OK, before I forget to post this, here is the next installment of Chitrakoot:
Moona brings us lunch and we eat palak puri, spicy gobi aloo and drink tea. It is sweltering now that we are not in the temple and we all drape our scarves over our heads to protect us from the sun.
I notice that Sonia and Shanti almost look like they are from the Phillippines. They also both have what I thought were moles, but are actually tattoos on their faces. One dot on each cheek and one on the chin. Their forearms are also tatooed. Shanti has a rooster and some words in Hindu. I ask them about it through Shalini, who explains that they are tribals who got their tattoos at around ten (no one knows how old they are exactly here). It is a point of pride and gives them a sense of belonging to their people, they explain.
We break for the afternoon as the women chase their stories. Shalini, Bishaka and I head back to Mahadwi's house where she is helping an older Dalit couple understand the legalese on their land case. Namaste, Didi!
Bishaka and I nap for and hour before Shalini comes to pick us up to head to Chitrakoot for a mini-outing.
Moona drives us first to Ram Gat where Ram is supposed to have spent part of his exile in the forest. There are dozens of agressive beige-faced, red-bottomed monkeys scampering everywhere, completely unafraid of humans. There are also some slightly less-aggressive sadhus meditating and talking to pilgrims.
This is Ram country. In case you don't know, the BJP, India's right-wing uber-nationalist party has taken the Hindu god Ram (an avatar of Vishnu) and made him into the mascot deity of their party. Ram was "the perfect man", much less interesting than the skirt-chasing Krishna. He also had a great friend with muscles in the monkey god, Hanuman, a god who is supposed to represent "lower" castes.
I know that Uttar Pradesh has had a lot of communal violence and RSS supporters (the ideological wing of the Sangh Parivar) because this is where in Ayodhya, a 16th century mosque (babri masjid) was destroyed by a mob in 1992 because they believed it was built on the birthplace of Ram.
When we get to Chitrakoot, the temples are blasting evening prayer. We walk down to the water and take a boat ride to Hanuman's temple with a 3-storey painted statue of the monkey god. On our way back to the car, we stop by the stands that are selling wooden toys. I buy a bilboquet and a skipping rope with red and black wooden handles.
Back at Mahadwi's house, the women have returned with news on what they collected. They positively beam when they see Mahadwi, who looks resplendent in her cream cotton sari with a red and gold border. I should mention that she has the best laugh, a full, imposing form, always makes direct eye contact, and has a way of being generous with her knowledge without ever sounding like she is educating you.
The women chasing the dacoit story got to speak to the SP (Sergeant of police?) as well as a local journalist about the increase in kidnapping in the area. They are very excited.
The small pox women had a chance to speak with a doctor at the hospital who confirmed that che chack, which is a word for all types of pox, is actually chicken pox, not small pox. Officials had been saying that che chak had been eradicated, without specifying the type of pox.
Ritu and Shanti have had a chance to speak to both a contractor and workers to discuss their wages for a day of field work. The contractor says he pays the men 55 rupees per day and the women 50. (the legal minimum wage is 60 rs - $2 Canadian). The workers say that men get 50 and women 45. The contractor sees the journalists taking notes and reads what they have written. "Who told you this?" he asks. The women do not reveal their sources, but they are scared of endangering the workers who spoke with them (a legitimate fear).
Now Karvi/Banda are dangerous places. And you wouldn't know it at first. At dinner Mahadwi tells us about a death threat she has received from a man against whom she worked on a land claim case. And about all the dead bodies she has seen, including several women burned to death over dowry disputes.
But it seems so safe and sleepy here, I comment. They wake up to kill and then they go back to sleep, she says With that she laughs a deep belly laugh and goes to bring us chocolate.
That night it is my turn to accompany Shalini to the train station to pick up Shubra, a former Nirantar worker who is doing graduate work evaluating the success of the literacy camps.
Meena promises that she will come with us. We wrap ourselves in shawls all medieval-like and walk to the station. The train is an hour late.
We sit on a bench with the sleeping bodies at our feet. to wait. Meena asks me questions while Shalini translates. Are you married? Do you want to be married? (We are the same age.) I explain that in Canadian cities, if you get married, it tends to happen later in life. She sighs. "We have had very different lives."
Shalini says that Meena's husband has tuberculosis and does not have long to live. She already has three children and is the sole supporter of the family. Meena is beautiful and tall and is always getting the others to dance and sing songs with her. Her eyes are wide and hopeful, shooting off a million emotions a minute.
"I think that after this, I will go and make my children breakfast," she says.
The next day I bring a skipping rope up to the roof. Meena and Meera take turns while I snap their photographs. They drag me to to the shade and seven women crowd aroud the mini-screen while I show them the pictures of the past day.