Occupy Shishur Sevay

The Goondas have gotten into the spirit of OWS, so they are threatening action against Shishur Sevay.  They threaten within fifteen days that there will be placards protesting my presence.  Yes, it is personal.  Yes, I’m worried.  It’s a hard job here protecting the girls and myself.  I guess I let myself believe the fighting was over, but it’s still simmering over events that happened four years ago.  So, they will Occupy, protest, carry placards and announce to the world how terrible I am.    They probably won’t hurt me.  My life has been threatened since before the girls even arrived here.  As all the high officials have said on the rare occasions I can get to one, “They won’t hurt you.  They just want your  money.”

The most recent provocation?  It’s a non-provocation.  A volunteer who comes here was talking one day about trying to get high profile visitors, sponsors, including a movie star.  I said I couldn’t figure out how any of that would help our girls.  I really have kept a low profile and always ask, “how will this help our girls?” as my premise is that more than anything they need a safe and stable home and time to study.

A private conversation in my office made it to the Goondas.  I have to figure out exactly how.  Is my office bugged?  Was someone listening?  Whom do I trust?

I’ve watched Occupy Wall Street from afar, with mixed feelings.  I’m an employer.  I fire people who don’t do their job.  Would they all pass union inquiries if we had a union?  I suspect not.   The Goondas act as the “union.”   In our first year we had riots because I would not provide sleep mattresses and blankets for the night guard.  That’s correct since I hired him for a twelve-hour shift and I didn’t expect him to go to sleep.  Of course since the Goondas were giving alcohol to the guards, of course they needed to sleep.  In my first year I actually lost friends in the US who wanted to know how I was doing.  When I said staff had to be up at night these friends denounced me.  The staff worked 12 hour shifts.  I don’t remember getting hours to sleep on 12 hour shifts.  Who takes care of the babies at night if my night staff is sleeping?  I really don’t get it, unless it all comes from the assumption that because I’m white I’m wrong.

I fired the math teacher who could not teach math.  I’ve changed the girls to English medium so we don’t need Bengali teachers, except for one.  Now when I refer to teachers, let me be clear.  These are not professional teachers.  They are the community of women who teach from their homes or go out to homes, who we would call tutors in the US.  So if a woman is teaching two hours a day and I find out she does not know math, or english, what am I supposed to do?  I know the answer to that.

 How do I protect the children if I can’t control who works here?  How do I teach them if the staff doesn’t arrive in time?  And if the girls aren’t ready for the teachers, then teachers come later and later.  Four of my girls cannot walk, talk, feed themselves, toilet themselves.  Who feeds them, bathes them, toilets them, dresses them, if staff doesn’t come. 

Well, what are their demands?  I’ll make a guess, an educated guess.

1. Money.  Some carefully placed money would quiet them.  Before the girls came I was extorted.  The Goondas told the government that they would not let it be safe here unless I paid.  So I paid.  I got the girls.

2. Allow the girls to ‘socialize” with local boys and men.  (no comment necessary)

3. Hire  political appointees, who of course would not work and whom I could not fire.  It’s my refusal on this one that always results in death threats.

4. Allowing men to visit.  (no comment necessary)

5. Put one of the Goondas on the Board.  (no comment necessary).  In the fights with the government over our license renewal, AFTER the girls were here and I refused more children)  I was told I had to transfer ALL my money to India.  I also had to set up a fund the government would control.  If not, they would close the home and take away the children.  I’ve written about this before as I lived in terror that they would come for the children.  But I also said to the government, “Why would I give you my money when you are threatening to close me?”  It’s like the woman who wanted a job here and used to throw garbage over the wall.  She didn’t understand she might get a job if she threw chocolates, not garbage.

The goondas believe that I am raising and educating the girls so I can get a very high price for them in the US.  I’ve run into a cultural belief that orphans really belong to the “society.”  Our first Board fell apart, well actually the first Board tried (unsuccessfully) to kick me out.  We had a conflict over how we would get the children from the government.  They stated, “Every Indian has a right to take an orphan.”  They wanted to go to court to force the government to give us children.   I insisted we work with the government and show we deserved the trust of the government.  The way we proved our trust was mostly with social favors, money, work, showing up at the government office to “take dictation” for an officer, write what he needed me to do, wanted me to do.  Sometimes we had to make our car available.  But we got the children, and that’s what mattered.

