hearts

a friend wrote to me, after my last post, and said that i was breaking their heart. this was and is not my intention; i don’t want to hurt you, to shame you, or to scare you. i have no ulterior motive~ i tell it like i see it. but please: don’t let your hearts be broken. these girls’ hearts are not. they are battered, yes, but not broken. broken hearts can’t effect change, or reach out, or plant seeds of goodness. broken hearts are immobilized, stagnant. i write not to break your hearts but to open them. and yes, the farther and wider they open, the more likely they are to hurt now and again, and the world and i will continue to send arrows that will pierce and wound you. but this is a good thing. this lets you know you are alive, and still caring, and still hoping for better, for yourselves and those with whom you share the planet. let your heart ache, once in a while. and then count your blessings, and go about your day. fight the good fights. dream the good dreams. live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water. or in my case, like the ginormous toads, at home in the gutter of sewage.

live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.

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how to make a prostitute.

in bihar, this is how it begins: you are born a girl. this is your first mistake. india is a country where ultrasounds that determine the sex of a fetus are illegal because, in the brief period of time when they existed, the rate of abortions skyrocketed as people ran to rid themselves of the girls they were carrying. if you are born in one of the many, many red light districts, this is your second mistake. the family you are born to is probably a ‘working’ one, that is, your mother is a prostitute, and your father may or may not be her pimp. if you are born outside of a red light district you have an advantage, but it can be easily lost. if you are of a class and caste high enough to warrant a hospital birth, you will either be swaddled and taken home, as all babies ought to be, or your legs will be opened, it will be discovered that you are a girl, and you will be discarded. your birth parents will leave the rural hospital without you. you are, after all, a girl, and it is boys who bring honour and value to the family. at this point you will most likely be adopted, or, more properly, purchased, from the doctor who delivered you. if you are lucky, and some are, a kind family will take you and raise you and love you. if you are unlucky, a ‘working’ family will buy you, because only to these families, in all of india, are girls more prized than boys, for girls, not boys, can be turned for a profit. girls, not boys, increase the value of the family.
now you live in the red light district, with a family that may or may not be your own. your father rents out your mother. your mother sees nothing wrong with this, or with bringing you up to be rented out by your future husband, or your brother, or your father. after all, her mother was a prostitute, and her mother’s mother, and many mothers going back many, many years. you are merely following in your family’s footsteps. this is your history, forward and back.
you may be fortunate enough to be put in school, either because your parents have given in to pressure by a local aid group, or because those families around you have sent their daughters, and your parents want to save face. if you are lucky, you will now go to school, and to an adolescent group, a kishori mandal, when your mother allows it, that teaches you to dance. if you are very lucky, you will be sent to a local boarding school, kasturba. if you are unlucky, you will stay at home, helping to raise your younger siblings, who may be the children of men who visit your mother, or children, as you, of utter strangers who didn’t want to take home a girl. when you can, you sneak out to come join the kishori mandal. when you are ‘old enough,’ probably around 15 or 16, you will enter the family business and get married, maybe in that order, maybe reversed. your husband will most likely be the son of a family like yours, who learned how to pimp from his father, who learned it from his. he may have practiced on his sisters, and now he rents you, his teenage wife, out for a few rupees.
if you are one of the luckiest, those at kasturba, your moment of danger this month will come when durga puja arrives. this year you will be allowed, for the first time, to return home to your family, though they live only 15 minutes’ train ride away. this is your next mistake. at the end of the week you will be expected to return, along with your classmates, to your concrete building with pink walls and wood-slat beds, where you go to school, and read, and dance. but this year your parents don’t want you to return. you don’t want to return, either; school is boring, the girls are loud, the teachers are mean. you, the luckiest, envy the unlucky ones who roam the streets after their siblings all day, washing saris in the brown gutter water, squatting over a fire to brew chai for their mothers’ ‘visitors.’ your parents have kept you home either because they want you to start paying for your self, or because they are angry at the aid group which has presumed to tell them what to do with their daughters, and they see withholding you from the group’s school as the ultimate form of punishment. they will send you back to school when they feel the aid group has groveled enough. they hold you ransom. every day you stay out of school is a loss in the fight to keep you off the streets. your parents know this; they will negotiate, they will ask for money, rides, favours. the aid group, aware that it cannot do for you anything that it can’t afford to do for all your peers, is paralyzed. your parents win either way.
if you remain lucky, you will, in fact, end up back at kasturba. there you will stay until you are 18, at which point you will be released to the world to face your life. you will probably marry soon, and become a wife and mother, but hopefully you will bear only your husband’s children, and only mother those which will be raised free. if you are extremely lucky, or very bright, or both, you may go on to higher education, to a school or a job or a city where your home is not the red light district and your daughters are not born onto an assembly line.
if you are unlucky, you will return to your parents’ home, on a muddy dirt lane with a thatched hut and chickens and a buffalo. you, too, will marry, but it will most likely be to the son of one of your mother’s coworkers, who knows, or learns, how to peddle you. and the cycle continues. ‘will the circle be unbroken, by and by, lord, by and by.’ so it is sung in a country far, far away from you.
and this is how you are made.
step, by step, by step.

