On my experience volunteering with the NGO Sahara in Delhi,
And travelling in North India,
In the summer of 2007.
“You – first time, India?” asks the auto driver, as his auto weaved through the streams of buses and beggar-children, which together with the ubiquitous Ambassadors and the yellow auto-rickshaws combine to create the congested chaos which fills the streets of Delhi.
“No,” I reply.
“How many times India? Second time, na?”
“No,” again, “many times”; and as the driver is distracted from our conversation by the more pressing task of avoiding a collision with the oncoming cycle-rickshaw, I manage to escape the difficult task of explaining my history with India.
For what the answer to his question is worth, I have been to India fifteen times, all in the course of the six years I spent at Hebron School, an international Christian boarding school situated in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu, South India. However, as all my time in India was spent at this school – I would return to Singapore during my vacations – I left with a sense of having never been truly exposed to India.
So this summer I became that greatest of clichés, the westerner searching for the mythologized ‘Real India’. As well as the adventure of travelling on my own to new places, I wanted to learn about responding as a Christian to the inequality that anyone who has lived in India cannot help having seen; and I also wanted to begin learning Hindi.
What follows is not a comprehensive report on the work of Sahara (the organization I worked with), nor an analytic overview of the country of India. It is not even a detailed description of everything that happened to me – two months of entirely new experiences is too much material to fit into a few pages. It does however aim to give an accurate idea of my time in India, and to give some account of what I did.
Thanks to Mrs. Blessi Kumar, the mother of a friend from school, I was able to get in touch with an NGO working in Delhi, called Sahara – a word which means ‘refuge’ in Hindi. The organization began about thirty years ago as a residential treatment centre for substance users, and is now involved in a variety of projects “to empower people facing difficult situations due to substance use and HIV/AIDS”. It was arranged that I would stay at the men’s residential centre, and teach English in a small school run primarily for the children of women in rehab, where I would also have the opportunity to learn some Hindi.
The men’s residential centre in Greater Kailash II – called Sahara House – is a two-storey building over-flowing with men in different stages of rehabilitation, and run almost entirely by people who have been through the Sahara system. The ground floor is taken up with offices, a shop selling various handicraft items made by people involved in some of Sahara’s income generation projects, and a small apartment. The other two floors and the rooftop are the living space for the fifty-plus men staying in the House. Due to Sahara House’s policy of fitting as many in as possible rather than turning anyone away, space is at a premium, and so everyone sleeps on mattresses (or just sheets, depending on their level of hardiness) which spend the day tucked away in a corner of the room, and then appear at ten each evening, as everyone gets ready for another night’s rest. During the day, the house alternates between periods of peaceful quiet and the sound of music, usually at high volume.
On my initial arrival, I could hear the sound of tablas and voices pouring out from the first-storey windows onto the outside streets. The sound seemed at first closer to chanting than singing, and the words, being Hindi, were incomprehensible to me. There was something enthralling about the melody of what I was to later find out was the morning devotions: something very foreign from my previous experience of Christian worship; and yet at the same time, something reassuringly familiar.
“Music’s a very important part of the community here at Sahara,” I was told by Aislinn, an Irish volunteer who was returning to Sahara for six months after having visited for a few days when she came into contact with the organization on a visit to India a year previously. I was sitting outside the main office, drinking sweet milky masala chai, and waiting to meet Neville. The truth of her words was confirmed over the next weeks, as the Sahara rock band took over the living room of the apartment each evening to practise for their fund-raising gig at a local bar; as I discovered the celebrated Coffee Night, where a guitar amp blasting a mixture of Bollywood hits and rock ‘n’ roll classics turns the rooftop of Sahara House into (arguably) one of Delhi’s most happening nightspots; and as Neville appeared and, before doing anything else, turned on ‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan.
