November 9 , 2004
from Deepak’s house:
On November 8th at 11am, Beth and I walked with Deepak in his
neighborhood of Dombivli west. After several inquiries and drivers
wanting customers going farther than the Kurla train station, we packed
ourselves into a tiny black and yellow, three wheeled, motorized
rickshaw, known as an auto rickshaw. Our destination? The slums of
Bombay. The sun had been burning hot for hours already. The air was
humid, stale, close to our skin and full of firework smoke with the
usual concentrated Bombay pollution. Which smells like tires burning in
the distance. Firework smoke because it was celebration time in India.
The Festival of Lights, also known as Diwali, was in full swing, or
rather....... full fire! Fireworks started exploding near dawn,
and did not cease until 1 or 2am, day afer day, for about 9 days
straight. In northern India,
Diwali celebrates Rama's homecoming and his coronation as King. In
Gujarat, the festival honors Lakshmi, and in Bengal it's Kali.
Everywhere, Diwali celebrates the renewal of life, good over evil, the
onset of winter and planting of crops. Whatever it celebrated, Beth
and I were not prepared for the magnitude of explosive noise and
possible injury. We read of injuries during that time . We could just
be walking along the dirt road and suddenly 4 feet of firecrackers
began to explode and we'd jump in surprise and shock, our ears ringing.
No warning, no safety precautions. Children 5 years and up lighting
them off anywhere in the hectic streets of Bombay. Beth and I chose to
surrender to the noise and mayhem, however. And we did appreciate India's enthusiastic celebrating style, we just weren't used to
continuous explosions. It was an intense time for our soft nervous
systems. It sounded like a war zone, I imagined. The lights strung
everywhere between buildings during Diwali, large lit star lanterns for
example, were stunning at night.
Our rickshaw stopped close to the train station and I quickly gave
rupees to the white cotton clad, barefoot Indian driver.We grabbed our backpacks and jumped into the
the street, ready to navigate through people, rickshaws, bicycles and taxis. The streets were always busy in
Bombay. As usual for this time of day, the train station was very
crowded. We waited in line for tickets while hungry children and
sometimes mothers, begged most effectively on non-Indians, because no
one wanted to walk away from their place in the ticket line. Beth and I
had rupees ready and passed them out, while other hungry children
begged more. We could not give to all of them. Persistent and sometimes
relentless, they were always tapping our arms or backs, sometimes
hanging onto our arms as we hurried to trains and buses. We were always “hurrying” (I was unconsciously grateful)getting to where we need to go,
so consumed with processing a tidal wave of stimulus, too hurried to
feel as sad as we would feel later on, when we caught our breath during a train or bus ride(while women stared curiously at
us). So much hunger and need in Bombay. I didn't know if I'd ever
fully comprehend such deprivation from my privileged life circumstance.
With yellow raffle size train tickets clutched in our sweaty hands,
Beth and I carefully followed Deepak up and down stairs, always rivers
of bodies pushing or passing, always everyone sharing the breathing
space and pressed against each other, always them staring at our white
skin, always us watching ahead, always the potent scent of homeless living.
Always all of us moving fast together in an overwhelming sea of
humanity heading ................... somewhere.
Stop here Deepak instructs. Soon we hear the train rumble
towards us on the recessed tracks. Crowds of people are standing on
both sides, going different places. Deepak told me once that Indian
people sometimes jump down onto the tracks to shortcut to the other
side, and are often killed by trains. He said most Indian people go
about their business anyway, feeling like there is nothing they can do,
in a city of so many people trying to survive with so little means. I
try to understand.I tried to know what it felt like to be homeless I tried to "see" me with homeless eyes. What did I look like to them? I wanted to understand how things got so bad, how so many suffered in the world, all over the earth. I realized I could not fully feel or fully comprehend how anyone else felt. I wanted to understand the root of the problem. I felt compassion and heartbroken. It wasn't enough. I turned to my Spiritual Teacher, Avatar Adi Da. "Beloved Heart-Master, Help me feel this condition of humanity as an awakening heart, open to Your Divine Reality of Truth and Love". I breathed deeply. Ididn't want to turn away. I wanted to stay present an feel the pain of so much suffering so I wouldn't forget. On some level, all of humanity was suffering, and I knew it.
