Salone 2014: on returning to Sierra Leone

The novel is out, the reviews are wonderful and I’m moving on to other projects, writing and otherwise. I’ve been meaning to write about the notes I’ve been receiving from readers of My Heart is Not My Own. And I will–next time. The comments, from book club participants and readers from across the country, are more of a post-Christmas story.

This being a season associated with giving, I’ve decided instead to give you a preview of my upcoming trip to Sierra Leone in February.

the rebuilt school, reducing class sizes from 90 to 45

the rebuilt school, reducing class sizes from 90 to 45

I’ll be returning to Sumbuya, a village in the south that is very close to my heart. I keep going back because I love the place and the people. I love how the kids ignore their screaming teachers and come running and waving at the pumui (white man) when I stroll past the school. I love it when someone from across the village brings me a sack of yams as a gift, or a couple of live chickens. Fish from the river, chicken and goat—it’s fair to say dinner is always made with the freshest of ingredients.

kids, ignoring their teacher, running and waving at the pumui

kids, ignoring their teacher, running and waving at the pumui

And I love how I get the strangest requests. One of the girls we help, who is maybe eighteen but looks fifteen, recently asked if I could provide some money to pay for her initiation into the Sandei bush. The people know I am interested in the secret societies and that I do not judge. I did, however, refuse her request.

Sowei's helmet mask

Sowei’s helmet mask

Now truth be told, there are so many things that bug me when I’m in the village. It bugs me that most of the teachers are male. And I’ve met a few teachers who’ve taught three to four years without ever being paid. And when the class sizes get up to 80 or more the “cabbages” (rough translation for students with questionable ability or motivation, but you get the point) are placed at the back and ignored, while a second teacher walks around with a wooden cane to ‘switch’ those who “do not obey”. It is not uncommon to see male teachers cuffing their students.

And the chiefs feel entitled—all too often they remind me of Canadian politicians in Toronto and Montreal and Ottawa.

Although birth control shots are provided free of charge to the older girls, pregnancy among the early teens is quite common—as is maternal mortality. Since I first visited Sumbuya in 2009 I’ve known women as young as eighteen who’ve died while giving birth and a few men considerably younger than me who’ve died of strokes or dysentery.

As my good Sumbuya friend, Mr. David Stephens says, ‘we must start somewhere, life here is very hard.” Which brings me to this February. I do not think Sierra Leoneans need more religion—whether Christian or Muslim, they are all believers. Missionaries still flock to Africa—kind of like sending snow to Canada’s north, but don’t get me started.

My own view is that education, for Sierra Leoneans, by Sierra Leoneans, provides the most sustainable leg up. Ultimately, an educated public best informs choices about everything from good governance to secret societies.

Lining up for the "Opening" of the new school

Lining up for the “Opening” of the new school

With the financial help of family and friends we’ve funded the building of Sumbuya’s first library. It is poorly resourced, but a start. Two years ago, working in partnership with World Vision, we funded the rebuilding of a school—a project that reduced elementary class sizes in half. We continue to fund lots of school fees for children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to receive a report card—in Sierra Leone, a report card is not issued to children of families who cannot pay school fees.

When I return in February I’ll be meeting with approximately 60 girls and 20 boys and their parents—in addition to providing school fees each student will get a small solar reading light to replace kerosene (for some) and no light whatsoever for others. I’m hoping to assist a local trader to sell a test sample of 200 solar lights using micro credit. Coming from a family of teachers, I am thrilled to be bringing four reading kits for primer to grade 3 to be used across four schools.

Some of the Chinese-made solar lights--I'll be bringing 290 of the one--top right, plus 20 of a larger light

Some of the Chinese-made solar lights–I’ll be bringing 290 of the one–top right, plus 20 of a larger light

This year we are paying college fees for six women and two men to receive ‘distance-training’ for their teaching certificates. The teachers attend three semesters a year during school holidays of Christmas, Easter and summer. The women and men, who have been selected by a local committee, start their first semester this week.

I would like to again thank my generous friends and family—for the ideas, and reading kits and very, very generous donations. Couldn’t do it without you!

Comments are welcome and encouraged–don’t be shy.

