Shishur Sevay at the End of the Lane

It has been hard explaining exactly what is the trouble, and why we have to move, but we can still stay in the general neighborhood.  So I made a picture.  When I was a kid I spent hours and hours drawing house plans.  I’d browse magazines of house plans.  I’d imagine common space and individual rooms.  I liked simple designs, “L” shaped… So I went online last night to look at house plans and ended up downloading a trial version of SmartDraw.  I took a landscape template and spent much of today making a picture that represents our situation.  In a way, working on the diagram has been an escape, a meditation on our situation.

We live at the end of the lane.  The houses in RED represent threats to us.  House A monitors all visitors and staff, listens to people talk as they go by, comments on the children, and eventually repeats all he hears to whomever will listen.  He is a man with political power.  As I wrote below, none of the other men will come past his house to help us. 


Then there is House B, a partner to House A, who also rents out shacks in the area, and thus he controls the tenants.  Recently he opened a tiny store right next to Shishur Sevay.  The music blasts through the neighborhood, so even people who would otherwise talk quietly outside are yelling to each other.

Once out on the road our situation is better, and probably as good as it might be anywhere.  We are known, and respected.  We shop at local stores. Our girls go to school and meet other local children at the bus stops.  I am often referred to affectionately as “Mother Teresa of our Area.”  It’s really funny.  We have a good relationship with the rickshaw wallahs, as I have helped some of their kids, and I always tip well.  If you take a rickshaw from the nearest major road and ask for “The foreign lady with the children,” they will take  you right to our house.

How did we get into such a mess?  Well, House A has a small fan factory in his ground floor.  The owner of that factory was someone we knew for years and trusted.  He is the one who showed us the house, and when I went to see it and walked past his little factory in House A, I thought how nice it was to be close to people I knew.  I wasn’t alone in this.  The rest of the Board thought it was fine too.  You don’t have to be a foreigner to be fooled.

I want us to stay in the neighborhood because Gibi and Seema are close by and they are our support, the ones we call if we need help, if I have to take a child to the hospital, if I am sick — they are part of our DAILY lives.  They too are part of the neighborhood and their presence and support add to our security — except at the end of the lane.  They can’t help us here BECAUSE they are part of our support.

The girls have had a good day, a mixture of schooling, story telling, dance, and now TV.  The radio outside is blaring but I don’t even try to do anything as we will be moving.  I’m also working on a wishlist of what we want/need.  We need space, accessible space.

I was going to save this for another blog, but here goes: 


  • Roof
  •     laundry lines
  •     play areas


    •  play area
    •   covered jacuzzi

              RABBIT HOUSE

Today I learned that the girls were worried about Jelly our dog and also our rabbit — would we take them?  I told them the story of how I once bought a battery operated aerating travel tank to move my angel fish from Boston to Pittsburgh.  I told them Jelly will come with us.

That reminds me about the wild dogs who live outside and howl all night.  The post office won’t deliver mail here because of the wild dogs.  Letters are left at that “friendly factory” for us.  Sometimes I carry a cane or umbrella just to keep the dogs from us.

You know, it really is bad.  I worry sometimes about just being a wimp.  Well, maybe I am but it’s time to wimp out and get my kids and me to the other end of the lane.

It’s ten and I’m heading for bed.  The girls are watching TV as it is Saturday night.  A few nights ago I went to bed and asked, “Is everyone asleep?”  I got several, “Yes, mummy,” responses.  So I asked WHO was asleep and the sleepers revealed their names,,,, and yeah, they finally got it and we all had a good laugh.  I love my life here.  It’s hard but there is nothing else I would want to be doing now in my life.  I just have to get us to the other end of the lane… HELICOPTER?


A Good Day

When my younger daughter was little she used to assess me as to whether I had been a good mother or not for that day.  The assessment tended to be weighted towards the end of the day, so if I finished off well, I'd get a good mark for the day.  She would tell me, "You were a good mom today." 

So far today has been a good day.  I brought myself around to thinking of the move as yet another adventure.  "I wonder where we will end up?"  I also repeated my silly little ditty to myself several times…

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe,

She had so many children she didn't know what to do,

But when they had to move out of the shoe,

They went to the seaside to have a good view.

It's silly, fun to think about, not worthy of high marks, but definitely a smile maker for me.  I wish there were a seaside nearby.

The girls who started their new school two weeks ago learned at dismissal time yesterday that school would be closed for two weeks.  They are on holiday.  The school had to know in advance as it is closing for a yearly ritual of holding Board exams, but parents didn't know and there was a lot of yelling on the part of parents when they found out.  For us, it meant a revamping of our teaching schedule.  But since we have two girls studying at home anyway, we were able to set up a good schedule of classes for the day.  For most of the day we had two to three teachers here, including the learning disabilities specialist who works with one of the girls.

