Thursday, 26 November 2015

A Transcendental Indian Adventure (3) A Living-Learning Experience like no other

When we started the British LLEs at Commonwork organic farm and study centre in 1995, an important part of the bonding ritual for the staff was to meet in Sevenoaks Sainsbury’s to do the shopping. We would travel from wherever we worked and gather, at about 5pm on the day before the workshop started, in the coffee shop. Then we would start in earnest and, after about two hours, end up heaving around four or five shopping trolleys containing all the meals, snacks, drinks, and everything else we were going to need for the three days in our Kentish therapeutic bubble. Even in those days – now between ten and twenty years ago – the bill at the till would come to something between seven and nine hundred pounds for about twenty five people. More recently, we have become a bit lazy – and Sue has done all the shopping for us with Tesco Online. Although it’s a lot more efficient, and tightly budgeted (it is now less than six hundred pounds), we have lost something in the process: we also used to treat ourselves to a meal out at the Chiddingstone Castle once we had unpacked it all – now we just cook something simple for our pre-workshop evening meal, in the modernised kitchen at Bore Place (the Jacobean manor house we’re based in at Commonwork), and have our pre-workshop staff meeting. For our Indian Adventure, the food was going to be a different experience altogether – and in comfortable city-lifestyle Bangalore, we had no inkling of just what that was to mean…

Not like Sainsburys
Getting it in the car
All four of us – Anando, Jan, Sandra and myself – turned up at a large supermarket in the city, in a car already stuffed with luggage to take the road 145km north to the women’s Training Centre near Penukonda. Not quite the same as Sainsbury’s in Sevenoaks! But as the main basis of a good proportion of Indian food is dry stuff – it was weighed out into huge bags of rice, lentils and chick peas. That, plus a bag with a couple of fish and a bag with a couple of chopped up chickens, and numerous packets of masala and spices, made up most of the substantial cooking we were to do. We decided to get the fresh vegetables and fruit from the market in Penukonda after we got there, so with a few goodies like chocolate bars, white bread, biscuits and jams, we manged to squeeze it all into the car quite easily: excluding the wine we had with meals it came to 17000 Rupees – about £170 – less than a third of what we spend in the UK. A final stop for the wine, then two hours and good dual carriageway past the new airport, and we were there.

 The dual carriageway gave us a false sense of security – and it was almost like an augur as we came off it and onto the village road and approached the training centre: no longer just animals, people and vehicles – but a bright green bush, the size of a small car, travelling towards us like something from another world. As it passed, we saw there was a wiry and athletic old man beneath the bush (which was a mass of freshly cut sugar cane), on a small scooter. But another world, it certainly was.
Arriving at the Training Centre

In India, we had become used to some of our normal facilities being intermittent or only available in some places – like air conditioning, broadband, mobile phone signal and hot running water, and to have short interruptions to electricity. But this was to test us much further – no chance of internet or phone signal unless you drove into Penukonda village (about 3km away), no hot water unless you boil it yourself over a log fire, no running water at all for hours at a time (seemingly something to do with the electric pump to the water tower, which also explained why water was pouring over the side and flooding the muddy path between the different buildings), a little bit of gas for cooking – but most of it needing to be done on smoky indoor log fires, and very intermittent electricity. And this is to say nothing about our safety being compromised by the voracious insects, snakes and other aggressive wildlife we fantasied about, and imagined we were hearing, at night. Then there are the termites, which apparently can eat all the wood in a door in about three months – leaving just the paint holding it together, and mostly dust where the wood was. Anando found this out when we tried to go into one of the dormitory blocks through the back door, half of which immediately disintegrated into powder as he pulled on the handle. Hence most doors in the place were metal – but the climate had taken its toll there too, with many of them rusted and either difficult or impossible to close and lock. Then there were the sliding metal grills, slightly rusty and stiff from lack of regular use, between the different sections of the training centre - mainly to isolate the kitchen and dining area from the outside. What were they for, and why were there so many of them?
The cooker

The washing-up room

The answer turned out to be the biggest animal threat that we encountered: a species much closer to our own than any of the ones we feared – monkeys. At first they seemed quite cute, a family of four sitting on top of the roof, watching us come and go as we unloaded our goodies from the supermarket. Then we returned after going to somewhere else on the site and noticed something wrong – where had we put all those pappadums? Didn’t we have five loaves, not three? And what were those bits of half-eaten banana under the table? Far from watching us with benign and friendly interest, they had been sizing up what we were putting where, and how they could half-inch as much of it as possible. And now they were not just a sweet little nuclear family, but an extended family – probably a whole village of monkeys – coming at us from all angles in the trees all around. The most audacious theft was when I was carrying half a loaf of bread to the kitchen to make myself some breakfast, slightly blurry with virus and fever I’d contracted, and suddenly something swooped down from the tree by the entrance grille, I felt little finders grapple with my hand - and before I knew what was happening, the half loaf was disappearing up a tree with several of the cheeky monkeys grinning down at me. So much for my curry-free breakfast of toast and marmalade!

