would growl. It was high time I did something humanly useful in the world, after so many years of basking in its privilege. Besides, the allures of the ancient Land of Sindh exercised more pull on me than the idea of a week watching my ex-classmates flirt with hooligan Brits on a vomit-splattered strip of Mediterranean sand. Even if gallivanting off on a 'humanitarian gap year' meant leaving my loved ones sooner, and for longer. I had eighteen years freshly tucked away, air-tickets paid for by a Friends of India donor, an understanding with Pam, a visa, and a soul champing at the bit imposed on it by the convoluted International Baccalaureate. There were some heart-wrenching farewells, of course, to those departing indefinitely for colleges abroad. But I stepped onto the plane in Geneva wielding – so I told myself with characteristic hubris - an imaginary oyster knife, leaving school and advancing to meet... the world.
I arrived at midnight, like Rushdie's Children and India's freedom. I began to explore Chennai and its environs – the bustling, simmering, chattering, honking, colourful electricity of it all. It was Heat and Dust, yes – but more, so much more than any colonialist novella could capture: people, from the insider's perspective. I nearly burst with happiness. I took wholeheartedly to idli-eating and saree-wearing, learned the (very) basics of Madras Bashai or Tamlish, grew accustomed to temple, public and in-house etiquettes, wore jasmine blossom malippu, and – best of all – unconsciously began to head-wiggle, to do the unmistakeable Indian jiggling of the chin that can mean either 'right', 'hello', 'yes' or 'you've persuaded me'. I could deal equally well with busses and 'aww-TOW's, knew the various neighbourhoods well, had seen the Theosophical Gardens of Annie Besant, the Fort, the beautiful Kalakshetra campus, and all the major temples. And gradually I learnt to keep my dupatta firmly on my shoulders.
As for the work: I was busy with all sorts of different projects, ranging from the fairly harrowing (tending to the retarded children of the destitute) to the “classy” (giving speeches, holding workshops, at elegant Mrs Vasanthi's side, to Rotarians and hallfuls of college teachers). I will restrict myself to the former in this article. [A pamphlet on what I did in Tamil Nadu should be issued shortly.]
Take a turn down a narrow cul-de-sac off Suleimann-Koil Salai, Ayanavaram, Madras, follow the sound of turkeys clucking, and call out into the tiny dirt courtyard you'll find on the right, with a child-sized work-bench at one end where candles are being crafted, and lessons taught. A beaming Lata will open the gate for you. And the thirty or so inmates will greet you charmingly, though some will take time to identify you as a) human and b) trustworthy. Because all of them were born mentally debilitated and never received adequate care.
The staff at Anbumalar School is inspirational: serene yet jolly, dedicated, and kind. And it's always a pleasure to meet Mr P. Selvaraj, the man behind Anbumalar Social Service Vision, who welcomes you with a heartfelt "God bless you, sister" into a quirky, cluttered little office opposite the poultry coops (for 'animal therapy'), in the tiny but joyous day-care centre he's created there, in Ayanavaram. Selvaraj is forever encouraging more visitors to come and interact with the kids under his care. But he badly needs help with the promotional side of things: his English skills are not sufficient for him to campaign successfully on the international arena, nor project a professional image in his general correspondence. I could help with this while I was there – but more long-term assistance would be inestimably beneficial to his noble Anbumalar cause. Moreover, funds are urgently required to continue the construction work on their new site. A transfer to a larger property has been planned for a long time; the land is bought; the permits settled; but Anbumalar is crying out for money with which to actually build the new centre. While I was there, a website project was started and well advanced. Soon, if the web company I was liaising with to this end collaborates as hoped, there should be a number of pages online to inform people about Anbumalar (and FOI's hand in its development).
I could easily have stayed on and dedicated myself more professionally to Mr Selvaraj's work, or to Madam Ruby's (which involves empowering women in the rural villages of Kancheepuram district)... or Mr Narayanan's (uplifting the poor coastal communities around Kovalamkuppam), etc. etc. etc.
I appeal to you, as one who has been to Tamil Nadu and witnessed firsthand – in individuals and whole groups – the potential for constructive change: please consider getting involved. Your time and money can be made SO valuable. I will always be indebted to Pam for my summer 2006. And I know I must spread the word, from now on, so that others sit up and take notice of the need in and around Chennai. Of the inexplicable worthwhile quality of social work there. Of the wonderful individuals – Bala, Selvaraj, Ruby, Narayanan - struggling to collaborate with rich Europeans like us, for the advancement of their communities.
Stop by Ferney-Voltaire, and you're likely to find me in a café, or at my laptop, in the middle of an impassioned tirade about the culture of South India and the incredible fortitude of the people I was lucky enough not only to meet but to live with. You will see a person BLESSED by a three-month wander in a part of that baffling, enigmatic, multi-stranded tapestry of human potential, India. I've made mistakes, I wrote on my last day. I've blundered, offended, and occasionally felt like running away from the infernal chaos of it all - the muck and sweat at 42°C, the oppressions of tradition and orthodoxy, the lateness of everything and the stress of being frequently hassled, ogled, cheated and judged on the basis of my appearance alone. I received several strokes of very bad luck which called on my (still green) adult coping skills. Above all: It was sometimes quite frightening for me to face up to my alone-ness and independence. Which is exactly what I'd wanted.
