Tag Archives: Jharkhand

Look, Ma! Mangoes!

The center of the JV campus is occupied by a large mango orchard.  Dadu and Rajesh told me that last year, villagers would come at night, knock the mangoes out of the trees into their truck beds, and drive off with their trucks full of rupees in fruit form.

This year, no one could do that, thanks to the illustrious Mango Squad — a family from the surrounding village of Jobhia.

Image00086 mango squad

In exchange for guarding the mango orchard and caring for the trees for several months, when the fruits ripened in June, the Mango Family got to sell the mangoes.

It’s hard to get mangoes out of tall trees.  Sometimes the Mango Squad hired fellow villagers to climb up and shimmy down baskets on ropes.

Other times, they used these:

Image00049 look ma mangoes 1

Not white people.  Bamboo pluckers.  They had a number of long bamboo poles with plastic sacks affixed to the end, like so:Image00051 mango basket

You jab the pole up into the tree, hook the end of the bag around a mango, wedge the stem between the pole and edge of the bag, and yank at the mango furiously until it breaks free and falls into your bag.

I spent one morning helping the Mango Squad with the harvest.  It was way fun!Image00050 look ma mangoes 2


How I Ended Up Giving A Speech To 1000 Indian Boy And Girl Scouts

The events leading up to The Most Absurd Day of My Life started five days earlier, when a palm-reading principal peered into my lifeline and announced that I have one year to get married.

Here’s how this started: I go with Daduji and Vincent, our driver, to Khalari to place an order for cement. Dadu had decided to replace part of the branches-and-wire fence surrounding the JV campus with a real brick wall. I had nothing to do with this mission, but tagged along as I was bored and a ride anywhere sounded like a great adventure.


To feel productive, I ask if we could stop and interview some local doctors. Dadu says sure, and we head to one doctor’s office, where we end up interviewing his assistant since the good doctor has left for the day.

In between scribbling notes on how many malaria patients the clinics treats each week, I notice a man across the street watching us from over his fence. He’s talking on his phone and gesturing excitedly. He waves at us a couple of times. I have no idea what this means, but when I finish the interview, Dadu turns to me and says, “Shall we go talk to this curious person who is interested in us?”

Trot into the house of this random strange man? …Sure? (I later learn this man is not a random stranger—Dadu has met him several times before.)

Inside the man and Dadu speak enthusiastically for a few minutes. He introduces me and explains what I’m doing in Jharkhand. Just when I’ve gathered from the fairly large bookshelf behind the man that he’s well-educated—there are two volumes of Greek tragedies in English—the man whips out his computer and asks Dadu for his date, time, and place of birth.

Belief in horoscopes is not uncommon in India—I met a man in India who gave “astrologer” as his profession—but I’m a little surprised when Dadu nods along with the resulting report about his life that the computer churns out, saying in English, “Very accurate.” I’m not surprised at all when the man turns to me and asks for my vitals. My own chart is wildly off-base. “You have no brothers.” “I have two.” “Your father has a digestive problem.” “…I…don’t really discuss these things with him.” “Your mother has a breathing problem.” “…Not that I’m aware of?”

He shakes his head and declares that my time of birth doesn’t exactly match up with the resulting chart, or something, so, that explains it.

I’m struggling to hold back an epic eye roll when Dadu urges me to show the man my palms. “He can read them,” Dadu says. I tentatively sit next to the man, who studies my palms for a few minutes.

For all my eye-rolling, what he tells me next is actually eerily accurate. “You’re doing research work now, just numbers and survey, but you can do much more creative things,” he says. “Writing, telling stories, oration.” I raise an eyebrow. “You have…mind is always changing. Not stable. First you want to do one thing, then other times you are wanting to do other things.” I raise both eyebrows. I don’t know what’s going on here, but if it’s all guesswork, this guy is making some phenomenal guesses.

So I’m a little alarmed when he also announces that “now has started your marriage time. You have one year to get married. That is the lucky time.” This would be nothing short of a miracle, as I don’t even have a boyfriend, but I decide not to volunteer this.

As our visit is ending, the man takes a call on his cellphone. In English, he discusses a class schedule. “He’s a principal, this man,” says Dadu. “Of a very good school.”

