My time in the north….After Delhi and Janadesh I was looking forward to getting away from the chaos of the city, if only to have some time to reflect on everything I'd done and seen. At the end of October I travelled northward with the AVI group to the state of Uttarachand and the small hill town of Kausani. Kausani is an overnight train ride and five and half hour pot-holed road journey from Delhi but feels much further away from the dust, dirt and car horns. Set 6000ft up in the Kumoan hills in the foothills of the Himalayas it is a beautiful place. Like most beautiful places it is now something of a tourist attraction, but in a very low-key Indian kind of way. Kausani is a popular spot for Bangladeshi tour groups (they arrive by the coach load on package holidays that take them around the hill region) and has one shop that sells postcards and special 'himalayan tea'.When we arrived at our resting spot Pine View Hotel it appeared we were sharing it with about 3 coach loads of Bangladeshi holiday makers, that made restful sleep impossible for the next few nights. They were quite a noisy bunch and thought nothing of singing outside your hotel room door in the early hours of the morning or indeed inviting themselves in whilst you were clad in your pajamas to ask you whether Tony Blair was the prime minister of England. It is a cliché but there is absolutely no concept of 'personal space' in India. You very quickly get used to this and I have learnt to deal efficiently with the usual firing line of questions;What is your name? Vicky(Name is usually repeated a couple of times to check, 'Bicky? Bicky')Where is your place? England, LondonBrothers, sisters? Two sistersNo brothers? No(General look of pity)Your father? RetiredYou like India? Yes very much(Side to side nodding of head and sometimes a thank you)The AVI group descended on Kausani to visit Lakshmi Ashram a Gandhian girls school set up on the hillside overlooking the town. Although AVI does not directly fund the ashram there have been links between the two organisations for many years and it was decided that it would be a good base for the 3rd AVI partners and supporters forum; a week long visit that gives partners and supporters of AVI the chance to meet and discuss relevant issues and the work AVI is funding. Over our week in Kausani the group also got the chance to see the work of the ashram first hand, Lakshmi Ashram is not just a school and has done much work in the surrounding valleys forming women's groups and educating local villages about environmental sustainability.Lakshmi Ashram was set up just over 60 years ago by Sarala Behn, an English girl (Catherine Mary Heinemann) that moved to India to work with Gandhi. Sarala Behn was especially active in the struggle against British colonial rule, was imprisoned twice and by all accounts was quite a feisty women. Come her early forties Sarala Behn's health had begun to suffer from the hot climate on the plains and Gandhi sent her for a rest cure in the Kumoan hills. It was at this time that Sarala Behn started working with the women in the hill communities surrounding Kausani. Traditionally a large proportion of the men of this area worked far away in towns or were in the military, they would be away from home for months at a time leaving the women alone to make a home for their families and work the land; sow and harvest, collect water, cut grass and leaves, collect firewood…In 1946 Sarala Behn was given a house in Kausani by a government official, this gave her somewhere to have as a base for her work and enabled her to start the girls school that later became Lakshmi Ashram.On hearing the history of the ashram and of the surrounding area it becomes clear that the women of this area have been a source of strength for generations. Without the women it is unlikely that the lush and plentiful fields and buzzing village communities you see around the hills today would be there at all, or would be quite different.In recent years the ashram's community work has focussed on environmental problems. By educating women in the valley villages about vital local issues such as water conservation and reforestation the ashram has set in motion an effective environmental conservation programme. Inspired by the ashram women have independently formed village groups that work to combat these problems as well as other village matters. We met a women's group that had fought off a mining company, replanted a forest, set up a pre-school and campaigned against domestic violence. The sense of community spirit was really quite special. The women even had a savings scheme, all the members save 10rs a month and the resulting fund is there in case of any family emergency, healthcare or a marriage for example. Seeing these women together really highlighted what a lack of community we have in the UK, I don't think I ever even spoke to the people that lived in the next door house to me in Kentish Town, let alone help to pay for their daughters wedding! Perhaps the comparison in unfair but we do all seem to live in our own little bubbles in the UK, as long as we are ok, we're happy. So I have mentioned about the strength, motivation and energy of the Kumoan women. The other thing worth mentioning is the men. I asked our guide Basanti Behn (Behn means sister) what the men did whilst the women were hard at work, her exact reply was 'men's work is gambling, smoking and playing cards.' Judging by the village scenes we saw she wasn't exaggerating. The fields were full of women and the streets and cafes full of men doing not very much at all. I couldn't believe it! I felt like shouting at them and dragging them by their ears to the fields, but thankfully managed to contain my anger. The gender divide manifests itself in very funny ways in India and despite the scenes we witnessed in Uttarachand, as in most places in India, the positions of power are still reserved for the men. One of the new projects the ashram has started to work on is helping women to run in the local panchayat elections (like a local council). A third of all panchayat seats are reserved for women but unfortunately most of them remain empty because the women don't have the confidence to run in the elections. This was a hotly discussed topic at the AVI forum, the problem of male domination, in politics especially, is the same across India and something that needs to be addressed. From what I have seen so far I think if more women were in influential positions India could well be a better place, it seems to be the women that get things done, make things happen and hold everything together.
