Signs and Wonders

Saturday evening I decided go for Sex on the Beach. I searched the drinks menu and this was what caught my eye, live dangerously I think to myself. But they didn’t have ‘sex on the beach’ , whatever it is, so neither did I. On one of my World Music CDs there is a song from a husky voiced woman who whispers “sex on the beach” over and over again, it never crossed my mind she was singing about a drink. It just shows, you never stop learning,

I came to Lucknow in northern India a week ago, to work as part of a team trialing an approach to market development that we hope will lead to increased opportunities for people who are poor in two rural ADPs[1]. Last week was fairly intense, four days in a room without windows, intermittent electricity and dodgy air-conditioning. We are a team of 20 that includes our ADP staff as well as some local farmers. The two farmers who sit next to me are Hindus. We have devotions each morning, we sing Hymns in Hindi, I have leaned to ‘la la la’ in Hindi and devotions in Africa have given me a certain clapping confidence. Meanwhile these two simple farmers, in shabby clothes sit stony faced with arms crosses tight against their chests. Their demeanour makes me so uncomfortable that by the third day I have stopped “la la la” and clapping, in neighbourly solidarity.

I ask them how they are finding things,

“Very very empowerative” says the shorter one, and the other nods enthusiastically.

He then launches into a passionate speech about God with starts with a statement “God is One!” and after many more statements and enthusiastic nods ends up with a lilting “Isn’t it” .

I am not sure whether this is another statement or a question but before I can figure out an answer, he continues

“What is the nature of the self?”

I think this is a rhetorical question which he is going to answer, but he doesn’t, and I don’t , and the session starts so we smile and do some mutual nodding and focus back on the workshop. A little later we are talking again and It turns out that the shorter farmer next to me has a Masters degree in Agricultural Science and the other a Bachelors in Animal Husbandry. I go for a break to the toilet to adjust my stereotype-meter. I am followed by M.K. Samuel, one of my Indian World Vision colleagues who is originally from Tamil Nadu in Southern India. We are both heading for the toilet. The door is marked “ ULL”.

I say to him “Someone must have really needed a “P”.

“No”, he says, “ actually the letter, it has fallen.”

I look at Samuel, consider telling him it was a joke, but think better of it.

The bathroom is filthy from top to bottom and almost every attachment is broken in some way, it smells of urine and curry and disinfectant and pan. Someone spat a mouth full of red pan[2] into the wash basin and left it like a road accident.

It is Sunday morning. Three of my colleagues are Tamils and together they have organised a hire car that will take use to an English speaking Anglican service at 7.30 am. We are waiting for the hire car to arrive. It has been “only just coming, ten minutes more sir” for 30 minutes, the driver finally turns up but faced with two westerners and three Tamils and none of us speak Hindi, he decided it was all too much, said he was sick and called for another driver. So another 30 minutes and we have now been waiting an hour. The Tamils make many mobile phone calls and have conflicting ideas about where we should go and how to get there.

We sit in the hotel lobby, at least it is cool here. I read today’s ‘Times of India’ newspaper. In Jaipur a father has stabbed his teenage son to death because he wouldn’t turn off the television broadcast of the cricket when the father wanted to sleep. I read about how people build houses to sell but retain ownership of the rooves so that they can build a second story; and that a new soft drink named “Gau Jal” is being launched, translated it literally it means “cow water” and is made from cow urine. I wonder what I am doing here. I am wondering what business expertise can possibly add to a people can make a buck from owning other peoples rooves and persuading people to pay money to drink cows urine .

We end up at a Catholic Hindi service that is half way through.

We can’t understand a word as it is in Hindi, though we make out it is “relationships Sunday” when a whole lot of couples go to the front for prayer. The only Catholic is JJ, my Canadian colleague who is also Peruvian. I turn to JJ and say: “these Tamils couldn’t organise a chook raffle”

JJ is confused, he doesn’t understand “chook” or “raffle”. I explain. His face lights up.

“We do the same thing in Peru”, he says.

“We let a Coy (which is a Peruvian guinea pig) loose, and the house it runs to, wins.”

I ask him if that takes a lot of organisation, and he says no, all you need is a Guinea Pig.

It turns out they eat the Guinea Pig. JJ says they are delicious. JJ and I have less in common than I thought but we understand each other in our common view of the Tamils organisational capabilities.

Yesterday afternoon JJ and I went to the old market, “The Chowk”. I begin exploring down some narrow back alleys and as we go deeper and take a few turns, JJ becomes worried that we won’t find our way out, and mutters something about ‘crazy Australian’ in Peruvian Canadian accented English. The alley has narrowed to about a metre and on both sides of us, small jewellery factories and bed sized shops. Bright eyes shine out from the semi darkness, I wonder if direct sunshine ever touches these places. The eyes follow us as we pass, people who look like they spend their whole lives, working, having families and dying there, lives centred around holes in walls. We are adopted by two young boys who take it upon themselves to lead us through the maze of alleys. JJs confidence increases because of a 6 and an 8 year old. As we pass the eyes in walls, the boy says proudly “Australian” and people nod in that Indian way, as though they are taking pleasure in gently rattling a marble that has become loose in their brain.

Deep in the old city we enter a temple. It is dedicated to Hanuman the Hindu Monkey God, hero of the famous Ramayana story. The entrance is through the teeth of a huge Monkey Mouth. There in front of us is a life-sized wall relief of Hanuman, partly covered in cloth and the exposed parts painted World Vision orange with a mixture of lime and saffron. I guess they were using the colour first. The main shrine is to Kali who is known as the “Dark Mother”, fearful and ferocious, a destroyer with the heart of a mother. The whole run down temple is spooky. The doors to Kali’s actual shrine were locked closed and I am somewhat relieved. The older boy says, “the God, she is sleeping.” So we gladly left the sleeping God and returned to the alleys.

But back to this morning, we are finally in the Catholic Church and at the front is a five metre crucified Christ, pale and bloody. Like a religious version of the giant banana, ‘shock and awe’ is the phrase that springs to mind. I am thinking that this would scare the hell out of those kids we were with yesterday. It scares me! Around the walls are the stations of the cross. I notice something I have never noticed before. The stations start with a fully dressed Jesus being condemned by Pilot, and then as my eyes travel from station to station, I notice that Jesus progressively loses his clothes until he ends up near naked and bloody on the cross. It occurs to me that most of us actually do it the other way around, we come into the world naked and bloody and end up dead in fine clothes. I know there is a message here somewhere but it is too hot to focus and the charismatic hymns in Hindi are making me feel dizzy. The protestant Tamils have also had enough and so we all leave. In the parking lot the Tamils have an air of people who have done the right thing and I am thinking about what new adventures this day holds, and our work in the villages around Hardoi next week.

Jock Noble

Lucknow India June 2009

[1] ADP is World Visions acronym for Area Development Project, and is a holistic commitment to a partticualr geographic area that typically lasts 12 to 15 years.

[2] Pan is chewed in much of Asia and is a mixture of Areca nut, lime and other additives such as spices or tobacco. Pan is a mild stimulant and reportedly has the same effect as a cup of coffee, it is red when chewed and spat out rather than swallowed.

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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