My mind struggles to find the words, the phrases, that sound right. And when I say ‘right’ I mean that paint the picture of India I saw, the emotive sights and sounds. Sometimes I’ve felt too textual in my writings, a historical dialog that dribbles on. And that’s not what I want…fit and proper…that is not India, that is not me.
My words were lost in her house. Cement slab floor, coated in thin layer of dust. A large bed for all to lay, blankets piled on the edge. Two chairs for Teachers while they sat on the cold ground. These women almost twice my age looking up at me like I am so special. How strange. The cup of water offered that I cannot drink. I feign sips often so not to offend. Wishing she knew I couldn’t drink for fear of sickness. How a simple gift can produce detrimental consequences, millions of bacteria in those drops, just waiting for a foreign belly to lay in. And at the highest point, the edge where wall and ceiling meet, an array of painted portraits, Hindu deities, their eyes always upon them. Bless them, I think, they are so good to me and I am but a stranger.
This was the home of Meena, a thirty something Indian woman with a round face, dark camel skin, and a slightly smeared red dot between her eyes. I first met her from above, looking down as she squatted before her door washing several tin pots with a rag and a bowl of soapy water. Soon, I find myself being kindly forced onto a chair, finding my hierarchal placement awkward, I want to be on the floor with them. No looking down, on equal plane. I observe this day, watching Kay go through elementary ABC cards with them, make them practice drawing upper and lowercase letters. Two months she has been their teacher. And I find Hembei writing away, easily reciting the words of cat, boy, girl. She is beyond the rest, and she is the reason I sit in that place. After that day, I will be hers.
Hembei taught herself basic English through the materials her fraternal twin children brought home from school. ABCs, simple writing, simple words, she knew them. All the while the several others progressed on a bit more slowly. When I think of Hembei, I always picture her in an emerald hued sari, long black hair braided tightly, and a shy smile, always looking away when her teeth were revealed. I liked hearing the music of her jewelry as she walked, how she created song everywhere she went, her bangles telling her story, each step she took.
Hembei, Meena, Usha, Percushy, and Indra. These were the women that went to CCS, said teach us English, we want to learn. And so they were given Kay.
Kay…the elder woman from my flat. I can’t say we got along for but a day. Something seemed awry in her methods. Rope learning, same flash cards, ABCs, it seemed a stagnant process for adults. But I had no experience in teaching my language, no certificate, just ideas. And I spilled them all to Kay, lets give them a way to use the words, to play with words, find beauty in English. But our ideas didn’t mesh. And in days she was threatened by me, didn’t want to compromise on how to teach these women. She accused me of attempting to take HER students away from her. For two months they had been hers. And in a fit of anger I retorted, “In two months you haven’t even gotten through the alphabet!” And she stormed off, having nothing to reply with.
I went to Jaggi about this, her possessiveness was blinding the purpose of us being there. The tension was showing in the lessons. I’ve never been one to hold my tongue. Not for anyone, and surely not for some crazed old bat. Kay was also dependent on people due to having injured herself before arriving to India. She needed a staff member or fellow volunteer to help her walk, watch as she shuffled along with a leg that seemed to want to twist around. If we didn’t invite her to places, she guilt tripped us until we found ourselves with her in the bazaar. Her words were soured with negativity, stories of how her life had been so miserable, and that undertone of whine, like it was innate to her voice, was maddening.
