Today was our much anticipated trip to Ahmedabad to meet with the famous Ela Bhatt. Wikipedia her if you haven’t already. She is probably the most amazing person that I will ever meet and have the privilege to talk to. She started an NGO in India that unionized women who worked for themselves. The previously undocumented workers could now call themselves self-employed and had a union that provided them with benefits and loans. She worked with Nelson Mandela, and is all about Gandhi (whom she respectfully and lovingly refers to as Gandhi-gee). She is an inspirational woman who is highly decorated with awards and honors. We were all looking forward to it.
The day started with a bump in the road because Jayshree couldn’t make the trip with us, but we decided to try and make the most of it. Our yoga guru Mehul was our guide for the day, and showed us around a man-made lake surrounded by various attractions. We walked around the whole thing and got to see a very different side of Indian culture. Ahmedabad is a much larger and more modern city that our little Dhrangadhra. Young couples canoodled next to the lake, and teen agers roamed in packs wearing t-shirts and shirts with signatures on them. Families took in the sunshine and couples strolled. As usual people stopped and stared at us, but the highlight was when a gaggle of giggling girls stopped us and asked us to sign their shirts and arms. It was as usual very strange but we obliged. They also wanted to take photographs with us on the cell phones. We again thought this strange but of course obliged. It was actually sort of nice since it made me feel better about how many photos I have taken of Indian people since I got here.
Ahmedabad was also different in that there were more people begging for money, and whole families who would try to surround us if we didn’t pay attention while taking a photo of something. We also ate in a restaurant for the first time, and somewhat enjoyed the terrifying thrill of traffic intersections where they do not seem to be any patterns, rhyme, or reason to how one should cross. I was sure we would die every time. At least they seemed to keep the cows out of the way…most of the time.
It took us a long time to find Ela Bhatt’s house. She lives in a sort of gated community, and had a lovely front garden/porch area. We removed our shoes and she greeted us at the front door. She is quite old but not frail or fragile looking. She wore a white sari with sunflower yellow gingam and color blocks on parts of it. She wore her gray hair in a knot at the nape of her neck. As is customary in all Indian homes, she was barefoot.
She welcomed us with tea and sweet sesame crackers, and told us of her life. She was in college when Gandhi freed India from the British. She is a lawyer by training, but also was involved with government as well as her NGO. She told us of how she at first wanted to work with the poor undocumented workers, and how this evolved to working with just women, and eventually women’s health. She casually dropped Hillary Clinton’s name while giving us an example of how women have evolved in India. She told us of how Hillary asked the women at a conference what they are afraid of, and how they told her they weren’t afraid of men anymore.
She was wise and thoughtful and probably changed all of our lives forever. I know that sounds ridiculous, especially coming from a person who is known to exaggerate. But this woman is seriously amazing. When asked by Dr. Greaves what we could do to help the women of India, she thought for a moment before bluntly responding that we really couldn’t. They must help themselves. And then she shared the three necessary things a girl needs to be empowered.
1) A girl must know about her body. If she knows about her body, she must not let anyone abuse it, or abuse it herself. She should do with it as she wants before or during marriage.
2) A girl should be educated about the democratic system and her rights. She should also participate in that democratic system.
3) A girl should know her skills and be educated. A girl must be aware of and understand her place in the world, but does not need to accept it.
And then she shared the most amazing simile. She gracefully pointed her finger at her plain white tea cup and explained, a girl must have a tea cup, or no matter how much tea you pour it will go everywhere. She motioned her hand as if to show the tea washing away, uncollected by the cup. For the umpteenth time I wished we were recording her so I could listen to her over and over again until I had memorized everything she said.
We were there for quite some time. She shared stories and antidotes from her experiences of working with women. When I asked for her advice for us and our Gujarati translators and our work with women, she added that women need to organize. She offered the example of the female half of the generation in the Darfur Region who have grown up in refugee camps. She told us of how they had to do sexual favors every time they wanted to leave the camp until the organized and forced the system to change. She also told us about a town where the men were drinking too much and beating their wives. The woman organized and decided they would lock their front doors at midnight. If the men tried to come home late after a night of drinking, they were forced to sleep outside. Because all of the women stuck to the plan, the men were forced to come home early.
I could go on and on, but I think I have relayed how amazing it was. We thanked her as we left her quiet house. The moment we stepped foot in the car, I whipped out my computer and we wrote down everything we could remember about what she had said. I feel so privileged to have met her.
We met up with a friend of Pramiti’s for a quick coffee, but I ended up going on an earring binge at the store next door. There were so many affordable beautiful earrings!!!!! And they took credit cards! As Sara put it…it got a little crazy town in there. As we drove out of Ahmedabad, the adrenalin from my shopping frenzy left my body. It had been an exhausting day. We stopped at a hotel to eat dinner and then headed back to the palace to relieve the palace staff.
Although the palace is beautiful and amazing and I love the staff, having a staff has gone from being strange to frustrating. Everything we do impacts so many people. On this night, no one could go home until we got back, which was quite late. Also, the staff doesn’t eat until we finish. We sometimes forget and stay at the table with our dishes in front of us still talking about the research, or our lives. Finally one of us will remember Jaydeep and Kaldeep sitting behind the serving table and we will gather our plates and put them in the bin so they can clear dinner. Although I know that the staff is well paid and that this is a great position for them, it is something that I will not be able to get used to.
We all were exhausted but needed to talk about the day. After some time we all needed to go to bed, and even my night owl roomie Pramiti went to bed with me!