Immersed in India's light and shade

We arrive by mini bus after hours of driving through the Haryana villages north of Delhi. We are greeted with bare stone buildings set along laneways of compressed dirt, like the ruins of a ghost town. Walking in the oppressive heat we catch the wan glances of older villagers sitting in doorways. Young men smile shyly as we raise a hand in greeting.

Before long we come upon an open stone building — the meeting room. We enter to find 60 weathered women seated on mats on the dirt floor. Their saris fill the enclosure with colour. Their faces tell the poignant stories of their lives. Children gaze out from their mothers' laps while others crowd about the windows peering curiously in. We greet them with hands clasped and heads bowed: 'Namaste' — 'I honour the divine within you.'

As we take our seats a rustle of chatter ripples about the space. Our cups are filled with water. We are garlanded by strong beautiful women and our hearts are touched by this generous welcome. We are regarded as royalty.

These are the members of the women's self-help group of the village, administered by the Chetanalaya Social Support Service of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. Through an interpreter we learn about their struggles, their lives and their daily efforts to garner a small income through a micro-credit cooperative. It helps them support their families and each other and restores pride and self-respect.

Several women stand to tell their stories. We hear of the seven buffalo the village has purchased and the small dairy they have established. Some have set up village stores, another was able to pay for important surgery and others can now provide essentials for their children. Each feels she has improved her family situation. Their pride in their achievement is clearly evident.

'Before, I could not be heard. Now I have a voice', one woman explains.

Later, surrounded by excited children, we are guided past dogs, cows, chickens and goats along the lanes to a house. This is home to 12 people, two-roomed and spotless. We sit on the two beds and a few plastic chairs and sip sweet chai tea as the proud home-owners look on. We feel like royalty again. Despite their desperate poverty they treat us with the most gracious hospitality.

Leaving, there is a frenzy of smiling, 'Namastes' and hand shaking. A small boy proudly introduces me in English to his grandmother. They hug, and her toothy smile betrays her love and pride. She signs for me to take her photo. I show her and she is so happy to see herself there.

We are escorted to the bus. Our visit was clearly a wondrous event for the villagers. Their welcome is a soul-searching moment of grace for us.

Much good has come to us all today.


It is our last night in India. It's 11.15 pm and we are returning to our modest hotel on the Mumbai waterfront. The steamy air circles around us and there is a pleasant feeling of satisfaction, even a mild euphoria after our last dinner together. We have shared stories, thoughts and good-hearted humour over dishes of fine Indian food. The warmth and companionship of new friends stimulate the spirit. It has been an evening to remember.

But our walk is disturbed by a now-familiar sensation — a tug on the sleeve and the voice of a woman which creates a tug on the heartstrings so very hard to ignore. Instinctively we shrug her off and the shame twists deep within. The sadness of her plight is palpable but we ignore it, knowing her role in a chain of pimpdom.

We walk on, hearts suddenly heavy. Small children huddled on ragged cloths take their rest after a day of begging and running the streets. Here beneath a roadside tree a family is gathered, babies asleep, the parents still awake, their few possessions cluttered about them. Under the shop awnings long human shapes stretch out beneath discoloured sheets. On the street corner we step around two more sleeping children and encounter another small woman, baby on her hip, hand extended. We pass by.

It is 11.30 pm.

The traffic flows, taxis sound their horns interminably and young people stop for snacks and drinks at street vendors' stores or chat across parked cars.

We go upstairs to complete our packing. We each take two plastic bags and fill them with our excesses. It seems like the least we can do; the only thing we can do.

At midnight we creep down the worn wooden stairs of the hotel, nodding to puzzled houseboys. We retrace our steps. The huddled groups are all settled now. Silently we place the bags in easy reach. It is so easy for us; no loss. A convenience, even; it simplifies our packing.

A tiny step towards redressing the balance? Or simply a partial cleansing of the conscience?

Anne DoyleAnne Doyle is Marketing Manager for Jesuit Communications Australia. She is a former teacher who recently travelled to India with the Edmund Rice Education Australia immersion program. Image by Anne Doyle

Topic tags: india, Edmund Rice, immersion program, poverty, micro-credit, Chetanalaya Social Support Service



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Existing comments

This is a wonderful and inspirational story...I will share it with my students today on the first day of Lent to inspire them to be other centred in the 40 days ahead.

Theresa Davis | 17 February 2010  

Namaste: This is a beautiful piece on India. The real life comes out from Indian villages. Self supportive life. A lot can be learnt from the 'Divine within you'.

Shivaranjan | 17 February 2010  

"You have the poor with you always and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me.' (Mark 14:7)
There will never be a shortage of people for us to be kind and generous to.

As with Mary anointing the feet of Jesus we have decisions to make as to whom, how and when we help those less fortunate than ourselves. Not everyone will agree with our decisions. There will always be critics who will have other ideas on how charity should be exercised. We might even question our own motives, as Anne Doyle did.

One way to test our charitable motives is to do someone a good turn and not get found out. If anyone knows of it, it will not count.

I know it is impossible for an organisation such as the Society of Jesus to look after the poor anonymously but it is possible for me to donate anonymously and let them spend my pensioner's mite as they see fit. I certainly have the highest admiration for the work Jesuit missionaries are doing in India and elsewhere in Asia.

Uncle Pat | 17 February 2010  

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