Monthly Archives: November 2012

Something about HIV


There is just something about HIV that makes the heart stop. When it’s mentioned (especially in close context), the whole body collapses. The throat closes, the chest sinks, the stomach drops. Time freezes or at least becomes painfully slow. This is the state that I found myself in yet again this afternoon.

(I can’t imagine what patients must go through when they get their positive diagnoses.)

I will keep this story short. It involves a thirty year old woman (I will call her Lakshmi), who came to my room and brought me ORS when I was sick my first week in India. Lakshmi’s husband committed suicide five years ago after learning his HIV status and giving up on life three years later. He was an alcoholic mason who presumably frequented prostitutes in between beating his wife. After learning that he was HIV positive, he attempted to change his ways and find God, working in a church for three years. However, his attempts failed and he instead committed suicide. He left behind his wife and two HIV positive children, who are now nine and ten and studying at the BIRDS school (the mother and children are receiving treatment). I have met both children.

When I asked Lakshmi the question concerning her future, she told me what nearly every mother that I have talked to has said: That she wants to work hard so that she can give her children a good education and better lives than she had. I don’t remember if Lakshmi cried at all during our interview. But I nearly did with her response to this question. I really struggled against the tears welling up in my eyes. And it took all effort to keep my voice strong for the next question.

I could take the sad stories of her husband beating and harassing her. Of her three-year abandonment just after her daughter was born. Of her brother-in-laws harassing her daily and stealing her land. Of the time her children found her when she had taken all those pills. But when it came to the topic of her children’s futures, I broke.

Note: please read my reply for further discussion of HIV and the stigmas facing patients.

Fundraising Campaign for India’s Widows

I recently launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for the research I have been doing on widows in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. As the followers of my blog know, the state of widowhood here is pretty dire. I have been deeply moved by the stories that I have heard and would like to try to help widows and future widows in the area. In order to do this, I am expanding my research to get a more accurate picture of problems faced by these widows (while many of the stories I heard from the forty-eight widows are similar, I do not want my work to be brushed off as anecdotal evidence) and generate ideas about how to solve these problems. As my campaign will not be funded unless I reach my goal by December 25 at 11:59 pm PT, I set my goal low to be a minimum of $500. I am so far thrilled with the generosity of my donors and, after only two days of the campaign, am already 45% funded! Any money raised over my $500 goal will be happily accepted and put to good use setting up and funding programs to improve the lives of widows with the help of BIRDS and the established system of community health workers. Please consider donating to my campaign and/or sharing it with friends! Thank you for your generosity and support!

Prostitution, AIDS, and a double dose of widowhood

image Today I met with an old widow in her seventies. With her came two small, sad-looking boys. Shortly after our interview began, Mahdevi, the CHW for this village, came and briefly informed me of recent happenings in this woman’s life. From talking both with Mahdevi and the widow, her story (and the story of the children) came out.

One week ago, the boy’s mother left her three children with their homeless grandmother (the third grandchild, age twelve, was off working in the fields). The mother had cut her hair and left the village presumably to go commit suicide. It took a lot of careful questioning and clarifying to get the full story. Here it is:

The widow’s daughter (the mother of these children) was a prostitute, and was also recently widowed. Her husband had died about a year ago from AIDS. This woman had supported her family through prostitution, had contracted AIDS (condoms are practically unheard of in rural India), and gave the disease to her husband (who potentially had forced her into prostitution in the first place).  After the death of her husband, she continued to support her family through prostitution. I cannot fathom the poverty and desperation that would drive a woman to knowingly spread death to her customers and their families. I can imagine that her pain was intense.

Recently, this woman became too sick and weak to work, and I guess it came out in the village that she was dying of AIDS. Disgraced and too poor and ashamed to do anything else, she cut her hair and ran away to die. So she left her three children, ages three, seven, and twelve, with her nearly blind, homeless, and helpless mother.

The grandmother doesn’t know what to do. She still tries to work in the fields, but her age and disabilities prevent her from doing much. She already struggles to feed herself and now has three additional mouths to feed. Her twelve-year-old granddaughter, a child laborer, also suffers from tuberculosis. Can this sick little girl support a family of four?

