Rite of Passage to India

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When I arrived in May, the handicrafts the women produced were sold only in street stalls and other local venues. The high cost of renting the stalls meant the program was unable to generate a profit. Through my internship, to increase the revenue generated by the women, I worked to establish a partnership between The Banyan’s vocational training unit and a fair trade wholesaler in the United States. I decided to create a catalog with pictures and prices of the handicrafts, which I sent to 75 fair trade organizations to determine their interest in forming a partnership.

After corresponding with several organizations, I established a relationship with Handmade Expressions, a fair trade wholesaler based in Austin, Texas. The company supplies retailers throughout the United States with ethically produced and environmentally sustainable, handmade Indian goods. The staff of Handmade Expressions recently completed design work for crocheted hemp purses and block-printed handkerchiefs to be produced by the women of The Banyan and offered in their Spring 2010 catalog. This is one of my proudest accomplishments, as it will exponentially increase the income generated by the vocational training unit.

My most memorable experience with The Banyan was traveling with a staff member to a slum where a fire had ravaged 200 homes. The faces of the newly homeless were stricken with grief, yet they invited us into what remained of the charred structures. What little had been theirs was now gone. As is typical, the shantytown was built on the banks of a river, which was visible from the shells of their homes. I saw something bubbling in the water, which turned out to be “industrial waste” pumped into the river by local factories. I also noticed cows, covered in burns, tethered to a tree nearby.

After surveying the damage, we walked back through the slum. I passed women gathered around a water pump, filling plastic jugs for drinking and washing clothes. I also passed a few men sitting outside their homes, white paste covering burns likely sustained while trying to put out the fire. There would be no government response. The Banyan stepped in and collected donations for the victims from businesses and others in the community. I was truly impressed by the organization’s willingness to meet this immediate need.

 

ONE AFTERNOON, after returning to my hostel following a day at The Banyan’s central office, a gaunt young woman ran up and asked me to come to the store with her. Thinking she wanted to sell me something, I tried to tell her I wasn’t interested. Finally, she was able to communicate that she wanted me to buy rice for her family. I agreed, and tentatively followed her down side alleys to a small shop that was little more than a hole carved into the side of a building. Ten dollars bought a bag of rice that she claimed would feed her family for a month. She gave me a hug; pressed against me, her thin frame conveyed that the rice was sorely needed. Filled with gratitude, she wanted me to meet her family. I cautiously agreed, not knowing what to expect.

Once again, I trailed behind, following her back to the main road and along the sidewalk to a few straw mats scattered with pots and pans. This was their home, a dwelling place among the perpetual commotion of pedestrians, honking rickshaws and motorbikes. Humbled, I sat down and was introduced to the entire clan, including aunts, uncles and cousins. Their hospitality was exceedingly  generous; they even brought me a cup of Indian tea, called chai. After talking for a few minutes, the matriarch of the family asked me if I was interested in marrying her daughter, presumably the woman who had led me there. It stung my heart to say no, but I politely declined. This was not a question I’d ever expected.

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