One girl is on time out for bad behavior — very rude and nasty behavior to teachers when she was told which work she had to do.  This is a chronic problem, made worse right now because we had contact with her family.  It did not go well, and the fantasies she held for five years were crushed, and she was left with her chronic bad behavior, without the excuse/explanation she has used in the past.  I'm counselling her, and giving her the time out… because in truth, at a certain point she has to make decisions about her behavior.  She has never accepted a bottom line of having to do what she is told.  I'm not sure she ever will, but I will stay engaged in that battle with her.  We all have to do things we don't want to, study when we don't want to, go to sleep when we don't want to, turn off tv when we don't want to.  It's the human condition, or rather the condition of the socialized person.

I'm encouraged about selling the house.  I've probably under-priced it as I have people saying they have buyers who will take it in a day.  We went to look at another house nearby but it was not good.  It was in a mosquito infested area, next to a dump, off the road, and next to a rickshaw stand, where we would have to pass, and be commented upon (or rather the girls would be).  But, we are looking.

We also had a visit from the CID (no, I don't remember what those letters stand for — but these are high level police).  We were expecting them as they had called the day before.  This is part of an ongoing attempt by yet another family of one of our girls to seize her in order to make a lot of money.  We have been in and out of court.  I visited the Commission on Women, where the family had also lodged a complaint that we were holding her illegally.  At first I had that momentary worry about "police coming" but then I turned it into thinking, "Wow, today we get to show them the best orphanage in Kolkata."  That's really how it turned out.  I had all the necessary papers to show them, and to give them.  I have a lawyer's mind for these things.  One man and one woman officer came and they also talked with our girl.  Then they toured, shook hands with our little ones with disabilities, and saw the big girls studying in the classroom.  I was so tempted to tell them about our trouble in the neighborhood, but I held back.  Calling on the wrong people can make things worse.

As I write I remember things I didn't do today that I was supposed to do.  The morning started with a roar and I'm just catching up now.  The new accountant came and I asked him to prepare a statement to go to one of our donors as I planned to send out the report today.  But while we were out looking at a house he left and did not do the report I needed.  We called him.  He said he hadn't understood what I wanted.  I had asked for a chart showing total budget for first three quarters and how much was spent for teachers…. but what I got was a written note with how much we had spent for teachers… This is a man with 30+ years of experience.  I really believe that first of all standards are low, but second, I'm a woman.  I don't get no respect!  I also don't get no work for my money!

I was just on the phone with some friends from the UK.  They come yearly to visit family.  We talk about how Kolkata seems worse each year.  They asked where I will move, and I said I'd try to stay where I have a network of back up.  We agreed that there is no place really safe here, that it is all relative.  The political instability right now leaves too many vacuums, too many people who "maybe" have power but may not have it tomorrow, or other people who have no power today but will tomorrow — all in a context where power is expressed by violence.  No one is in charge.  Women and girls become more vulnerable.

Walking today, to look at another house, one of the local leaders talked with us.  He expressed his displeasure with what had happened to us, but he said without being called, he could not interfere.  This is nonsense.  I have heard this before.  It's what all those men on the road told themselves — we can't do anything unless she calls us for help.  All they had to do as a group is just walk back to where we were, walk the lane, and quiet it all down.  But they must have been getting some vicarious pleasure from hearing the reports of how the drunken goondas were terrorizing the foreign lady and the orphan girls.  Why else would they not help?  So it was one of those men today who also said he could do nothing because I didn't ask for help that night.  I was polite and friendly, and thanked him for his support.  Why not?

The day is ending on a good note for the big girls.  Supper is always chapatti and left over lunch vegetables and whatever else we have had, plus dal.  At night the girls fix their own mixtures, adding chilis, onions, oil, lemon… all sorts of mixtures.  They take possession of the kitchen, and clean up after themselves.  One team cleans the kitchen fully, while another team cleans the classroom.  The third team takes care of lunch clean up.  The rabbit cage is cleaned every morning.  The girls have a rotation system, a week at a time.  They don't need reminding.  It's nice.

Nine pm and the  music is blaring outside.  It will be turned down at ten, hopefully.  It's a constant reminder of our need to move, an antidote to the moments I dont' really want to move.  Gotta do what we gotta do… like it or not.  I wish my little fighting child could get that… we don't always get what we want….

Raising twelve is tough, but when my little trouble maker was gone, raising eleven was even harder. 

The seaside calls to me, to us… but is it safe?  Our picnic place in August wasn't safe.  Our community is not safe.  Oops, I'd better think positive or this will feel like a bad marks day.