I was distraught by the sadness of this story and the looks on the children’s faces. They kept asking about their mother and did not fully grasp what had happened. I had brought a snack for myself (today I worked basically 9-5) but instead gave it to the children. I may have raised their lips into just the slightest smile, but I cannot be too sure. To the grandmother, I gave two-hundred rupees (about four dollars), twice the amount that I give other widows for their time. It isn’t much, but I hope it will help. The children will be taken to the hospital for HIV testing and may receive scholarships to attend school if there are any available. My thoughts are with all of the widows that I have interviewed (and those that I will never interview) and the families that they support.


India: Attractions and Introductions

I assume that like many westerners, my first introduction to India was through The Beatles, specifically through the song Within You Without You (or maybe it was through Indian food at Americanized-Indian restaurants or through Shere Khan and The Jungle Book).


Alex Grey

As I grew older, my perceptions of India began to expand as I was introduced to yoga. In high school, I fell in love with the practice and became intrigued by the spiritual aspects of India and, on my own, began a very basic study of Hindu mythology and the yogic anatomy. As I grew older still and developed a passion for travel, I became even more drawn to India and, at the age of nineteen, knew that after college, I needed to spend at least six months in the country. From everything I knew and heard about India (and from the intense beauty of Indian art), I could feel that I would jive well with the Indian beat.


A few years later and unrelated to my interest in India, I befriended and later fell in and out of love with a man of Indian origins (first generation Indian-American–who I often forgot was brought up in a culture very different to my own). In our relationship, we discussed all things including India and its culture. Whenever I see a packet of Parle-G biscuits, I think of him.

Perhaps related to my long-term interest in India (and the fact that my opportunity to travel was drawing near), I took a course on South Asian Religions in my final semester of college. In this course I read Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts. As one of my primary intellectual interests lies in gender, specifically in women, I spent my time researching and writing about women in early India. I found the subject immediately fascinating (and so useful to what I am doing now!) and know that I will continue this pursuit in the future.

I also feel that, as one of the most populated places on the planet, it is important for me to see and experience how one-sixth of the world’s population lives.

And here I am–in India for three months instead of six, with my passion in full force. These various attractions and introductions have helped create an exhilarating and enriching experience. I am spending my time researching women, loving every second, and doing rooftop yoga as the burning fire of the Indian sun gently dips below the horizon. Life is pretty good, eh?


An Introduction to Widowhood in Rural India


Interview with the first widowimageThe ten year old grandson

The first two days of interviews with widows were intense to stay the least. On my very first day, I went to an especially poor village about an hour south of Nandyal where I met and interviewed seven widows. The first widow was around seventy-five years old and came with a small boy. This boy was one of the saddest looking children I have ever seen–especially in contrast to the happy, confident children I interact with daily at the BIRDS school. This tiny-ten year old was the orphaned grandson of this widow. Not only had she lost her husband (and with her husband her identity in village life), she also lost all of her children–including this boy’s parents (I think she said that they both died in an accident). This little boy is all she has left. So, this widow, virtually alone in this world and too old  and sick to work, supports herself and her grandson by begging door to door. Through begging, she somehow manages to send her grandson to the local school. She told me with tears in her eyes that she only eats when and if food is given to her and that her grandson is the only thing in this world that keeps her alive. This woman, like all the other widows I interviewed, was severely depressed (understandably so) and broke down several times as she told me the sad story her life.

This same day, I spoke with another widow who also supports her three grandchildren. After the death of her son, her daughter-in-law ran off with another man from a different village, leaving the eighty year old widow to provide shelter, food, and schooling for her children. This widow was slightly better off financially in that she owns a small amount of land that she is able to lease and scrape a living from the proceeds. She has a living son who is either handicapped mentally or physically (or both) and wanders village to village begging. Every few weeks, he comes to stay with his mother, who he assaults verbally (accusing his poor mother of terrible things) and frequently beats. This woman also cried as she told me her story, especially when she told me about her living son.

The stories I heard were hauntingly similar with little difference between those told by thirty year old and eighty-two year old widows. All of them spoke of being excluded from both family functions and religious celebrations. The villagers harass them and believe that even walking past a widow is bad luck, a superstition similar to the western superstitions surrounding black cats. If a villager see a widow on his way to work, the villager curses her (“Why do you cross my path?!”), returns home, and starts his day anew hoping that he will avoid another encounter with a widow. If his day doesn’t turn out as planned, he blames the widow for his misfortune. One can visibly see the effects that this superstition has on widows–they cower in their movements, creating for themselves an almost shadow-like existence.

