These women are truly the central pillars. They are making the soul of India literate.
— Dr. Janak Palta, Founder — Barli Development Institute for Rural Women.
Our plane lands at the terminal in the pitch-black dark. We are on the last flight out of Delhi, scheduled to touch down at midnight in Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest central state. There are five of us, three women, two children, all from Los Angeles; all bleary eyed and underslept, dragging wheeled suitcases full of computer equipment and Benadryl, Luna Bars, toilet paper, a drugstore of prescription pharmaceuticals, far too many changes of clothes.
We are here as representatives of the Mona Foundation: a humanitarian organization which seeks out flourishing, grass-roots educational initiatives for women and girls in some of the world’s most poverty-stricken regions and offers these programs support for long-term success.
This visit will give us a window into the daily workings of the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in the city of Indore, which transforms its graduates from tribal girls with few prospects beyond a life of abject scarcity, to self-sufficient farmers and small business proprietors over the course of just one pivotal year.
My travel companions are Sima Mobini, one of the original members of Mona’s Board; Dr. Karin Harp, a dermatologist; her nine year old son, Quin; my eight year old son, Walter; and me, an author and creative writing teacher, assigned to write it all down.
As the only three females traveling without a male escort on the crowded flight, we received plenty of double-takes from the other passengers, but it wasn’t solely due to our gender or our foreign-ness. Without heels, Karin is just over six feet, and I am close to that, with a tattooed arm and the front of my hair dyed bright red. The two of us literally tower over everyone, looking, I’m sure, like a side show just escaped from the circus.
The armed guards inside the Madhya Pradesh terminal seem to think so anyway. Clearly flustered by everything they think we might represent, they snatch our bags off the luggage carousel and hustle us out to the sidewalk as quickly as possible, watching our every movement with deep concern.
“Don’t worry about us,” Sima reassures them in Hindi, “we are on our way,” but they watch us from the inside of the sliding doors with horrified faces, worried that we might change our minds and decide to come back in.
Fortunately, that option will not be necessary, as out of the suffocating heat and cloud of swarming mosquitoes, comes Tahera Jadhav, the current director of the Barli Institute and her family, waiting to greet us. Tahera is incredibly beautiful, with a long black braid and delicate ankle bracelets that tinkle softly as she moves. Her husband, Yogesh, in pressed shirt and tie, stands beside her. And peeking out from behind the skirt of her flowing green sari is Jadhu, their three-year-old son.
“Welcome,” she says, holding out a giant bouquet of tropical flowers. “We are so glad you have come.”
“Thank you, thank you,” we tell her, both grateful and relieved in equal parts, and as she takes each of our hands in both of hers and squeezes gently, my eyes fill with tears. To visit India has been a life-long dream, but to be an eye witness to the work of the Barli Institute; to meet its staff and trainees in person is a privilege I had not ever imagined.
Founded by Dr. Janak Palta, in 1986, the Barli Institute is aimed at uplifting the lives of the tribal girls and women in central India, who face some of the worst human rights abuses on record and who make up the majority of the country’s poor.
Dr. Palta herself has written that the most difficult thing for people outside India to understand is that there can be no singular profile of Indian women that is correct because there are just too many differences; of background, of class and caste, of geography. And there are so many examples of well-known independent Indian women in every field of public life who do not represent the overall condition of the majority in the country. Profiles of Indian women worldwide seldom focus on the women I am about to meet in the next two days.
Located in one of the most rapidly growing cities along the Mumbai/Agra road, the Institute takes its name from the “Barli” — the central pillar that is used in the typical construction of a rural Indian home. Since its inception, Barli has grown, sometimes quickly and sometimes more slowly, from a three-day candle and incense making workshop in a wooden market stall downtown into one of the most successful and innovative educational programs in the country, serving a student body of female trainees and graduates that spans the subcontinent, from Tamil Nadu to Bhutan.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say and Tahera smiles.
“Holi-day,” she says, pointing at the red in my hair. “Your name is the Hindu festival for spring. Holi. Do you know it?”
