New week, new set of workshops, this time for girls age 7 to 14 at the Prerna School, a school for the poorest girls (the daughters of rickshaw drivers, beggars, ragpickers and the like) created five years ago by Urvashi Sahni, a woman whose capacity to inspire is reflected in the eyes of both her students and the teachers who work for her.
The Prerna school is housed within a private school for middle-class families called the Study Hall Foundation. The girls who attend Prerna pay a nominal fee because their education is subsidized by the families of the wealthier students: they give a bit more than the cost of their own child’s education to support Prerna. These young girls were an inspiration, many taking education into their own young hands and putting themselves into the school without any support from their families.
As for performances, we did four shows this week – one for the Prerna Foundation girls, a show for disabled children at SPARC, a performance in a Lucknow slum called Balu Adda, and another rural village performance in a place called Mishrapur. The most memorable was the performance in Balu Adda.
Not far at all from the Prerna Foundation, we turned into a vast landscape of dwellings constructed from tarps, hay, and pieces of plastic built amidst mounds of garbage and plastic bottles. How do people live here? How will they like our play? I wondered. What will it mean to them? There was a huge crowd. Somewhere around 450 people. As the show began, looks of curiosity became smiles and laughs, for the kids and adults alike. And when it was all done, I had a group of small-sized followers looking for more fun. One little girl in particular developed a new version of tag I guess you’d call “punch the pillow butt and run.” She’d laugh which would make me laugh and then the other kids would laugh. Amazement all around.
This was the dirtiest of all places I’ve ever been, and we rolled in and did a show and rolled out. This show is memorable to me for what we are able to do and what we are unable to do, both made visible in the extreme conditions of these people’s lives. What is it that we do? We give an hour of intrigue and laughter. Laughter! It improves the immune system, stimulates neural connection, and instigates smiles (the glue of humanity). But to see that, without fresh water and basic hygiene, simple cuts fester and easily treatable conditions worsen, made us all aware of our limits.
The unofficial theme of this week was the state of women in India, which kept coming up from many different people. If I ever identified myself as post-feminist, in India I have been quite clearly asked to question my assumptions about women’s level of equality. “Indian food is designed to torture the woman,” said one of the reporters who came to interview us. She spoke of how she is ready to change careers and location now that her daughter is going to college so she can have a life that doesn’t include tending a pot of food that cooks for hours. She was being funny about it – but it is true in the US I have food that can be made pretty quickly. What a simple luxury.
And then there was the night Urvashi gave accounts of 15 year-olds being married off to men in their 50s. It is more like buying a servant, and not what I have been raised to think of as marriage. The last day at Prerna, she invited the first graduating class to tell us about their opinions and experiences. The girls stood there and said they didn’t know anyone who has a happy marriage. “Many women are single women living on their own despite being married!” said Urvashi.
My friend and co-worker Reena later that night said, “my father hopes to get a lot of money for my sister and I. I don’t like marriage. I focus on what I can control, which is my profession.” She has a passion to work with disabled children and a hope for a good marriage, but not any control over whom she will marry. I imagined the unpleasant pressure of having to command a high price.
I made friends with the assistant manager of the hotel where we stayed and even she brought up the topic, saying for many, if a women doesn't do all the housework, the marriage is over.
Despite these realities, because of them, women here have astounding determination. The Prerna girls work 5+ jobs to support their families, AND put themselves into the school. The young women who have been there all five years said their parents definitely treat them differently as a result. Now that they have received education, the parents don’t dismiss their daughter’s comments and opinions as easily. They listen a bit more. This girl has been to school, she knows a bit more than before!
And my favorite moment all week was when one of the older Prerna students bravely (it seemed brave to me) asked Jamil if he makes his wife and sisters cover their face in Afghanistan. He said it is their choice whether they do or not. Then Urvashi asked why is it that Muslim men can marry 4 wives, but women can’t have 4 husbands. He didn’t know and the girls swapped exasperated looks. As we left Jamil told Urvashi he would like to come back to Prerna Foundation and when he does, he said, “I will have an answer.” Because those young women will definitely be asking!
Other Bits: Over the course of two weeks of driving to workshops, we have developed “Ali’s favorite jump” and “Sarah’s favorite left turn;” Our driver, Raju, gamely would speed up the car to fly over “Ali’s favorite jump;” Ali has a secret sign for beer! (taboo in Afghanistan… but available). We haven’t met them yet, but Mr. Nabi and Mr. Shabir (our Kashmir hosts) have become a daily presence in our lives with the planning for next week’s trip. We made a visit to Waris Alisha, a memorial to a Sufi profit who symbolizes, says our friend Adyog, peace between religions. In this temple, both Muslims and Hindus – anyone – is welcome to pray; I can’t say precisely why but we all felt a deep bond with the young women of Dewa. We had a certificate presentation ceremony with singing and snacks that was emotional for everyone. I will miss them very much.