Postscript: I mentioned that my next post will be inspired by comments I’ve received spontaneously from readers of My Heart is Not My Own. Some women have reflected on ‘dissociation’—something Mariama did to cope with trauma. Feel free to send me an email if you would like to contribute.

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On privilege, and spawning salmon…

Coastal canopy

Coastal canopy

I’ve caught a lot of salmon—my idea of a good day is being out on my boat, somewhere in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, lines down, rod tip bouncing to the strike of a wild salmon. I usually hand the rod to a friend or family member, preferring to handle the net and the boat.

I always thank the spirit of the salmon for her sacrifice—she has given herself and I hope that I am worthy of the long journey from natal river to my line.

2salmon

Male and female chum salmon, settling into a pool

Earlier this week I witnessed something of a different sort—thousands of spawning chum salmon completing their cycle of life in the Goldstream River on southern Vancouver Island. Fish that have weathered thousands of miles, storms, mushroomscommercial fisherman, sport fisherman, polluted rivers, rising stream temperatures, sea lice and virus’s from fish farms, predation from killer whales and seals—with all the challenges it’s amazing any salmon return.

But they do, and the river was choked with the newly arrived and newly dead.

deadfish

The seagulls flitted from carcass to carcass, pecking out the eyes

To watch salmon making their way up their natal stream is to behold one of the great wonders—by now they are scarred, discoloured and rotting alive. Torn fins, jagged mouths–the silver sides of ocean fish now a distant memory. But they are beautiful, in an ugly sort of way.

One fish, on her side, her tired gills drawing water for the last time, drew me—her eyes, if they could focus at all, seemed to take me in. A salmon beholding a human being, possibly for the first time, as her life ebbed away.

dyingsalmonI’ve enjoyed many privileges in my life and this moment was surely one.

Comments are welcome…

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Sante Fe blues…

shadows, evening light, road to Taos

shadows, evening light, road to Taos

I had thought I would be blogging about the light. To me, the American southwest is all about the light. And the blue, blue skies against the red hills and fall colours.

So much for intentions—my visit started with morning coffee with a sociable barista. Business was slow, so we talked—the typical Canadian to American chat about the day-to-day of crime, and guns and healthcare. Oh, and the higher you go into the hills, the more expensive the houses are, nothing new there.

Sante Fe library

Sante Fe library

“Been a lot of crazy things happenin out there,” he said, waving toward the street. He was referring to the shootings lately—the mass kind, random shooters killing innocents in random places. Not in Sante Fe mind you, but in Albuquerque and Texas and California.

“Do you have a gun?” I asked. He was twenty.

“Oh yeh, everyone I know has one.”

“I don’t know anyone who owns a gun,” I said.

“Man, that’s trippy,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own one.”

“What do you have?”

“Pump-action shotgun. Quite a weapon. I can’t have a hand gun until I’m twenty-one.”

“Do you think it’s too easy to get a gun here?”

“Yeh. For sure. I went into a store, and in fifteen minutes I walked out with my weapon. No background check. I mean, I gotta clean record. But there’s some crazies out there,” he said, pointing to the street again. “I mean, me and my friends go off-roading, take our guns, fire’em off. But you never know. And I’ve got it at home, case anyone breaks in or something.”

pueblo-revival architecture on blue

pueblo-revival architecture on blue

We talked about the Littleton shooting. He had trouble placing that one, there have been so many. “One of the biggest problems is lack of ammo. They’re always sold out—you’ve gotta go when the store opens, just after the deliveries come in.”

He refilled my coffee. Pointed to the half-eaten bran muffin. “It okay?”

“Fine,” I said. I thought I would change the topic. I asked him about Obamacare.

Sante Fe whimsy

Sante Fe whimsy

“Don’t know much about it,” he said. “Don’t have healthcare myself. I try to stay healthy.”

“You know you can go online and sign-up. I hear there are problems with the website, but I’m sure those will be fixed.”

“Yeah, don’t know much about it,” he repeated. “But I was born in Montreal,” he said. “I figure if I ever really need it I can go back to Canada.”

Time to check my email. I was getting the ‘no’ feeling about ObamaCare.

“What’s the password for your wifi?” I asked.

“Honor,” he said. “Just type honor.

Fall colours, yellows on blue

Fall colours, yellows on blue

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On, debt to life….