Neville Selhore, known to those staying in the House simply as ‘the Boss’, is the driving force behind the work that Sahara does. A Bombay Catholic who knows the Bible as well as anybody and better than most, he can speak with equal passion on the corruption and hypocrisy of the Church (both Catholic and Protestant), and on the greatness of God. To begin with, the only way that Neville reminded me of Jesus was – in the words of Isaiah – in that “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”. He is a wiry man, a lifetime of distance-running and cigarette-smoking having combined to burn any excess fat from his sinuous frame. He has a wild shock of curly grey hair; and a raspy, nervous-sounding laugh. On meeting me, he gave me a somewhat limp handshake, muttered a few words of welcome, and quickly turned away to some more pressing matter. Initially I had no idea what to make of him, slightly surprised by how different he was from my idea of a leader. However, over the course of my time at Sahara I came to have enormous respect for him, and realised that he also resembles Jesus in the sense that he is anointed by God “to preach good news to the poor … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. I saw the incredible loyalty he has inspired amongst the people who have been helped by Sahara, and began to understand the immense personal price that he has been willing to repeatedly pay for these people. His unruly hair and haphazard sleeping patterns seem to make more sense when paired with the stories, like the one about Neville’s refusal to press charges against a man who, after being thrown out of Sahara for using drugs while in rehab, stabbed him in the leg. When the man finally returned repentant to Sahara, Neville forgave him, and now he is leading one of Sahara’s projects.
“Do you play football?” was one of Aislinn’s first questions to me, and my affirmative answer meant that I would join in with the afternoon matches that took place between the over-thirties and the under-thirties. Sport (probably even more than music) is the focus of life at Sahara, providing not only a practical way to regain and maintain physical fitness, but also an alternative ‘high’ to that of drugs. Each morning the members of the House rise at half past five either to train for the upcoming half-marathon that many will be running to raise some much-needed money to support the organisation’s work; to practise football skills; or, for those for whom such exertion is made impossible – because of say, the amputation of a leg, or a broken bone that has never healed properly because of inadequate medical care – there is a morning walk. Then there is the football, a fiercely contested affair which sees an impressive level of skill that seems incongruous when compared to the pitch on which it is played – a potholed, uneven square of clay that is covered in randomly spread patches of grass and cow-pat. As well as the physical benefits and emotional uplift provided by football, I was also glad of the feeling of camaraderie it engenders, which made building relationships (which Aislinn reminded me, was the most important thing I could try and do at Sahara House) much easier.
‘Sahara Non-Formal School’ is the name given to two classrooms on the site of the Women and Children’s Home, a Sahara project located in Saket, another of Delhi’s southern colonies. It offers teaching to the children of the women staying at the Home, and also to other local children, at roughly Class One and Reception levels. Having been told that I would be able to “teach English and learn some Hindi”, I was somewhat bemused to find that what this meant was – in the words of Sneha, the Home’s coordinator – “Go into the classroom and just teach – you can use the blackboard as you like, or you can point to objects and ask the children – what is this? – in Hindi, and in English – that way you will be able to learn Hindi, and they can learn English”. I then spent my first day in the classroom feeling rather uncertain of what exactly I should be doing. The difference in educational culture – the teachers place much more emphasis on rote learning, and have no qualms about smacking a misbehaving child – and my own inability to speak Hindi, made me feel at first very alien, and quite useless.
After some failing attempts at finding a game suited to the wide range of abilities of the children in the class, I came to the conclusion that if I was to be of any use (or at least feel as if I was doing anything useful) I would have to take only a couple of children at a time. Thanks to the flexibility and ‘non-formality’ of the school this was no problem, and I would spend the mornings taking pairs of students outside of the classroom for about half an hour each, practising counting various objects in English and Hindi, and learning simple vocabulary. Doing this meant that I was able to communicate more effectively, as I could adapt the lessons depending on the knowledge of the students, and it also meant that I had the satisfaction of seeing those I was teaching actually responding individually.
