India Journal 2010 Part I – Stopping to Take a Closer Look at Who We Are

Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.
-Job 37:14

I remember some years back coming across the statement, “Stop the world, I want to get off.”  In a sense, I feel that way at the moment. I definitely have left behind my “normal” world, and stepped into a small haven entirely at odds with much of what I encounter on a daily basis.

On Sunday night, November 21, I departed Chicago on a jumbo jet for the approximately 14-hour flight from my local place to Delhi, India. Then, after too few hours of sleep in an Indian version of an upscale “bed and breakfast,” around 6 a.m., I was driven by taxi to the Delhi train station, where I boarded a train for the five-hour trip northeast to the city of Derahdun, near the foothills of the Himalayas.

At the station, my travel agent got a young man (called a “coolie,”) to help carry my suitcase to the train. He had a long scarf, which he wrapped into a ball and put on top of his head. Then he lifted my 54 lb (I saw it on the scale at the airport when I checked in) suitcase on to the top of the scarf and walked that way with my suitcase on his head, carrying my briefcase in his hand, through the train station, up a long flight of stairs to the second story. He went down a short walkway, and down another flight of stairs to the train platform. He then brought the suitcase onto the train, still on his head, and put it on the overhead rack above my seat along with my briefcase. Next time, I’ll pack less.

The train passed mainly through farmlands, mostly sugar cane groves, and a few villages.  I sat next to a young man whose three friends sat across the aisle from us. He told me they were all from Dehradun, and heading back there to attend a friend’s wedding. He had an engineering degree, and had gotten his first job with a company that had Warner Brothers and Sprint as clients. He had to work nights at that job, but has since changed to another one in which he works 12-hour days, because he plans to get married. One of my students, who was born in India and will later join me here for my study abroad course on leadership, said the telecommunication outsourcing jobs that we all know about in the States from trying to get assistance with our computers and cell phone service, are having a serious detrimental effect on India’s family-based culture. Delhi’s time zone is 12.5 hours ahead of Chicago, so for me to speak to a live person when I have a problem with my computer, he or she has to work all night.  Most of those jobs are held by young people, my student said, who consequently almost never see or are seen by their parents.

My destination was Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed), a center for “Education in Earth Citizenship.” The center is located on a biodiversity conservation farm, and is part of the work of Navdanya, an organization founded by Vandana Shiva, an eco-feminist, physicist, and activist for the rights of Earth and farmers in India. She started Bija Vidyapeeth at the urging of Satish Kumar, who is an Indian legend, former Jain monk, and founder of Schumacher College, a center for ecological and spiritual education in England.

Here at Bija Vidyapeeth, I have joined a small international community of persons concerned about where their own lives are going, and where Earth’s community of life is headed. We are here as participants in a course called, “Gandhi and Globalisation,” taught by Satish and Vandana. Before I say more about the course, it is important to note that Navdanya’s farm is totally organic, it is not just any organic farm. If all I wanted to do was spend a couple of weeks living on an organic farm, I could have done that in the States quite easily. Navdana’s goal is to preserve the natural biodiversity that is slowly being wiped out by what Shiva calls the “mono-culture of the mind” promoted by today’s multinational corporations (MNCs). She is taking on Monsanto, Cargill and the other MNCs, which, she argues, are trying to privatize, commodify, and make profitable every aspect of the natural world, from the seeds that hold the key to the miracle of the foods we eat, to the water we drink. I am in the middle of  people who believe the direction the world is going is radically wrong, and are committed to doing something about it, and are looking to Gandhi, who declared, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” for help with that effort.

My home here is a small, round house that reminds me of a Mongolian Yurt. Inside there are six beds, all arranged with their heads against the wall, and their feet pointing toward the center. There is a bathroom, with a shower; however there seems to be something wrong with the hot water heater that hangs on the wall. Instead, we bath each morning with water drawn from communal pots heated over wood fires. Somehow, I missed recalling in reading the FAQ’s that we were to bring a towel; I did remember to bring a face cloth, so that’s acting as my towel at the moment. It’s amazing how effective it is, and how unnecessary the huge, fluffy bath towel I ordinarily use really is.

From our front porch, I can see a bit of an orchard directly in front of me, with a range of mountains in the distance. The days so far have been mostly to partly sunny, with high temperatures probably in the mid-60’s (F), and the mountains only just visible through a moist haze.

Our morning lectures take place in an open, round pavilion covered by a pointed, thatch and bamboo roof. Beyond the pavilion are fields being worked by men using pairs of oxen.  The sight of them reminds me of being on retreat a number of years ago at a place that has “in the wilderness” in its name, but is actually a reclaimed farm in the midst of other large Illinois farms. It was October, and I had been looking forward to a week of peace and quiet in the woods watching the trees change. Instead, I spent much of my time trying to figure out how to avoid the obnoxious sound of someone I came to call the “mad harvester” who was running an enormous combine across his nearby fields day and night.

On my first morning here, as I sat on the porch of our round house writing in my journal, Eva, who is from Denmark and has been living here for several weeks as a volunteer on staff, came up and offered me part of a pomegranate she had opened and been eating. Pomegranate juice recently has been made popular in the States, but I have to admit that up until that point, I had no idea what the fruit looked like. I discovered it has red seeds inside the outer shell that look like red corn kernels. They are arranged inside in rows like honeycombs embedded in the fruit. Eva demonstrated for me how to peel the kernels out and eat them. So, after she left, I did, peeling the seeds out and putting each into my mouth one by one, trying in doing so to actively stop and get off the world I had left so far behind.

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