We arrived in India late in the evening in the very last days of 2011. It felt good to be back again in this very alive country and I braced myself with a smile for all that I knew India was capable of throwing at me. We caught a taxi to the hotel in Chennai, and watched the night scenes pass us by through the window. Rickshaws weaving through late night traffic, street stall owners asleep under their counters and all this viewed through the dusty grey smog of a city overflowing with too many residents.
We arrived at our hotel only to discover they had given our rooms away and they were fully booked out. An early reminder, just in case anyone thought otherwise, that things never go to plan in India. In the end we found a place with polished marble floors and gold trimming. They only had two rooms available but with little choice and the time drawing on 2am, we squeezed the seven of us in and fell into bed. The next morning we woke to a typical Indian city scene, the incessant blow of the horn sounding over the roar of thousands of vehicles weaving their way through the traffic, the taste of spices coming from small street stalls, the gentle fragrance of fresh flowers in the women’s hair and incense burning in small shrines. All these smells mixed with something far less appetising that arose from the gutters and drains.
That morning we heard news that a cyclone was due to hit Chennai that evening. We decided to make our way to Pitchandikulam a day earlier than originally planned in preference from potentially being stuck in the city. Pitchandikulam is a 60 acre regenerated forested area within Auroville, the intentional international community which we have been using as a base to work with local village schools and women’s group.
But in the end, it seems the cyclone decided to follow us south. We arrived that evening with the winds beginning to strengthen and spent a rather sleepless night listening to the storm continue to intensify and the trees falling around us. Luckily we felt safe in the solid brick building we were staying in. The light of the morning revealed about 70% of the tree canopy down, the road which we had traveled on the evening before, completely blocked from fallen trees. It took us two days to cut our way out and clear the road. Most locals cannot remember a more sever cyclone which caused 30 deaths and huge damage to the landscape.
It is difficult for us to fully understand exactly how the cyclone has affected the people here. Their lives work brought down in one night. The forces of nature and our powerlessness over it enforced in a somewhat violent show of strength. Everyday we notice life coming back to normal. We visit Pondicherry and observe opportunists making the most of the situation, bicycles and rickshaws laden with bundles of wood to sell or take home for cooking with.
A week later, our original program is coming back into place and we have been visiting schools and women’s groups in the small village of Nadukuppam. We have a great bunch of participants this year, getting right in there running activities and classes in teacher training, creative tools for learning, and games just to name a few. In the women’s groups we have done some sessions on narrative therapy, and discussed the feminist movement in Australia and how it compares to what is happening in India. The women seem particularly interested to know that it was only two generations ago that out grandparents were fighting for the same rights they are fighting now.
There is always so much more to say and it is difficult to know where to begin and were to stop. Such a big journey can’t be pinpointed or described purely by words, so I will leave it at that for now, knowing there is always a next time.
Sophie Edwards January 2012.