#13 Flower Pickers

My mom is the only person I know with a singing dryer. Every time I go home, it fascinates me.  I don’t know where she got it, but it jingles like an ice cream truck between the cycles. I wondered if there’s a way to customize it – make it whistle the theme from Star Wars or play the Auburn fight song when your clothes are ready, but probably not. I don’t think dryers have progressed that far, but maybe someday.

By contrast, the women of Ghoragata, an Indian village an hour and a half outside of Calcutta, have no washer and dryer. They wash their clothes in a pond and hang them to dry on rocks or inside the house. They could sing, to make the process more interesting, but that’s the extent of it.

***

We drive to Ghoragata village the next day, tucked in a small, quiet forest centered around a large pond. It is beautifully scenic, like something out of a postcard. I watch the women washing clothes in the scummy pond out of the window, thinking of my mom and her singing dryer.

Urbanization in India is still 35-40%,” Andy says as the vans wind down a dirt road.

“There are still millions of people who could conceivably move to cities throughout India, but not all of them want to. Many people who actually enjoy their life in the village – they’re just discouraged about the lack of economic opportunity there. There’s absolutely no margin. If there’s a drought, they’re hosed.”

Days for the women of Ghoragata are long. They usually start at 5 a.m. with sweeping the continual dust from the corners and crevices of the house. They then cook food for the family. Many adults of the village, including women, are in the flower industry, making garlands for sale at Hindu ceremonies in nearby Calcutta. They are “flower pickers” by trade, Andy says, but they don’t own their own fields and work for low wages. The afternoon is spent cooking and doing domestic work. The kids of Ghoragata go to a community school and OneLife provides extracurriculars such as tutoring and dance.

“As Westerners, we sometimes make assumptions,” Seth says as we enter the village. “These people want this type of house, or they want to make this much money or they want to have this type of lifestyle, etc. and what you realize is, that’s not really the case.”

“They generally know some of the types of things they want to have happen,” Andy says. “They know the ways in which they’re suffering.”

“Well, what do the adults want?” I ask Andy.

He pauses.

“The adults just want a lack of financial struggle,” he says. “They don’t necessarily want to move. The kids just want out – they realize there is more opportunity in the cities.”

We pull up in front of the village church, and the children crowd the doorway with enthusiastic cries of “Hi Maam!” It’s not every day two small vans of Americans pull up, and we are entertainment for the entire village. Someone spots Seth, and cries of “JesuUncle!” ripple through the crowd.

Being the gracious hosts that they are, the children give us roses from the village bushes. Melanie is a crowd favorite and has soon collected a bouquet of several roses. Like Khalpar, the children of Ghoragata have prepared a skit. After school dance and cultural programs not only keep the kids out of trouble, Seth explains, but keep them plugged in to Indian culture and extracurriculars like normal children.

It’s important to have a sense of leisure,” he says. Shoes are discarded in a large pile outside the schoolhouse. We step inside the main room, with its paved but dusty floor where 30-40 children are crammed into the small main room.

We watch four girls perform a cultural dance dressed in their finest – hot pink and yellow dresses with multicolored sashes, with lots of bangle bracelets and earrings. Their hair is pulled back in a bun and decorated with flowers, and each has a bindi in the middle of the forehead.

A group of four smaller children no more than 6-7 years old perform another choreographed dance. A teenage boy plays the guitar for a teenage girl with a beautiful voice as she sings a solo, then a group of six girls sing “Give me Oil in my Lamp” in English. To add the American part of the show, Seth gets up to play the guitar, while Andy makes up lyrics. He sings a song based around the Hindu words he knows. It is a short song, but a crowd pleaser. The children giggle nonstop as if it were something scandalous.

 

 

When the program is over, we are given more flowers, orange mums, and take a walk up the road to the futbol field to play some games with the kids. Melanie, a former soccer player, fits in effortlessly, soon surrounded by a team of kids moving the ball down the field. Shelly and I are left to play “Duck, Duck, Goose” with the younger children, who try to teach us a game of Indian freeze tag, in which you have to strike a dramatic pose and hold it until you are slapped in the hand. I am terrible at this game. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong – I can just see the politely disappointed faces at my poses. One earnest little girl brings her face inches from mine and says politely but sternly, “Maam…No!”

With my freeze tag skills in jeopardy, I decide to wander back to some houses in the village where Piyas is showing the vocational training of some of the local women. Some of the adults attend business development training – specifically, how to make chemicals for an organic washing powder that can be sold both inside and outside their community.

“The product is a higher quality and actually cheaper than what’s on the local market,” Andy says.

“The women gave samples to nearby homes and businesses and wound up with so much volume that the husbands got involved.”

Piyas then introduces us to an older woman in her seventies in the flower trade. She invites us to her house, which is three small rooms – a main room and two bed rooms. The walls are constructed of bamboo and patched with paper. Tin cooking instruments are precariously perched on hooks and shelves, and a strong wind would make the entire house rattle like a wind chime. An indoor washline protected from the elements splits the inside of the main room. I ask how many people live in the house, and she says “eight.” It’s been her family home for 80 years, Piyas translates.

What would it be like to live in a house of bamboo, and string flowers? Or to sell washing powder door to door?

The sun begins to set in Ghoragata and it’s lovely. Everything turns a dusky orange, settling over the cobbled village street. Houses with roofs of sticks and straw, pottery and baskets lying on the doorstep. Colorful washlines decorating the sidewalk, punctuated by tangled vines and oxen meandering languidly from yard to yard. Serenity settles over the village like a dusty blanket, pierced occasionally by the shrieking laughs of children. Our activities come to a halt. We walk back to the schoolhouse, each American dragging six children, who are hanging onto pockets, belt loops or outstretched hands.

Before we leave, I’m told by Seth and Andy it is a custom that we dance.

Piyas finds a source of music and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” is soon playing.

Because apparently that’s the song you dance to in a remote Indian village centered around a pond, miles from the comforts of modern society.

And so we dance.

I don’t usually dance, but I make an exception. The sun sinks lower, disappearing behind the trees and the children and adults dance freely, as if they understand the feeling of a room without a roof….as if they know what happiness is to them

And as they clap along, I realize somehow, in the midst of beautiful flowers and severe poverty that they do.

 

 

*Start at the beginning: read the full journey here.*