My stay at the ashram…
After a week of visits, presentations, debates and discussions the AVI group left, I had decided to stay up at the ashram for another ten days to experience a bit more of ashram life.
Away from the bustle and whitewashed hotels of Kausani, Lakshmi Ashram is a little haven in the hills, a jumbled collection of yellow walls and quaint red woodwork with views over the tree covered valleys below. On my first visit to the ashram it had reminded me of the Enid Blyton novels I was addicted to when I was younger; I half expected to come across some fairies on toadstools or enchanted trees!
The ashram is school and a home from home for 60 girls aged 6-18. The education they receive is based on Gandhian principles so their mornings are spent doing practical work such as cooking and gardening and their afternoons are spent in lessons. A typical day is as follows:4.30 Morning bell6.00 Morning prayers6.30-7.15 Community cleaning7.15 Morning Inspection7.30 Breakfast8-9 Community spinning, singing and other activities9-11 Community work; gardening, preparing vegetables, collecting firewood..11-12 Bathing and washing clothes12 Lunch1.30 Assembly2-4.30 Academic classes4.30-5.30 Agriculture work and errands6-7 Games or homework7 Evening prayers7.30 Dinner8-9.30 Study time21.30 Lights outSo for ten days my routine fitted in the girls as much as possible. I was getting up for morning prayers and then would join Neema, the ashram secretary, on her morning walk for a view of the Himalayas. Then after breakfast, spinning and helping out with the chores I would go and do my washing and have my bucket shower. Late morning, I soon found out was the best time to shower as the day had started to warm up and you didn't freeze! Then after lunch I would do some writing and often visit Kausani to check my emails, run any errands and fill up on chai (necessary as they didn't make chai at the ashram!)I was sharing a room with a German student called Lisa who had been at the ashram since August. She told me that when she arrived it was rainy season and the walk down the steep steps to Kausani was more like a slide, you practically had to ski down in your sandals! Thankfully I missed the fun and games of the rain but the climate in the hills still took quite a bit of getting used to after the warmth and mugginess of Delhi. It was freezing cold in the mornings and evenings but then got really quite warm in the days. So there was a nice bracket from about 10-5 where everything was light, warm and easy and a rather long bracket in between those times when it was very cold and getting darker. It was pitch black by about 6.30pm and it was usually at this point that there was the daily power cut that could last anything from 12 minutes to 12 hours. I knew there was a very good reason I took a torch to India and it got very well utilised at Lakshmi ashram!The routine of ashram life is so far removed from life at home it is hard to know how best to describe it. A good example would be mealtimes. All the food the girls eat is very fresh as it's grown by them on the ashram land. The girls take it in turns to be on kitchen duty when they will prepare, make and serve the three meals a day in a primitive kitchen consisting of two wood fired stoves made from clay. There is some kind of cooking or preparing of food going on all through the day and a typical meal would be rice, dahl, some kind of sabji (vegetable curry) and roti (small chapattis). When the bell goes for food the girls make their way to the dining hall, collect their metal tray and sit in their place on the wool matting on the stone floor. The kitchen girls then come round and serve the food out of metal buckets. Prayers are said and then you eat. It is a bit like a scene from Oliver Twist but without tables and the food is much tastier than gruel!