And he’s invited Dadu to speak at this very good school a handful of times before, so Dadu is not surprised when Mr. Principal-ji calls him on Friday and asks him to speak at “some event” the next day. “What event?” I ask over our lunchtime rice and dahl.

Dadu looks sheepish. “To be honest, I’m not really sure,” he says. “Something about the scouts, I think. I don’t know.” We both laugh. “I told him I was very busy, but he begged me, so I agreed to come.” I spoon some karela, or bitter gourd, into my rice. “Would you like to come too?” he asks me.

Why not? “Sure,” I say.


“You don’t have to come if you have something else on your schedule.”


“I have nothing to do.” Sushil has left town for Ranchi already, so I’ve lost my translator and driver for village interviews. “I definitely want to come.”


“Okay,” says Dadu. “I will tell them to be ready for a two-hour speech from the great Miss Chelsea-ji!” We both laugh again.


This is basically the last time we talk about the event until the next morning, when Dadu eyes my brown salwaar suit over breakfast and asks if I have anything shinier to wear. “Not really,” I say, my alarm growing mildly. I rebraid my hair after breakfast, hoping that’s enough and wondering exactly what this event is.


Disney fans: Do you remember the scene in Aladdin when Jasmine is marching Aladdin up some stairs and talking about how he’ll be sultan one day, and the nervous Aladdin, who clearly is unprepared for this turn of events, says, “Sultan?” and then she shoves him out onto a balcony to greet his future subjects and there are literally thousands of people waving at him and cheering?

Image00012 Indian scouts view 1

That’s exactly how I feel when when pull up to the D.A.V. School in Khalari. In a huge field in front of the school, there are literally hundreds of students sitting in neat rows facing a central stage. My later count of the rows and columns puts the estimate at closer to 1000. The principal, along with a cadre of hangers-on, greets us with a jolly grin and a hearty “Namaste!” at the door. He’s wearing a Western suit and has oiled his hair.

“What is going on,” I whisper through my teeth to Dadu. He doesn’t answer. Just inside the school gate, a pair of girls holding plates approaches me. One thumbs a tikka, a spot of holy red powder, onto my forehead while a man in white hum-chants a prayer. The other girl tosses a confetti of flower blossoms over my head. I press my palms together in front of my chest in thanks and try to smite the obvious panic from my features.

Inside the principal’s office, where we’re served snacks and tea by another pair of students, I meet two distinguished social activists, who, like Daduji, are also pushing 85 and also have spent their lifetimes trying to improve the lives of their rural countrymen.


“So,” I say, “What’s today’s event all about?”


“Yes,” Dadu jumps in, seeing the opening I’ve made. “Chelsea is wondering what today is all about. Please tell her.”


“It is the closing ceremony for the Bharat Scout and Guides,” the principal says. “They have just completed a week of training. They are…you can say, they do social works.”


“Ah,” I say. A week of what? The who? One of the Indian social activists is eyeing me with a look of suspicion. I smile weakly and chug my chai.


Just when I think I can’t feel any more out of place, the five of us—the trio of octogenarian Indian heroes, the principal of one of the best schools in the district, and…me—are escorted back outside and across the field by an honor guard of uniformed boy scouts and girl scouts. One of them shouts orders and his beret-clad compatriots take a set of mismatched marching steps sideways and forward, their white-gloved hands swinging like off-set pendulums.


And then we’re…escorted onto the stage. In front of the 1000 students. There are 5 chairs, and one of them is for me. Among the many things I am serenaded with in the next few hours is a personalized program of the morning’s events, stamped with the words, “PROGRAM GUIDE: MISS CHALSEA, SPECIAL GUEST.”

I try to look as serious and nonplussed as possible throughout, but I actually burst out laughing when I’m handed the program guide. And also when I’m given flowers. And a giant ribbon, like one of those prize ribbons handed out in horse races.  ….And a trophy. One of those gold-shellacked, sequin-encrusted plastic things you give to Little League players, only shaped less like a ball player and more like a dinner plate. I’m trying to give everything due respect, but the whole thing is so preposterous and over-the-top—I’m being given a trophy, for crying out loud, for doing pretty much nothing but showing up on a Saturday morning and remembering to brush my teeth—that it’s hard not to find it hilarious.


