India is an increasingly popular destination for Westerners--a place where people capture a sense of spirituality often missing in the West while enjoying a taste of the exotic. I met many such folk, adding their mark to the well-trodden hippie trails.
When I decided to go to India, after four years studying theology, I had notions of putting my faith into practice by reaching out to the poor and sharing the love I had taken for granted in a secure family and the relatively safe and welcoming society of Northern Ireland. Convinced I had already learnt all I wanted about the West, I was eager to experience a totally different culture and discover life from a new perspective.
Stepping off the plane at midnight in Mumbai (Bombay) during the humid monsoon was like jumping into an oven. The following minibus journey through the night with one bottle of water between eight, and our driver overtaking huge lorries around blind precipices, did nothing to calm my nerves and I soon wondered what on earth I was doing! Pune, our destination, offered new challenges. I looked on--amazed by the apparent chaos--as rickshaw drivers wove their way, at breakneck speed, around motorbikes, cows, pigs and pedestrians, amidst the noise, dirt and pollution. I was shocked by the visible face of poverty --beggars sleeping on the street and people in the slums in tiny makeshift homes along muddy paths, unable to escape the damp and flies of the monsoon rains. Thus began six months of stress, nervous exhaustion, loneliness and frustration, liberally sprinkled with awe and wonder.
Whenever I felt overwhelmed and impotent in the face of social problems, a little girl might take me by the hand with total trust. Her wide smile and dancing eyes so full of the joy of living, she would lead me towards her home, where I knew I could expect warm hospitality and a willingness to share what little they had with their strange guest. This openness and warmth I found repeatedly amongst the children I worked with, whether it was the rural high school near Ichilkaranji where I taught RE (religious education), art, singing and Scottish dancing or the orphanage in Pune where the children responded to the simplest acts of love and attention. Material poverty was certainly not enough to dampen their spirits and even the poorest girls took pride in their colourful dresses, presenting themselves to the world with confidence and dignity.
It soon became evident that my enthusiastic plan to single-handedly change the world was not as indispensable as I thought. I was moved by the wonderful work already in operation at grassroots level by organisations such as the Deep Griha Society, founded in 1975 by Rev and Mrs Dr Onawale. Their family welfare centre in the heart of the slums provides education to over 2000 children and young people, as well as healthcare, nutrition programmes and clean water both in the city and in isolated villages in the Pune district. I had the privilege of staying with this family who accepted me as their own, and learned a lot from their people-centred approach and belief in encouragement to motivate the work force. Not only did they find fulfilment in improving the physical conditions of their fellow Punenites, they also did their best to coax the volunteers into becoming more loving and compassionate. From their total trust in God's provision came gentle humour, serenity and the ability to see the profound in simple things.
Rev Onawale introduced me to the theological seminary where he was Principal and I soon made myself busy working in the office and giving the odd lecture on national identity and spirituality. I'm not sure if they got much from my explanation of Irish monastic life in the seventh century, but we did have some fascinating conversations about spirituality as a normal part of life in both Ireland and India, and the role of women. What struck me most was their strong sense of identity and purpose. This comes from the close family network and social structures, and the belief that God is in control of their destinies and that we are all where we are meant to be.
When it was time to leave, I was ready to have a break from always trying to be culturally sensitive. Being `protected' as a single young woman, and constant attention from staring locals, had meant a certain lack of freedom. However I had got quite used to my life in India, so much so that the tiny homes where neighbours roamed freely in and out seemed normal. I was told by one Indian vicar that I had come from another planet. Coming home to Ireland in the middle of winter, I felt like an alien in my own country. Everything seemed so clean, clinical and regimented. I saw how people so easily become lonely and insecure striving for independence and material success, forgetting that it is love which gives us strength and esteem, and allows our spirits to grow. People said I must be enjoying my home comforts and really appreciating what I had. Although it was nice to enjoy treats like a bath or a battered sausage supper, such comments made me feel isolated and misunderstood. What I really felt was a profound sense of loss for the spontaneity and vibrancy of a people who had moved me to tears by their generosity and kindness.
Frances Hume, Northern Ireland (and poem opposite)
Frances is currently working with Christian Aid in Scotland.