In my first day, five of the seven women broke into tears at some point during the interview. I wanted to comfort their shriveled bodies, offering them a shoulder on which to cry. I wanted to hold their hand and tell them that things will get better. But I couldn’t. Because it won’t. Instead, I sat there awkwardly wishing I could do something, feeling just as helpless as the widows themselves.



The next day I went to a village that was slightly better off (or perhaps I was just hardened by my first day so that day two did not seem so bad). This being said, of the fifteen widows that I have interviewed so far, fourteen of them said that they sometimes feel that life is not worth living (some feel this way occasionally while some feel it everyday). Not so shockingly, these women have no hope for their futures (even the young widows). They feel utterly helpless. Their only hope lies in the dream that the lives of their children and grandchildren will not contain as much suffering as their own lives. To soften her sadness, one woman told me that she prays for death to release her from her shackled existence.

These two days were emotionally very difficult for me. I have worked in difficult situations in the past including working with children with cancer and with parents attempting to cope with the fact that they might loose their child. But these experiences did not come close to the intensity of talking with these widows, who have been shunned from everything they know. I could feel their pain and suffering.

After my first day of interviews, I found out that my interviews are helping to identify the worst cases who will then be offered help. For example, the first widow I met with who cared for her grandson will be offered food, shelter, and schooling for her grandson at the BIRDS school (from a generous sponsorship). Another woman, who was perhaps forty-five years old (not a widow but abandoned by her husband and thus subjected to the same torments of widowhood) and homeless, will be offered a job as a sweeper at BIRDS. If these women accept these offers, they will be cared for physically and emotionally by the BIRDS community. For these few women, life will improve.

However, simply offering charity to these women is not enough as the problem is too widespread and charity touches too few. Instead, the culture and social structure (including the poverty that drives it) surrounding women and widowhood must change. Until then, India’s widows will continue to suffer.

In a future post, I will write more about the historical and social structures surrounding women and widowhood in India.

Note: I am aware of the dangers of being a cultural imperialist. However, I see the treatment of India’s widows as a violation of human rights and I strongly feel that something needs to change for these women.



An Introduction to Indian Fashion

When I arrived in India, no one complemented me on my clothes. Granted, I wore my “bird-watching pants”– quick dry and oh-so-flattering. The pants were made even more flattering due to the weight lost with my post-MCAT movement and trek, so that they were held on by a belt, creating the high-fashion look of a khaki-colored bag bunched around my waist. And my shirts–all quick dry and awkwardly clinging to the curves and ridges of my torso. Yes, I was the perfect picture of elegance.

The women of India all wear saris–beautiful dresses made from yards of brightly colored fabric. For a more casual look, they wear Punjabi dresses–long tunics over matching or color-coordinated pants with a sweeping scarf trailing behind them as they walk. They wear bangles on both wrists to match their dress, gold necklaces, earrings, and nose studs, bejeweled hair clips, and a bouquet of fresh flowers in their hair. This is the fashion of rural south India. And yes, the women here are the perfect picture of elegance.

On laundry day, my beloved bird-watching pants were out of commission and, rather than digging out my scandalous ankle-bearing capris or my parachuting pants (both also quick dry), I found the one long skirt that I brought with me (funnily, with a “Made in India” tag marking its origin). As I walked down the steps of my quarters and into the crowd of elementary children, girls surrounded me and, grabbing at my skirt, exclaimed, “very pretty dress madam!”

I wore the skirt daily for my interviews with the community health workers from the surrounding villages. A few of them complemented my pretty, long skirt or mentioned its length, as it too sat low on my hips (no belt loops) and nearly dragged on the ground as I walked (I had to be careful not to raise my arms to swiftly lest I show the lace trim on my quick dry panties). All of the women, men, and children laughed each time I nearly tripped on my skirt while making the attempt to both talk and walk up or down stairs.

This past weekend, I visited the city of Nandyal for meetings and to buy a few necessities. Knowing the embarrassment and offense my clothes would cause in my interviews with widows in small, rural villages, I took the opportunity to expand my wardrobe. I let my intentions be known to the director who told me that his wife, Lata, would help me.

I expected to be taken to a store or tailor, but instead the tailor came to the director’s home and took my measurements. She brought with her a large bag of individually wrapped collections of fabric. From these forty-odd bags, I made a selection for my Punjabi dress–a purple silk top with sequined and embroidered blue leaves climbing from the base, purple-blue silk pants, and a blue scarf with a gold sequined trim. Lata arranged to have the dress made that day and brought back later that evening so that I could have something presentable to wear to the three-hour church service the following morning. She also arranged to have a sari made for me as a gift–a soft green chiffon sari with pink embroidered flowers. This would be finished by Sunday evening.