“I do,” I say, remembering all the Indians at the Delhi airport and on the streets the day we landed, their hair and faces and clothes still coated with bright red, green and yellow powders. “It’s over now, though, isn’t it?”
“Not for you,” Tahera says and we both laugh. “The girls will think you are still celebrating.”
As we load our suitcases into the back of Barli’s ancient 4 X 4, a water buffalo watches us placidly from the middle of the road, chewing his enormous cud while an army of birds sing so loudly overhead we all have to stop and listen.
“Those are nightingales!” my son says. “Hundreds of nightingales are singing out there!”
“Yes,” I say, while I slather his arms and face with bug repellent because he’s probably right. My son is a walking version of the Audubon Society. I listen and nod while he continues to name other nocturnal birds — warblers, thrushes, nightjars, but really, I have no idea what’s singing out there. It is just another of India’s many mysteries.
I remember learning from a recent documentary that every human being on earth who is non-African can trace their DNA back to a group of people currently living in villages on the southern tip of India. Ancient and unchanged for thousands of years, this region is home to some of the oldest holy sites in the world and the place of origin for the mysterious Vedic prayers that have been passed down orally by the Brahmin monks for hundreds of generations, prayers that baffled scientists for decades, because they follow no alphabet or human speech patterns and, in fact, pre-date the history of language itself, following soundscapes that exist nowhere else in the world. Only recently has an incredible discovery been made about these ancient prayers — that they are imitating something else altogether: the songs of native birds.
Because the Barli Institute serves women from an agrarian background, I am shocked as we drive into the lengthening shadows of a future mega-city. Skeletons of half-constructed skyscrapers and overpasses line the well-paved highway, looming over rickety market stalls and abandoned donkey carts filled to overflowing with used electronic parts and discarded plastic.
In the beginning, the contrast between the city and the institute was not this stark, Tahera explains, but with the flood of Indore’s recent economic development, the city has encroached on Barli’s six acres with all of the attendant security issues. Theft and endangerment have created the need for razor wire and an imposing entrance gate, which happens to be watched over tonight by an elderly man in a purple kurta with a hip revolver. He waves us through and bows with hands pressed over his heart. “Namaste.”
Though blanketed in darkness, I can already sense that Barli is an oasis. I can see the shapes of brightly painted murals on the walls, and the shadows of lush gardens line an immaculate, central courtyard. The breezes that blow through the open window of our Jeep, though oven-hot, are thick with the scent of jasmine and dried spices.
“It definitely smells like India in this car,” Walter says and everybody cracks up.
Yogesh takes us to the visitors’ dormitory, and shows us how to padlock the doors, inside and out. “I will come for you at 7,” he says. “When the generator goes off at 4 am do not be shocked, it will come back on. Sleep well.”
“Oh, we will,” I say cheerfully, excited that I absolutely wouldn’t. When I was little, my father was in the army, stationed in northern Japan. We went everywhere on military transport late at night, often with combat soldiers riding in the back-half of planes draped in heavy mesh and camouflage for strategic landing runs into Vietnam. I suppose it’s my version of experiencing a new place, staying up late to take in the shapes of a foreign landscape like a spy in the middle of the night, until the sun comes up to reveal its true contours.
Our dormitory, like all the buildings we will visit here, has been meticulously prepared for our visit. The students themselves, we are told, have stocked the refrigerator for us with homemade sandwiches, bottled water and a giant plate of quartered oranges. They have also laid out tin plates and saucers for our breakfast. The large, common area of the two-bedroom suite — that Karin, our sons and I will be sharing — is spare, cheerful, and sparkling clean. The batik and block-print curtains and the chair cushions and pillows have all been handmade by Barli students, Yogesh tells us, in the textile design and sewing classes.
But what I love most about Barli at this moment is the hot plate in the kitchen where I can boil water for my instant Starbucks in under two minutes.
When my caffeine is ready, I stand at the counter for a while and look out through the barred windows, watching dozens of male employees on their work breaks from the 24 hour call center across the street, smoking, laughing, playing pick-up games of cricket with a broken chair leg for a paddle. I hear the echoes of their shouts and whistles as I sit at the table, going over my notes:
Of the three hundred million people currently living in poverty in South Asia, 70% of them are tribal and rural women.
