Today I stopped pinching myself. I believe it. I’m in India. And I was grumpy. Anyone who has spent a night with my family will probably get the reference that I kept thinking, “Don’t talk-a-me, I’m in baaaaaad mood.” For those of you who don’t, that epitomizes my little sis when she was grumpy as a child. And I was grumpy as a child yesterday. I couldn’t get on the internet, I was tired of the routine, mad at India for its inconveniences, and feeling lost about our research here. Yoga had not been helpful. We headed out in our little van. Four people packed into the back seat facing forwards, and three on the bench behind the driver and passenger seat facing back. I was lucky to be in the back seat facing forward, and hummed one of Jacob Rolf’s songs as we drove around cows on the highway, and passed fields where people tended to precious crops. “I hear my mother crying….” Not sure why it had popped into my head, but it seemed the perfect tune for my mood and the situation.
All thoughts about my own personal feelings vanished when we arrived at a school where Dr. Greaves had done research over the summer about malnutrition. The children lined up and gawked at us, giggling and laughing when we waved and said “Kem Cho!?” In Gujariti this is like saying, “How are you?” We were a big hit. They shouted back, “Majama!!!” which means “good!” We hung out in the principal’s office where Dr. Greaves told him about his research. We were constantly being offered water, Sprite or Chai. I drank Sprite for the first time in who knows how long. Its sweetness coated my teeth and I struggled to finish it quickly enough so that I could put my thin plastic cup back on the tray that a man kept bringing around. We looked at the picture books that the principal handed us. They were filled with beautiful photos of the students performing dance and plays. We had to control our alarmed giggles when we got to a page where a teacher was breaking florescent light bulbs over a child’s head (which was covered by a towel), or holding the long tube steady so that a student could punch it like a block of wood. The photo captured the moment where the child’s fist connected with the bulb. Tiny shards blow outward from his fist as his face scrunches up, hopefully not breathing in. I whispered, “That must be a public health violation.” Dr. Greaves whispered back, “Oh yes, those contain Mercury,” in his Australian twang.
We were toted from classroom to classroom where children were given the opportunity to show off their English. Dr. Greaves cooed at little kids and we waved and repeated “Kem cho!” to every classroom to the delight of the little kids.”
We finally trailed upstairs to a parent meeting where Dr. Greaves presented his data to parents. He also explained a little bit about what we were doing here now. Then we had a focus group with a group of women who stayed behind. It was a disaster as far as groups go. There were no group norms, and it was a rushed hectic affair. However, in the grand scheme of things for women in India, it was revolutionary. Towards the end I asked if this was the first time these women had all met in a group to discuss domestic violence. It was. I asked how it felt. They all said it felt great.
I’ve really started to think about the mental health implications of the research we are doing here. The stress on our translators is obvious. The existing resources have limited training. There is no concept of group therapy or group support. If our translators got the training center they wanted, there would be no resources for training or implementing support groups there. Therapeutic interventions aren’t even on anyone’s radar here.
According to our translators, Indians culturally have a hard time being happy. There is always pressure to look towards the next thing and to never be happy with what you have. I see this in the survivors we talk to. They never say, I just want to be happy. They don’t even want to be single. They would even be OK with living as a second class citizen in their families because this is normal. [The Gujarati word for mental abuse is torture. I am gathering a list of words that don’t exist in Gujarati, like this one. I hear them during interviews. It will be like, “blahblahblahblahtortureblahblahblah.” Or, “blahblahblahblahdomesticviolenceblahblahblah.” I’ve been documenting them all. How can you create a DV intervention when your own language doesn’t even have words for the concepts?] These strong Indian women can stand the torture because it’s better than the shame of leaving their husband and what life will be like afterwards. Its only when they are abused so badly that they are hospitalized, or that their children become threatened that some finally leave. We’ve heard from several women that there wasn’t any sexual violence because their husbands beat them so badly that there was nothing left to have sex with. Some never leave and end up losing their lives. Our translators told us that a week before we got here a woman was found dead in a field. All evidence points to her husband. Nothing is being done. From the little we have gathered so far, women feel isolated, scared and powerless. It was amazing to watch some of them embrace the group concept, and to share their story for the first time. There was even talk about setting something similar up in the future.
Group therapy really revs my engine, but red flags went off in my head about how dangerous that could be. Starting a group about a dangerous topic with an untrained or no facilitator is a terrible idea. I’ve been thinking that perhaps, if nothing else, we can do something to impact the knowledge gap for those who are leading the charge against DV.
Our wheels are constantly turning about where this data can be used and how. When we got back we had several long talks about it. I am loving this unique opportunity to sit and brain storm with a smart group of women about academics, culture, research and empowerment. I call it Public Health Summer Camp. Sometimes I feel like I never want it to end. Until I get too sleepy and then I dive into my bed.
After our group session we headed back for lunch. In the afternoon, Carlie, the translators and I went to interview a survivor in her parent’s village. I won’t share her story because it’s pretty specific, and I don’t want to violate her consent, but it was horrific. Both she and her mother cried which is supposedly unheard of in Indian culture. The survivor’s emotions were still raw even though she has been home with her family for 15 years. She was beautiful and exhausted looking. She just wanted peace after the most insane ordeal. She talked loudly, making big gestures. Her mother looked up at me from the floor and stared into my eyes as she spoke to me as if I could understand. I could feel the agony and pleading in her voice for someone to understand and to help. All I could do was record and nod.
Beautiful water station in someone's home:
Dinner was amazing as usual and I ate too much. The four of us were shaken after our last meeting and we took some time with Jeyshrii to envelope her with our incoherent babbling about all that she is doing. We circled around her and gave her all we have at the moment: lots of hugs. Afterwards, we all sat in Carlie and Sarah’s room and talked about life, and then sleep came easy.
Every time I try to look more Indian I just look more like a colonizer:
Our translators Jayshree and Illa on the right. Illa, aka the most bad ass social worker ever, on the left:
The patiyallas I wore today: