Wednesday, November 3, 2010

retreat numero dos

This post was written on November 2.

This past weekend, we had our second retreat. This was exciting for a number of reasons. 1. It's always nice to spend time with Jim, Maggie, Achen, Betty Kochamma, and Binu, and 2. It signaled the completion of two full months in India.

I can't believe so much time has gone by. True, there are nine more months left, but I am already starting to suspect I am going to be very sad when July arrives. Today I had an evaluation meeting with Jaimol Kochamma, where I had to respond to the question: "What are some things you appreciate and are thankful for about the site?" After having conscientiously thought about that question, and naming the things for which I am thankful (which were many!), I can already tell it's going to be hard to say goodbye. The one consolation, albeit temporary, is that that day is pretty far away. For now...

But enough with the sadness, and back to the retreat. We stayed at Maramon Retreat Center, near Kozhencherry. There were some interesting Pentacostal folks there who made quite a racket. They even had two Americanos preaching. So Maggie, Jim, and I were always on the lookout for the white guys, who we decided couldn't be nearly as legitimate as us since they both ate with silverware. Who does that?

The main focus of this retreat was to learn about dalits, also known as untouchables. In the scope of Indian society, dalits are considered so low that they fall entirely outside the caste system. The caste system is abolished in theory, but not practice. As we learned from our guest lecturer, a professor and dalit himself, caste permeates all aspects of daily life.

The 'rules' that affect dalits can be extremely oppressive. We were told about how in some places, they have to travel on separate streets, and their homes must be on the east side of the village so that the wind coming from the west doesn't hit them first and spread to those of higher caste. They have to cover their mouths when speaking to someone of a higher caste.

India YAVs at the church we visited. The kids were SO cute!
Of course, these are some manifestations of dalit realities at their worst. The above conditions don't exist in Kerala. That is not to say, however, that the life of a dalit, even in less oppressive areas, is any easier. A dalit cannot marry outside of his/her caste. They are confined to the most menial, dangerous, and degrading jobs in society. Oftentimes someone of a higher caste will refuse to rent their property to a dalit. They don't have access to good quality education, have few opportunities for advancement, and are usually very poor.

On the third day of the retreat, we visited a dalit community. Their homes, which at one time were thatched huts, are now concrete block structures, thanks to government initiatives. On Sunday, we attended their church. They were some of the most welcoming people we have encountered in India yet (and that's saying a lot--everyone here is welcoming!).

Having taken several Southern Literature classes in college, I found myself thinking about the years surrounding the era of slavery in the US, and the concept of 'passing.' Black people who were light-skinned enough would move to an entirely new place where no one knew them and live as white people, thus escaping the curse of their skin color. As we spent the weekend learning about dalits, I found myself wondering why they don't do the same. Why don't dalits just move somewhere and tell people they are Brahmins?

The answer to this question, as I learned from our guest lecturer, is that this is virtually impossible. Number one, dalits don't have the financial resources to accomplish such a feat. And even more significantly, caste is such an integral part of one's identity, it is inescapable. Your caste is easily revealed by your appearance, your manner of speech, where you live, your occupation, the people with whom you associate--even your name. For dalits, there is no such thing as upward mobility. And as our guest lecturer pointed out, "Heirarchy without mobility--without free choice--is slavery."

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