India loves to celebrate. Ever since we arrived in July, our time has been one giant series of festivals and holidays – though everyone assures us this is just “festival season” and that the celebrations don’t actually go year-round. Seems like we showed up at the perfect time!
Our first festival was the Ganesh festival, which honors lord Ganesh or Ganpati – god of beginnings. This 10-day festival was celebrated at the end of August and culminated in a lively ritual down by the river. During the festival, many people purchase statues of Ganpati to worship ranging in all sizes from a few inches to something 70 feet tall (the 2011 record)! On the last day of the festival, everyone covers each other in colorful dyes, hops in a truck together, and take a ride with their personal deity down to the river. They dip the statue into the water seven times and then deposit it there permanently, but before leaving it you whisper a wish into its ear for the coming year. Our truck ride was a blast with 20 women and kids in the back, and I even got to dunk my own personal miniature Ganesh (followed by a personal wish)!
The next festival we were able to participate in is called Navratri and lasts for 9 nights; “Nav” in Gujarati means nine, and “ratri” means night. The festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil in the world and is specifically dedicated to lord Durga’s victory over demons in the past. This festival was my personal favorite, because in addition to ritual prayer ceremonies, Navratri is celebrated by dancing! 😀 Each night, the hospital would get together for a short prayer, and then they would bump some traditional Indian music while performing Gujarati dances. The dances at the hospital were pretty low-key, involving a lot of slow music and simple steps, but on our last night Wende, Nandini, and I went to the orphanage run by Gram Seva to dance with the children. Those children knew how to party! I was dancing hard all night, learning new steps, and enjoying the spirit and energy of the children. We left after midnight, by which time I had completely soaked through my clothes with sweat – yum. So glad I got to be a part of this festival!
Ganesh and Navratri were both good festivals, but they don’t even come close to festivities of Diwali, the “festival of lights.” According to Wikipedia, Diwali is a continuation on the triumph of light over dark & knowledge over ignorance – it represents “The light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance.” This festival was like the equivalent of Spring cleaning, Christmas, New Years, and 4th of July all wrapped into one holiday. The festival lasts for 5 days, with each day having its own significance. For example, I believe on the second day you are supposed to buy something of silver or gold to usher luck into the new year.
At Gram Seva, we didn’t realize how big of a deal Diwali was until we found out 5 days before the festival that the hospital was going to be closed for the entire week! For perspective, the hospital has only been closed a single day since we arrived. We also found out that almost everyone was leaving for the holiday and we were going to be alone at the hospital. All of the school children get 3-weeks off for Diwali, so it’s a common time for people go to see their families (much like Christmas). We felt pretty left out, so we started to reach out to other friends in India. Luckily, on short notice our friend Ian Anand Forber-Pratt graciously invited us to visit him for Diwali in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This was a win-win because: 1) We could explore a fantastic city during Diwali, 2) We could check out the groundbreaking work of Foster-Care India, the NGO started by Ian.
Udaipur was incredible! The city was saturated with the festive cheer of Diwali. Everywhere you went, everyone would shout, “Happy Diwali!” Then, on the day following Diwali everyone says, “Happy New Year!” for the start of the Hindu calendar. The festival was much more elaborate in Udaipur than it would have been in our small village, and it made me realize how much more extreme the previous two festivals would have been within large cities. The lesson is – if you have a chance to go to a big city for a festival/holiday, make sure you do. Here are a few of the ways people celebrate Diwali:
- Cleaning! Part of the worship involved with Diwali is making everything look fresh and new for the new year. This isn’t the regular old sweep around the house, this a the time when everything is moved away from the wall and vigorously scrubbed. In addition, people do minor renovations to improve the look of their home. Around Udaipur (and GST) people could be seen painting the outside of their house, or painting a fresh design along the entrance to their home.
- Lights! Buildings everywhere are strung up with colorful lights (like Christmas lights). In addition, candles are set out around the city, and some people would even line the roof of their home with candles. Don’t worry – most of the architecture in India is stone or mud, so there’s little concern for fire.
- Fireworks! On the 4th night of Diwali, people bust out the fireworks. They aren’t technically legal in the city, but that didn’t prevent people from having them 🙂 We went to our roof on the 4th night, and we were completely surrounded by beautiful flashes of color, 360 degrees. I enjoyed the aerial fireworks, but firecrackers were also rampant throughout the city. These large firecrackers were much louder than those in America, and just when you wouldn’t expect it a little kid would set one off behind you! I’m sure the kids got a good laugh when they saw me jump 6-inches off the ground.
- Gifts! Diwali is THE shopping season in India. I was a little surprised when I logged into Amazon to see a “Diwali Sale,” but these sales are widespread during the holiday season. People buy candy or gifts to give to their family for Diwali.
- Rangoli! This was one of my favorite traditions. A “Rangoli” is a design made on the ground out of colorful dyes, and they could be found all over the streets of Udaipur. Rangolis can become extremely intricate in design, and some are even colored with flowers instead of dyes.
Diwali was a great excuse to come to Udaipur, but an even stronger motivator for us was the chance to visit the organization Foster-Care India. In 2006, Ian Anand did a google search of “Foster Care AND India,” and it returned almost nothing. It was at that moment Ian knew his life’s calling. He packed up all of his stuff and moved across the globe to India determined to start a foster-care program.