Saturday afternoon, a woman named Pushpa took me shopping for sandalwood soap, bangles, and barrettes. We went first to a supermarket and then to a woman’s accessory shop where I browsed through barrettes and bangles, searching for the least embellished. I found dark blue bangles to match my dress, matching barrettes, and three hair clips that Pushpa picked out for me insisting I needed one for bathing (brown and simple, my choice), one for everyday wear (glitter), and one for occasions (a rhinestone bow). All this I bought for 100 RS.

When my dress finally arrived and I adorned myself with matching bangles on each wrist–my god the reactions! Everyone told me how beautiful I looked and commented on the new clothes. Pushpa noticed that I wasn’t wearing a hair clip and, after lunch, solved the problem by bringing me flowers from her garden to wear instead.


Indian make-over

When I arrived back in Muthyalpadu and went to the girls’ hostel, I was again immediately complemented by the children and staff. The girls reached into my bag, pulling out my camera and insisting on taking photos with me and of me. They sat me down, did my hair, arranged my scarf, and gently touched my cheeks as they told me how pretty I looked. Then the photo shoot began.

Living in Portland the last several years, I have neglected fashion (I wear make-up three or four times a year and many of the clothes I wear are either several years old or come from REI with the exception of a few dresses-my newest obsession being L’Agence). But being in India has made me a little self-conscious. I don’t want to offend and, after wearing the same few quick dry clothes for over a month, I am ready to look and feel just a little bit feminine.

Tomorrow, for Children’s Day, I will wear my sari for the first time. Usha will come in the morning to dress me (alone, I attempted to try on the sari. I ended up putting the blouse on backwards and for the life of me couldn’t figure out how to enclose myself in the fabric). Its amazing the reactions to my efforts to look just the slightest bit Indian. The mehndi on my left hand is “very beautiful” and my dress is -gesture- “so nice.” I enjoy the femininity of my new wardrobe and am happy to see one more barrier crumbling down.

Happy Diwali!


Photo shoot with the kitchen staff


the difference between us and them

what is the difference between us and them?
some will say religion
and the merit of lives past and gone
some will say the tone or color of our skin
or that it’s in our wallets–thick and thin
others will say that the difference lies
between laziness and labour
and Diamond says that with guns, germs, and steel WE came to conquer THEM
but the truth hides in these four words:
what is the difference between us and them?

the luck of birth

Where am I? (a *mostly* pictorial representation)

Well, for starters I am in India. More specifically, I am in the state of Andhra Pradesh close to a village called Muthyal Padu.



I am working with an Indian non-profit called the Bharati Integrated Rural Development Society (BIRDS). It is truly an incredible organization from everything I have seen and heard. It seeks to empower dalit (untouchable), tribal (somehow below untouchable), women, children, and small and marginal farmers. The multi-faceted organization does this by offering training in organic farming, offering micro-finance loans to help the most needy (with a special focus on prostitutes), providing healthcare, promoting environment protection, education…. (the list continues). The BIRDS compound is located somewhere around the dot on the second map. I am surrounded by agriculture fields (with rice and vegetables being the primary crops) with distant hills on the horizon. All of the vegetables served to both myself and to the children and staff come from fields just meters away and are cultivated using sustainable and organic methods. And the food is delicious!


Sunset over the fields


The courtyard of the school. The blue roof is the nursery school and the white building is the administration building where I conducted my interviews with over 30 CHW


The elementary school–I live on the second floor


The staff quarters


A lovely woman who helps milk the buffaloes and cleans the classrooms

Aside from packs of stray dogs and two resident monkeys, there are many farm animals including a herd of twenty-six buffalo (not counting several baby buffalo), two oxen used for plowing fields, and chickens. The buffaloes are milked twice per day– morning and night, providing the staff, children, and myself with fresh buffalo milk to drink with our tea and eat as curd (yoghurt) with rice. Buffalo milk tea is delicious-rich and creamy and I have twice had the pleasure of drinking it with the buffalo herder and his family (his elderly mother and eighteen year old daughter).




