Monday, October 29, 2012

Serving of the Day: Seva

Preface: "Seva" means service in Hindi

If you attended a free restaurant, how would you pay it forward? That is the concept of Seva Cafe an on-going experiment in "gift economy". The central philosophy of Seva Cafe is to give a complimentary dinner to guests and treat them like family. Many smiles are exchanged and most of the people fueling the experiment are volunteers.

Friday evening was my first time engaging with this establishment. I arrived around 6:00PM and began by meeting the other volunteers and few staff members. We set up the space with tables, chairs, decorations (Friday evening was fully occupied by a private birthday party), and dinnerware. The menu was elaborate (lemon mint juice, basket chaat, mutter paneer, mixed veg sabji, parata, rice, and kheer) and specifically chosen by the host a few days prior. The cooking began at 2PM so by the time I arrived, it was just paratas that were being finished. 

The first responsibility a volunteer gets is dishwashing. So, I spent the evening washing dishes and dancing around to the fun music playing. It was a great experience. A few of the guests even came and asked to wash their own dishes. It was a nice gesture and created a dynamic sense of community. I'm excited to spend more evenings at Seva Cafe in the future and am excited to visit the other locations experimenting with gift economy.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Highs & Lows

Time in the slum community is filled with highs and lows. As promised, I'm sharing a recent triumph and challenge. 

Thursday afternoon was my second meeting with the girls of Vinay Mandhir. There were 5 girls who participated in the afternoon activity which ended up becoming a conversation on what they wanted me to teach. We discussed a range of choices from health and hygiene to life skills- they ended up confessing that while they can read English, they have a hard time with the comprehension and translating it back to Gujarati. So, we decided I would bring an English book and help them understand what it means in Gujarati (this will be a good challenge for me too!). Anyways, I left feeling very encouraged and walked through the slum community to the community farm to help plant some seeds. 

My walk from the hostel to the community center is about 15 minutes and I walk passed the same families each time I go. This afternoon, one of the women along the path asked me to sit down with her. Initially, I told her I had to go somewhere to do some work. She replied by reminding me that I will always have something to do and that I should just take a moment to sit down. I agreed and sat with her. She reminded me she had met me a week back at a different event. We spoke about her family and daily life for a few minutes. Then, out of nowhere, I heard a smack and a cry of pain. I looked behind me to my left and there was a girl about 15 years old sitting outside her home. Her face was buried in her hands and she was crying. Her mom then came out and hit her again- the crying continued and the auntie I was sitting with told the other auntie to stop. I tried to ask why she was hitting her daughter and she replied it was because she wasn't cleaning the home. I froze in a mix of shock, fury, and shyness. I didn't know what to do and ended up leaving the situation soon after. Leaving felt shameful, but the situation was beyond me and I felt unprepared to confront the violence. 

That span of forty minutes had such a wide range of emotions, I was left at an odd neutral point. 

I feel fortunate for being able to spend whatever time I can in the community and share as many smiles as I have, but I was quickly reminded of how harsh of a reality the community lives and how many hardships there are.

Current Happenings

Over the last three weeks I have tried to find a fit for myself and develop a schedule to engage with the communities which surround the ashram. I have been fortunate enough to see the majority of current projects, ranging from health to education and from children to elderly, and in the last week I've found a space to focus my time.

I have started helping with two community gardens, one in an NGO-constructed center and the other in front of a home in the slum community (Ramapir No Tekro). We are cleaning the spaces and starting to plant okra, tomatoes, cilantro, and eggplant. The garden in front of the family's home is especially important because it has brought five families together and sets an example of teamwork for others in the community. The women have been amazing to work with and the children really love to be involved. There are other families that have already started asking for advice/assistance for the land around their homes.

Also, I've recently started "working" with 10th standard girls from a nearby hostel. In my first meeting with them we created name tags and then they each wrote something nice about each other. It was a nice exercise and I hope it reminded them of their good qualities and gave them a reason to smile (they have such amazing smiles!). 

My most recent engagement has been sitting with widowed maajis (maaji = elderly women) in the slum community and helping them in any way. We tried to offer to help with house work, but they were not having it so now another volunteer and I sit and talk with them while helping them with some of the sewing work they do. It's been a nice way to practice Gujarati and to interact with a part of the community that generally gets forgotten. 

Another totally different thing I'm doing which is more planning focused, as opposed to directly community focused, is create a Dosti (meaning friendship) program. We are inviting 32 7th standard private school students to the ashram to engage with 32 7th standard students from the slum community. Currently thinking of activities that will help create a foundation for a friendship, and fighting the chance of students only focusing on their differences. 

All in all, my key take away from the last few weeks has been to live without a back-to-back schedule and let the day create itself. I still have specific things to do at specific times, but what I'm learning is to let the time between "meetings" exist and to appreciate the moments where anything can happen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Daily Commute Surprise

After taking a rickshaw a few times to the "work" site in the morning, I realized it was a huge ripoff. I was paying between 50-60 rupees each way while the bus was only 9 rupees each way. So for the last few days, I utilized the public transit system- chaotic or not. And while Ahmedabad is esteemed for the BRTS (bus rapid transport system), my route doesn't align to the BRTS routes. I would have loved the on-time, unpacked, AC buses though... In either case, I digress.

I needed to be a bit early on Wednesday so I arrived at the station at 8:10AM and then, like a ray of sunshine, I saw my bus arrive fairly empty, with seats available. After I boarded, I realized there were only women on the bus. I confirmed it would follow the same route with the driver. I sat down with a smile and enjoyed my 20 minute ride in peace without the worry of being shoved or the stress of not being sure whose hand is grabbing my side  (it was an elderly women...but for a second I thought I was falling victim to the stereotypical Indian public bus stories I had heard).

While I feel a little bad that this less crowed, more peaceful bus is only allowed for women, I'm also really happy it exists. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

New Beginnings

After a few days of collecting my thoughts, searching for opportunities, and spending time with family, I am beginning a new chapter tomorrow. I will be engaging with a non profit organization based in Mahatma Gandhi's ashram here in Ahmedabad focused on serving the underprivileged. I've currently committed a month to the organization, but am aiming to extend that date. Well, that's the current plan anyways. I've always lived with a plan and I think this is one of the first times that I'm exploring without an end-date.

I hope all is well where you are and am excited to be more communicative going forward. Cheers to new beginnings. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Deep exhale. After a month and a half, which felt like a year in itself, I closed-out my fellowship with Indicorps. It was a hard decision to make, but I eventually realized my goals were not aligned with those of the fellowship. Kind of crazy I’m now in India with no concrete plan but I’m excited to spend the next few days decompressing and thinking towards how I want to spend the remaining time here. Enthusiastic to actually learn culture and to connect with family- as well as travel! Feeling relieved and confident, finally starting to feel like myself again after a crazy fifty days.

Feel free to be in touch more now- I’ll be able to be more communicative and probably more blog-active.