Being white is something I keep in mind because I really believe it affects all relationships, including with the girls.  They would much prefer I be Indian.   Sometimes it’s painful for me, but that’s what I signed on for, the pain as well as the joy of raising children.  It comes with the territory.  I was recently reminded of a terrible experience I had about seven years ago here.  I was working with an orphanage (in truth, volunteering with an orphanage that wasn’t really an orphanage).  I discovered some terrible things going on there, children not being sent to school and used as servants instead, fake reports to the government, untreated illnesses.  I put together a portfolio, with others, and reported them to three government departments, including the Commission on Human Rights.  No one was interested.  But in my last days with that place I was literally run off the grounds by a former headmistress, who had a gang of Goondas out on the street, and she was rousing them against me.  She was screaming to the mob that I was proselytizing.  I was protected though by parents as it was a visiting day, and the parents knew what I had been doing for their children.  I thought that day I might die — a Jewish lady as Christian martyr — life’s ironies.

The mob, the accusation of proselytizing, my fear, stayed with me and affected decisions I’ve made along the way with the children, knowing the wrath aroused by such accusations.  It’s part of why I kept the girls Bengali.  It is why I didn’t teach the girls songs I knew as we walked to school each morning.   Recently, because it’s a small world everywhere, I met relatives of this woman.  She is Christian; the whole family is Christian.  I’ve decided that’s the ultimate moral depravity, for a Christian to put me in danger with a false accusation of proselytizing.

Well, back to the Occupy Shishur Sevay… my life here has made me afraid of crowds.  I’ve had two times I thought I might not make it through alive — far more serious than the scene I just described.  I’ve had motorcycles parked outside, men sitting on them daring me to walk through, which I did anyway.  Here in Kolkata I’m the Capitalist — White lady, exploiting Indians, and of course accumulating a fortune in foreign donations.  One day I suggested someone tell them that if I had that money we certainly wouldn’t be living here.  But reality doesn’t matter.  Perception does.  And, the sense of entitlement that I should be giving something to all these people, because they are allowing me to operate this home.  What will the placards say?  Will they tear at my gates again?  Will my security have been bought off (again)?  No one ever complains about what I pay.  It’s interesting but we never hear that because I pay well.

Sure I’m afraid.  I wish we could move.  I need to raise funds, but I need big funds.  Our support is here too.  I’m upset I have to think about this, write about this.  I was planning a fun blog post about my collection of brown dolls and the role they have played at different times.  I’m going to end this with a picture, another version of how we got the kids.  Some women officers came to see Shishur Sevay.  They fell in love with the dolls.  Then they said they would give me a license.   (Months later, these same ladies also threatened to close Shishur Sevay when I wouldn’t take more children.  I couldn’t.  I was stretched as much as I could stretch, financially and emotionally.)


I did it my way……

It feels better to write about what is going on.  The first time we had a riot I was really afraid.  We had one child just staying here at the time, and me and a massi.  The men amassed at the gate, screaming for me to go back to America.  It was over the guards… I remember writing to friends in the US, not sure we would be OK through the night.  I’d called everyone I knew here.  Mostly I got, yes, don’t worry.  So obviously we are fine.  But that’s the reason I have two different internet providers, and phones, and generator, and laptops with wireless that don’t depend on electricity.

But the bottom line is that I’m Management, not Labor.  I’m a very tough boss.  I have very high standards.  But in the spirit of the times, Labor will demonstrate against me for more jobs, for better working conditions…. and from their perspective the fact of my raising children is irrelevant because they believe I’m getting rich here, white lady raising Indian orphan girls to sell at high prices, exploiting Indians along the way.

I feel truly blessed to be able to do what I’m doing, to be able to live my life in a way that gives me so much happiness and meaning, to be able to mother again, more, what I love to do.  I wish we had a safe place and a kind environment, but then if such things existed, I wouldn’t have to be raising these children.  So that’s why I’m here, the wall, the wall that keeps the kids safe and the occupiers outside. 


 May God continue to protect us.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Arun Debnath
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 00:29:52

    Being a Bengali, an Indian, and above all a human being, it gives me so much heartache reading through Michell’s horror story. This is India – the largest democracy in the world and one of the fastest growing economies of the world – the land of Gandhi, Vivekananda and so many great souls throughout the history !!! Having lived in Kolkata myself I can visualise the scene and feel the agony of not being able to do anything practical to make Shishur Sevay safe, secure and peaceful. Is it too much to ask for the sake of these girls living in a ‘civilised’ society like India??? [I know the answer].

    My two emotions are running my veins and my head [1] shoot the corrupt politicians and Govt. officials and [2] go out in the cold garden cry like hell. I know these are childish emotions but what else can I do? Can I offer an alternative shelter for Shishur Sevay family away from Kolkata [a small town called Canning – not far from Sunderban]? Will it help – possibly not !!!

    Michelle, you have something heavenly that we ordinary folks don’t but my heart [possibly not my head] doesn’t know what I [as an ordinary individual] can do to help you and the children. Just to love.



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November 2011
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