This is indeed a long overdue blog post. I just want to share my visit to Madurai on January 4, when I attended the inauguration of CM Centre’s library. The space was inaugurated by Dr. Joe Elder, visiting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Joe served for many years as the director of the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in India Program, which ran study abroad programs for American college students in Madurai, Banaras, Waltair, Trivandrum, and Kathmandu, Nepal. I was a student in Madurai in 1985-86.
I attended the ceremony because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to spend some time with Joe, who has been an important person in my life. He employed me as a student monitor in Madurai, and also taught Sociology when I was at the UW. Joe still teaches at the UW. I asked him if he considers retiring. Only when he stops enjoying his work, he replied.
The inauguration also featured a wonderful dance performance by Rohini, the daughter of Dr. Vidya and J. Rajasekaran, the co-directors of CM Centre, accompanied in this photo by two of her classmates.
I’ve neglected my blog site since last fall because I’ve been on an assignment, documenting the efforts of Exnora Green Pammal, a Chennai-based NGO, to bring four localities into compliance with the government’s solid waste management regulations. Here’s a photo of me collecting feedback from residents in Panipat, where EGP has teamed up with the local government and residents. EGP’s work is sponsored in part by PepsiCo.
I hope to soon return to revision of Object of Desire and will keep readers posted.
Last Saturday, I visited Madurai to interview a sex worker and speak with scholars about messages, expectations and beliefs that shape the childhood and identity of girls and women in Tamil Nadu. I particularly wanted to better understand the dimensions and role of the concept of chastity, specifically among Hindu Tamils. Chastity, meaning sexual propriety, fidelity and discipline, is a very important issue for people here because girls and women are believed to have great power (shakti) which, if not rigidly restricted and controlled, can be highly destructive. It is believed that promiscuity among women will anger the Goddess Mariyamma, causing epidemics and drought.
However, little mention is made of men who are not chaste. In fact, some Tamil men keep more than one wife, and this appears to be generally accepted by society.
I travelled from Pondicherry in a bus that reached Madurai before dawn. I dropped my bags in my usual penthouse (room #405, @ $5/night) at New Ruby lodge, and made a quick trip around the Meenakshi temple while the sun rose. The largest of all the temples in Madurai, the ancient Meenakshi temple is a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims.
My friends at CM Centre, Sekar and Vidya, arranged a very interesting day for me. I spent the morning speaking with them about ways that the importance of chastity is communicated to girls. Chastity is taught and enforced by teaching girls to keep away from boys as they grow up. From a young age, girls are discouraged from laughing, looking at or touching boys, and going outside of their home. Chastity is a theme in reading assignments at school, as well as part of discipline at home.
Tamil proverbs are one way that lines are drawn between proper and improper behavior.
The following proverbs illustrate messages that girls are given:
“If there is no man to rule a woman, then she becomes a concubine for many.”
“Loose hair, loose woman.”
“If a girl laughs, she’ll be ruined. If tobacco is left out, it will be ruined.”
However, I have a sense that some proverbs are interpreted in counter-intuitive, or paradoxical ways, making them somewhat similar to Zen koans, reflecting the contradictory content of ancient Tamil texts that honored and celebrated love, passion and female sexuality.
In the afternoon, I visited Mercy Trust, an NGO that works for the rights and welfare of sex workers in Madurai. There I interviewed Vimala (not her real name). Vimala is an orphan who often has been homeless since the age of 7 or 8. She doesn’t know how old she really is, but she estimates that she’s approximately 45. When she was 8, she was adopted informally by a couple who ran a brothel in Kodambakkam, Chennai. Vimala saw that the girls in the brothel were very unhappy, so she escaped when she was 12. She travelled to Madurai and lived on the street. In Madurai, a woman occasionally helped her, but Vimala discovered that this woman ran a brothel. Vimala ended up working for this woman, but not before becoming pregnant by a boyfriend who ran off after he learned that Vimala had conceived.
Vimala’s story shared many common elements with stories I’ve collected from other sex workers. In short, her life has been a train wreck. She never went to school. She was at one point forcibly sold to a brothel (in Kambam). She lives with an extremely abusive man who is married to another woman, and who tortures Vimala physically and psychologically. She often doesn’t go home at night, preferring to sleep in the bus station.
At the end of our interview, I asked Vimala if chastity makes a difference in a woman’s life.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “If one has enough food, clothing, and shelter, then one can be happy and think about chastity. But if one is poor and homeless, then one’s mind is filled with worries about how to afford the essential things for survival. A poor person cannot afford to think about chastity.”