Attaining a basic level of proficiency in Hindi was not only one of my aims in coming to India – it was also going to be vital if I was to be able to engage with the children I was attempting to teach. Before leaving for India I had purchased a copy of Teach Yourself Hindi, and had managed to learn the script, as well as a few words and basic phrases. I was initially disappointed by the lack of anyone prepared to give me anything resembling a formal lesson in Hindi, but in retrospect I probably would not have been able to proceed as quickly as I did on my own, learning the grammar and vocabulary chapter-by-chapter as presented in my book. I was told by Cliff (formerly a teacher in Lucknow before becoming a client at Sahara – he would also go to the Women and Children’s Home each day to teach) that there was no use trying to learn Hindi from books as the best way to pick up the language was to practise speaking. However, I found having a solid theoretical foundation very useful during the impromptu occasions to practise my Hindi that I was often granted from Sahara clients. While these were useful in tuning my ear to the rhythms and tones of the Hindi language, and in practising the Hindi I had taught myself, the actual instruction was unsurprisingly quite disjointed.
Although – needless to say – after my weeks spent trying to learn Hindi, my command of the language is still not nearly good enough to hold a proper conversation, I was able to gain a reasonable understanding of the nuts and bolts of the language: I can conjugate verbs in the past, present, future, imperative and subjunctive tenses, and have a wide enough vocabulary that I can confidently argue with auto-rickshaw drivers, buy bus tickets, and order food. Perhaps more importantly, I was reminded that in communicating with people, being able to smile and to laugh can be at least as effective as being able to express yourself fluently. At least when one is trying to establish relationships – possibly not when bargaining over prices.
It did not take me long before my life at Sahara had established a routine. On a typical day, I would take the 472 bus to Saket, from where I would walk up the road to the Women and Children’s Home, often buying a breakfast of chole batture and a mango shake on the way. I would then spend the morning teaching pairs of English to children relieved to be spared the tedium of their regular class-work; except their breaks, when I would try to learn some more vocabulary. During lunch – usually some preparation of daal-chaval, that is, lentils and rice – I would often try in vain to follow the Hindi conversations of Cliff and the other teachers. Then I would return alone to Sahara, sharing an auto to the bus stop, and then taking the bus back. Being able to travel independently in this fashion, more economical though less simple than taking an auto-rickshaw straight to GKII, filled me with a satisfying sense of naturalization. In the afternoon, if I returned in time, I would sit and listen to the afternoon group discussion which would reflect on topics such as the meaning of rehabilitation. This would be followed by the integral game of football, before the evening meal. Afterwards I would either join the evening devotions, or stay downstairs listening to the band playing the likes of Pink Floyd. By the time they had finished, leaving space on the floor to lay a mattress, I was invariably ready for the night’s rest.
“Did you enjoy it?” is a question that a lot of people have asked me when told that I was volunteering in India. I then grapple with the immense task of trying to reduce everything I have experienced at Sahara to a few sentences. Although there are many aspects of life at Sahara that I enjoyed immensely – the football, the dancing, the music, the banter – and the experience as a whole was certainly rewarding, intertwined with this is the inescapable reality of addiction. During my short time at Sahara I saw enough clients being told to pack their bags and leave after being caught fixing, to begin to realise how common a part of rehabilitation relapse is. Many return after a few days and are readmitted, having asked for forgiveness and been granted it – but not all do, and it is a strange and sobering moment when it comes to playing football and I remember that our team’s star centre-back will not be playing because he is instead homeless somewhere on the streets of Delhi. Heart-wrenching, too.
In my last week with Sahara, I was able to visit some of the other Sahara projects. At the Needle Exchange Project, people sit around playing cards, their abscesses in plain view while they wait for a new supply of clean needles. A man comes towards me: “Tum Hindi janta ho?” I reply: “Sirf tora tora”, but this fails to stop him from launching into a detailed description of how he came to be in such a place. I nod, bewildered. Seeing that I don’t understand, he switches to English: “Hundreds of crores. All gambled away. Now, nothing”.