By the year 2016, the number of rural and tribal women living in poverty conditions in South Asia will outnumber the total populations of the United States, Canada and the Russian Federation combined.
Of the rural and tribal populations in Madhya Pradesh, often called, “the rape capital of India,” nearly half of the women surveyed did not know the name of the country or continent in which they live.
The average age of marriage for girls is fourteen, with an average family size of six.
75% of infants born to tribal mothers die within the first year of diarrhea, dehydration or other preventable causes.
86% of tribal mothers and babies are not immunized and most have never seen a doctor.
Yet, somehow, against all these odds, the graduates of Barli are managing to transform themselves from victims of cultural and economic enslavement into agents of positive social change, becoming teachers and trainers who serve the needs of thousands in local health clinics; running their own sewing businesses; operating micro-loan cooperatives; or teaching adult literacy classes. Somehow, in spite of it all, the Barli Institute has been able to fulfill its mission:
To endow each trainee with knowledge, skills and the understanding of gender equality, inspiring moral capabilities with a spirit of service and unity.
It’s a tall order, I think to myself, changing the universe of a person. How, I wonder, given all the obstacles, is it possible to fulfill even a fraction of this mandate?
As promised, Yogesh arrives in the morning at the stroke of seven with Jadhu in tow. Walter and Quin need no introduction or even common language and rush off with him, running down a long lane of mulberry trees, searching for wild peacocks that Yogesh assures them they will see if they keep their eyes open.
Twelve generations of peacock families have lived at Barli, Yogesh tells us, along with flocks of cuckoos and green parrots. There are hundreds of trees on the property to invite them: fruit trees and flowering bushes sharing space with ornamental rosewood, sandalwood, ashoka and karanja, all kept green by sprinklers using recycled waste-water.
It is a tradition, Yogesh tells us, that every Hindu man must plant two trees over the course of his lifetime and care for them very lovingly. At Barli, they also teach the girls to do this. If you go to the villages now, he says, you will see their orchards growing.
I watch my son running wild, his hands full of rocks and sticks, and I see a ghost version of my own childhood in the 70’s when we would spend all day outside unsupervised and show up only when it was time to eat, filthy and delirious, but happy.
“See you at breakfast,” I call to Walter, but he isn’t listening. A male peacock has suddenly opened his tail feathers and is parading along the roof of one of the outbuildings.
“The birds love to be up there,” Yogesh says, smiling at the three boys who have stopped in their tracks to watch the performance. “The upper cisterns are where we collect drinking water during the monsoons.”
Tahera joins us as we cross the fields, and as we walk, we see groups of Barli girls for the first time, kneeling side by side, hard at work in the cultivated vegetable gardens. They are draped head to toe in saris of luminous colors and as they wave and smile at us shyly, their pierced ears and noses and strings of handmade bracelets sparkle with tiny jewels.
They have come here, Tahera explains, from all over India. Sometimes traveling from states as far away as Rajasthan or Chandigarh — often on foot, for hundreds of miles. Aged sixteen to twenty on average, most of them hear about Barli through word of mouth in their villages, and the good news of what the school offers travels fast.
Many of the girls, she explains, arrive with only a set of clothes and a bedroll. But after six months to a year at Barli, even the girl who is lowest in the village hierarchy will acquire the skills that will make her a community elder when she returns home: literacy and numeracy, how to tell time, how to use a computer, how to grow, harvest and dry food from seed in solar powered dryers and cookers, how to prepare compost and farm worms for organic fertilizers, how to dig latrines, how to drive tractors, and how to develop potable water systems — in short, everything she will ever need to know to become a completely self-sufficient farmer, not to mention human being.
It occurs to me immediately of course, that with the exception of knowing the alphabet and being able to type, I have not one of the skills these girls will have by the time they graduate.
“What’s the largest obstacle to success?” I ask, and Tahera exchanges a glance with Yogesh, before she speaks, “The deepest poverty women in India face,” she says, “is spiritual.”