live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.

snapshots…

i am still loath to take out my camera, because i feel already like such an outsider, and a camera cements one as such. plus, having my own picture taken makes me painfully aware of how awkward and uncomfortable it can be. true, having one’s picture taken is a huge compliment to many (my students being prime examples… ‘no, no didi, no!’ they cried, while scrambling to get right in front and pose with their biggest smile…), but still…
if i HAD taken out my camera today, these are the photos i would have taken during my commute, and sent to you:

a statuesque woman on the train platform, draped in a sari that was once lustrous and now merely green, its beading crumbled or missing altogether. her child, bare from the waist down, with a small red bindi, sits on her hip. a rope in her left hand, tied to a goat, small and once-white, with a full udder and sparkling eyes. its back and head are covered in bright pink dye powder from durga puja, its face nestled into the folds of her dress between her knees.

a man in the station, young and handsome and rakish, wearing a faded rust-coloured t-shirt that said, in bold letters, ‘World’s Coolest Grandma.’

a tiny naked boy, holding on to the bars of the train window, watching the greenery and water buffalo go by, as his mother sleeps.

the beautiful nepali family, with a small girl whose eyes are blackened to her cheekbones with kohl, as many children’s are, to keep away the evil eye. she breast-feeds at her lovely mother, who smiles at me as i hold my hand to shield the little one’s eyes from the setting sun. their wrists, all four of them, are covered in bangles that catch that same sunlight and glitter.

the stunning contrast of bright turmeric-yellow vomit against the dust blue steel of the train, as a woman leans her draped head out the window and silently retches as the train pulls away from the station in forbesganj, heading north to the border.

so there you have it: pictures from bihar. imagine them with as many bright colours as possible, and to all people add the glow of perspiration, and to all backdrops add cows and goats and a wallah of your choice.

don’t stare at strangers

it is a great mystery to me, how there can be more creepy crawlies in an INDOOR shower (here) than in an OUTDOOR one (home). there’s a particularly pervy gecko (i call him tom, as in ‘peeping’) as well as any number of centipede-esque critters, all of whom are perpetually underfoot or overhead. it’s quite unnerving when one is singing to oneself in the [cold] shower and suddenly realizes one has company. tangentially: if anyone knows WHAT exactly a gecko is, i’d love to know. i feel like it’s a strange reptile-amphibian hybrid, like a lizard eloped with a salamander and they had an albino child, but… anyway, ten points if you can tell me a., what a gecko is, and b., if they live in northeast india. cool. thanks.

in other news, the week is wrapping up (they work half days on saturday; sunday is free) and i feel settled in, for the most part. the train is still a wild card, since it is always late and sometimes never comes at all, but today it was a good lesson in letting people help you, since, on my way back from the kasturba, i got on the train which appeared semi-close to the correct time (there oughtn’t to have been any other train for 3 hours) and very quickly people started yelling at me (okay, speaking kindly but very loudly and at close-range) and, ultimately, i was persuaded with pantomime to climb down the other side of the train, and loiter dangerously on the center tracks with a group of people including a student of english (which didn’t help his language skills much. or at all…) and a gaggle of gawkers (today the theme was ‘let’s take pictures of the freakishly tall pale girl on our cell phones’) and a peanut vendor, as well as the usual women, children, monks, and assorted livestock. i’ve taken a great liking to the train station goats~ THEY aren’t wont to stare at me, and today i befriended two kids, not more than a week or two old by their size and softness, and whilst waiting for the train engrossed myself in the pleasant task of scratching their dirty chins. the adage that goats will eat anything, while not true of my own spoiled creatures, evidently was born in india, where they are constantly scrounging the remains of the station-stalls’ goods~ paper cups that once held chai, banana peels, trod-upon peanut shells and the like. it’s sad until you see them frolicking on the stairs and in the green of the fields and realize they’re happy to get into mischief, and here no one cares. and i had a desperate urge on the train today to buy a snack of peanuts (roasted and served with salt and a thin green pepper, all wrapped in newspaper), until i realized that my feet were in a massive puddle of day-old (at least) vomit. that rather put me off my need for chaat.