I’m not overly superstitious—I walk under ladders, step on cracks in the sidewalk. I know a Russian neurologist, well published in scientific journals, who doesn’t like to acknowledge when “things are going well” as we do in North America—what if, in the telling, you make it not so?

In My Heart is Not My Own John Rourke refers to a term in one of the Sierra Leonean dialects, latege saraka saa, which, roughly translated, refers to fate. I first revisited the country knowing I wanted to write a novel—on subsequent visits I’ve developed a sense that the country was telling me what I was supposed to write. My job was to listen. The more time I’ve spent in the country, the more latege saraka saa has, it would seem, become part of my view of the world.

Along the way I’ve enjoyed several ‘you can’t make this up’ moments and I’ve had no qualms about blending these into fiction. I can remember, on day one of my 2009 trip, sitting at the Family Kingdom Hotel, drinking instant coffee and wondering how I was going to go about researching this novel. (In the novel, Rourke sits in the same hotel wondering how he’ll go about finding Mariama.) Within an hour I found myself talking to a man and woman about their initiations into the men’s and women’s secret societies. The man, my driver and soon to be good friend Kenawa Bernard, showed me the scars on his back—scars which symbolized the bush devils eating the boy so he could become a man.

kenawa in Freetown

Kenawa, in Freetown

On the second day, I found myself, by chance I thought, speaking with a women in charge of the restaurant. She was the daughter of the famous leader of the Kamajors, Hinga Norman. And I’ve met a woman who has looked into the eyes of the devil, the infamous Masquita, a man who had led the rebels, the Revolutionary United Front, during the war. Fate? Dumb luck?

Mark Medley’s recent interview with Giller nominee Michael Winter explores the fine line between fiction and real-life experience. Medley writes, “Michael Winter has never been one to deny his debt to life.” In the interview, Winter recalls falling into an incinerator in a garbage dump—an event that made the cut for life experience making it into fiction. He quotes Winter, “In the moment of having fallen into that incinerator, and realized I was still alive, I knew I had a good story.”

It is probably no surprise that I’ve always been drawn more to stories that feature real-life possibilities like falling into incinerators to stories about pigs that fly. We all borrow from experience and My Heart is Not My Own couldn’t have been written by a younger me. Like Winter, I owe a large debt to life.

Here is a little You Tube video, taken by a friend, of a recent book talk/reading at the fabulous Munro’s Books, in Victoria, B.C.

 

 

 

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Interview with Adrian Chamberlain, Victoria Times-Colonist

A stormy afternoon in Victoria–100 k wind gusts coating the windows with saltspray. The house is rocking and I’m thinking of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz just before she was carried away…

My plan? A fire and a titch of Scotch whiskey and a few more chapters of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Today’s edition of the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper contained my interview with Adrian Chamberlain. Here it is.

 

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Launched…

Well that was something!

People lining up, outside the doors. Fire regulations put the limit at 96. I can’t say how many attended…. some were turned away and many had to stand.

Music by the fabulous The Eerie Green.  A table with copies of My Heart is Not My Own—lots of copies.

With Betty Tenga

With Betty Tenga

Friends I haven’t seen in over twenty years. Family members. Complete strangers. The two women who made it possible, Shelley Wuitchik and Betty Tenga, and little Linden Michael Hull, all of 3 weeks old, attending his first book launch party.

The two women, without whom....

The two women, without whom….

To say there was lots of love in Canmore on this night would be an understatement—it was amazing. Readers. Musicians. And probably a few non-readers who just came out to be supportive.

Frank Osendaarp was the MC—his introduction was very kind—the sort of intro that only the best of friends can pull off.

I told a few stories—about trips to refugee camps with Wayne Enright, and how Shelley suggested I focus on Rourke’s and Nadia’s hands in a love scene, and how Betty Tenga suggested Jolie would die and Mariama would adopt the baby they had just delivered—a baby Mariama would carry on her back across Sierra Leone.audience

I read a couple of scenes and Betty read two plus an “encore”. Having Betty, a Sierra Leonean nurse-midwife and former refugee read Mariama’s diary was a thrill.audience2

Here’s a little youtube video of the evening with music by The Eerie Green.

