My time volunteering in Calcutta has come to end. I was volunteering in four different locations, and all of them full of great experiences and beautiful people. The home four young adults with mental disabilities was always a treat to be able to visit. They were always so happy and positive, just to be around them was a great privilege. Everyday they would be waiting for us, looking out the window and some down on the street to greet us. We would teach them and play with them hoping to increase their vocabulary, knowledge of the world around them, and their motor skills. This was the basic lesson plan set up for all the lessons by Empower the Children. I also volunteered at a hospital for kids who needed surgery for Cerebral Palsy and Polio. These kids came from all over eastern India. Many come from the neighboring state of Bihar, the poorest and most lawless state in India. In Bihar people are routinely killed for the cars they are driving and it is still possible to buy slaves. So when the children are healed many times the parents don't want to take them back. The life they have in the hospital is much better than one they could dream of having back home. In the hospital they are provided with education, music therapy, a safe environment, steady and healthy meals and so much more. What I did there was help bring an alternative type of education. The lessons were always fun and involved some form of art and story telling. The kids always remembered me and it was amazing to see how happy they were each time I returned. I also helped teach at two schools for street kids. Just like everywhere else, the kids were so cute and amazing. At all these places the kids were provided with not only an education but a meal as well. The main theory behind Empower the Children is that id kids aren't educated, then they will never be able to escape poverty. This is something that I truly believe. These children might never attend university, but if they learn to read and write they've at least made progress past that of their parents. Over all I had a really nice time in Calcutta, but unlike many other places in India it's not the city that I will miss. I came there for the children and it's them who I'll remember when I think of Calcutta.
Sunday, February 04, 2007
A few days ago it was the Muslim festival of Muharram. From what I gathered, a long time ago some very important Muslim leaders and a large Muslim population were brutally tortured and killed; Muharram is the time to remember this tragedy. I had heard about there being a large parade/festival that was going to happen from some of the Muslims I know in my area of Kolkata so I decided I would go down and check it out. I walked for maybe a half an hour to get to where the parade was to start; I'm used to being a minority in this country, but there where so many people and I really stood out, I was the only westerner there. Within a few minutes I had a crowd around me just staring. It was a little awkward at first but then someone went and brought me chai and biscuits and refused to accept payment. Pretty soon I was talking to a well known Politician from Calcutta and his family. They were really nice and apparently the ones who had paid for my chai. They were all Sunni Muslims so they wouldn't be taking part of the flagellation that was about to start (only the Sia Muslims beat themselves). Nothing happened until about two hours as it was supposed to, but that's almost expected. Then as the procession started, to my surprise, we started walking along with it. So I walked the whole route with these guys, a very hot and crowded four hours. It basically went like this: we would walk for a little while and then we would stop and crowd would form around the Sias who were going to take part of the ceremony. They would then begin beating their chest with razor blades and whipping their back with knifes on a chain. It was a bizarre thing to see, because there wasn't an ounce of pain on their face. When I asked them they all were adamant that it didn't hurt at all. They really must get into a religious frenzy with all that adrenaline pumping or something, otherwise it seems like it would hurt A LOT. Kids as young as six years (as you can see in the picture, the child has knives in his right hand that he's about to use on his own back) and the elderly alike take part in this tradition. For the first few kilometers the bystanders had been all Muslim, but all of a sudden we entered a Hindu area. To my surprise they were all out on the street acting as though this were a Hindu holiday and when I asked Mr. D.K. (the politician's nephew) why they were here he simply replied that they were praying to Allah. I thought that this was fairly interesting, but no one else seemed to notice. After the end of the procession I went to Mr. D.K.'s house for snacks and then we said our goodbyes. I took a taxi back to Sudder St. and was all of a sudden immersed in westerners again.
Here are a couple of images from the Saraswati Pujas that I attended about a week ago. It's a pretty importan puja (ceremony) because Saraswati is the Goddess of learning. It's performed in schools through-out all of India. Like many other pujas it involves a lot of fire and chanting; it was really fun to see the littlest of kids chant along. Another important part is that textbooks are put up on the alter and then the goddess is invoked to put the knowledge from the books into the heads of the students. That's my kind of learning.