i have a bit of a schedule now, although the aforementioned train’s lack of such is a perpetual annoyance. but when i stay in forbesganj i go to the women’s center in the red light district and teach english to women who are working as prostitutes. it’s touching andheartbreaking both at once. yesterday i had 5 women and 2 children, and one woman in particular, who looked 60 but was probably half that, was just overbrimming with enthusiasm, repeating everything i said with great vim, if less than great pronunciation. we sat in circle and introduced ourselves, and she would every so often just take my hand and squeeze it and smile at me. in the afternoons i go back and teach the children at the kishori mandal (after-‘school’ program for children of sex workers who live at home) and that is the highlight of my week. they are just the most beautiful, eager, generous souls you could imagine. they positively glow. they follow my every move and repeat my every word (which is good since it’s a combination english-dance-therapy couple of hours) and i already adore them. i started class with 5, and 3 more quickly joined in, and by the end 4 more had come, so hopefully word will spread and we’ll have a big group of beautiful dancers in no time.

it isn’t hard, as i imagined it might be. or at least, not yet. they are so resilient adn lovely, it’s hard to be heartbroken, even when you see how little they have, or how much help they need (several girls have cataracts, or horrible scaring as from burns, or club feet, and so forth). to be sure, they themselves are anything but heartbroken~ they are laughing, dancing, colourful creatures for whom pity would do little good. the women is harder to bear; they look so tired, and so worn. even though prostition in india is illegal, it isn’t enforced and most police are corrupt and so even when a woman does gain the courage to file a report, the reaction will be soemthing to the effect of, ‘you can’t file a report, you are just a prostitute’ and so there’s nothing to be done. it seems to be consensus that there is little to be done for this generation of prostitutes, save provide them with safe houses and legal advisement and so forth, but that the real issue is to break the familial cycle, and prevent the daughters from following in their mothers’ footsteps.

but i digress… that wasn’t happy or uplifting… i promised to provide just a titch of ‘food porn’ so let me regale you with stories… breakfast today was ghee-ed chapatis with spicy potato tomato ginger stew, lunch was basmati with channa dal with garlicky okra, spicy cumin stewed turnips (omg best turnips EVER. and i don’t like turnips. who does, really?) and dry-spiced potatoes, with homemade yogurt with raw sugar and fresh bananas. yeah, that’s what i’m talking about. plus the ever-present offer of chai… sweet and spicy and dark. the amusing spectacle of course is to watch melinda try and eat properly, using only the fingertips of her right hand. the rice and dal are particularly difficult, but i’m getting better. or at least, i think i am. and oh my gosh the chaat… today i walked to the other side of town (literally ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and had my first pani poori… and, well, i am in heaven. i could have stood there in the hot sticky dark and eaten for hours. as it was i had two helpings and felt that all was right with the world. tiny crisp hollow balls, like little miniature balloons, are filled with a potato cilantro onion mixture and then drenched in spicy tamarind water. words fail me. i have found my calling in life: to eat as much pani poori as humanly possible. updates on that particular goal to follow…

and it occured to me that i could teach the children their numbers by counting the mosquito bites on my body… we could get up to a hundred, at least. i look like a leper. ah well, it gives the locals something else to stare at!
oh and in closing, i wish to retract my previous (kindly) statement about rats. opinions change, you see, when one is awakened in the night by a rodent walking over one’s head…

farewell, dear readers: don’t stare at strangers, wash your hands before you eat, and be kind to wandering goats.

The Curious Tale of the Wandering Beach Ball

Once upon a time, there was a little beach ball. We’ll call him BB,
shall we? he was a cheery ball; bubblegum pink with stars of white,
yellow and red. he was made in china, or perhaps Taiwan, but he came
to rest in a tiny toy shop in a tiny town in California. There he
waited patiently, wondering what was to become of him. The other
beach balls talked about being thrown about on the beach endlessly,
but this little pink beach ball knew that it had more interesting
things in store.

One day, in wintertime when beach balls usually sit quietly on their
shelves waiting for summer, a cute redhead came into the toy shop.
She wasn’t a child per se, but her heart was young and light and the
beach ball was glad when she picked him up and bought him. Little did
he know that just a few hours from then he would be onstage in a
burlesque show, surrounded by half-naked ladies and lingerie. When
this turned out to be the case the little beach ball was quite pleased
with the way things were going post-toy shop, and nearly popped then
and there.