In a park by Jama Masjid, where Mustapha goes each week as part of his community outreach, a woman approaches, her vividly green eyes staring out numbly from behind the bandage that covers her face. She stands silent, while another woman – who has already displayed the cuts she herself inflicted on her wrists – tells her story: “She had fifty rupees to buy her children food – her husband demanded the money so as to buy drugs – she refused – he cut off her nose and stole the money – now she wants to move into the Women’s Home”. However, when Mustapha returns two days later to take her to the Home, the woman has left Delhi and returned to her village.
Near Kashmiri Gate, I see the Hijra Project. Hijras – the transgender community – have been a recognized part of Indian society for thousands of years, but have very low status. They are often involved in sex work, and are one of the most high-risk groups for HIV. Sahara gives advice on safer sex practices, and provides other counseling as well. I sit and read a report from a few years ago recommending that they be offered training in income-generating skills, so as to reduce the need to engage in sex work. When I ask if this happens, I am told that this project currently has no funding of its own at all, and so such training is impossible.
I am still struggling to know what to make of such scenes.
Before I left, Neville told me that I must come back. “Forget teaching at the Women and Children’s Home – that’s nothing – come for five, six months, and I will show you what Practical Christianity means – what Sahara really does. What did Jesus say to the rich young man? Sell everything you have and come follow me.”
After leaving Sahara, I set off on a journey around North India that would take in Kolkata, Darjeeling, Varanasi and Lucknow. I boarded the train for the forty-hour journey from Delhi to Kolkata, carrying the rucksack that my father had taken to India when he was a student (something old), a digital camera (something new), some novels from the bookshelf in Sahara House (something borrowed) and a copy of Lonely Planet India (something blue).
Travelling alone is an activity that many people seem to find difficult to understand. “Two is better,” I was told by a student who boarded my train compartment with his friend, “one not good”. I nodded my head in the ambiguous Indian fashion and went back to reading my book, secure in the knowledge that on my own I would have a greater freedom to choose which sights to see; to spend as much time as I liked sitting in cafés reading; to take photographs of anything and everything unhurried by another’s impatience; and to have conversations with people who saw a lone traveler as someone to be befriended.
Standing at the door of a carriage of an Indian train, its reassuringly repetitive rattle in your ears and the wind in your hair, is a beautiful way to watch the landscape slip past. The luscious green of padi fields, the wallowing of water-buffalo in the winding river, the unperturbed expressions of villagers come to the side of the tracks to defecate, the waiting traffic at level-crossings – all these make opening the door and leaning slightly out well worth the warning that such an action might incur from the ticket inspector.
In Kolkata, my first impression is the abundance of taxis. Everywhere else in India that I have been is ruled by the auto-rickshaw, but here autos are prohibited from much of the city and so the taxi reigns supreme. Remembering the 90s pop chorus “I am a taxi driver in Calcutta// I am a taxi-driver man”, I am driven in one of these taxis to Sudder Street, where I check into a budget hotel and leave my luggage, before setting out on a walk through the city’s streets.
Because of the profusion of tourists staying in the Street’s cheap hotels, Sudder Street is also where many of the city’s beggars congregate. How to respond to people begging for money was a question that I was constantly faced with during my time in India. Jesus’ words of “Freely you have received, freely give” were incredibly challenging in the face of the abundant provision that I had received in the form of the travel grants for which I had prayed. On the other hand, anyone can list the many valid reasons why giving to beggars is a bad idea: the money rarely ends up benefiting the person who you are trying to help, donating to a charity would probably be more effective, you are encouraging people to beg rather than working, et cetera. For the most part I tried to be generous, at the risk of being naïve. Seeing the look of gratitude in a mother’s eyes after I had bought fruit juice for her children made such a decision seem like the right one – hearing the same man to whom I had given money for a bus-ticket back to his home-town telling the same story the next day made me feel like a fool.
While I made no attempt to learn the Bengali script – different from the Devanagari script used for many Indian languages, including Hindi – I did, in recognition of Bengali’s status as the language of some of India’s finest contemporary literature, read some poetry by Jibananda Das, as well as Tagore’s Nobel Prize-winning Gitanjali; albeit in translation.
