Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

I’m here in NYC, at the home of my older daughter, her husband, and my new granddaughter.  But my mind keeps going back to India.  I can honestly say that nothing I’ve seen or experienced in India over the last ten years has literally shocked me as this has.  The whole story  keeps going around in my head.   From New York I’ve already made trouble for my kids in India.  The times I find my life hard are unpredictable.  This is one of those blogs we write, uncertain if it will be erased, or sent…. I still don’t know.

Here is the story.  Some weeks ago a child of ours had an “accident” in the midst of an exam.  This child is very tense, self-driven to do well, and also frightened due to past violence against her by people in authority.  She has rope scars on her body.  So, during the second of three exams that day, her body took over.  She had asked the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom and the teacher had said no, which is understandable during an exam.  But this child had another problem, namely that the bathrooms in that school had neither water nor soap.  Further details are unnecessary, except that when she came home she was terrified that she would be in trouble.  At our place she was initially sent to the shower and told to clean up.  When I learned of all this I went to help her, and hugged her.  I felt so badly for her.  I knew the school had a “toilet” problem, but I had no idea there was no water, much less soap.  Our girl was in tears.

The next day I went to the school and expected that surely the children had exaggerated and there was water.  No, they were correct.  I also asked if any concession would be given to the girl if she did not do well, as I thought the school had some partial responsibility.  (Anyone from India must be laughing hysterically by now at my naivete).  I was told, “If she failed, she could repeat the year.  it wouldn’t be so bad.” This is actually standard. “Mercy” is not part of the school curriculum of this missionary school.

That day I was also given a tour of the facilities and the bathrooms.  There was an outside tank of water that the workmen were using for cement mixing.  But otherwise there was no water at all, not a drip.   I saw new toilets — but no water.  It took some digging but the administrator learned that there was an unannounced work stoppage going on, namely the pump hadn’t been turned on, due to a labor conflict. Another source of water couldn’t be used because the workman responsible for it had taken the key on leave with him.   

I know the problem will eventually be solved with a new water line, but this is a school with 500 girls.  I keep coming back to the issue of how children are to go to the toilet without any water?  They come back to class with soiled hands, clothes, books, anything they touch.  It literally boggles my  mind.  I’m shocked.  This is NOT a government school!  People pay money to send their children there.  But it is a missionary school, one my girls chose to go to because they wanted to learn in a more open environment.  There is no attempt to “convert” children at all.  It’s recognized that the vast majority of children are Hindu.  I feel like I’m treading on such treacherous political ice, but as a mother here, it feels like this is what the Church deems adequate for Indian children.  And what of the VALUES?  What of cleanliness?  What of self pride? Don’t they know that the biggest reason girls drop out of school is because there are no bathrooms? 

The issue of no water and no soap is not a matter of poverty.  I wrote previously about a hospital with no soap in the bathrooms outside the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.  The doctors said, “nothing we can do.”  My ‘doctor mind” is screaming about all this.  But all this was before I left for NY.  It’s a thirty hour trip, place to place.  Sometimes I find it easy; sometimes my bones rebel and I can’t really rest.  It’s just what it is.  Well, I’d been in NY a few hours and received a call from Shishur Sevay.  Our girl who’d had the “accident” in class had been called to the teacher and told she had to bring ten rupees to school to pay the person who cleaned up her seat.”

I was shocked!  I was really shocked, and upset more about the further embarrassment of our girl than the ten rupees.   No Mercy — I have to remember this.  I called the principal who I thought of as a friend by now, a major mis-judgement on my part.  She was furious at my call and defended the practice, said they couldn’t employ someone to clean up after children.  She totally missed my concern about how it was done.  She told me to send someone from our organization to the school the next day.  I got the message.  I sent Seema Gupta, board Joint Secretary, and Assistant Registrar of Kolkata High Court, Criminal Division.  She knows her way around.  That meeting did not go well, and apparently the school has a long list of complaints about us.  But they also told her that if a child vomits it is also ten rupees. They questioned what was our intent in educating the girls.

Here is our list of complaints, and I’m beginning to understand more of what is going on.  I watched a video documentary this morning about a Dalit Ph.D student of Medicine, who suicided because of the torture he felt, and because he was told over and over he would not be a doctor.  He had placed very high in National exams.  it didn’t matter.  That resonated with me because over the last few days I keep thinking maybe we should move “back where we belong.”  Maybe we aimed too high, not academically, but socially.

Our list:  Seema and I went to visit the school in November just to find out requirements.  The principal was very accepting and said she would take the girls.  One teacher in the room started to object, and the Principal said she would just meet with the girls and take them.  Seema and I celebrated at a tea stand, as she had to get back to work.26Nov2011_IMG_7513W

The girls had an admissions exam the following day at another school, but we were all relieved that they had been accepted.  Now it would be a matter of choices.