There are three classes of female poor here: the urban, the rural and the tribal. The women in all these categories suffer, but the largest obstacle is the one inside the heart of all women: the belief that they are a burden on society. The birth of a girl in India, regardless of her caste, can be like a funeral. It can be considered a shame on the family — a liability.
“But not here at Barli,” I say.
“No,” Tahera says. “Here it is different. But it isn’t easy.”
One of the most challenging parts of the training at Barli, according to both Tajera and Yogesh, is for the girls to become accustomed to difference, to tolerate sitting or sleeping next to someone of a different tribe, to eat food and share water and dishes from the same kitchen, and especially to share opinions with someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with their own. According to Tahera, the extreme difficulty of this process becomes one of the parts of the training the girls love the most — learning that they are all equal parts of one whole. One family. One human race.
“They have struggled so much,” Tahera says, “yet most of the time you will hear them laughing, encouraging each other. You can sense it, yes?”
I look at the bright, effusive young girls, talking as they work shoulder to shoulder, walking side by side, carrying handmade baskets on their heads, piled to overflowing with food they have grown themselves; and I have to agree. I feel bowled over by something else I notice about them, too. Something I don’t often feel so profoundly and in such high doses. Joy.
“This group in the field is cultivating onions and the eggplant right now,” Yogesh explains, “as part of their service.”
Daily farm work is an integral part of the program and one of Barli’s central components. The girls are placed in ever-changing work teams, carefully selected to bring together and integrate diverse ethnicities and castes in order to promote unity.
The largest masterpiece however, we see just before breakfast. Nestled beside the Jadhav home in a grove of avocado trees is a large medicinal garden that can heal every thing from a bladder infection to dengue fever. Walter is fascinated with one of the plants called No-Touch-Me that closes up as soon as he presses it with his fingertips.
“It is a shy plant,” Yogesh tells him. “But it can cure kidney failure.”
Fascinated by this, Walter eagerly locates No-Touch-Me everywhere we travel for the rest of the trip. He even finds it in Agra, tucked away in the massive gardens outside the Taj Mahal.
After breakfast, stuffed with homemade dal and dosas, we spend the better part of three hours touring the campus, discovering everywhere we go, a completely integrated learning environment, where wholehearted living and training are inseparable.
Fresh vegetable stews made of carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, cauliflower and cabbage, burble on the solar-powered burners in the open-air kitchens, along with a rainbow of indigenous beans and gourds. Piles of fragrant chilies, turmeric, fenugreek and coriander, which the girls are taught how to preserve, line the walls of the pantry shelves, alongside jars and jars of mango garlic and lemon pickles made from the surplus.
On every square inch of the property, traditional agrarian practices mix with state-of-the-art green farming techniques, to fulfill the daily needs of over 100 people, 365 days of the year.
We tour a lovely library and a computer lab, with girls in saris busy at work, in every chair. We visit a fully operating publishing office with a printing press, a giant sewing room, and a community meeting hall lined with hundreds of seats, available for family week when the girls’ families come to witness the effects of what the girls have been learning.
“You cannot imagine the looks on the faces of these families,” Yogesh says. “Especially the uncles and fathers and brothers. Their daughters have become citizens of the world!”
The last stop before lunch is a gathering inside Barli’s large central classroom, an enormous studio where sixty-five girls sit cross-legged on beautiful hand-woven carpets with books open in their laps. They are studying for finals, Tahera tells us, a sewing certification and a health and welfare exam.
I notice a large table set up in front of the room with microphones and a podium, and, suddenly, before I’ve put two and two together, Tahera is up there introducing us in Hindi to the student body, inviting Sima and Karin and I to speak a little bit about our lives to the group, about what brought us here, and afterwards to do a Q & A.
“Go ahead,” she says, smiling at the three of us. “I will translate.”
A trifle horrified, I look around for Walter and locate him in the back corner of the room with Jadhu and Quin, playing with the copy of Mad Libs I gave him on the plane; all three of them are in stitches, rolling around on the floor, laughing. Somehow this party game remains the international symbol for the absurd, across any language barrier.