The ox-man

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a school (I have the pleasure of living above the elementary school) that provides classes for children ages two-and-a-half to seventeen in both English and Telugu. In my spare time between interviews, I help the nursery school teachers with their classes. The children are precious. One child after another leads the class in shouting the ABCs, numbers, or nursery rhymes as the other students shout back in repetition. The looks on their faces are very serious and the teachers and I cannot help ourselves from smiling. By the end of the day, several of the nursery children lose their pants (accidents) and run around the rest of the day pant-less and unashamed.


Fatima has perfected the elementary school children’s synchronized exercise routine

Nursery Class A (with one of two sleeping children on the floor)


Fatima is working hard on perfecting the nursery children’s exercise routine. She has a long way to go…


Nursery Class D?



Nursery Class C?


Everyone loves my camera!

I absolutely love it here. My work is meaningful and I love spending time with the children. It has also been wonderful getting to know the various staff members. The women are wonderful and have taken me into “the BIRDS family.” Everyday, I have my meals with a tiny and very funny old man who exclaims “You’re late!” every time he sees me.The language barrier, while at times difficult, has only made my life more exciting. For example, the other day I was invited for “prayer” before dinner. While there was some prayer involved, it turned out to be the birthday celebration of a thirteen year-old girl! It was quite the experience. I am thankful to be surrounded by such kind people and wonderful children. The nature of my work here is heavy and depressing, and it is wonderful being surrounded by such lightness.

Mani Datta and Mani Kanta: twins from Nursery B who cry on separation


The girls wove me a crown of flowers, and both boys and girls brought me flowers (and sticks!) for quite some time…


Loquita (2.5 yr) seems to loose her pants daily…

An Introduction to Health in Rural India


In the last two days, I have interviewed seventeen community health workers (CHW) with the aid of a Telugu translator. The organization I am working with, BIRDS, employs about fifty of these women to assess the health of their communities. Each day, the CHW goes door to door in her village to make sure everyone is in good health and to see whether anyone needs assistance. One day a week, the CHW gathers those in need of a doctor and, along with other CHWs in her cluster (there are four clusters of CHW, covering a total of forty villages), takes about sixty rural villagers to a hospital in a nearby city. At the hospital, she must talk with doctors about the needs of each patient and negotiate prices with the billing department. She then takes the patients who were not admitted home and, in her spare time (if she has any), visits the admitted patients.

The work is hard. Almost every woman that I spoke with complained about the long days and the trouble her work (and long days) cause with her husband. The women also wish that they had more time with their children. One Muslim woman spoke about the convincing she had to do in order to make her husband feel comfortable with her leaving the house as an unaccompanied female. Another woman complained that at times she neglects her housework as she believes that providing healthcare to those in need is more important. Despite these difficulties, they all smiled and spoke with pride about their work and how good it made them feel to help those in need.

Their work makes them someone in the village, giving them a place of respect that, as low caste women, they otherwise wouldn’t have. Women flock to the homes of the CHW to discuss their problems and receive health advice, and patients and families constantly show their gratitude. They love their jobs and are thankful for the education and employment given to them by BIRDS.

But the situations they deal with day to day are heartbreaking.

An old man falls and breaks his leg on the side of the road, and no one stops to help him. The CHW finds him and he tells her that he is an old man and that she shouldn’t waste her time or money on him. She pleads with him and finally convinces him to let her take him to the hospital. He requires an operation that places a rod into his leg. During his week stay at the hospital, the CHW is his only visitor. The old man cries as he thanks her. Over the past two days, I have heard seventeen stories like this and will likely hear seventeen more over the next two days of interviewing CHW.

Despite the heartbreaking stories, I am loving this work. I find every word fascinating as I attempt to piece together the lives of women in rural India. It is wonderful to be researching, once again, a topic with so many complexities. This week’s interviews have allowed me to gain general information about the social and health problems plaguing each village, while providing much needed practice in my interviewing skills. Next week, I will begin my interviews with widows from the villages.

From my conversations with the CHW, the situation with the widows is pretty dire. As remarriage is not an option, widows must provide for their families single handedly and fend for themselves. In order to send their children to school (or allow their grandchildren to go to school), they starve themselves. Subsequently, they frequently suffer from malnutrition and anemia. As work in the fields is long and hard for little pay, many widows turn to prostitution in order to support their families. This new venture brings a whole slew of new problems–from infections to discrimination (discrimination against prostitution on top of discrimination against gender, caste, and widowhood). More on widows after I begin those interviews…

Beautiful children reminding that its not all bad…

Children enthralled by my tablet