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Five endurances–the sweat lodge ceremony

In North American native culture, being of ‘two-spirits’ refers more to a cross gender orientation to the world than sexual preference. Most people self-identify as either male or female—a two-spirit often identifies as both.

the sweat lodge

the sweat lodge

Recently, Shelley and I had the pleasure of attending a sweat lodge for two-spirit persons and allies on the Tsleil-waututh First Nation. Located on the north shore of Burrard Inlet across from Vancouver, the setting is lovely—a place of tall timbers of Douglas Fir, Hemlock and Spruce and coastal plants like huckleberry, salal and fern.

It is the sweat lodge of Elder Sandy Leo Laframboise, a two-spirit woman I met while researching My Heart is Not My Own. Also known as Dancing Two Eagle Spirit, she and her community have been having sweats here for years.

a 'flag', phoenix-like in the trees nearby

a ‘flag’, phoenix-like in the trees nearby

The ceremony began with introductions. Shelley and I and one other person were newbies—everyone else was a veteran of this sweat lodge community. Although we were both nervous I don’t think I’ve ever felt so comfortable in a group of strangers. There was a lightness to the group—the sort of joking easy-goingness common among people who are relaxed in each other’s company.

Dancing Two Eagle Spirit prepared a smudge of sweet grass that she passed around the circle. In First Nations traditions, smoke from burning sweet grass is used to purify and is often used in ceremony.

Paul, the Fire Keeper, also known as Dream weaver – Spirit Dancer took me under his wing and explained his interpretation of the fire. I learned that virtually everything has meaning within the sweat ceremony—the way the rocks are placed, the use of tobacco, even the direction and vigour of the fire.

spreading tobacco, an offering to the earth before placing the fire

spreading tobacco, an offering to the earth before placing the fire

After raking the fire circle smooth, Paul sprinkled tobacco over the charred earth—an offering to the earth in appeasement for the burning that is to come. The stones to be heated are chosen by participants—the exact number in accordance with the Elder’s wishes for each of the endurances. I think it was 12,7,12, and 7—seven stones for the first endurance, followed by the additions of 7 for the next, and so on. Our Elder has an optional fifth endurance as well.

Did I say everything has meaning?

offerings of food and tobacco

offerings of food and tobacco

The stones are called the ‘grandmas’ and ‘grandpas,’ in deference to the fact that, as part of Mother Earth, the stones are literally our ancestors. The Fire Keeper created a platform for the grandmas and grandpas and invited everyone to help in completely covering the stones with wood.

placing the grandmas and grandpas

placing the grandmas and grandpas

The fire and the sweat lodge entrance are west facing—which is a direction associated with deep healing. Somewhat igloo shaped, it is lit from the west and east entrances. Paul explained that the east is associated with deep focus or visionary insight. The Fire Keeper told me he liked the energy from this fire—it burned evenly from the west and east sides, a nice balance between the energies of healing and insight.

the fire from the east door

the fire from the east door

As the flames engulfed the wood we sat in a circle and shared intentions for the sweat. Letting go of negative feelings, finding a path to openness and healing, and creating a space for personal growth were common themes. The Elder cautioned us newbies to prepare for two things—the intensity of heat when water is placed on the stones, and the complete darkness within the sweat lodge. She advised us to breathe through our mouths and direct any fears toward the heated rocks in the center of the sweat lodge.

And then it was time—Dancing Two Spirit Eagle invited us to enter the sweat lodge.

There were thirteen of us. I’m tall and we were so close I was touching the women on either side of me. The Fire Keeper and a helper selected the requested number of now glowing stones from the fire and, using a pitch-fork, rolled them into the pit into the middle. Dancing Two Spirit Eagle then asked for the door to be closed.

I was glad that I had been warned about the blackness and the searing heat of the steam. And I found the proximity of people around me reassuring–thirteen individuals enduring the sweat as one.

With each endurance a Water Pourer would lead the assembled in prayer and songs. As in a womb, the experience was all feeling and sound—it was an experience almost devoid of visual cues. I don’t remember smelling anything but I won’t forget the intensity of the other two senses. Drums. Rattles. Steam. Songs. Prayers. More steam.

At the end of the endurance Dancing Two Spirit Eagle would say—‘this endurance is now over. Open the door!’

