A Travellerspoint blog

April 2020

Flavours of Indian society

A palace, trafficked girls and the 'Untouchables'.

26 °C

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens
can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”.
Margaret Mead

In the first few days in Mysore, southern India, I had not spotted a single postcard. Suppose not being a tourist hotspot, it was understandable. I send postcards religiously to my auntie, who eagerly awaits their arrival from foreign lands. Not being one to disappoint, Ganga, my host, came to the rescue, the only place to find the rare species of the postcard was at Mysore Palace.

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I had passed the splendid palace many a time, listed as the number one ‘must see’ sight in Mysore. The palace is an example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, mostly used by British architects in India in the late 19th century. Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV and his mother Maharani Kempananjammanni Devi, commissioned Henry Irwin to build the palace in 1897.

Not being particularly interested in the ‘royal residence’ side of tourism; I was not overly exited to visit. Today, however, I was not meeting Stanly at Odanadi Girls Home until 1 o'clock, so decided to pop down to buy some postcards. Odanadi means 'soulmate', and are an NGO that addresses all forms of sexual violence against women and children, with a special focus on human trafficking.

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Have a wash before you pray!

The bus dropped me outside the palace, an area scattered with small Hindu shrines, colourfully decorated with marigolds, lotus and red hibiscus to gratify the gods. Edging closer, a pleasant, familiar scent drifted through the air. An abundance of incense burned in unison, releasing a cloud of sandalwood vapour, rising above the heads of those praying with zeal. The burning of incense is incredibly important in Hinduism, amongst other things, it symbolises the presence of a god or goddess.

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Temples dedicated to the elephant headed Ganesh, the most identifiable deity to those out with the religion, were said to be particularly busy during exam time, being the god of intelligence and wisdom. However, since he also heralds as the remover of obstacles and new beginnings, in a district with a 82% Hindi majority, I am sure he is busy all year round.

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The equivalent of about £20 - so quite easy to work out!

After paying the bank breaking 74 pence entrance fee, it was time to pass through the golden gates and followed the crowd down the long narrow path. The grounds of the palace boasted lush manicured lawns, bordered with an explosion of vibrant colour, hailing from roses, lilies, marigolds and other seasonal blooms, filling the atmosphere with a pleasant floral scent. We soon arrived at an area displaying an amusing sign, where we swapped our shoes for plastic flip flops.

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On stepping inside the palace, we were herded like a flock of sheep round a congested one-way system, weaving in and out of glorious rooms of a time gone by. Deciding to skip the history, I headed back outside, at the first opportunity, joining those in their Sunday best, to mark their royal visit; mainly from other parts of the sub-continent. Male visitors wore eye-catching hats and colourful turbans, wrapped around their head, to varying degrees of width, women looked elegant, swathed in striking silk saris, bodies adorned with gold jewelry.

The forehead markings and bindis, placed slightly above the centre of the eyes, is believed to be 'the third eye', the centre of wisdom and knowledge. They reflect cultural and social values in Hinduism, sending silent messages; a favoured deity, caste, if married, with a black dot identifying a widow. However, they are also commonly worn by children and single women. Parents may also mark their babies’ faces with bindis to ward off the evil eye.

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The Kerala posse

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Proud women of Rajasthan

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Day trippers from Bangalore

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India meets Scotland!

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The Pink Ladies from Chennai

Having brief chats with some younger guys, continuously asking if I would pose for selfies. I joked "I feel like a celebrity!", the answer, "You are to us!". However, I quickly realised this was an excellent photo opportunity, to capture some of the faces and diversity of this immense nation.

Folk from the likes of Kerala, Rajasthan, Bangalore and Chennai, all captured through the lens of my camera, to be eternally remembered. Oh, I nearly forgot the postcards with all that snapping! A sombre looking security guard directed me back to the shoe swap counter to buy the cards. So, on the way out I got a pack of 10 ancient looking cards, with faded pictures of a blurred palace, better than nothing.

Children at the palace

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I decided to grab a quick lunch before heading to Odanadi. I found a hole in the wall following my nose in the direction of that unmistakable, mouth-watering, smell of fresh curry. They sold thalis for an unbelievable 40 pence, I had my fill seated on a plastic stool in the sun, strategically trying to balance the aluminium tray on my knee.

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Thaili of the day![/center

‘Thali’ refers to the many different dishes served in small bowls arranged on a metal thali; translating as 'plate'.. It makes for a colourful spread, bursting with flavour. Along with a selection of curries, you quite often receive soup, chapati, extra spices, pickle. salad, dessert and fresh coconut milk. One time, when the thali was served on a banana leaf, waiters walked around, carrying buckets and ladles, topping up curries and handing out fresh chapati.

Following a few failed attempts, I eventually found an auto-rickshaw driver whose meter was working! Drivers quite often tell foreigners their meters are broken, to score a much higher fare. For those drivers, whose meters were working, I always gave a handsome tip. Hopefully, they will catch on! I was soon heading to Hootagalli on the outskirts of Mysore, where Odanadi is based. On arrival, the heavy, metal gate slowly creaked open and a beautiful face peeked out, “hello sister", what a lovely welcome.

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Stanly & Gordon

Sabia walked me up the stairs and down the long corridor to Stanly’s office, where I also met Gordon from Odanadi UK. Gordon was retired and having previously lived in India, decided to get involved as a trustee, raising funds for in the UK . Both men were lovely, and on saying I was surprised Odanadi was set up by men, Stanly just shrugged, ‘we are human beings'. Being humane, compassionate and committed to equal rights; was more important than gender. He was quite right.