Over my stay at the ashram I was lucky enough to take part in the Diwali celebrations. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a massive Hindu festival that is practically equivalent to Christmas. The festival celebrates Rama's return from exile in the forest and is meant to be one of the happiest celebrations in the Hindu calander. The first day, the 9th November, is kind of a sorting day, everything is cleaned, woodwork is repainted and doorsteps are decorated with pretty motifs. In the evening candles and lamps were lit all over the ashram (symbolically these are lit to show Rama the way back) and fireworks were set off. In the bigger cities the firework displays are meant to be quite incredible and go on until the early hours, not being a firework fan (seen one seen 'em all) I didn't mind missing out on the city celebrations. Plus seeing the youngest class of girls at the ashram beside themselves with excitement when the sparklers were brought out was so cute! Instead of just prayers before dinner some special songs and dances were performed by the girls and lots of sweets were given out. Before I came to India I thought I had quite a sweet tooth but I don't by Indian standards. I tried my best to sample all the sweets I was given but some of them, such as the large lump of crystallized sugar syrup were a bit too sweet even for me!The next day of celebrations was all about the picnic in the forest. For lunch we all went to a clearing in the forest where some girls had been cooking away all morning on make shift campfires. There was more singing and dancing, some mini plays and lots of tree climbing before lunch was served. Every one had brought along their trays and sat eating, laughing and chatting for the rest of the afternoon. Traditionally Diwali celebrations spread over five days, each symbolizing something different, at the ashram they spread over just three. The last day was marked by a special breakfast with sweets and puffed rice and also by a blessing from the teachers.By some standards Diwali at the ashram may have been low key but I felt the three days were really special and something I won't forget in a hurry. It was nice to experience a festival that was purely celebratory, it didn't revolve around gifts and presents and everyone seemed so genuinely happy.
The girls at the ashram were definitely what made my stay so enjoyable. Most of them spoke verylittle English but we still managed to have lots of fun and laughs and by the end of ten days I had got used to the bucket showers, power cuts and the calls of Vicky-didi (didi is a term for big sister) following me wherever I went. I know this sounds gushing and cheesy but I couldn't get over how happy the girls were. I am sure there are the occasional tears and tantrums but I didn't see any and it felt like wherever you went in the ashram the girls were chatting, laughing and singing. Seeing tiny girls of 8 and 9 sat of a step peeling a potato or weeding a veggie patch I couldn't help but think about how removed their lives were from the western world and the kind of lifestyle we're used to. Apart from the odd mobile phone (that are still a big novelty) they have no latest toys, no pop music, no internet, no TV, not even any electricity most nights! But despite their lifestyle the girls aren't so different….One day in spinning class I was quizzed by a group of ninth years (13/14) about whether I had a boyfriend, whether I was going to get married, what I'd wear…the questions went on and they couldn't stop giggling! Then later that day as I was sitting outside my room filing my nails I attracted the attention of my neighbour Poonam. Poonam is one of the older girls at the ashram, she is 18 and is spending a year at the ashram studying a course on Gandhi. She sat down next to me and was mesmerized by what I was doing, so we sat in the sun and did our nails together. I had never thought of nail files and moisturizers as luxury items before but these girls don't have anything like that, most of them have very little money and wouldn't get the chance to buy these things for themselves. Despite not having an awful lot to call their own the girls aren't miserable or complaining, if anything they seemed far more content than any teenage girls I've met in the UK. They didn't want for anything.Lakshmi Ashram really is quite a special place, very untouched and unspoilt by the modern world. If I'm honest it probably felt a bit too far away for me but it was nice to get away and lead a simpler life for a few days…. and it was refreshing to learn that girly chat and beauty regimes have universal appeal the world over!
Monkeys and Fleas…
I couldn't write an account of my time at Lakshmi Ashram and miss out the only downside to my stay, the animals.
I had been at the ashram just one night before I noticed the collected of small bites around my ankles, after a couple of more days these had spread up my legs to my arms and back. I wasn't a happy bunny! After making a few enquiries I soon found out that the ashram had a flea problem and also at one point bed bugs. Great! Untreated cats that roamed everywhere and the lack of a hoover meant that several of the rugs that you had to sit on several times a day were infested with fleas. Where as all the other girls seemed to have developed some kind of resistance (including Lisa, not fair!) I was eaten alive and spent ten days surviving on restless, itchy and paranoid sleep. I washed my clothes and aired my bedding daily to no avail, I kept getting more bites. In the end it did start to make my stay pretty miserable and I was glad to leave the fleas behind.The other species that caused me some grief and a few moments of panic were the monkeys, or more specifically, the Lungurs (BIG monkeys). The forests surrounding the ashram are full of them and they come onto the ashram land to steal food. When this happens they are chased away by the girls and workers with shrieks and sticks (I'm still trying to work out where Gandhi stood on animal welfare?). I was unlucky enough to get in the way of a chase. Typical! Completely unaware of the action unfolding I started the walk from my room to the main ashram building for lunch. Wandering calmly up the steep path I heard a scream and looked up suddenly to see a man running towards me flailing a large stick. I lunged onto the grassy bank to get out of his way only to get in the way of a rather angry lungur that chased past me, patting me firmly on the back as it went. I was stunned. It's not every day you get hit by a monkey! So all in all with the fleas and monkeys on top Lakshmi Ashram has been quite an experience! I'd definitely like to return one day and I suspect, when I do, not an awful lot will have changed. I'll just remember to bring a big stick and some flea powder next time!