I am proud of myself in some ways, because I always rose to the challenges put before me and genuinely did my best. What's more, I think I may have actually helped a few people in a small way. And my overwhelming impression of the place, despite all the negative elements I've listed above, will be of irresistible charm, inspirational human goodness, cultural beauty and fascination.
I was awed by the patience and magnanimity of the women struggling for livelihoods in rural villages. I was touched by the smiling faces of families and communities fighting a constant battle against hardship and want. I was humbled by the selflessness of the religious worship I witnessed every day. Ah... the stories I've listened to! the lives I've glimpsed! Oh, the number of voices I've heard! I invite you roam around my online scrapbook, http://tamilsummersophs.skyblog.com, for some examples of what I mean. A disclaimer, however: quite apart from the obvious restrictions of the internet upon any disclosures of a private nature, I am perpetually chagrined to find that, no matter how hard I try, my pictures and writings leave so much unexpressed. It could be said that attempting to conjure up India is like sketching the universe. Or, as it's put in the holy book Mahabharata: "What is found here may be found elsewhere. What is not found here will not be found elsewhere." Try matching that with a cyber-diary!
To all the people who greeted and guided me, fed and lodged me, welcomed and washed me, and set me to work. To those who planted the seeds of a new 'Indian' imagination under my foreign (firang) ginger hair. To those who didn't rip me off; to those who did. To those who honoured me with the clothes and ornaments of South Indian womanhood. To those who weren't perturbed by my alien ways, ex-colonial tongue, extreme youth and presumptuous ideas about 'helping'. ... THANK YOU. [Thanks, too, to those few who deceived, rejected, exploited, patronized, disappointed or snubbed me – those experiences were perhaps more valuable.]
IN SOME FURTHER DETAIL:
In particular I would like to thank Mr Narayanan, who smilingly carries a village, and more, on his shoulders, and his wonderful wife Sobana, that is, my good friends in Kovalamkuppam, for their selfless hospitality. They and their extended family are a moving example of the human potential for faith, integrity, fraternity, and uncomplaining hard work. Ah... for twenty days to have lived, eaten, slept, played, worshipped, studied, washed, dressed, and gone fishing with them! I don't know what I've done to have deserved such a blessing.
My thanks, too, to the awesome Madam Ruby of TNF, and to all the women, girls and children at the TNF/IJ Martin Vocational Training Centre, my much-missed Indian cousins, whom I will find again one day, I have resolved – as soon as my be-ankleted feet wend their jingling way to Tamil Nadu once more. Their generosity, curiosity and solidarity are inspirational. As is their long-distance dedication to “Femila vaas madam”, whose funds they are determined not to squander!
A big thank you to Chandra who, from behind his grave spectacles and imposing secretarial desk on Taylor's Road, first challenged my motives for being in Chennai... and, trust having been established, summoned me up repeatedly for eye-opening excursions, thought-provoking conversations, and charity projects. I can only grin and appreciate the way he'd call on me imperiously for articles and speeches, while keeping his kindly feelers out for my wellbeing and allowing me to become a TNF affiliate and office regular. I owe my wonderful relationship with Ruby to his initial introduction.
Thank you Mr Selvaraj and the saint-like staff at Anbumalar! My time spent there was memorable, professionally and personally. My love and best wishes to all the children. May the new centre spring from the ground soon!
Thank you Mrs Vasanthi Ranganathan, for wisdom imparted, and for the privileged world I got a 'look-into' – the city's cream, the Rotary Clubs. They complemented my other, harsher experiences beautifully. Thank you for my induction into the workings of the GELS office; for giving me the chance to travel a little, and to collaborate in your particular brand of free-lance education, as well as hold my own workshops and seminars!
And so many more...
Thank you Ravi, for sparking my interest in the right areas. Thank you Bala, for trying to lift my mind to the humanism of Vivekananda. Thank you Karthika, Ramia, Gandhimathi, for the friendship. Thank you Mithran, for criticisms and confidence. Thank you Mr Beliappa, for illuminations over tea. Thank you Abi, Kanimozhi, Susila-madam, for Kovalamizing me. Thank you Antara, for helping me out. Thank you Danasekhar, for such long, generously offered motorbike rides home after work! Thank you Praveena, Joshua, Paul and Joy, for an initial immersion in the South Indian home.
And a thousand thanks to the Geneva donor who sent my eager, apprehensive 18-year-old frame, fresh out of exams, all the way to Chennai.
But most of all, thank you PAM. Tamil Nadu has got me. I feel I understand your cause.