He had been a renowned journalist, covering a story on HIV, when he came into contact with an ailing teenager, involved in prostitution. Having previously considered prostitution a 'choice'; his mind promptly changed on learning she had been 12 years old, when trafficked from a village in northern India and forced to work the streets. This was the catalyst for his pioneering work; first identifying girls trafficked for sexual exploitation, rescuing them and providing safe refuge, along with the variety of support necessary for them to heal and thrive.

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One of their posters

At that point, a girl of maybe 14 or 15 sauntered into the office. She was giggling and covering her mouth, as Stanly laughed and joked with her. This was Sava, who appeared to have a learning disability. When she left the room, Stanly told me her story. She was actually 21, but looked more like a child.

She had been found 8 years ago, at the age of 13, in an open sewer in a village far from Mysore. She had been left for dead after being gang raped. Having unknown her, Stanly was unsure whether she previously had developmental issues or if her behaviour was down to the effects of complex trauma. Odanadi had now been operating for 20 years, was well known and had recruited vigilantes in Mysore and villages further afield.

These brave volunteers would monitor newcomers into their community, if they believed there was a risk of trafficking and/or sexual violence, would contact Odanadi. Fortunate for Sava, vigilantes had alerted Stanly of her tragic situation and following a hospital admission, was now safe and happy.

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The accommodation block

Sabia appeared back at the office, offering me a tour around the centre. So off we went, with Sava sheepishly following, then after plucking up the courage, she grabbed the hand she was offered. It turned out Odanadi had created two incredible social enterprise projects, to enable the young women to develop employability skills and provide an income.

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The study room

First, we visited the beauty salon, greeted with a chorus of "hello sister". The young women rhymed off all the services on offer including massage, hairdressing, nails; in fact, all you would expect, set in professional surroundings. (Later when Stanly and Gordon had a meeting, I rushed back and had a massage and nail job – amazing)

That slightly sweet, distinctive smell, led us those training as bakers, whose customers were queuing up eagerly awaiting their orders. Sabia selected some freshly baked cakes and pastries, took me back to the office and went off to brew some coffee. Stanley then told me her story.

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This was from the Republic Day celebrations

At that time, there was a high-profile court case implicating two well-known Indian actors for the sexual assault of Sabia. She had been trafficked from Kerala and sexually exploited in a brothel just outside Mysore. Whilst many perpetrators visited, Sabia could not help but recognise the faces of these famous men.

Stanly explained members of the team get counter allegations for sexual assault when raiding brothels. He pointed out that 40% of politicians in India have criminal records, many for involvement in trafficking and/or sexual exploitation. Having so many powerful men desperate to protect their reputation, underpinned the allegations.

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The wee girl of one of the young women - some of whom arrive pregnant

In India, the legal system ensures every complaint received goes to court. There is no procurator fiscal department, in existence, to determine if enough evidence exists, before deciding whether a case should be heard. He was due at court the following week.

The coffee arrived at the same time as Kumudini, Stanly's wife, and their two adorable daughters. She was a Professor in Social Work and also ran a ground-breaking charitable organisation. A project that really grabbed my interest, was their work with the unfortunate Balmiki (manual scavenger) sub-caste. As an avid reader, although aware of the caste system and the devastating social effects faced by Dalits (untouchables), I was not familiar with the term 'manual scavenging' nor sub-castes.

Kumudini called attention to the discrimination and oppression inherent in the hierarchical, officially sanctioned Hindi caste system. The Balmiki community really are on the scrapheap; at the bottom of a very tall pile. They are considered inferior even within their own caste. The Dalits have their own pecking order, with the existence of 900 sub-divisions. Whilst all Dalits are considered ‘impure’ from birth, only the Balmiki carry out the degrading task of cleaning open sewers.
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In stark contrast, a Brahmin is a member of the highest caste in Hinduism. This is where Hindi priests are drawn, responsible for teaching and maintaining sacred knowledge. At the extreme end, ‘manual scavenging' is used to describe the manual removal of untreated human excreta from bucket toilets or pit latrines with hands, buckets or shovel. More common in rural India, due to the continued and strong resistance to using more hygienic toilet facilities. There are said to be over 1 million people in India carrying out this task, people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less than human.

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The harsh reality of the 'work'

It continues to this day, although officially prohibited by law in 1993, due to it being a caste-based, dehumanising practice. Kumudini set up the school in the area of a village, solely inhabited by Dalits. This social distance serves to ensure they cannot ‘pollute’ those from the 'purer’ castes.

Not only focusing on academic study, the charity strives to ensure children adopt an understanding of their self-worth and value, since they internalise and have come to accept how others treat and refer to them. Dalit means ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken to pieces’ and is the name caste members gave themselves in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, Kumudini was due to attend a conference in Delhi, so no opportunity to visit the school before I left India.

It was coming to the end of the day for Stanly and Gordon. Gordon invited us all back for a drink at his hotel. So off we went in the cars to a luxurious mansion of a place, the 'Green Hotel'.

Luckily, Stanly liked a cigarette, so asked the waiter for a 'smoking' table. Yes, even in the vast open air, in a country where an eyelash is not batted if a man pees in the street, they separated us lepers!

The others had a beer and I was soooo tempted! However, I decided on a real diet coke, along with the kids! Before we left Stanly invited me back to Odanadi on the Saturday for the 50th Republic Day celebrations. He did not need to ask twice.................

Posted by katieshevlin62 11:16 Archived in India Comments (8)

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