From Kolkata to Darjeeling, I took the overnight train to New Jalpaiguri, and then was transported by a jeep up the winding roads to the hill-station. For the entirety of my stay, a somewhat damp cloud enveloped the mountain-side, filling the town’s few streets with a soft mist which made me quietly nostalgic for the ten years of my life spent at boarding schools in former British hill-stations. However, I was still disappointed when I awoke before dawn in the hope of seeing the nearby Tiger Hill’s spectacular view of the sun rising from behind five Himalayan peaks, only to find that all was concealed by a covering of cumulus cloud. That said, even the brief moment when the clouds did part slightly to reveal a snow-capped mountain-top was easily sufficiently beautiful to make the early morning worth the effort.
Darjeeling is renowned for its very fine teas, and I spent a significant proportion of time in various of the town’s tea houses, sitting beside the window in a wicker chair, slowly savouring each sip of delicately flavoured tea as I turned the pages of my novel.
After Darjeeling, I traveled to Varanasi, again by overnight train. This ancient city is situated on the western bank of the River Ganges, and thousands of Hindu pilgrims come from across India to do pooja. I stayed in the Old City, in a guest house overlooking the riverbank and beside one of the ‘burning ghats’, where bodies are brought to be cremated. The Old City is a maze of narrow alleyways filled with shivalingam and chai-wallahs. Through them pass an assortment of orange-robed sadhus; chanting funerary processions, and the aggressive motorbikes which follow them; flustered tourists, and the silk emporium touts who follow them; and the unhurried sacred cows. I would sit on a ledge at the side of one of these alleys, drinking chai from small clay cups; taking photos as India passed me by.
Lining the riverbank are a multitude of ghats, or temples, which overlook the bathers who rise each morning to wash in the very polluted – but nevertheless sacred (to Hindus) – water of the Ganges as the sun rises from the opposite bank. Being rowed down the river in the coolness of the morning is another experience well worth the necessary early wake-up.
Another overnight train brought me to Lucknow, where I kept my rucksack in the care of the train station’s luggage room, and set out for the ruins of the old British Residency. The walls of this building are pocked with the marks of canon-balls fired during the period its museum referred to as the Indian Mutiny (also sometimes known to Indians as the First War of Independence), and provided me – an ‘Angrez’ in India – with a reminder of the turbulent history of the English in India.
I then spent the afternoon touring the beautiful Mughal architecture of the Bara and Chhota Imambaras. As always with such buildings, I was impressed by the elegance of the domes and minarets, and their serene reflection in the crystal clear pools of water. Built in similar style to the Taj Mahal, they seem more beautiful for the fact that their impact has not been dulled by the over-exposure of a thousand and one tourist brochures.
When a final night spent sleeping on a train brought me to Delhi, it felt a little like returning home. During the six weeks I had already spent there working with Sahara, I had made use of my free time (weekends, and the occasional afternoon without football) to see the city’s sights and to reunite with old school-friends now studying in Delhi. This had given me opportunity to become familiar with the city – its pristine metro system, overcrowded buses, and underfed rickshaw-drivers. In comparison to the chaos of Calcutta and the busy bustle of Benares, Delhi seemed almost comfortingly familiar.
Thank-you to the Martin le Cornu Fund, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, and the Henry Martyn Trust for generously providing the money that allowed me to make this trip, and to make it in relative luxury!
Thank-you to Mrs. Blessi Kumar, for coordinating with Sahara and organizing my placement, and for picking me up from the airport.
Thank-you to Sahara, and to Neville, for allowing me to come and be a part of their community. Thank-you to all who shared their stories with me.
Thank-you to Wilson and Hamish, for their prayers, and especially their encouragement to commit to this project by buying the air tickets before I knew what funding I might receive.
Thank-you to Mary Kendall, as this trip would never have happened had my tutor not revealed that there exist a number of grants available to people at Cambridge wanting to travel.