This is India
Ask anyone who's ever travelled to India and they will undoubtably tell you the same thing - that this is the land of unapologetic contrasts.
In no place is the stark disparity between the beauty and the ugliness of life more evident than it is in this country.
The very rich and very poor live side-by-side - the slum just streets away from some of the biggest mansions in Gokulam. The starving homeless walk, begging, along the wide, flower-lined lanes. There are gorgeous, lush, green vistas in the countryside, if you only squint past the mounds and piles of loose trash. And that doe-eyed, gentle-looking cow, who will never ever fear a slaughterhouse ending, has been munching on that roadside trash her entire life.
The mundane and spiritual are just as intermingled. Down at the river, women wash their families' clothing, right next to a group of priests performing a baptism-type ceremony. The constant low, drowning chants coming from the river-side temple are pierced frequently by the sounds of children shrieking, playing in the water.
And what began as a lovely escape from the city, to visit aforementioned lush countryside and beautiful river, can be so quickly and irreversibly marred.
As a man raises his hand to a woman, and a young boy attempts - in vain- to protect her. The neighbors were watching as much as we were, but no one else moved to stop him as he hit her.
Gasps - then silence reigned in our car as we drove past.
"What would she have done to deserve that?", my friend finally asked our driver.
"Something wrong." was his initial reply.
Our deafening silence prompted him further.
"Or maybe he drinks too much alcohol. This is worse, happening more, in the villages. But I think it is changing. In a few more years, not happening so much."
We didn't have much of a response.
There was a shocked and tentative discussion about whether turning back to stop him would result in a more severe beating for her later, but we continued to drive on.
Sometimes it's hard to know where you stand, to recognize the right thing, as a visitor to another culture. I'd like to think that if I was in Canada, I would have pulled the car over, but the truth is that even there -in shock, disbelief, or ignorance- people turn a blind eye to dosmestic abuse, over and over again.
There are few programs in India to help these women, but I've been doing some volunteer work with one of them - Odanadi Seva Trust. I highly recommend you check out the website for this amazing organization: www.odanadi.org
Twenty years ago, Stanly and Parashu were journalists - until the story of one woman changed their entire lives, and led them to the founding of Odanadi. They now work with women and children escaping abusive homes, child marriages, or domestic slavery. They provide education in local villages, promoting literacy and women's empowerment. And they fight, tooth and nail, against India's human trafficking trade.
They regularily lead raids into brothels from Mysore to Bangalore, removing women, and a downright sickening amount of children, from the sex trade. Some of these kids are orphaned, some are snatched, and some are sold to traffickers by their own families. They are often bribed, robbed, drugged, raped, and beaten - ending up enslaved, and forced to work as prostitutes.
This is actually happening. Every fucking day.
At Odanadi, they house and rehabilitate the women and children, offering counselling, therapy, and extensive opportunities for education and employment. They believe that if the girls grow up to be intelligent, literate and empowered women, they are far more capable of telling their stories, educating others, and creating change.
Because the truth is, no matter how many times Stanly and Parashu perform a raid, or press charges, or get someone incarcerated, many of these esablishments are owned by powerful and protected people - and the system which permits trafficking remains largely unchanged. Sometimes they end up with angry men beating at the gate, claiming that Stanly stole their 'daughter' and that they want her back. Or maybe she IS his daughter and he's looking to sell her again.
Sometimes the girls run away and go back to the brothel, to the abusive husband, to the the only life they know.
I am, of course, helping in the way that I know how, and offering acupuncture to the residents. And THIS is where I experience the most dramatic, and most unbelievable contrasts from my time in India.
These girls have been through hell and back. I regularily hear wailing and crying and screams echo down the halls as someone breaks down. There is one girl who recently arrived and refuses to talk at all - whose blank eyes stare you down with chilling numbness... But all around her, the most vivacious and lovely girls laugh and play. The girls and women who have lived there for 2 or 4 or more years are confident, motivated and unbelievably affectionate.
From the moment I walk through the gate to a chorus of "Hi, Sister!", the smiles and love in the place is palpable. The young ones who have absolutely zero interest in acupuncture, come in anyway -for a snuggle in my lap, or to chase and tickle my fellow acupuncturing "Brother". Older girls help care for the younger ones, and the eldest women are all "Auntie". They live together, they work together, they play together.
The contrast of horror and joy, of pain and love - all mingled within the same place, within the same sweet faces - catches me off guard every time I stop working and re-realize why I'm there.
I am constantly humbled by the resiliancy of humans.
These girls come through experiences that NO CHILD ANYWHERE should EVER have to face, and come out of it stronger, and still loving, and willing to work with those around them to create a family.
Unbelievable - it's both depressing and inspiring. Heart-wrenching, and heart-opening.
Their stories make me condemn the atrocities that define mankind; even as they inspire me that truly, anything is possible.
Horrific and wonderful all knotted up together and completely inseperable. This is India.