It has been a long time since my last post and a good deal has happened. Initially I was here alone for a few days as the remaining volunteers were all in Munnar until Monday evening (March 14). I enjoyed some time alone for a while and by the time I was getting lonely everyone came back so it was a nice shift in activities. When everyone arrived back in the office on Tuesday morning we were surprised by Elango that he had made plans for all of us to attend the conference he was helping organize in Madurai for the next few days. We were to assist with preparing a large booth for the exhibition portion of the global warming conference and Kate and Ramsey were expected to give a three hour presentation – all by the beginning of the event on Friday. Since we hoped to include the Odam Rural Crafts soft goods in the booth, I needed to rush to create a couple of sample elephants. There is still no stuffing available so I cut strips of some t-shirts that previous volunteers had left here, which was a suitable fill but I had only enough to make two elephants. I was working feverishly on this production when it was pointed out that the kittens appeared sluggish – I had just assumed that I was catching them napping the times I passed by. They were quite ill so a couple ODAM staff and I took them to the neighboring veterinarian’s office just down the street. Unfortunately we elicited quite a bit of attention and I gathered that everyone thought the resident foreigner was crazy for taking the kittens to the vet. However, he was a very nice gentleman who showed genuine compassion for the kittens and told me the issue was that their bodies are too small to digest the “packet milk” which was being fed them. He gave each of them injections and I was instructed to feed the male kitten, who was much weaker, a glucose and water solution every half hour and return with him the next day. The female, who was always much shyer in her relations to all of us people, recovered quite quickly but the male did not. Though he had periods where he appeared to be regaining strength, after four days of feeding him with an eyedropper and taking him in daily for more medical attention, it became apparent that he was fighting the feedings more and more and was no longer fighting to live. I had to make the tough decision to let him go. The vet did not euthanize him but gave him a sedative so that he could die without pain and I stayed with him and placed his sister next to him to sleep for his last hour. I cried profusely over the poor little death, something I imagine was completely incomprehensible to the locals here, but they were very kind in assisting me in disposing of his body so that I wouldn’t have to see any of the foragers with it later. This brought my productivity as well as my mood down but I am getting back to normal. Perhaps it was fortunate from my perspective at least that the conference ended up cancelled – though this was certainly not a good thing for those who had spent months preparing for it and those who had made arrangements to travel long distances to attend. Those responsible for the upcoming election in India apparently have many concerns about potential corruption so events with many people are being cancelled, even though this particular conference had been granted permission originally. The upshot was that the volunteers spent a day in rushed preparation and then returned to our originally scheduled activities. With Kate and Ramsey leaving in early April, their time commitments are particularly demanding right now so they were rather relieved to be able to get back to their necessary remaining tasks.
One of the big events this week was a special temple event (seems like a constant here, doesn’t it) where a very tall tower was assembled which would hold the god images for a tour through town. These images are often driven around but this cart was particularly special and was about three stories tall. The electricity in the area had to be turned off for the long trek as wires which crossed the street were disconnected and then reconnected once the tower went by. The woodwork on the base of the cart was very intricately carved and some of the usual cloth decorations were hung above. One of the times I checked on the progress of its assembly they were repainting the giant wheels – which were probably about three feet high and at least seven inches thick. The day of the event flower garlands and long strands of green oranges were hung from the tower as well. The most fascinating feature was that the entire tower was pulled by two very large and long chains. Since the cart wheels could not turn to either side, large wooden, greased shims were placed under the wheels for short pulls in order to force the cart to shift directions. All of this turning and pulling was coordinated by the main priest who stood above on the tower and hollered directions over a sound system. The entire pull took several hours and went only around a small portion of the village – but did pass directly in front of the ODAM office on the back side of the temple. ODAM prepared a huge vat of syrupy drinks and the tower stopped in front of the office so all of those pulling could have a drink. The two chains were sort of divided into a men’s and a women’s side but there were a good number of strong men on the women’s side near the cart so that there was a good distribution of power. People came and went from the pulling duty as it was very hot work in the sun all morning long. Ramsey pulled for a short time just for the experience but said it was so crowded it was rather difficult to really pull effectively. The cart managed regardless. There were two drumming groups which went ahead of the cart and generally took turns playing to keep the crowd occupied. The young boys really get dancing like crazy and though this area apparently doesn’t really celebrate Holi (which was this weekend), many of the youngsters had colorfully chalked faces. The event actually began the night before during a marriage of the gods which Kitu and I attended. It was a very beautifully coordinated ritual and the people all seemed happy and pleased to be part of the occasion. When we arrived at the big temple for the ceremony one of the police women ushered up to the front of the crowd where we were offered choice seats – but only by making everyone who had been there for a long time scoot around to make room for us. I must admit that I take a bit more room than most of the Indian folks and it’s rather embarrassing having to scrunch down on the ground into a space that’s actually too small for my behind – and I’m really not all that big a person. Two of the young girls sitting next to me with basically no English guided me through the ceremony appropriately – making sure I had