This isn’t about my novel, but after mentioning the gay pride parade that was held in Chennai last Sunday I must mention the astonishing and terrific news that this week the Delhi High Court wrote down (whatever that means) Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively legalizing homosexuality in India. Section 377 of the IPC was a relic of the British colonial era, prohibiting unnatural carnal sexual relations. This was interpreted to mean that homosexuality is against the law.
The case was filed in 2000, and it took the court only 9 years to reach a verdict. Nine years is swift justice by the Indian judicial system.
Celebrations were held throughout the country.
Surprisingly, no newspaper that I saw devoted an editorial to this landmark judicial ruling. I was also astonished that reporters appeared to completely fail to understand why Section 377 of the IPC lead to the persecution of sexual minorities. Reporting on the ruling, reporters interviewed senior police officials who claimed that Section 377 had been used only rarely to book cases against homosexuals.
But this wasn’t how Section 377 was abused. As far as I understand, Section 377 was used by street-level constables to extort money and sex from anybody they suspected of being a sexual minority.
At a time when most news is either depressing or alarming, it was tremendous to read that judges had ruled in favor of extending human rights to all Indians.
My occasional visits to a slum near Egmore railway station in Chennai give me ideas for settings and characters in the second part of my novel. On Sunday afternoon, I travelled to Chennai to confirm some impressions gathered during my previous visit there last weekend.
Last week, I spoke with a man named Ganesh who lives in a small, one-room home with his wife, two children and his mother. Ganesh, his wife and his mother cook meals that they sell to earn money. Ganesh’s brother lives with his family in a one-room home next door. Last week, Ganesh asked me to give him anything to help improve his business. I saw that he was using a rather small knife to clean and cut fish, and to cut beef, so I thought he might appreciate a larger kitchen knife.
Upon arriving in Chennai, I went directly to a store that sells kitchenware and purchased an 8-inch chef’s knife. Next, I proceeded to Egmore to search for a lodge to spend the night. Unfortunately, Bachelor Mansion, where I stayed last week, was full, as were many of the other lodges in the area. With the help of a local man who was determined to assist me, I got a room in JMJ Guest House. The guest house is run by a man from Kerala. From the amount of Christian iconography decorating the walls, I immediately guessed that JMJ stands for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The manager told me that I was correct. My room at JMJ Guest House, at $8/night, was exceptionally clean and comfortable.
Monday morning, I woke at 6:30 and arrived at the slum before 7. Ganesh was still inside his home, but many women were already outside, cleaning cooking vessels and preparing breakfast items that they sell for income.
While I was waiting for Ganesh, a group of schoolgirls passed, escorted by two nuns, Sister Expedith and Sister Hycinth. The sisters stopped when I greeted them and we started talking. With one other nun, named Sister Rose, they run the Bishop Aelen Home for Children. The home accommodates forty five girls who come from poor families around the slum. The sisters invited me to visit the home, just three doors down the lane.
The home is severely crowded, but probably provides a far better environment for the girls than what they had before they moved there. Sister Hycinth explained that many of the girls had been living with their families on the platforms at Egmore railway station. The sisters provide the girls with a meal in the morning, and send them to school. The schools provide lunch. The sisters very kindly invited me to breakfast. While eating, we discussed the predicament of families in the slum. They confirmed my impression that the slum’s residents find it nearly impossible to move to better neighborhoods because of numerous barriers to upward mobility. I found this particularly disturbing because many of the people are clearly very industrious and entrepreneurial. Apparently, hard work isn’t enough to improve one’s life.
I expect that child welfare experts will argue that placing children in a group-home is not in the children’s best interest. But one must remember that many of these children are not orphans, and have not been given up for adoption. Their homeless parents live in the neighborhood. The girls have been taken into an environment that shelters them from dangers they are likely to face if living on the streets, while the home also places the girls in schools.
After breakfast, I thanked the sisters and returned to the home of Ganesh. He and his wife were cleaning fish while his mother was starting a fire. I presented the knife to Ganesh, and then asked him several questions about his life.
He told me that he was born in Chennai, and that his family is chronically indebted to local money lenders. One of the greatest obstacles to moving out of the slum is the steep security deposit demanded by landlords in Chennai. Ganesh finds it impossible to accumulate the $750-$1,000 advance asked by most landlords as a security deposit, in addition to the $40 – $60/month rent.