After several months of burlesque shows BB was an old pro, and though
he still loved being tossed about by gorgeous gals, and quite enjoyed
the limelight, his little inflated heart longed for more. And so
when he was packed away amidst bras and garter belts he sighed
wistfully. Perhaps his dreams of grandeur were never to be realized.
But then, late one night, he was whisked from his box and packed into
a strange canvas bag, and in the morning he found himself heading
south. Soon he was going through an x-ray machine (he felt that,
being transparent, the x-ray was a bit superfluous, and mildly
insulting), and then he was on a plane miles above the earth. When it
grew dark out the plane window the girl who had packed him heeded her
mother’s advice and inflated BB, using him as a rest for her weary
upper body. BB held her as she slept across the atlantic. he didn’t
even mind when she drooled just a bit somewhere over Greenland.
After a brief spell in Europe, BB was back on a plane, this time bound
for the famous sub-continent. BB had every intention of spending this
flight as the last, with Melinda snoozing on him, but several rows up
a child was crying, and BB couldn’t sleep. Incidentally, neither
could Melinda. But she blew up BB, to the chagrin of her seatmates,
and then reached across the aisle to the screaming child. At the
sight of BB the child’s wails turned to giggles, and soon the little
one was crawling up and down the aisle of the plane, happily pushing
BB along in front of her. BB spent the rest of the flight keeping the
little girl company, and thus the entire plane-ful of people were
grateful to BB and thanked him, or meant to, for his presence. BB
glowed with joy.

When the plane landed the little girl let BB fall, and Melinda walked
by, in a fog of exhaustion. Just as she was about to leave the plane
and step out onto India she felt a tug at her heart, and she turned
and found BB waiting patiently for her, some rows back. He knew she
wouldn’t forget him.
The next few days were quiet, and BB rested and enjoyed the heat and
sounds of his new country. When Melinda put him into the canvas bag
once again, he thought that it was time to go home. But no… onto a
train, past many, many people who stared at Melinda and BB as though
they were circus freaks, and finally to a pink-walled building full of
girls.

Melinda sat in the middle of a room, on hard concrete, and inflated BB
again. ‘hawaa,’ said a small girl in yellow. that is how Melinda and
BB learned the word for ‘air.’
Soon the girls began to dance. Every once in a while they would
glance furtively at the corner where BB sat, or tiptoe towards him in
anticipation, reaching out to touch his colourful stars. At last it
was BB’s turn to dance, and he was whirled about from girl to girl,
all around the room. Whoever held BB got to dance in the center of
the circle, and so BB was passed from one to the next, each with a
smile or a laugh. BB had never felt so loved and glad to be a pink
beach ball. These girls thought BB was just wonderful, and BB was
having such fun.

Even after the dancing was done, BB was still the center of attention.
The girls formed a circle with Melinda and tossed BB around, up and
down and twirling, for hours, while J.S. Bach’s cello suites played.
The girls had never played with Bach before, either. But they liked
BB more. BB could tell, and was secretly glad to win the popularity
contest over Bach.

And then, when it was dark both in and out, the girls ran off to do
schoolwork, and Melinda gently pressed the air from BB so she could
place him once again in the canvas bag. She promised the girls that
BB would be back when she came next to dance with them, and from the
depths of her bag (there was a ripe banana down there that Melinda had
forgotten about, and it was very icky) BB heard the girls’ excitement,
and was glad.

BB rested that night to the sound of singing and crickets and trains.
his little pink heart nearly inflated itself with joy at having been
so adored. And he settled down to rest, knowing that the next day
would surely bring more close encounters with ceiling fans, as well as
with beautiful children. And bb was very, very happy.
The end.

Melinda’s explanatory note: in my defense, apparently when bananas
are picked ripe instead of green their skins slip right off, and,
unbeknownst to me, if you put a banana in your bag it will unsheath
itself and leave a disastrous mess in its wake.