Seema fixing their hair as we waited for school to open the gates for the exams.  The girls had a hard time because fathers heckled them about their being older and a couple of girls inside insulted them.  I’ve written before and will continue to write that they have courage.  They also have support.

Well, the girls passed the entrance exams and were accepted, but they really wanted to go to the missionary school.  We all imagined a better reception, and we would not have to face parents there during an examination.  We were under the illusion they could walk in just like any others, in uniform.

We were wrong.  The first problem was that teachers kept referring to them as, “the girls who didn’t take the exam.”  They were asked why they didn’t take the exams.  Truly it wasn’t until today when I saw this two-part documentary that it clicked in my mind, reservations, quotas, the Indian version of affirmative action.  The teachers may see them as having gotten in by quota.

The Death of Merit — two parts

Part 1 :
Part 2 :

When we went to enroll them, on the dates the Principal had told us, we were told by the office that the girls would have to take an exam.  We objected as we had now turned down two other schools, and their terms had begun.  So the Principal intervened, but I think we still pay a price for that.

About the second week, the girls were asked about religion and caste.  One of them asked why, and the teacher said so they could assign “house” to them.  I’ve now been told by the school that this conversation never happened.  I went to the school.  (Indian readers may be laughing at how easily I thought to go to school, but I’ve been properly punished now.)  I was told this question was only for census and had nothing to do with “house assignment.”  As for caste, I told the girls to write “general” as that’s what lots of job applicants offer on their resumes.

You see, caste is a function of family, and community.  As these children have neither, they were totally unaware of the issue.  The school could have gotten all this information at the time of admission, directly from the parents.  But there, you just ask everyone in the class.  It’s a cultural difference.  As much as I read that caste is not so important anymore, it is talked about a lot.  One’s last name equals “Title” equals caste.  It doesn’t represent economic condition.  It is about who talks to whom, and in what way. It’s about who is up and who  is down.

Of course there also seems to be the category of “parent” which is a very low position to be in.  Gibi’s daughter Preeti told me years ago, “Mummy, in India, a teacher is higher than a parent.”  I think this is true.  With the exception of our local government school where I’ve been President of the Mother-Teacher Committee for two years, my dealings with schools have been very bad.  My concerns were consistently ignored.  My children with disabilities cannot communicate, but when I wanted to know about what they did in school I was told over and over, “We don’t have time to talk to parents.”

I have a funny recent story of my low status.  Lopa, our new Associate Director and I went to IICP (Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy) about a separate program they run as part of the National Open School System.  We met with the Principal, with whom I have had good and bad times before when my children were there.  As we were speaking she mentioned a workshop they were having, and indicated I might be able to attend.  Then she called someone and said, “I have a parent here who wants to attend the workshop.  Is that permitted?”  Forget that I’m a doctor, forget a long career and expertise, and forget that I established a home for orphans.  I’m a “parent.”  Lopa was shocked at how the Principal treated me, but I’m used to it.  It’s not pleasant but it’s what I’ve come to accept.  I save my feelings for blogging, sooner or later.

It is almost a week since I started this post.  I saved it, started another, saved that, came back to this one.  A week later, with some perspective, what do I think, what do I feel?

I’m still upset at the no water.  I asked for an update from the girls but they just don’t use the bathrooms.  I’m more troubled by the sense we “don’t belong” there and what does that mean?  If I feel that, what are the girls feeling?  I started Shishur Sevay to identify obstacles.  The sense of “not belonging” is an obstacle.  We have had four years of struggle with teachers even at Shishur Sevay.  I believe that over and over the girls were shortchanged because of low expectations, because of subtle and not so subtle caste-ism.  I remember one teacher telling Gibi and me, “These children can’t learn like ours can.”  She said it in front of the girls! So I told her it was a waste then for me to pay her to teach and sent her off.

The girls know we believe in their ability to learn, and their ability to change the course of their lives.  We are in the struggle with them.  Water, soap, a right to education… what more can we ask?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Charlene
    May 05, 2011 @ 23:21:41

    Oh Michelle – you must keep so much inside you and have permanent scars from “biting your tongue.” Missionary school indeed. I bet the mission receives many donations – imagine if the families donating knew any of this.


  2. Travelingcloud
    May 06, 2011 @ 01:42:51

    Charlene, You got it! I haven’t heard of this at the other missionary schools, but who knows really? So much goes on, everwhere, that no one knows about until the questions are asked. And parents are very cowed by school administrators and teachers. Kolkata: The City of Egg Shells! thanks for listening.


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May 2011
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