We crawled out of the sweat lodge in turn—everyone dripping wet. We drank water, snacked and cooled down, preparing ourselves for the next endurance. Dancing Two Spirit Eagle told us that snacking between endurances is not common to all sweat lodges–in this case she encourages all participants to do so because some of the participants have health issues.

entrance with eagle talonsMy own experience of the sweat surprised me. After the second endurance I felt light-headed and I wondered if I could endure the last three sessions. But something happened during the third endurance—a transformation—something between a second wind in a long run and euphoria. Endurances four and five were wonderful—I knew what to expect and was able to let go. Unlike the first two, I didn’t want these ones to end.

I look forward to doing it again—many times.

(All photos by Shelley Wuitchik.)

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On Agents, Editors……And a New Cover!

coverWhen I completed my PhD in 1987 I thought I would never attempt another project that required as much attention to detail, hard work, and commitment. I was wrong. Writing My Heart Is Not My Own has required all of the above.
I’ve done my homework–four trips to Sierra Leone, phone calls and lengthy email conversations with anthropologists, experts on masks, experts on Mende dialect, road trips across the country, lengthy chats on the verandahs of African homes over poyo (palm wine) and beer–conversations about women, and men, and life and civil war. Hushed discussions about secret societies and yes, even clitoral circumcision–and that was just the ‘research’.
I’ve enjoyed two writing places–my desk overlooking the ocean off Victoria, British Columbia and my desk in ‘Room number 1’ at Florence’s and Franco’s Resort and

My Hemingway place in Sussex, Sierra Leone. Room no. 1 is behind the top three windows.

My Hemingway place in Sussex, Sierra Leone. Room no. 1 is behind the top three windows.

Restaurant on the beach in Sussex, Sierra Leone. I’m no Hemingway but ‘Room number 1’ is truly a Hemingway kind of place–beautiful view, a little fridge with wine and beer, paint peeling from plaster walls, a mosquito net and ceiling fan, shower that runs cold, fresh barracuda and lobster grilled over a charcoal flame. The property was ransacked by the rebels twice during the war and to this day the night time guard sits at the metal gate with an AK-47 across his lap. I love the place.

2012 visit, desk was in the middle of the room

2012 visit, desk was in the middle of the room

I didn’t have an ending in mind when I started writing MHINMO. What I thought was the beginning  became a series of scenes in the last chapters of Part One (more on that in a minute). I write best when I let my characters wander a bit–one day they’re taking me forward in time, and the next day they insist on taking me into backstory.view2

As I see it, my job is to stay out of the way and let the characters speak for themselves. They live in my head and are formed in my experience so they are never far away.
After four or five years I thought I had a novel so I pitched to agents in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain. Most didn’t respond and those who did provided the ‘thanks but this doesn’t really suit my list’ response. Fair enough, agents receive hundreds of pitches, but pitching is the pits.

View from my desk in Victoria

View from my desk in Victoria

view1

View of the lagoon from just below my writing window…

I was on the island of Kauai when I sent a pitch to Drea Cohane of The Rights Factory. She responded immediately, asking for two chapters. My Heart Is Not My Own is written in first person with two point of view (POV) characters–a  Canadian doctor, John Rourke, and an African nurse/midwife, Mariama Lahai. I wanted Drea to read the beginning (Rourke’s POV) but I also wanted her to hear Mariama’s voice, so I sent a representative chapter of each. Drea responded the next day—“Please forward the entire manuscript at your earliest convenience.”

I knew Drea was different when she soon emailed to say she was almost finished the manuscript and would contact me in the coming week with her feedback. Feedback? This was new territory indeed and she didn’t disappoint. Drea thinks like an editor–she suggested I had an extra character or two and she thought the real beginning to my novel was a few chapters in. She politely asked if I was I open to edits? Yes Drea, I’m a blank page, an agent’s / editor’s dream–edits are no problem. Her suggestions were brilliant and she said she would be thrilled to represent the novel.