The enemy
Before long, the fight against the food thieves became an all-out war – and we employed innocent children, fireworks and guns to fight our cause. One of the participant members of the LLE had bought along her two young girls, who delighted in being appointed as the monkey patrol when we were in our groups and community meetings: they would keep watch over all the food in the kitchen and dining room, and would chase off the monkeys however they could. We soon used up a box of the fireworks – loud bangers – which kept them away for an hour or so, so we sent Anando (aka Dobby) into Penukonda to buy more. But as matters worsened, Azad – the young farmer from Kracadawna who was a member of the community – borrowed an air gun to send them scurrying more effectively, with a few harmless but painful shots in the bum for various persistent primates. Some of the more rurally-accustomed members felt that a real gun, with real bullets, would be more in order – but thankfully we didn’t go that far. But we never won – they kept coming and going - but at least they didn’t get much more food.

After we had finished unloading the food and luggage, we had our traditional pre-workshop staff meeting, going through the application forms of everybody who was expected to turn up the next day, before going to Chandra Kanjilal’s house for dinner.

Chandra is a retired woman of extraordinary energy and experience, who had set up the training centre (link to Google Maps, earth view here) about twenty five years ago, with German international development funding – and has lived there with her daughter (an NHI employee, sometimes her son-in-law (who works away), an elderly dog, a young dog and four playful puppies ever since. Until the development funding methods and perceived needs changed about seven years ago, she ran numerous courses – for dozens of people at a time for extended stays at the training centre - to help empower local rural women, from all the surrounding areas. The stories she told us of how utterly disempowered they were seemed a far cry from what we think of as ‘disempowement’ in the UK. For example, how women were exploited by money lenders, suffered domestic abuse, sexual abuse and, if they were widowed or divorced or had mental heath problems, were terribly exposed to the likelihood of severe abuse, exploitation and ridicule. For women,the situation was, and to some extent still is, inconceivably awful for those if us  living comfortably in the west: although the enforcement of dowry payments is no longer legal, it still happens - and the effect of this has been to make girl births in jeopardy of infanticide.

But the centre had been unused since the last of the courses, in 2008, and it was rather sad to see many photo boards in the training centre rooms, faded and decayed with age, showing the place full of life, action and energetic people doing emancipatory things together. So Chandra is very keen that it takes on a new lease of life as a venue for the LLE mental health training – which is hopefully also emancipatory, and in the service of empowering staff, and ultimately patients, in a way that is progressive, sustainable and powerful. Hence a potential win-win situation in her relationship with HNI.

The community room
The LLE itself ran to exactly the same timetable as it does in the UK and Italy – with community meetings at the beginning and end of each day, three small groups which meet five times including one to cook a meal for the whole community, and the rest of the ‘community time’ to be spent however the community decides. We had seventeen participants – including HNI staff, psychology postgraduate students, an engineer, a Greenpeace worker, Azad the young organic farmer from Kracadawna (see India blog #1), and four workers from the Mental Health Action Trust in Kerala (see India blog #4). We had a staff team of four – Jan, Sandra and I each conducting small groups, and Anando in the role of Dobby the House Elf – lighting the fires, running errands, helping with the cooking and generally knowing where everything is and how everything works (no mean feat for a workshop in this setting!).

Safiya shows us how to cook when it's our group's turn
 It all passed in a febrile blur for me – with an upper respiratory infection and fever throughout – but particularly notable moments included the production of fine Indian meals from such basic ingredients, over wood fires which smoked the kitchen out,without need for many words or instructions; washing up without running water; cheering as we let Chinese Lanterns float upwards into the night with a wish; monkey trouble; a chaotic group game called Mafia (an Indian version of what we call 'killer'), and dancing round the bonfire in the courtyard

Hanging out
Although Sandra, Jan and I started with severe reservations along the lines of ‘how can we presume to sit amongst these people and conduct groups in our normal way, when we have so little idea of what their lives are actually like and how almost everything about the culture works here?’, we were surprised how it all worked out. By the end, we had all made relationships which we felt sadness at ending – and heard remarkable and moving tales of how people manage their lives a
nd emotions. Most seemed to have got a lot out of it, as had we. An extraordinary, and unforgettable, experience.

Follow the LLE link on the right if you want to try it for yourself…

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