The train stopped and my focus returned to a sea of
brightly clothed women and children jumping out of the women's
compartment that Beth and I would be riding in next. After seeing us
safely in, Deepak jumped into the men's compartment as the train began
moving slowly onward. Beth and I found a place to stand by the open side doors of our compartment. All the seats were taken by women
and children. Reaching for the steel rings swinging overhead, we
steadied ourselves with one hand, pulled our backpacks off (so they
wouldn't knock someone in the face) and stuffed them between our feet.
We relaxed at this point and watched passing scenery as the train
gently rocked us towards Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). We would be
meeting at Creative Handicrafts soon, a fair trade cooperative in the
slums of Bombay. Creative takes qualifying women out of the slums,
provides them with skills training, a living wage, and many other
benefits. On the train, children sold earring and bangles out of
baskets, for an un-living wage. I bought earrings.
We arrived at Kurla station, jumped out of the train and swam with the
river of humanity up to the street. Out there we concentrated on Deepak
who was ahead of us, weaving his way through the Diwali crowded, dirt
street. Everything was dusty. Dusty feet, trees, shops,
rickshaws, buses. Everything. I tried to keep my eyes on my
friends as we wove through the throng of women, men and children. I
almost fell over the legless body of a mouth gaping, mostly toothless,
thin older man in dirty-white, cotton head wrap and dress. His eyes
were closed. Was he dead ............. or sleeping? Had he worn himself out, dragging his torso through the crowd, through
Bombay? Did he run out of energy because he was starving and
old? How could I know? Did he have a family? How did he feel about his
life? Did he know or intuit the power of a Divine Love greater than the power of
money? No time to find out, or I would lose Deepak and Beth. No time
to feel. Keep moving. Hurry. Everybody keeps moving in the streets of
Bombay. I almost lost my friends, but Deepak looked back and found me.
Deepak led us to a bus stop. I felt so grateful he was helping us. How
could I ever have found my way there? I hoped we would be able to fit
into the first available bus. We were, and loaded up like cattle, with
our backpacks bumping others behind us. Lifeline backpacks, carefully loaded with
writing pads and pens, directions and identification, insect repellent,
anti-bacterial lotion, but most importantly, the thing many Indians
don't have anymore. Clean water. I pulled out my bottle of clean, safe
water and glugged down until I felt satisfied. Did the old limbless man
I stepped over ever feel satisfied? Was he thirsty? Did he even care
anymore? What does it mean to “feel satisfied”? Did I really know? Beth motioned thirst an I passed the clean water to her. I
drank more water in India in one day, that I ever drank in 3 days back
home in Olympia. After loading in with everyone, we found an open seat and plopped our
travel-wearied bodies down onto the dark-green worn vinyl seat. Then the bus took us to Andheri east where
jumped out onto another busy, dusty road.
Deepak watched over us, making sure we weren't caught unaware in traffic as we crossed. We found a
rickshaw driver who would take us the remaining short distance of our
journey. Rickshaw drivers like to drive further for more rupees. The
three of us tossed our packs into the very back, then packed our bodies onto the black vinyl seat behind the driver.There was a metal bar between us. A bar we held onto for dear life when necesssary. Hot shoulder
to shoulder, hot leg to leg, we jostled as the barefoot driver revved
his motor and darted into traffic. I was grateful rickshaws are
open-air and breezy when moving. Our driver honked warning to the
street of other drivers. It always looked like we would get sideswiped
or rammed, but we got used to that. Deepak said the best drivers in the
world are from Bombay. I am witness to that truth. He said if you can
drive in Bombay, you can drive anywhere. Deepak took out his mobile and
called Creative Handicrafts to anounce we were near and ask for
specific directions. I tried to rest for a moment.