Writing desk in Victoria

Writing desk in Victoria

Within three months Drea had my novel in the hands of Penguin’s Adrienne Kerr, who was named by the Canadian Bookseller’s Association as Canadian Editor of the Year in 2011. One of Adrienne’s first comments to me was, “I couldn’t believe a man, let alone a white man, wrote this book!” Adrienne has been fabulous. She helped me to make sure that each character was fully formed and driving the narrative forward. Adrienne was also concerned that my working title was, in a word, forgettable. Adrienne, Drea, my wife Shelley (who has laboured through four years of drafts) and I had a conference call to discuss alternative titles. Shelley read a line from Mariama’s diary which described how Mariama would sometimes depersonalize to cope with her experience as a captive to rebel soldiers, “My heart is beating, but it is not my own.”

My Heart Is Not My Own, was the unanimous choice. Thank you Shelley, Drea and Adrienne!

coverhttps://mail-attachment.googleusercontent.com/attachment/u/0/?ui=2&ik=9e05d6fdc4&view=att&th=13a0502061696e7c&attid=0.1&disp=inline&realattid=9cf4f7832842f3cc_0.1.1&safe=1&zw&saduie=AG9B_P8gmCrTfusyH33_zEP8SQon&sadet=1348741645541&sads=Ac6CAaT7k5xMR2j-qt2xyIi6zlQ

Coming to a bookstore near you, August 6, 2013

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India diary pt. 2: on love and marriage and the importance of caste…

Chinese fishing nets near Cochi, southern India

Chinese fishing nets near Cochi, southern India

Prior to coming to India, I’d thought I would blog about sights, sounds and smells. Frankly, I’ve seen, heard and smelled more in Africa and Cambodia, or maybe I’ve just become used to travel in places where there are too many people, too much garbage and too much corruption. It’s all here, as it is in so many places.

menmugging

Men mugging for my camera in Jaipur

What I hadn’t counted on was to become so obsessed with sense of place—not of physical place but of a who you are in relation to who everyone else is sense of place. In my last post I described our driver, Mr. Singh’s views on arranged marriage. He didn’t equivocate—he will arrange his daughter’s wedding and the lucky fellow will belong to the same caste.

I’ve since met P, a woman who helps to manage a hotel in the southern state of Kerala. P had a love-marriage and her views were not as I expected them to be.

Woman sweeping--our drivers could tell us a person's caste by seeing what they do

Woman sweeping–our drivers could tell us a person’s caste by seeing what they do

Unlike Mr. Singh’s home state of Rajasthan, Kerala has the laid-back charm of tropical places all over the world. It is a place of backwaters and fishing villages, and due to Portuguese influence, is home to India’s most concentrated Christian community. But it is India nevertheless—most marriages are still arranged  and Christians have caste groupings just like everyone else.

P married for love. She was from a lower caste Catholic family and she married into a higher caste Hindu family. Her mother, who she described as being her best friend, agreed to the union. Her future mother-in-law, who is a strong traditionalist, was a widow and her son was her only child. She agreed to the relationship as long as marriage was the outcome”.

couple2

Recently married couple posing for photographers and family members..

P didn’t have the lavish Indian wedding. Her groom didn’t arrive on a horse, or, in the southern tradition, a rented Rolls Royce or Mercedes: she and her groom were married in a civil ceremony with one witness. What P did get was a promotion to her husband’s caste. Despite this her father didn’t speak to her until she was in hospital having complications with the birth of her first child.

purple girl

Girl in purple, an ocean breeze…

In our month in India I often played a game of pointing out someone on the street and asking our driver if he could tell the person’s caste. We had several drivers and each one had no difficulty, especially if the person I pointed to was involved in some kind of work. People cleaning were from a different caste than people repairing a sidewalk. A tuk-tuk driver was from a different caste than a jeweler. P told me her mother-in-law still refuses to eat anything prepared by a lower caste woman. Her mother-in-law will eat a banana or orange in the home of someone from a lower caste—but nothing prepared by their hands. And there are all the inconveniences, even for P—like having to remain in a separate room and not touch anyone if it is her ‘time of the month’. And P still knows women who will cross to the other side of the street if someone of a lower caste is approaching.

Despite being younger and more sophisticated than Mr. Singh, P wouldn’t have it any other way. “Caste teaches morality and how to live—people from higher castes have higher expectations and so they are better,” she says. “It gives you a place in society, especially if you are of higher caste. I prefer it this way.”

girlhood

Young woman waiting for a motor-bike ride, Alleppey.