Don’t worry, Ian didn’t just jump in assuming that foster-care was something India wanted without asking them first. In conjunction with Harvard, he posed the first formal study of attitudes toward foster-care in India. His conclusions? Everyone thought a foster-care like program was a great idea, but noone knew the term “foster-care.” In addition to Ian’s study, other studies had been done showing that children lived happier, more successful lives when they lived in a family-based environment. Under the motto, “Every child has a right to family,” Ian started his work.
In case you didn’t know, foster-care is just one of multiple ways a child can be taken care of if his/her parents are no longer able to. Here are the standard options for care :
- Institutional Care:
- Orphanages/group homes: These homes are often run by the government and will house 40 children in one space. There is a care-giver, but there is no parental figure. There is not a goal of adoption in these homes, but simply raising them until they come of age at 18.
- Non-institutional Care:
- Adoption: This is a formalized legal process in which a child becomes part of a family. The process can be quite lengthy and complicated, plus few parents are willing to make this level of commitment to an unknown child.
- Foster-Care: This is a formalized program in which a family agrees for a child to live with them until the age of 18. This child then receives the benefit of a family environment, but the parent does not have to agree to give legal rights of property etc to the child.
- Kinship Care: An informal process, in which a family member agrees to take care of a child when the parents are no longer present. This is the most common form of alternative care in India.
So how did these children lose their parents in the first place? Well, there are the possibilities you are probably familiar with such as the death of a parent or incarceration, but there is another situation that happens quite frequently in India. If a married couple has children, but then husband passes away, the wife may choose to remarry. However, if she does remarry, the new husband has the right to choose to accept or reject her current children. Sadly, it is very common for the new husband to reject the children from the previous marriage and they are abandoned to fend for themselves. If a child does not go into one of the forms of care listed above, they become street children – uneducated, unloved, and desperate.
In the past, kinship care was the most common lifestyle for a child away from his parents. But as families in India move away from multi-generational families and toward nuclear family structures, the support of grandparents is becoming less and less common. With the decreasing prevalence of kinship care, more children are being left on the streets or placed into institutional homes, and the need for Foster-Care is becoming more urgent than ever before.
You may wonder, “Why doesn’t Ian just try to enhance the current adoption system, versus starting a new program of foster-care?” One main reason was the saturation of great organizations already working in the area of adoption, while there were practically zero organizations addressing the need for foster-care. In addition, adoption is already a pretty intimidating commitment, but in India this commitment is exacerbated by the caste system. Tremendous value is given to each person’s caste (or last name/group) in India, and often people will not marry anyone outside of their caste. This means that if a child does not already happen to be part of an adoptive parent’s caste, by adopting the child the parent also passes on their last name & caste – a terrifying prospect for many. However, with foster-care a guardian only agrees to parent the child until the age of 18, with no legal rights to property or name. This difference between the two systems gives foster-care infinitely more potential for impact in India.
Foster-Care India is having tremendous success, and each day brings new victories. They are beginning to be recognized as a formal leader in foster-care and are being asked to help design foster-care programs for cities throughout India. They have created direct support for children with community centers that assist current Kinship families to receive government funds. And the most exciting announcement is that within the next month they will officially be matching their first foster child and parent.
Foster-Care India’s monthly cost of caring for a child is $2.50, the monthly Salary of an employee $150. If you are looking for a terrific organization, that is changing the way an entire country treats its children, consider donating to FCI this Diwali (or Christmas) season: Fostercareindia.org
“You’re not related to your spouse by blood and you love them, why not share that same love with a child?” – An Indian Foster Parent
While we were in Udaipur, we also visited an organization called Animal Aid. It was started in 2002 by a couple of Seattle tourists who noticed that there were an overwhelming number of injured street animals that had nowhere to go… I think I see a future career path for Wende and I ;D Animal Aid is a no-kill animal hospital/shelter which rescues injured animals from around the city. At this point they receive 10-20 calls a day reporting injured animals who need help. The Animal Aid ambulance goes to pick up the dog/cat/cow/turtle/horse/donkey/bull and bring it back to the Animal Aid campus. On the campus, the animals is rehabilitated and replaced back into the community in which it was originally found.
The Animal Aid campus was incredible and clearly full of animal-love. Any animal that cannot be fully rehabilitated or that takes a considerable amount of time to heal (> 6 months), is deemed unfit to return to its original place in the city and is instead kept on as a permanent guest at Animal Aid. When Wende and I visited, we worked in one of these permanent resident areas called “handicap heaven.” This was a place specifically for dogs that had some sort of debilitating injury that left them without use of their legs through paralysis or amputation.
In “handicap heaven,” the workers spend their days massaging the dogs, doing physical therapy, and generally showering them with love. It seemed that Animal Aid also made a point to hire humans with some sort of physical debilitation, so you would see a physically handicapped person doing therapy on a physically handicapped dog. What a beautiful circle of life!
Wende and I loved our time there, and Animal Aid quickly patched up our 3-months of animal withdrawal. They love visitors and are always looking for new volunteers, so If you are interested in visiting Animal Aid, or just want to learn more about it, check out their website here: animalaidunlimited.com
“World-Peace includes animals.”
– Claire, a founding member of Animal Aid
PS – Udaipur was an incredibly beautiful city, so I wanted to share the rest of our photos from the trip. I was looking for an effective way to dsiplay the photos when I came across the “photo gallery” button, which creates the beautiful photo displays you see here. Jeeze, why didn’t I find this before my last “photo journal?!” Well hindsight is 20-20, but you can count on seeing more of these photo galleries in the future.