Last summer, I was an intern at the Damien Foundation Urban Leprosy and Tuberculosis in a city called Nellore in Southern India. The Damien Foundation seeks to provide leprosy and tuberculosis treatment through free walk-in clinics around the world. The particular clinic at which I worked serves primarily impoverished citizens and working there gave me the opportunity to see the struggles of a population I normally had never gotten exposure to in my previous trips to India to visit family. I’ve seen starving men so thin and defeated they wouldn’t make eye-contact with me. I’ve played with children diagnosed with HIV after innocently contracting it from their mothers while in the womb. I’ve spent afternoons chatting with “professional beggars,” or people who used costumes and props to better display their leprosy-infected limbs at train stations in hopes increasing their “begging salaries” of twenty dollars per month. Each day challenged my views on humanity. I struggled with feelings of guilt that I had been brought up in a fortunate life of good health and bounty for no reason besides luck, while my new friends in this country endure a daily struggle that I will simply never understand.
One of these friends is named Kalyani. She was an in-patient at the hospital who received free surgery and physical therapy to restore functionality in her leprosy-crippled hand. She grew up in a village on the outskirts of Nellore, and had an arranged marriage at just 14 years old. By age 15, she had her first daughter, and by the time I befriended her at age 24, she had three. Her husband was an unemployed English school teacher who idled his time away by drinking alcohol, an unfortunately common though socially unacceptable activity among young men in India. She confessed that on some nights, she didn’t have enough money to feed her children, because he had spent it all on booze. When I asked her where their income was coming from, she told me that her husband forbade her from working, and that her mother-in-law was the sole provider for an extended family of approximately ten members. Her mother-in-law was a 65 years old public restroom caretaker at the local train station and collected tips from those who used the toilets. On average she made four dollars per day–hopefully enough to pay for everyone to eat two meals on most days.
Kalyani graciously invited me to visit her in her village during the summer to get a better sense of her situation. Despite their tight finances, her family had the hospitality to cook me an extremely expensive meal called biryani, a spiced fried rice with chicken. Her house was a single-room structure with a cement floor and ceiling. Her daughters wore their best Indian costumes knowing I would be taking pictures of them. Kalyani and her family were doing so much better than the homeless and slum-dwellers of India. But she could still do so much better were she not bound by the social constraints that face so many Indian women. Divorce is extremely stigmatized in India, and it is essentially not an option for her to develop financial independence from her husband. Many women in her situation take free government-offered classes to learn how to tailor clothes as a profession, but her leprosy-inflicted hand prevents her from being able to do intricate stitches with a small needle and thread.
After coming to the US, I mailed her a care package of chocolates, the photographs I took of her family, and a set of Crayola watercolor paints with paper. I am hoping to start a project with her where she mails me back her abstract paintings so that I can then I attempt to sell them and send her the royalties. I call her on her village pay phone on the first of every month and in each phone call, she reminds me of her daily struggles that her constricted rights force on her: her alcoholic husband, trouble feeding her children, and simply boredom. As her friend, I want her to be as intellectually stimulated as I am as a college student, and not have to sit in her one room cement home every day for the rest of her life worrying about all of the ways her circumstance, and not just her leprosy, cripples her.
I am overwhelmed with the number of problems in India, and all the more have been reminded when reading about the social movement for gender equality following the harrowing rape case that has made its way to international headlines. Particularly disheartening to me is the fact that it’s the women who have to watch out for the families in the end, yet they have the fewest freedoms. My mom cynically remarked that “You can’t solve the problems of India. You have to start over.” I, too, had long felt this way, but I am beginning to realize that it is this pessimistic attitude that prevents someone like Kalyani from actualizing all of the freedoms that I desperately want her to have. Real social change has started in India. I hope that the movement develops into an “Indian Summer” much like the “Arab Spring,” so that the next time I visit Kalyani in her village, she isn’t worried about what her kids will eat for dinner and can tell me about her exciting day with a smile on her face.
–Pooja Reddy, CMC ’14