 

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India diary–on love, marriage, and looking straight ahead…

tie-dyed fabrics, Jaipur

tie-dyed fabrics, Jaipur

After the ordered chaos of Hong Kong, India is the real deal: donkey-carts competing with Landcruisers, tuk-tuks and Toyotas. Dogs, cows and pigs rooting through garbage piled on street corners. Beggars camped under plastic sheets in roundabouts. Horn-honking dust-in-your-face mayhem.

woman in a rickshaw

woman in a rickshaw

In the morning light I stand on a street corner, shooting photos. The men look me in the eye, openly curious and mugging for my camera . The women look straight ahead, occasionally smiling but never losing the purpose in their stride. When I ask a

the men mugged for the camera

the men mugged for the camera

female employee at our hotel about this she says, “women must not linger. The young men will taunt us. Is it not this way where you live?” In Delhi at night there are few women on the street and none without the company of a man. I have never seen a city with so few women on the street after dark.

In the north, it’s easy to have the impression that men have a monopoly on gainful employment. Men take orders in the restaurants, work in the shops, take train tickets, drive most of the cars and motorbikes.  Men do the talking. If you ask a woman a question the closest man in any proximity will answer for her. A subtle form of taunting perhaps. I wonder how a woman in this country every became the head of government.

We hear the fireworks (literally) of weddings every rickshaw mannight. The groom arrives on a horse, or, if he is from a wealthy family, an elephant. In Jaipur we chance upon such a wedding. At the head of the procession are two elephants, several camels, a troop of horses and a huge uniformed marching band. Our driver, Mr. Singh, tells us that the groom’s family is making a statement to the bride’s. Horns blare wedding1and drums beat and the groom’s family, the men bedecked in pink turbans, dance happily as the parade winds it’s way toward the wedding pavilion. The groom is plump and baby-faced—after all the pomp and pageantry he seems rather camelweddingunderwhelming. Behind the whole procession is a silver carriage—hard to describe, really—think Cinderella between the pumpkin and midnight and you get the picture.  Mr. Singh assures us that the bride’s family will have staged an equally ostentatious welcome.

Within a block of the rich wedding we pass another wedding procession—a ‘band’ with only two drums, two horns and a scrawny nag of a horse. The groom, leaner and more capable looking than the rich groom, carries himself with the stoicism of one who accepts his lot. A handful of relatives dance in front of him.  “Lower caste,” Mr. Singh says, “no money.”

I’m struck by the contrasts and complexities of India. Bollywood videos play on every television channel and although I don’t understand Hindi the plots seem predictable—attractive, scantily clad but fickle girl rebuffs boy in tight pants and shiny red or blue shirt, dancing, singing, titillating until finally something ‘unexpected’ happens—they come together happily. It has been destined.

womentagThe fantasy is remarkable in a country where most marriages are arranged, the women wear beautiful clothing but would never dream of going out in the outfits the Bollywood stars wear. Still love is always in the air. The Taj Mahal, the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen, built by a king to symbolize his love for his favourite (third) wife. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child but she is remembered as perhaps no woman has ever been remembered.

women at fortWhat are the consequences of going against parent’s wishes and having a ‘love’ marriage? The stakes are high. Ironically, the young guide who took us to the Taj Mahal apologized for being distracted. He had a girlfriend, something which in itself is unusual here. A few days ago her family (of a lower caste) had kidnapped her and taken her away to Delhi where she was to be married to someone of the parents’ choosing. He told us she had _MG_9774called and told him she had been beaten for two days because she had not submitted to her parent’s wishes. We wondered why he didn’t just go to Delhi and kidnap her back—a very Eurocentric option it seems. He hadn’t thought of this. “But you must realize she could be killed or disfigured if I do this. It would bring shame to her family and they couldn’t just sit still and do nothing.”

upriver

Looking downriver from the Taj Mahal

I will leave the last word on this to Mr. Singh. He is of the second highest caste. He and his wife will arrange his daughter’s wedding. The groom will be of the same caste and the guests will also be of the same caste. She will not have seen the boy. If it were to be otherwise his family would never speak to him, as he does not speak to a nephew who married outside of his caste. I asked Mr. Singh if he thought India would be worse off, or better off, with no castes at all. He didn’t hesitate: “India would be better off with no castes—no question.”

 

 

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