Exchange Programme – Poothurai, May 2016

Getting through the heat each day of May in Tamil Nadu is like a big personal project. One wakes up each morning, trying to make it to work before the “real heat” begins, or else the little motivation one feels to be productive will entirely evaporate to make non-existent cloud cover of helplessly dry heat.

Even in this overwhelming heat, I am excited to accompany Anbu Akka on a visit to Poothurai village and see the Inter-caste Exchange program of AVAG in action.

We arrive at the community hall of Poothurai, where a group of women are slowly entering the hall in pairs. Outside, under the shade of a large tropical tree, sit two men cutting onions and tomatoes while a third man adds sticks to the fire under the large cauldron of boiling rice. They represent the small number of men in this meeting of colorfully clad rural women.

The arrival of Anbu adds excitement to the already festive atmosphere.

Entrance to the community hall decorated with a traditional “kollam” ; a oor pattern often made with rice powder

Traditional fire cooking

I enter to find the women seating themselves in a large circle. About half of them are in red/brown patterned sarees (which is the uniform of the club of Caste women), they sit alternately with ladies in assorted shades of blue (uniform of the club of Dalit women). The colour pallette is rich yet strongly connected. When the excited children are finally settled, the meeting proceeds. Each pair stands turn by turn, one red- brown saree beside one blue.
Every woman introduces her friend, a member from another caste. She shares her name and some details of her life, whatever she has learnt in the interaction preceding the gathering when they spoke, opened up about their personal lives and visited each other’s homes. The women invite their “friends” over for family functions, they discuss the problems of everyday life, the differences and the similarities between themselves.

Sharing stories

After this round of sharing ends, we visit the Dalit settlement of Poothurai. This is my first visit to a segregated low caste settlement, and I am unsure what to expect. Here, we are to shoot interviews of leaders from the Udhayam Women’s Federation (the collective body of all the Women’s Self Help Groups under AVAG’s care). On arriving, I ask if it would be alright to take pictures of the houses in the village and a young girl from the settlement is sent to give me a tour.
Mahalaxmi is in second year of her undergraduate studies and is an aspiring lawyer. Her education is aided by a loan from the AVVAI scheme (an AVAG grant / loan scheme for girls in need) and she is intent on making it count. She takes me to see the kindergarten building and chuckles at the views I find interesting to capture.

Lunch-time at the kindergarten

Every now and then her friends run toward us asking to be clicked

 She offers to show me her home and takes me inside to meet her sister and nieces.
The small living room is used as a workshop by her sister who tailors clothes, the sewing machine taking much of the floor space. She shows me her front semi-open porch where she studies. Her nephew of 3 years runs around exclaiming excitedly every time he sees a bird in the backyard.
The kitchen consists of a small fire stove and 2 big vessels placed under a 4 foot high thatch covering. The firewood is piled on the side and I notice 3 to 4 jars of stored items. Mahalaxmi freely allows me into her world; her village that seldom sees visitors and almost never tourists. She seems to be a person of few words but many wide smiles.

Inside the living room

The Dalit communities live in severely deprived economic conditions, physically separated from the Caste settlements

Traditionally, Dalits find employment only as harsh manual labour, often involving demeaning tasks such as human scavenging. Many of the residents of Poothurai work at an Industrial Estate nearby.

Eventually, she leads me back to the outer periphery of the settlement where Jayalaxmi, the Vice President of the Udhayam Federation and resident of Poothurai is giving her testimony on camera.
When Mahalaxmi faces the camera, I see her light and casual features re-align with strength. She sends her sincere gratitude to the donors and facilitators of her education. For a brief moment it is easy to ignore the harsh poverty we are surrounded with and see only the glitter of determination in her eyes.

Mahalaxmi and her niece

I sit under the shade of a short, mud- plastered wall watching the women share their stories on camera. Starting with a small reluctance, they slowly express more openly about their struggles and accomplishments.
One of the women comes to sit next to me and begins to comb my hair with care and affection; love that she offers unassumingly to a stranger who has extended a compassionate hand. I allow her to undo my knots, remembering my nanny who took the effort to tie my hair in neat braids each morning before school. I ponder on the significance of this exchange facilitated by AVAG’s program. The value of sharing space, food, physical contact, smiles, words, and even a few frantic gestures to express in case of a language barrier. The lady smiles with her eyes as we sit in this moment, strangers playing intimate roles in slowly forming female bonds. With all our cultural disconnect, we have found a little bit of our lost selves in each other, recognised and accepted it wordlessly.
On our return to the community hall, we are served lunch on banana leaves. The hall is filled with laughter as the blues and reds of the sarees mingle. I think about this complex and age-old caste system with its harsh rigidity and wonder how this monster can be defeated. But this afternoon, the women have felt its grimy walls crumble in their hearts, just a little bit. Things will change, one afternoon at a time, one friend at a time, one story at a time.

A game of peek-a-boo. AVAG strives to offer the children of these villages equal education and opportunities by conducting programs to eradicate Caste based discrimination.

Breaking barriers

The lady smiles with her eyes as we sit in this moment, strangers playing intimate roles in slowly forming female bonds. With all our cultural disconnect, we have found a little bit of our lost selves in each other, recognised and accepted it wordlessly.

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