It’s awkward doing fieldwork in the slum, because the lanes are extensions of each family’s living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, all combined. Visitors are invading each family’s living space. But I’ve come to love visiting the neighborhood because the children wear such wonderful smiles, and are so charming when they wake up, step outside and start their day. And learning about the work of Sisters Hycinth, Expedith and Rose was an unexpected blessing. I wish that scumbags like Bernard Maddoff or Ramalinga Raju would pay off some of their bad karma by building a larger, nicer facility for the residents of the Bishop Aelen Home.
At this point I’m writing the second section of my novel. In this section my main character, Ambika, lives with her boyfriend in a low-income neighborhood in Chennai. On Sunday afternoon I travelled to Chennai to gather impressions of living conditions in such a neighborhood. I’ve occasionally visited one particular neighborhood near Egmore railway station over the past 5 months, but I’ve never seen the neighborhood at any time other than mid-day. So on Sunday I spent the night in a lodge near the neighborhood, giving me an opportunity to observe the neighborhood and its residents in the evening and in the early morning.
I arrived in Egmore at around 8:30 p.m. and found many lodges already full. Finally, I found a single room in the Bachelor Mansion on Kennet Lane. The word mansion might lead visitors to expect some degree of luxury or extravagance, but the rate of $6 per night quickly calibrated my expectations for what was in store. The room was simple and reasonably clean, but in no respect did it resemble a mansion.
In the first lodge I checked, notices were posted around the lobby and above the reception desk warning customers that washing laundry in the rooms was strictly prohibited and punishable with a Rs. 100 fine. So, upon occupying my room at Bachelor Mansion, I immediately read the house rules, posted on the inside of my door, to find out if I could wash my boxer shorts without violating the rules. Happily, I learned that washing my clothes wasn’t forbidden. Even better, the rules informed me that, “Flood not supplied at your room.” I have to say that I slept well that night after being assured in writing that the room wouldn’t be flooded. However, I was disappointed that room service at Bachelor Mansion didn’t deliver food to the room.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I arrived in Chennai on the night of the city’s first gay pride parade. I learned this on Monday when The New Indian Express reported the parade on the newspaper’s front page. Later, friends informed me that there also had been a parade in Bangalore. Across India, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are appealing to the government to rescind an anti-sodomy statute that effectively criminalizes homosexuality. This is just one of many changes underway in India.
Another indication of changing times, tastes and tolerances was a large sign in front of Alsa Mall, advertising Iris, a lingerie boutique located inside the mall. Ten years ago, I doubt that such an ad would have escaped the censor’s black brush for very long in Chennai.
Unfortunately, some things aren’t changing very quickly in India. While walking the streets of Chennai, I encountered many homeless people. The plight of the poor became clearer as I stood for a few hours watching the residents of my chosen neighborhood start their day. Families of six or eight people live in single-room homes and shacks that are approximately half as large as one of the closets in the master bedroom of my sister’s house in Connecticut. With such small homes, life happens largely outdoors. The local residents defecate openly on the sidewalks and streets, only a short distance from where they cook food and wash clothes.
A 45 year old widow, a mother of six children, told me that life was much easier in the village where she lived before moving to Chennai. In Chennai, she said, one always needs a lot of money.
Observing life in Chennai reminded me of one of the paradoxes that characterize India: despite considerable, surprising and encouraging changes, India remains in many disturbing respects unchanged.
While doing fieldwork for the novel over the past couple of months, I’ve relied heavily on the staff and services of the Chella Meenakshi Centre for Educational and Research Services in Madurai. The Centre was inaugurated in January by Dr. Joseph Elder, the indefatigable longtime director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College Year in India Programme (CYIP). The Centre is directed by Dr. V. A. Vidya and Mr. J. Rajasekaran, both of whom previously coordinated the UW-Madison’s CYIP in Madurai. I first met Vidya and Rajasekaran in 1985, when I was a student on the Wisconsin Programme in Madurai.
For scholars doing research in India, the Centre offers a wide variety of support services and facilities. In addition to logistical support, the Center also provides highly qualified, well-trained field assistants for translation, introduction to local specialists and scholars, facilitation with government formalities and authorities, and access to local libraries, collections and archives. The Centre is well equipped with computer, audio visual and communication equipment.
For me, the Centre has scheduled and translated interviews with commercial sex workers and women who live in a slum. I simply provided CM Centre with a detailed terms of reference describing my needs, and CM Centre arranged everything accordingly. In addition, Dr. Vidya provided very helpful feedback on my questionnaires, and Mr. Rajasekaran advised me on the timing of the Mariyamma festival in Veerapandi.
In summary, CM Centre has maximized the productivity of my time in the field. I recommend the Centre strongly.
The Centre’s email address is email@example.com