Gratefully, Karin is the brave one, who begins by giving a brief lecture for the girls on skin care and health and I am shocked when she asks the students if they lighten their facial skin with homemade chemical mixtures and easily two-thirds raise their hands — a bleak reminder of the prevalence of gender and caste prejudices about skin color and how they can affect a woman’s prospects throughout her life. Karin promises to leave a number of products with Tahera that can help with some of the pigmentation problems, burns and scarring that can occur in some of the most severe cases.
Next, Sima speaks about being one of the only female engineers in her large graduating class in Tehran. She shares stories of the human rights violations that forced her to emigrate to the United States and have prevented her from returning to her country for over thirty years.
“I did get to fly over though,” she says. “In the middle of the night, I saw the stars over the mountains of Iran. I got to see it from the airplane in the dark, when I came to visit you.”
Then it is my turn. My heart is racing and I start to sweat as I step up to the microphone.
“I am a mother,” I tell them, pointing out Walter at the back of the room, “and also an author and a part-time creative writing teacher. Most of the time, my job consists of sitting in front of a computer screen in my pajamas, making up stories, trying to write books, but, when a terrible earthquake happened in a country called Haiti, I went there to teach writing to a group of girls, just about your age, and meeting them, working with them, it changed me — it changed the universe of who I was.”
I search for more to say to the waiting crowd of beautiful faces in front of me, and my wordlessness in this moment, feels like a shameful failure.
What do you dream about I want to ask? How did you become so brave? What is your first thought in the morning when you wake up and your last before you go to sleep at night? What will happen to us? Will women ever walk equally anywhere on this earth?
I remember the barren feeling I had on one of my first trips to Haiti before the earthquake. I remember sitting in a circle of primary school children in one of the most remote rural schools in the Artibonite Valley, unable to imagine what I could possibly say or offer to that group of open hearts. What is something you wish for? was the best I could come up with. I remember how one tiny girl, the youngest of the group, in an impossibly immaculate white dress and white ribbons came over to me, sat down in my lap and took my hand.
“I am in a family of eleven brothers and sisters,” she said proudly. “It is my job to grow sweet potatoes, but I wish to be a singer.”
I remember then, how everybody in the circle, the teacher and all the students started speaking, excitedly, all at once and bedlam broke out around me.
“What is it, what’s going on?” I asked the kreyol translator. “They are just surprised,” he said, breaking into a huge smile. “This girl has never spoken at the school before today,” he explained. “Everybody here thought this girl was mute or deaf.”
I look out at the audience, a sea of receptive faces, but still, my lips do not move. Until somewhere in the uneasy silence, I notice the open windows choked with flowering vines and all of a sudden, I hear it: the singing. I hear the birds.
“Each one of you is like a bird,” I hear myself saying. “Each one of you has a song that belongs only to you and writing can be a way that you sing. And the world wants to hear your voice. It really does. I promise.”
Smiles break out on a few faces, and I feel weak with relief.
“I came to remind you that the world needs your stories,” I say, my voice getting louder. “It needs your words. Each day you can create a time to write in your Barli notebook, something, anything, for as long as you live. Your thoughts, the things you see, your truths. Each time you write, your soul has a voice. You leave a fingerprint in the world that is all your own. Stories are the way we learn about each other,” I say. “And especially about you. The world needs to learn about you, to learn for itself what you already know.”
“Tell me in one sentence,” I ask. “What this experience at the Barli School has meant to you.” The girls bend over their notebooks, and as I hear the scratching of the pencils, I feel the nearest thing to bliss.
Evening comes and it is time for us to leave Barli. As we pass the common room, we see the entire student body has gathered once again, this time to meditate and chant their evening prayers. For a long time, we stand outside in the dark, and listen, our suitcases at our feet. In my hands, are the words the girls wrote, translated for me by Tahera, and the gifts presented to Karin and Sima and I after we spoke in the afternoon. They are tribal mobiles made by hand from multi-colored textile remnants. Frayed, ragged strips of cloth, leftover from the sewing classes that have been knotted and bound tightly with silver thread, then strung intricately together — in the shape of birds.