Welcome to India…

namaskar from forbesganj, bihar~ ‘lawless india’ of corruption and
notoriety, in which i am, literally, the only westerner.
i arrived here after a lengthy journey (berlin to paris, paris to
delhi, overnight in the delhi airport {NOT recommended…} and a much
delayed flight to bagdogra, in west bengal, followed by a 4 hour
drive) and am finally situating myself, or trying to. sensory
overload doesn’t do it justice – nor do the movies and national
geographic articles. and for those of you (you know who you are) who
get ill just thinking of my driving, well, i drive like a nun compared
to indian drivers! imagine a potholed driveway, winding and narrow,
and then turn it into a highway, and then add busses with people
hanging out the doors, scores of bicycles (most with 2 or 3 people),
water buffalo trudging slowly (sometimes with children on board) baby
goats prancing down the center of the ‘road,’ cows immovable and
unwilling to relocate from their position directly in your way, high
speeds, and an unceasing symphony of car horns. literally, i mean
they honk ALL the time, in some mysterious code. it’s an experience,
i tell you. and all the while the scenery is full of crumbling tea
plantations, rice paddies and jute spinners, and bustling, crazy
marketplaces line the road when it goes through a ‘town,’ which is
really just a handful of mud or cement huts with thatched roofs and no
windows.

a significant part of my subconscious is fixated on my digestive
system, checking in every few minutes to make sure all is well… which
it is, blessedly enough, despite eating indian food and, especially,
drinking indian water. i smile a little to myself; i’m quite proud of
my stomach, really. way to go me.

the monsoon season is well and truly upon us here by the nepali
border. it has poured all day, a blissful drenching that makes all
the greens greener and the oranges oranger, and i sat on the patio
drinking chai listening to the mixed medley of rain, thunder, horns,
train, shouting, and birds. all to the backdrop, of course, of
ubiquitous indian pop music and the aforementioned endless honking.
today i begin teaching. i am nervous, literally quivering with it. i
will take the train one stop south to the town where the girls’ hostel
is (some are former prostitutes, some daughters of sex workers, and
some just very, very poor), and spend the early afternoon teaching the
staff english. then, when the girls get out of school at 4, i will
teach them in three groups (thank goodness) of about 15 each, back to
back. i’ll finish at 7;30 and catch the 8 pm train back to
forbesganj. on alternating days i will stay here in forbesganj and go
to the red light district, where there is a center for girls whose
mothers are in prostitution but who live at home, and i’ll do the same
thing there. so that’s the plan, though it’s a bit terrifying at this
point. bihar is not the safest of states, and i am wary of traveling
at night, by train or rickshaw. so i’m just going to pretend it’s
going to be fine. and it will be. i am reassured by the fact that my
cheeks still hurt from smiling so hard yesterday when i met the girls
– ‘sister,’ they call me, as they clustered around and introduced
themselves in hindi, touching me and fanning me and bringing me chai,
and so excited to have someone pay attention to them.

on a lighter note, i survived my first Indian earthquake! i was
sitting outside on the patio on the mattress (i had been on the couch
until i noticed the large picture hung above it was moving and making
noises. i investigated and found the cutest little noses peering out
at me, and though i find rats quite endearing and unfairly maligned,
i’d rather not sit directly beneath them…) and then everything started
quivering, and then full-on shaking and the power went out, and while
at first i was enjoying it, as only a californian can, it soon dawned
on me that bihari building codes were probably not quite up to par, at
which point i stuffed mabel (my laptop) under my shirt and dashed out
into the garden, where i stood with soumya (the field cooredinator who
lives here as well) and the nepali family who lives next door. amidst
the smell of burning incense coils and our clutched mugs of chai, we
waited and felt the ground vibrate under our bare feet, and when the
fear of being crushed subsided i was tickled to think that i’d just
ridden the push to make the himalayas a little bit higher…
and in closing: no matter how many times one is warned about the lack
of it, it still somehow comes as a shock to realize that there is, in
fact, no toilet paper.

i hope you are all well in the world, and i send you my love, scented
with cardamom and cloves.
~melinda.

~live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water~

welcome, dear ones.  this is my first foray into the world of blogging, so i hope you will be kind and overlook my many technological failings as i attempt to navigate this strange new world.

i write with the hope that my many wonderful supporters can be kept abreast of my work in india, and those who don’t can learn of it.  to sum up, i am leaving my life as a ballet teacher in mendocino, california, to practice dance therapy red light districts of bihar, one of the most impoverished states in india.  i will be working for an organization called apne aap (www.apneaap.org), teaching girls aged 9-16, and helping them to reclaim their bodies, and ultimately their sexualities, as their own.

i am terrified.  not of moving, or of living or being there, but of facing the reality of unspeakable horrors against women and children, against humanity.  just seeing a dead butterfly sends me into sadness, and now i will be every moment with young women who have experienced hells i can scarcely imagine.  i am hopeful that dance, as a universal language (the young women speak no english, and my hindi is… well… lacking…) can be used for healing and self-love, and that through that i may do good work in the world.