Dadu later explains to me that all of this is done to honor him. He asked to bring a guest, and in India, as I am repeatedly told, the guest is a god, and he is a person to whom one gives much respect, so his guest must be accordingly respected. When he tells me this, I think of how one Indian described the difference between the U.S. and India: “In your country I think it is the system that is more important than the individual, na? Here you can say it is the individual that is more important than the system.”


I don’t know this at the time, though, as I’m watching scouts march a color guard around the field, climb into acrobatic pyramids, and perform dances to “Jai Ho!” and another popular Indian top 20 hit. All of this is done facing the five of us on the stage, rather than the 1000 students who are sitting cross-legged in the mud, which strikes me as odd given that this is ostensibly an event honoring the successes of the scouts in the crowd. But, this is India, where hierarchy—as evidenced by Dadu’s blank check to bring me—trumps all, and we’re the guests of honor.

Image00023 pyramid boys Image00027 Chammach Challo
Image00017 Jai Ho 1

Eventually, Dadu makes his speech, and it’s a really good one. He doesn’t feed the students the typical, “You guys sure are great! And so is our country!” patter that both Indian and American pontificators are prone to serving up. He starts by reading a quote in Hindi. I don’t know what it means, but he then says he feels ashamed to read this description of India, “because of the way our country is today.” He spends the next 10 minutes berating India’s politicians for their greed and chastising Indians in general for failing to improve the country’s character, saying too many think only of earning money and not of improving their society. “Our country is not known for its honesty, fairness, and charity towards others.” he says. “It is known for greed and corruption. No one even follows the traffic laws here.” It’s hard to read the students’ faces from the stage, but the older ones are watching him with rapt attention. He ends on more of an up note, however, saying that when he sees these young students, “my heart feels hope again for the future of our country.”

Image00019 Dadu speech

We all applaud. “Great speech,” I whisper to him when he sits down again next to me.


He nods vaguely, says something to the principal, then turns to me. “You’re next,” he says.


Oh. So our joking around about me making a speech here wasn’t joking around after all. It had occurred to me on the ride here that that might be the case, so I’ve given this some thought, briefly. But mostly I’m going to wing it.


The emcee gives me a comically incorrect introduction, announcing that I am “studying education” and will soon be “going for her PhD.” I am then given an “escort” me to the podium, equally comical as it’s about three steps from where I’m sitting.


I blink at the crowd. A thousand students are looking at me.


“Namaste,” I start. The crowd responds in a mixture of Hindi and English, grinning and waving. I thank everyone around me whose name I can remember, and the students, for having me. Then I give a speech that goes something like this:


“You know, I’m not Indian, so it isn’t really my place to say what India should and shouldn’t do. That’s not why I came here. I came here to try and work with Indians who are interested in helping people who need help.


“The first time I came to India, three years ago, was honestly just to explore, with a friend of mine from college. We came to teach English, but also to travel and do tourism things, see the Taj Mahal. To be honest with you, the first two weeks I was in India, I thought, ‘This place is crazy.’ I was in Delhi, you know, and I thought, ‘It’s so crowded, so dirty, so overwhelming, and I don’t know how to get anywhere or do anything.’


“But I was here for two months, and when it was time to leave, all I could think about was when I would come back. You have a very beautiful country with very beautiful people. And—so many colors, sights, sounds. So many different cultures. It’s really a very exciting place, a very special place. It does have problems, as Upadhyayaji just described. But, you know, my country also has problems. And my heart is very glad to see all of you, here, in this organization dedicated to social work and helping others. Looking out at all of you, I have every faith that you will all go on to do great work that improves your society and your country—if you remember to always keep in mind the goal of leaving this world a better place than you found it. I came here to help my friends at Jagriti Vihara open a hospital for the rural people here—to help people who need help.

“And you can all do great things, as long as you stay committed to to leaving this world a better place than you found it. Thank you all again for having me.”