jasmine flowers to throw and would know when it was the proper time to throw these at the newlyweds. They were so pleased with themselves and found me the next morning when I went out early to see the initial preparation of the tower cart – telling everyone that we were friends. I filmed the blessing of the cart by the priests, which was interesting as the priests make every attempt to look suitably pompous but manage rather comical acts on occasion, at least to my outside view. I left after the blessing and went to have breakfast and then returned before the cart began rolling as they had everything prepared. It was great fun watching the drumming routines and it was fascinating seeing the great efforts made to get this cart rolling. When it reached the turnoff to Arapukatti it had traffic backed up both ways but there’s a pretty good sized speed bump there and getting over that was quite a feat so everyone had to wait till it had been traversed. Fortunately the cart was bottom heavy enough to get over it without tipping too far. I returned to the office for about an hour to have some of the fresh pineapple I bought for everyone and then Usha, Kate, Ramsey and I went down the street to watch the celebration some more. At this point Kate and I both managed to have kids come up and pat color on our faces – which isn’t something most adults seem to do so it was probably a bit embarrassing but I didn’t actually mind. Ramsey was tall enough that he could deflect the colorful hands as they came near. At least they weren’t throwing powder all over us. The only downside to the entire event was that Kitu’s special shoes were stolen while we attended the marriage ceremony at the temple. This was highly irritating to her and rather foolish of the thief (most likely a youngster), since her shoes were quite expensive and had a special configuration where the big toe was separate from the others – not something you’re likely to see around Tiruchuli. She was very disappointed but Elavarasue has put out an all-points bulletin and if anyone can recover them, I believe he can.
Sunday I had the opportunity to participate in another exciting adventure. Gaille from France who had been a volunteer here for a few months before my arrival came back through town to pick up some of her belongings. She originally timed this to be present for the Women’s Day celebration but this had been postponed because of the election issues so she went ahead and came anyway. Kitu had been working with a local woman who taught during the last ODAM development class to arrange a visit to silk weavers and it finally came about – so Gaille, Kitu, and I boarded the bus to Arrapukuti early Sunday morning and met up with Chithram at the main bus stop. We then took an auto rickshaw through parts of town we never could have found on our own into an area where many weavers live. As we passed homes there were sounds of looms coming from every doorway – but most apparently weave cotton and almost all are power looms. We first went to the home of an elderly couple and he generously showed us a great deal about the silk sari he was weaving. Chithram very graciously arranged all of this and did her best to translate but her English sometimes made it difficult to get full information. We then visited another operation, that of a widow who we found out was the previous gentleman’s daughter. I was able to figure out more of the loom operation at her home as it was easier to see and we managed to get our questions across better. The third home we visited was that of another widow supporting herself through her weaving. Kitu felt much more comfortable getting details of their income and business expenses from the women and it was very interesting to get full details of what is apparently a dying art, though the government of India is doing all it can to subsidize and support traditional weaving operations. However, these folks made a minimal living working on these pieces and were all eager to ensure their children went on through school to have more opportunities. I believe we were privileged to see the last generation of hand loom weavers. The first gentleman sells his saris in shops so has some control over their production. Kitu plans to visit him again when he has prepared samples of available colors and weave designs so that she can have one custom made. The second woman gets her silk from a government operation, weaves the sari, and turns it back into the government who sells it at a “government store” and pays her 700 rupies for between seven and ten days work. The third woman works with a cooperative which pays her 1000 rupies for the finished sari and provides raw materials so she makes a bit more profit. These looms were incredibly rustic looking and huge and they had a fascinating system of punch card-type tags which fed into a unit above the loom which controlled the fancy designs. Though I tried hard to see exactly what triggered that, it wasn’t possible to figure it out during my short visits. I took some video which is interesting, at least in parts, and should edit to a good overview of the process. The looms took over the entire living space of these families – and you could see in many of the homes that the loom was being worked while other members of the family sat and watched television – though how they could hear over the repetitive thumping was hard to imagine. The second location I asked about the small spool of thread within the shuttle and they pulled out a fairly large wooden contraption that I swear Gandhi G could have used which wound three shuttles of fine silk onto the spool – three of these threads create the warp and two threads create the weft. I would have given anything to watch them set up the weft on the loom – it had to be an incredibly complex job. For me the biggest disappointment was that though these saris were very beautiful, I could not see any way to tell the difference between a hand weave and a machine loomed sari. I realize that I am not an expert, but it does seem like an issue for the market where the hand looms need to bring such a high price. Kitu plans to spend between 5,000 and 7,000 rupies for a sari – when nice machine loomed silk saris can be purchased easily for 1,000 or less in Madurai. Though I was impressed with the process, my husband will be very grateful that I don’t feel compelled to purchase one of these saris, even knowing they could be quite a collectors item in the future.
We have gone to the cinema in town several times now and Kitu and I went on Saturday evening to see Robo on the big screen. It was my third time to watch this movie but the first time I’ve seen it at a theater and with a crowd so it was great fun. I must say, for a small village, there’s always something fun going on in Tiruchuli!