I was waiting with Radhika (name changed) for the guests to arrive. She is a 2nd year student studying at a city college. The women and young girls of Shollinganallur slum had invited a group of us to their homes and their community. An initiative by iVolunteer with whom I am associated, called Dine and Dialogue was kicked off, simply to encourage people who may not have otherwise met to mingle, chat and have a good time. An NGO, Centre for Women’s Development and Research (CWDR) has been working with these women in the area for two decades, mostly in the area of gender justice and empowerment.
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So, we were waiting and I was getting impatient with the late comers. Radhika had been waiting with me for an hour. She looked uncomfortable and possibly tired.
“Are you OK”, I asked?
She nodded a little hesitatingly. By then we had established a decent rapport. She was as young as my own daughter was and we chatted about college, boys, her parents, her annoyance with intruding relatives, her indulgent irritation with her brothers. She was so much like Nidhi, my daughter and her friends, in so many ways.
I asked again, “Do you want to go and sit down someplace”?
“Yes”, she replied, “I got my period this morning”.
I responded saying what a pain it was and wondered why women have to deal with it from puberty to menopause and how it had become such a talking point these days. We joked about it, cribbed together about it and sat down together.
Suddenly out of the blue, she said quite matter of factly, “A few months ago I got it at 1 am. We live in a one-room kitchen. I did not what to do. My mother was away visiting relatives and only my brothers and father were at home.” There are no toilets in the area. I did not know what the appropriate response was.
We went on after the others arrived. The evening started out with the children putting a show together, there was some confusion, lights were not enough, there were gaps in the “proceedings”, some of the activities were not going according to plan; I was beginning to get hassled. Like the “show” needed to go on smoothly.
The women had gathered and we were asking them questions about their lives, their challenges, and it began to feel like an interview of sorts – one group questioning and the other answering. Something did not seem right about this. We wrapped this part of the evening up quickly and went on to visit their homes, where it began to get better.
We chatted about the colour of the walls, the TV serials, the drains that overflowed, the upcoming constructions, the political chaos, the getting old of our favourite movie stars and soon I felt a lot better, perhaps truly “equal” in that moment. We went back to eat at the centre and to my delight I found that a lot of the visitors and the women had found their own equations. Some danced with the kids, some chatted with the women, some chatted among themselves about the evening.
The food was delicious. We had “demanded” fish curry. The hostess who made that proudly served it, refusing to part with the recipe. Dialogues were happening like they should have, like they would have in “our own” homes, at “our” parties.
A million thoughts raced through my mind, as I left that evening. Shock, pity, anger, guilt at my privilege, my unnecessary embarrassment at moments when the speaker did not work, possible solutions that I could reach out to others for…but the ONE thing that I should have felt quicker and earlier in the evening was just simple acknowledgement. We were invited to a community by the people. I experienced warmth, generosity, camaraderie as soon as I dropped my “consultative, solution suggesting avatar” and related to the people as I might have, had I been to another friend’s home.
I realised the hypocrisy in my “stating” that I feel no one is inferior to me and yet acting like I have the answers to the problems that others have, assuming that it’ ok to give it unsolicited. “Reacting” to a conversation by a community that was hosting us unconditionally and just so we could meet and chat and have a nice evening. Being in an experience for what it has to offer, NOT judging, NOT pre-empting, NOT feeling the need to jump to help and offer suggestions is hard to do.
Am I saying that help is not needed in Shollinganallur, for its women or the young girls? Of course not. I think though that it must be offered with deep understanding of the various intertwining factors that make a community one, humility and from a space of learning and being open. It must be sought proactively. It must be found consultatively.
It was hard for me to not be a “development sector” worker for one evening. I felt like if I had not caught myself in time, I would have insulted the hospitality of the community, made the evening transactional.
Our actions are the true reflection of our feelings and beliefs. If I had claimed to have always been able to treat everyone equally, then I had failed momentarily. I am hoping the next invitation by the women will see me wiser and truly be able to learn from their experiences, build rapport just as I might have at another friend’s home.
I am hoping I will be a more gracious guest the next time, soaking in the experience totally, the beauty of another woman’s experiences, another community’s way of life and sharing my own, just because it would be wonderful to do so.