It’s not a super original message, but let’s keep it simple, I figure.  Dadu likes it — he later says to me, “You know, that was a good speech you made. You did not let me down.”


I feel really glad to hear that.


Hopefully, sometime in the next year, back in New York, when I’m spouting off about something else, ideally a shade more prepared, my future husband will be just as impressed.

In Some Form, Success

Some of what we heard was not surprising: virtually everyone cited malaria as a major illness. Ultimately, 75 percent of the people we interviewed said that they personally had had malaria.

Some of what we heard was not surprising, but sad. Most people we interviewed knew a child who had died of illness in their village; in the case of several, it was their own child.

A few things were surprising, or at least not totally expected: most people reported using mosquito netting. Virtually all adults had had their children vaccinated. (It seems the government is capable of at least arranging for that much.)

Me and my new friends in Relia

Me and my new friends in Relia

We interviewed local doctors and learned how many patients they saw each day and who had which illnesses and when. We visited the hospital run by the coal mining company near the mines, vast open pits fringed with tire ruts, and learned even they don’t carry snake anti-venom. We went to Sushil’s school and I surveyed the students there, and then they had me sing for them (I went with the Star Spangled Banner again). We met men who claimed to have never been ill, women with back pains and stomach pains and leg pains, teens who had no idea if they’d ever received vaccinations.

With Sushil, I gathered medical data. With Dadu, I talked budget. We sat for hours making lists of needed items and discussing ways to sustainably fund the hospital.

Sushil and Daduji

Sushil and Daduji

After visits to some 10 villages, a dozen healthcare providers, and a handful of trips back and forth to Ranchi, I crunched the numbers and began writing my report. When I started writing, the transformer had blown 2 weeks prior. So the computer was out of the question. I drafted the report in the back of my notebook, usually by candlelight—easier and nicer to use than my dim flashlights—carefully underneath the safety of my mosquito netting, crunching numbers on my cellphone’s calculator.

And in the middle of all this, something else wonderful happened: Daduji hired a doctor. Six days after I was scheduled to leave Ranchi, a real, actually-certified doctor would be coming to JV and the hospital would at last begin running.

I arrived in Ranchi five days before my train to Mumbai, grabbing hold of the electricity and my computer with both hands and typing away whenever I could. The day before my train, I handed Rajesh two typed copies of my report: one for him, and one for the doctor. I had a third for Daduji in my backpack and an electronic copy would soon be in the inboxes of everyone involved, Indian and American.

Rajesh thumbed through the 30-page report as we sipped our overpriced lattes at Cafe Coffee Day. “You have done much work,” he said. “And you have saved me a lot of time. This is very helpful. Thank you.”

Honestly, I have no idea exactly how helpful the report will truly be: if the hours spent on interviews and budget projections will ultimately translate into improved efficiency and sustainability for the hospital.

But in that moment, hearing Rajesh say those words, there was nothing that could have made me happier.

The Road to Bodhgaya

The road to Bodhgaya from Ranchi is long: an 8-hour bus ride, then a 30-min bus ride, then a 10-min rickshaw ride.  But I rarely get bored of looking out the window.  Just when I think my giddiness over the colorful trappings of India has faded, the country finds new sights and sounds to throw at me.

IMG_5934 road to bihar men walking small IMG_5938 road to bihar women ctyd small IMG_5939 road to bihar houses small IMG_5947 road to bihar tree red string small

Everywhere there were women winding red string around big trees on this day.  June 8, it was.  A Saturday.  I don’t know if this is a routine prayer or if it was a special day.  The women left with huge stripes of red painted from their hair parts down their noses, and some were wearing leaves in their hair.IMG_5956 road to bihar countryside small

We crossed out of Jharkhand (the state where I’m living) over a small ridge of hills and then the state of Bihar just sprawled out in front of us.  My jaw dropped a little.  It was like descending into the floodplain that time forgot.  Just flat, flat, flat, and villages of straw and mud that look like they haven’t changed much since the Raj.

IMG_5964 road to bihar mud houses small IMG_5965 road to bihar roadside view small

In Which I Learn The Rabbithole Is Full Of Flowers

So!  Here I am, back in Ranchi about 9 days later.  The land down the rabbit hole is not as frightening as I worried it might be.  …Except for the snakes.  But they are easy to avoid.