I slept well, so I guess yesterday was a good day.  I was a good mom yesterday.


Facing the Necessity of Moving

"OK," I say to myself, "But how do I do this?"  Where do I start?  Do we find a place to live first or sell the house first?  Breaking down the process to individual parts, or challenges, I see the following questions:

1. Where do we move?  Will it be temporary or permanent

2. How do we pay for a new home?

3. Will the goondas let us sell or will they try to occupy the house and prevent its sale? (This is common practice here — that you can't leave a house unoccupied for a minute or you can lose it.  I've have bought and sold property in Kolkata before.)

"OK," Now that I've broken down the process it really doesn't seem any easier, but I've taken some actions.  We have spoken to brokers in the community.  I've put a price on this house.  As is custom here (in the Goonda parts of Kolkata) the Agents will set their own price and will keep whatever they get above my asking price.    They will also try to cut my price to increase their profit.  The good part is that I understand the process, and that I'm a tough negotiator.  I've walked out of deals that were about to be made if I discovered something not right.  I'm more comfortable dealing with straight business people than with people who claim to be trying to help me and "take it personally" if I don't listen to them, or don't trust them.  And then they try to rally others to say, "we just want to help her," when they are just trying to get money.  So when this process started I was told that the Agents will want to make money.  I said, "Great! That's how it should be."

"When can people see the house?"  I said any time between 9:30 am and 8 pm.  I just need a few minutes of notice.  It's pointless to make appointments because then people don't show, or come late, and time is lost.  We can't "fix" up for an appointment.  We are functioning 24/7.

We have made appointments with two "real" agents from businesses that are online and claim to be full service.  We will see what they say.  Secrecy is the usual modus here with almost everything, but it doesn't serve me.  There IS no secret.  I learned to say in Bengali, "They threaten to kill me."  I won't say this to buyers, of course, but for all the people who gasp, "Oh Why?" this is my answer, since everyone here knows anyway.  I'm just not pretending.

UPDATE this evening — I'm trying so hard to stay cool.  I'm trying to ignore the loud music, and the constant fighting outside.  A little while ago though, I just couldn't stand it so I poked my head out.  The voices had been so loud and so close.  Well, it was my guard arguing with the locals as he was trying to buy a mobile phone from them.  Guards are not supposed to engage in any conversation with the Goondas or Junior Goondas.  But here he was, doing business.  We have had episodes in the past of our guards getting involved in illegal dealings while here.  And of course, the guards are offered alcohol by the goondas.  I yelled at him — probably will replace him — put in a call to his supervisor but his phone is switched off.  Security companies don't answer the phone at night.  Meanwhile the girls got up because of the noise and I reassured them all was fine, just the guard being an idiot.

Everyone I talk to, in US, from US, friends here, tells me they think I should have moved a long time ago.  Believe it or not, I'm pretty good at ignoring what's around me — and it has gotten worse. 

One of the possibilities we talk about is buying a floor of a highrise.  That is appealing in some ways, with security, no upkeep, etc.  But they might not want kids, or noise, and those things can be really bad if people don't like you.  In my heart, I want a house on a little piece of land with room for my cow and a pony for equine therapy, and this is total fantasy because my girls would not be safe in the countryside, nor would I be safe.  It's not the usual NGO question or orphanage question of where to locate, because it's about my home, where it will be, with my children. 

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe,

She had so many children she didn't know what to do.

And when they had to get out of the shoe,

They went to the seaside to have a good view.

I just made that up, and I have no idea where the seaside with a view is, but this makes me smile — a room with a view.  I guess that's what I have to tell the realtors… a view of the Ganges… dreaming on……





The Aftermath of Goondas at the Gates

Before the night after Saraswati Puja, the night of the "Barbarians at the Gates" more aptly here, the "Goonda's at the Gates" life was already challenging — just the work of raising 12 children with different needs, schooling, nurturing, guiding, and having fun with them.  Now it is clear we must move, but where, how, when?  How do we maneuver through what I see increasingly as a lawless community, lawless city, where only mob rule prevails. 

The night of the riots, there were groups of men out on the road getting reports of what was going on at Shishur Sevay.  They were apparently prepared to intervene if (after) anything happened to us.   Translated, these local leaders, political and community leaders, vicariously joined in the mob led threats of violence against us.   This is what I hear, "Everyone knows what is going on, but no one will do anything."  This has been much of my experience much of my last ten years here.  I sometimes describe this city, it's leadership, as a patient who has nerve sensation but no motor response.  They can say "ouch" but cannot move to remove the inflicting thorn.  Does it make me feel safer that all these men watch the criminals wage riot against a 68 year old woman and her twelve girl children?  It sickens me.  Yes, finally I drop all pretense and say that what I see around me sickens me.  Maybe it was easier to believe that no one outside our lane knew what was going on and that's why there was no help.