Our driver deftly navigated the black and yellow rickshaw over the
dusty, horn-honking, uneven road, as Johny Joseph waited outside of
the Creative Handicrafts, ready to flag us down. We almost drove past, until we spotted him waving. He smiled and
welcomed us enthusiastically. We excitedly introduced ourselves, happy
to meet after months of e-mail planning. Then Johny pointed
behind himself and said “Come, come.” We followed him into a narrow,
shaded passage between buildings, leading to the belly of Creative
Handicrafts. Our first stop was a training center. Johny introduced us
We were greeted by women in training and their supervisor. All sitting
on the clean, white tiled floor. Ceiling fan overhead. All sewing or
embroidering, fabric and thread strewn about. They looked at us and I
wondered what they saw. I remember thinking to myself “These are the
women who will make the clothes Beth and I will import”, and I looked
into their eyes to begin to know of them. Beth and I would meet them
several times later on, and sit with them. Johny talked to us all the
while about Creative Handicrafts structure, while Deepak recorded with
his video camera. There was no boredom for me in that classroom that
day, and I knew Beth shared my feeling. We were loving the learning,
even if parts of the learning were sad and difficult to fully
comprehend. How could it be otherwise in such a city as Bombay? Johny
motioned for us to follow again.
He led us to the entrance of Creative's offices. A handful of the women
producers were waiting for us to arrive. They greeted us with big
smiles and an arati (a ritual of respect and welcome). The women first
put a smudge of red kum kum (powder) on our third eye(between our
brows), then sprinkled marigold petals over our heads while waving an
open flaming lamp in front of us. With open hands , I pulled the “illuminating” flame over my head as my heart
smiled. Fire........flame.......purification. Bringing light to darkness.
Revealing. Beth and I stood side by side as the women ended the arati
by puting malas of fresh marigolds with white fragrant flowers and
leaves, over our heads. We felt welcomed and honored. Never in my life
had I been greetedas an honorary guest. How unexpected and gracious.
Namaste. Then, Johny took us into the office. We left our shoes at the
entrance, went inside, and asked for
bottled water. Ours had run out.
Beth and I proceeded into the office of sister Isabelle, who is
originally from Spain. Sister Isabelle, an older woman of small but
dynamic stature, held her hands out in warm welcome. To me, she was
like a “worldly grandmother”, a wise elder, ready to share knowledge
of why and how she started Creative Handicrafts. Beth and I were two
eager listeners. Sister Isabelle was soft spoken, but not at all timid.
I wondered how she stayed in Bombay all these years, in one of the
world's most densely populated and polluted cities, rife with societal
illnesses. The latter would be a good reason for her to be in Bombay.
I thought to myself that sister Isabelle might have an iron will , iron
stomach, mind of steel, a soft heart balanced by tough love, and most
importantly, she must be turning to God. I'm just guessing,
though. Beth and I also met Arun again, whom we had first seen at the
World Social Forum in Bombay of January 2004. We first discovered
Creative Handicrafts, visiting their products booth and making
purchases from Arun. We also met Shirley.
Meanwhile, our dear friend Deepak was documenting with his video
camera. I noticed droplets of sweat on his temples and brow.
He had dressed respectfully for this meeting, in long dress pants,
dress shirt and black dress shoes. He looked hot. What was he thinking?
We were on “his side of the world.” Nothing was new to him. Except
Creative Handicrafts. Was that day interesting to him? Was he
learning? Was he bored? Was any of it interesting to him? Did fair
trade really interest him? He said it did. Would he rather be
documenting in “our world” or anywhere other than Bombay? I am pretty
sure he would. I kept hoping he wasn't bored. I wasn't. Despite
anything that felt difficult or sad or too hot, I was loving India with
every cell of my body. I felt strangely at home.
Johny decided it would be best to lunch because it was lunch time for
everyone at Creative. Johny, Deepak, Beth, sister Isabelle, Pinky and I
followed him out through the narrow passage to the seemingly hotter,
seeminglydustier street and walked to a local restaurant. Along the
way, we passed shops selling food items, steel products and strings of
illuminating lanterns used to celebrate Diwali. I was trying to imagine
hunger for food, since all I couldn't feel any appetite in the pressing
heat. We got to the restaurant. No other customers were inside, we were
late lunchers. The owner turned on the lights and air conditioning for
us, and in the coolness myappetite grew. We all had questions and
information to share, as well as sharing a standard Indian restaurant
appetizer. Tiny red onions, sliced on a plate, eaten with fresh lime
and salt. I ordered seconds. This combination of flavors is amazingly
tasty. We took our time talking and eating, enjoying the taste of rice,
dahl and palak paneer(or paneer palak?).
Back to the hot street to head back to Creative Handicrafts. Johny took us
on a long tour that day, that began with meeting more of the women in
training at Creative. The women arrive directly from the slums and
begin learning at Creative Handicrafts. If the women have a young
child, Creative provides creche (childcare) while the women are in
training, and also meals and schooling. But only for one child per
family. Then, there is the possiblity of sponsorship for the other
children, and anyone(you, for example) can sponsor the extra child or
children, for $180 per year per child.