I spent the past week and a half getting to know the lovely staff at Jagriti Vihara (JV), the organization that is hosting me and that I am helping gather some data/ideas in advance of their opening a hospital there.

JV's entrance and the illustrious Daduji

JV’s entrance and the illustrious Daduji

I am living in a small hostel room on JV’s very nice campus about 5 km from the village of McCluskieganj, which is also called Lapra.

IMG_5842 my room small

My room!

Looking out the windows of my room

The hostel compound where my room is

The hostel compound where my room is

It has its own kitchen and many nice buildings that have been used as schools and training centers in the past.  It also now has, of course, a lovely small hospital, which was the product of years of fundraising and two years of construction.

It is quiet and peaceful.  The air smells very clean and fresh after weeks spent in Indian cities, where the air is polluted and heavy with the stink of garbage, meat, sweat, exhaust.  The campus is filled with many species of trees and birds, which my new friends will point to as we stroll about and try to teach me their names.  Kaminee is a bush that grows by the kitchen and bursts with sweet-smelling white flowers in the evening; I saw hummingbirds thrumming across the flowers a few days ago.  Ashoka trees have long, thin leaves, like stretched-tall willows.  Sal trees are some of the tallest, and are the most sacred trees to the Adivasi, or tribal, people who dominate this area.  And another tree whose name I can never remember drops countless orange red blossoms on the main path.

IMG_5775 jv campus road small

The heart of campus, along the main path leading to the old school, is occupied by a large mango orchard.  Daduji (what everyone calls JV’s founder, though it’s not his full name but more a term of respect/endearment.  He’s a wonderful 83-year-old man who has lived in Norway and Sweden and is constantly making corny jokes or telling me long stories and cautionary tales in between discussing the hospital) says villagers have come in the past and stolen the mangoes, so now a family from the nearby village of Jobhia stays in the orchard and guards the mangoes night and day.

JV is well-known by the villagers.  Daduji bought the piece of land in 1975 and has been working on “rural development and awakening” (JV’s words) in this cluster of villages in the state of Jharkhand since then.  Jharkhand used to be part of the state of Bihar; the two are the probably the poorest of India’s states.  They are both rich with mineral resources, but due to mismanagement, political ineptitude, and years of lawlessness (the law and order situation has improved a lot, but 10 years ago big businessmen wouldn’t come here because they feared being kidnapped by the Maoists), the states have failed to develop and wealth has not trickled down to the vast majority of villagers.

So JV has built schools for villagers, run training programs to teach women weaving and helped them sell their fabrics, and they’ve even run programs about the importance of protecting the environment.  And in the past, they’ve run health camps in the villages to give out malaria medicines and other needed treatments.

Now they’ve built a physical hospital and I’m here to help them gather data and ideas on what the hospital needs, by talking to local people, and how to plan for the long term.  Work is going slowly, but it’s coming along.  I’ve spent a long time talking to Daduji and have gotten to speak with both villagers and healthcare providers.

But in the meantime, I’ve also been getting to know and love the JV campus and the very kind people who live and work there.  Pictures!:

The hospital

The hospital

CFC = Construction for Change; HFH = Hospital for Hope (orgs that built it)

CFC = Construction for Change; HFH = Hospital for Hope (orgs that built it)

My new friend Anand

My new friend Anand

Anand running and jumping with joy

Anand running and jumping with joy

Further Down the Rabbit Hole



Here I am.  And here I go.  Tomorrow I go to McCluskieganj, a village 2.5 hours from the big city.   There is internet there, but power goes out often.  Rajesh said the last power outage lasted 15-20 days.

Even here in Ranchi, the state capital, English speakers are far and few between.  I am the only white person I’ve seen in days.  I’ll have a translator most of the time for the next few weeks, but boy, is my Hindi going to get better.

Tonight, I drink beer and watch American TV in my posh hotel, in my AC room.  Living it up in my last few hours before 6 weeks in the village!

I have that feeling again.  The feeling of looking down into the rabbit hole.  Only this time, I really have no idea what’s on the other side.