The night I spoke back, said she was going too slow, doing the same things, she was furious. In her room she huffed, and Jaye, sweet Jay Bird, she always wanted things to be so smooth in that place, went to Kay to assuage her. How awful Kay’s words made me, what a piece of work I was in her opinion, coming to Dharamsala and taking her girls away from her. No one would do that she said. My volatile state was festering, and came to an apex when she said loudly, “She’s just a little bitch.” This aged woman calling me a bitch…
I was just outside her door, and glared at her in such a fit of anger, “Who are you calling a bitch? You haven’t seen what a bitch I can be.” And these words were scathing, imbued with the disdain I had begun to hold for her. And I remember Jaye’s surprised face at seeing me react, and Kay, her pebble eyes like a Turkey ready for the farmer’s slaughter, looked at me through her glasses. Mumbled what a horrid person I was, and finding humor in Kay’s behavior, this woman being funded to be there through her church, she was on a MISSION, this god woman from Illinois, I just couldn’t help myself. “Isn’t it your Jesus who said he who has not sinned cast the first stone, Kay?” And being none amused by my comeback, in fact it made her shake, she stood up and slammed the door in my face.
I had it. This woman projecting her problems onto everyone. Sucking joy and peace like a leech on skin. This had happened with the group before us. Several girls had to move out of the flat because of the “Kay situation.” We had be warned by the remaining one at our arrival, but even in our efforts (my mild efforts) it wasn’t worth dealing with Kay. Not having paid thousands of dollars to be there, not being stressed by a senile waste. In the middle of the night, I hopped rooftops to the main center, found Jaggi sitting with Bela who had arrived from Delhi for a short visit, and seeing me, he knew. I didn’t care that I was in pajamas, that I had no bra on, that I was showing too much skin for their culture, I was a woman to be acknowledged and heard. And I recounted the entire fight, all the problems, Kay’s umbilical-like ties to our students. All the while, Bela was sitting quietly, watching me, so composed while I was on fire. Such a state that I call it Kali rage.
Bela would address Kay. Discuss things over with her brother Anil who managed the Dharamsala center. See, Bela is a psychologist, and knowing the previous schisms involving Kay, wanted to know her through a series of questions and conversation. Afterward, she met with me. And though she agreed with me, there is an element to Indian culture that isn’t as common in the U.S., an unwaivering respect for elders. Kay may be crazy, she may be wrong, she may be too dependent on others, but she is an old woman, and for that alone, deserves respect. I couldn’t comply. I wouldn’t comply. The best Kay could get from me was a silent mouth if she but stayed her distance. She had no right to project her problems onto others, no right to make us feel selfish for wanting to enjoy our time in India how we wanted, no right to be so controlling of our students’ learning that it was impeding their progress. I wouldn’t budge, and Bela knew, but she asked if I could just avert the situations if I saw them arising.
I did the best I could, and by that, I kept a shut mouth. I would not antagonize her, but even that bothered her. She then found me to be a bitch for not talking. And in the future, if Kay tried to meddle into our plans or trips, I’d take the fall, be the one to tell her there was no room in the taxi, or it would be just several of us going. She already hated me; so, why let her hate the others who would have complied but been miserable in her company? She no longer confronted me anyway, not with more than a few words meant to guilt me, but it never worked.
And reflecting on it, I still agree with the reasons I stood against Kay. I’m not saying my conflict resolution tactics were at their best (they weren’t). And I’ve tried to pinpoint the reasons for my dislike of that woman. She put herself in the role of VICTIM, in every scenario she could. Whether it be an inability to travel alone, even to just the Indian bazaar (which she eventually was forced to do once Anil made her) or feel like she was being violated by having another volunteer present. That is what irked me most about her. Rather than rising above her circumstance, whether in her physical or psychological difficulties, she waited to be rescued or waited to get her way. I find nothing noble in that. And I feared the effects this would have on the women as Kay was intending to stay in Dharamsala for six months.
I purge this frustration now because I never want to address this again. From then on, I worked solely with Hembei during our volunteering, and only assisted Kay if she asked me. My focus was not to fight. I went halfway across the world to help people and see what I had only read about, to feel and understand those words on paper. Kay was just an obstacle, a minute distraction that I had to decide to quickly deal with, and the only way I could was by pretending she wasn’t there. It perhaps wasn’t the most mature behavior, but it was the only way I could ensure I stayed dedicated to Hembei and myself.