Next, Beth and I went to the products display room, which was large and
airy. We stepped out of our sandals onto red-brown, glazed tiles that were spotlessly clean and sections were covered with patterns, fabrics and huge scissors.
Hot pink or turquoise organza curtains swayed and fluttered under the
breeze of ceiling fans in front of tall, narrow windows. There were
several large tables holding fabric, hot irons, more scissors and
straight edges. We looked and admired the many products made by
Creative Handicraft's producers. The women smiled and watched us.
Their work was excellent, the fabrics beautiful. We met Pinky who
showed us and told us about the products. She was a designer and
coordinator for Creative Handicrafts. We tried clothing on and
accepted an offer to sip (magically delicious) black tea with sugar.
That hot tea was magically enjoyable beyond words, and I just cannot
know exactly why! It remains a mystery. Perhaps it was the water and
the thoughts of its makers. I could duplicate it at home. As we sipped
the sweet black elixer, I continued absorbing information with all of
my senses. By the end of that day, my senses were maxed!!!
Johny motioned us onward. First he asked if we felt like we could keep
walking to see more. He asked if we were too hot. I was too hot,
though I didn't want to admit. I wanted to keep walking, looking,
learning. Most of the training, production or child education
buildings we saw on the tour, were sandwiched between family homes
there in the slums of Bombay. Homes whose doors or window trims were
painted pink, lavendar, indigo blue, yellow or orange. Homes whose
doorways and2 windows were strung with marigold malas. On our walk we
saw laundry drying, a bicycle, a rooster that was .................
roaming his roost? Garbage and and murky water coming from 'unknown'
sources. We stepped over and around many things. We saw children and
wild kittens playing, children laughing and calling Beth and I “auntie”, wanting chocolate, which we didn't have. We went up concrete
steps, steel stairs, up, up, up. Hot, hot, hot. We observed families
waiting for water that had been shut off for two days. No one knew why,
for sure. Yet most of those beautiful people were laughing, smiling
and being playful with one another. A few did not smile. Some wanted
their picture taken. A sister and brother. And then the water came.
We moved on. I was glad the water came, but couldn't forget it was shut
off in the first place.
Beth, Deepak with video camera, and I walked and talked with Johny as
we wove through many more narrow passages. “Namaste” children called
out to us. “Happy Diwali” they cheered. We replied the same. Sometimes
I smelled dinner cooking. Wonderful scents of spices and
rices. We met more producers and watched them hard at work, always
sitting on the floor sewing, or busy at a sewing machine. Always happy
to meet us. Johny was a great narrator and his natural, humorous
demeanor made listening easy. Especially as he talked about conditions
that are hard to realize as existing. On our way, we saw something
interesting and unexpected. We saw a man assembling a razor display in
a dirt floor shack. A display which would end up, quite possibly, in
some american home-town store, to be filled with razors. Johny told us
it was common for big corporations to sub-contract people in the slums
to build such displays and many other things. It was evident why. These
people could be contracted for very little money because they were
desparate and hungry, and were most likely paid no where near a living
Finally we reached a stopping point where my eyes panned a
panoramic rooftop view of the Bombay slum area that was breathtaking. There
was a certain beauty there in the setting sun slash pollution hazed
sky. Time to turn back now and I didn't even know what I was feeling anymore.
My eyes had long taken over my thoughts and ingested everything they
scanned. I think I (eye) was full. We all headed down the way we had
come, and decided to rest in the large, airy display room of Creative
Handicrafts. The ceiling fans blew the heat from my body. I rinsed my
swelling feet with tepid water in the toilet room. There was a large
garbage can of water........... for rinsing, I guess? That's how I used
it. Water I couldn't drink. So much thirst in the world.
Our day had been full and satisfying in many ways. In other ways, I had
thoughts and feelings uncompleted, held in check. Johny, Pinky and
everyone at Creative Handicrafts made Beth and I feel very welcome and
treated us graciously. There was never a dull moment. Many moments
of gratitude. There was much to process and question. All in all, our
meeting with this group of women producers in India was a dream come
true for us. Namaste.