I'm up in the night because I probably will lose this house.  I've put a lot of money and heart into making this a Home and a School.  But here, once a house is empty, even for an hour, it can be seized, and one can spend twenty years in court trying to get possession.  The courts are slow and the police…. well they are the same ones who told me it was illegal for me to take a picture of the Goonda who was yelling at me outside my gate.  I used to think, "Well, we have the house, so at least we always have a place to live."

The trouble started before the girls even came here.  Of course, we bought the house not knowing that the lady who sold it did so because of these criminals.  I can't fault her.  I'll try to do the same, but I think they will prevent my selling it.  After buying this old house, I had hired one of the goondas as contractor, highly recommended by a neighbor.  At a certain point he threatened to walk off if I did not give him an extra $2000.  I resisted, which led to the first riots.  We had a Board Meeting.  We also had our government inspector who was working with us to open this home.  One day we had a meeting and the Board President and government inspector met with the Goondas.  They were told that if I didn't pay, they would not make it safe for children to come here.  I was told I had no choice if I wanted the children.  I could have tried to move then, but we were already approved and it would have meant another year of delay, so I paid.  And I've paid protection money along the way, but of course the demands always escalate.

ON THE OTHER HAND I have the girls, and it's been four years of raising them here and I would not have been willing to wait another year.  But I am angry that these two powerful people capitulated then.  I'm not really afraid here, because as the local councilor once told me, "they don't want to hurt you. They just want your money."  But I can't raise these children here where we are under threats and where there is obscenity against them and me even as we walk out of our house.  And I always wonder if some of the people who have quit have done so because of threats or nastiness coming down the lane to our house.

I had bought the house and then left for the US to see my two daughters graduate, one from Barnard, the other from New York Law School, and to pack up to move.  When I came back to Kolkata, the goondas had taken over the house during renovation and I'd find a group of strange men hanging out inside the house.  But when the children finally came, I was able to kick them out, while they continued to insist they should have free access.  They have tracked everyone who came and went.  They have offered alcohol to our guards, and rioted against us for the right of guards to stretch out and go to sleep at night, while on duty.

The local municipality is finally putting in sewer drains here.  The goondas tried to get the workmen to charge me an extra $140 to fix our water line.  Remarkably they refused.  The next day they fixed it for us for $10.  The goondas were not there, as one of the local women had attempted suicide and everyone was at the hospital.  She is back.  I don't know the story.  I only know it was quiet here for a day, no music blaring from the store.  Sometimes I'm reminded of times in the US when I'd go to the beach, or camping, to feel close to nature and instead of quiet, there was the blaring of someone's radio.  That's how it is here now, and it wasn't this way before.  The music comes through even with all doors and windows shut.  There is no place of quiet.

Three am now, and maybe I can go back to sleep.  I woke up agitated, thinking it was morning, hungry, needing to write.  I made coffee, and then heated a chapatti, and spread peanut butter on it, so it was melted and gooey, and reminded me of when I was little — comfort food.

On other fronts, the girls, things are very good.  The new school is going well.  There will be a fete at the school Friday and the girls want us ALL to come, little ones and all, so we will all be there, the rest of Shishur Sevay.  Today the girls were asked about their religion and caste.  They learned about caste at some point in school but apparently it didn't sink in.  So they came home asking about caste because the teacher told them to come home and ask their mother.  We talked about caste a little but actually they weren't interested.  They just wanted to know what to tell the teacher.  I told them to tell her, "General Caste" which seems to be a common category.  When I get applicants for jobs, most include caste in bio data, and they write Caste: General.  So, that's what the girls will be, Caste -General.  Yes, I was inclined to write a letter to the school but the girls prefer I don't as it will further "identify" them — (children of mother who writes such letters).




This is the new room on the roof, another space for us, for dance, for quiet, for another classroom, for my exercise bike.  I love making beautiful spaces!  Everywhere I've lived I've made beautiful spaces.  So this has to be a model of the next space.  That's what I tell the girls, to remember this room because that's what we will do again in the next place.

But I also think about the Goondas sitting in this space, feeling victory in driving us out, finally getting the house from me, which is what they have wanted all along.  It doesn't feel good.  But my life is not about a house.  It is about the children.  Focus on the children… don't let go of the cow… that's another story I will write about one day soon.  Some people tried to take my cow and I fought back.  I didn't let go.  The children are my cow, not the house.  Good, I've settled that in my mind.  Maybe I will be able to sleep now.






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February 2011
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