Kickin’ it Up a Notch

Sunday Snapshots

Sunday mornings in Hutup are dedicated to matches. The Yuwa teams who live in nearby villages are shuttled to the Hutup fields aboard auto-rickshaws. I thought I had experienced a full-past-capacity rickshaw in Mumbai. I was wrong. These kids proved that I had completely underestimated the Indian ability to pack people in vehicles. I may have miscounted, but I’m pretty sure there were 28 kids in one rickshaw last week.

Over the course of three hours, teams are matched up against one another and given the chance to play in a competitive setting. Often the matches are a boys’ team versus a girls’ team. It’s a blast to watch the players go after the ball with such aggression and determination, uninhibited by the fact that they’re playing against the opposite gender. This sort of co-ed competition is truly evidence of what Yuwa has accomplished. The girls and boys respect each other as equals on the field—and I have to imagine it changes the way they view each other off the field as well. To be honest, harmonious co-ed athletics are a rarity even in the US.

The girls never fail to surprise me. Most of them are tiny, some practically waif-like, and look at least a couple years younger than they actually are due to malnutrition. But despite their size, many of them are spitfires on the field. They kick the ball with power and accuracy, and spring to their feet laughing after taking hard falls.

My first Sunday on the ground in Hutup, Franz lent me his new, fancy camera to try taking some action shots of the matches. The camera has one of those enormous, fish-eye lenses. I felt like a National Geographic photographer with the thing strapped across my shoulder. Great photos practically take themselves with this camera—but I couldn’t help but feel nervous about toting around such an obviously expensive piece of equipment. I have an unfortunate history of breaking electronics (hence my affinity for ultra-cheap cell phones).

After an hour or so of matches, Franz informed me that he had purchased insurance for the camera. He knew upon buying the camera that he would be using it high-risk circumstances: rainy weather, curious kids, and of course, flying footballs. So there was no reason to be timid about getting in the middle of the match to capture some close-up action shots. Go for it! Be bold!

Five minutes later, I was plowed over by one of the older boys who was chasing down the ball.

It was one of those situations where I wasn’t sure if it would be better to move left or move right to avoid the collision, and in my indecision, chose the worst option of doing nothing. I don’t know how the camera survived that fall. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that it’s okay. I’m happy to say my relationship with the mega-camera has improved since our rocky beginnings.

 Parties: Jharkand Style 

I was excited when I found out that I would be here for the annual festival for girls celebrated by tribal people in Jharkhand—Karma Pooja. In the days leading up to the festival, I tried to collect details about the traditions from those in Hutup who can speak (some) English. Unfortunately, the more I found out about Karma Pooja, the less exciting it became. As I understand it, the two-day affair is a time for unmarried girls to reflect upon their roles within the family and honor their brothers. From dawn until around 10 pm, girls fast without food and water to honor their brothers. After a light meal, they carry on their fast until noon the next day. If they don’t have any brothers, they fast for the honor of their future husbands. I asked if there was ever a festival during which the boys fast for the honor of the girls. There’s not.

I arranged to spend the night of Karma Pooja in a nearby village with one of the Yuwa players, Kalawati. I arrived in her riverside village as the sun was setting. The village center had been done up with an excessive amount of colorful aluminum streamers to make a sort of open-air tent. The houses here are made of mud: hands-down, my favorite of the local building styles. Mud houses are cool on the inside (a definite advantage on a hot, humid day), are topped with attractive wooden roofs, and have a cozy, organic feeling to them. Kalawati’s family instantly made me feel like my presence in their home was normal. They sat me by the kitchen fire to help the women prepare rice rotis (like a rice pancake) for the festival.

Before I describe the rest of the evening, I’ve got to make an important point about this entire experience. Although some of the Yuwa girls in this village know basic English vocabulary, no one else I encountered on this night spoke English. My questions about the festival ceremonies remain unanswered. Many villagers refused to accept the fact that I didn’t speak Hindi, and would simply talk more loudly and enthusiastically when I looked confused. This can get frustrating. A note to anyone trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t know your language: speaking louder does not help.

Around 10 pm, myself and the rest of Kalawati’s family gathered in the village center. Around 100 villagers had gathered in a large circle to observe the ceremony. About 30 adolescent girls slowly filed into the center, walked around the circle three times, and then sat themselves in a tight circle around a small tree. The girls were all wearing brightly-colored, sequined saris. One young girl had to be carried out by her older brother, apparently because she was too weak from fasting to walk on her own feet. 

While this was going on, the local hijra had discovered my presence and—to the amusement of the rest of the village—were insistent on speaking with me. For those who are unfamiliar, hijra are men who dress and act as women. They have a long history in India, and there are dozens of superstitions regarding them. According to legend, they have the ability to either curse or bless a person’s fertility. They show up at weddings or births and demand payment in return for a blessing… if they are denied (which they usually are not), you will receive their curse, and often times, an unwanted flashing of their genitals. I frequently encountered sassy, elaborately dressed hijra on the Mumbai trains; this was the first time, however, that I’ve interacted with Jharkhand hijra. They are just as sassy.

Once seated in their circle, the girls began a long series of chants, prayers, and songs. A cloud of incense formed above the crowd, obscuring both the stars and fireflies. This went on for over an hour, and I became more interested in making faces at the baby who was seated next to me. I felt like the baby and I understood each other, no translation necessary.

And then, without warning, the pace changed. An older teenage girl seated on the opposite side of the circle suddenly burst to her feet and started yelling. Her eyes were closed and she rocked her body back and forth, all the while yelling with an alarming amount of passion. She began ripping leaves from the tree in the center, then fell to her knees and violently threw her head back and forth. This went on for a solid five minutes. Her outburst was closest thing I’ve seen to someone in a trance, or speaking in tongues. All the other girls continued with their chanting as if nothing was happening. Eventually the girl got back to her feet, out of breath from the intensity of her yelling, and left the circle. I didn’t see her again.

The ceremony concluded with the girls distributing a handful of long, green grass to and touching the feet of every single person present. I imagine that all of this bending down and standing up would have been difficult after not drinking or eating for 24 hours. Finally, it was time to break the fast: the festival food consisted of fresh, unsalted chickpeas, plain rice rotis, and water. After this modest meal, the girls returned to the village center. Several drunk men took up large drums and began beating on them. The girls—now joined by older women and myself—linked arms and began a synchronized line dance in a circle around the tree.

The steps weren’t difficult to learn, and the girls began singing despite the lack of melodic coordination with our drunken drummers. It was all a bit surreal to be included in this dance, and after a while it felt like I was in some strange dream. The situation felt increasingly dream-like as the hours went by. Hours. The rest of the villagers retreated to their houses, but the drunk-drummers and a handful of singing girls (including Kalawati) steadfastly continued the dance into the small hours of the morning.

Finally, I decided that this was likely to continue until dawn. Around 3 in the morning I asked Kalawati if I could sleep. She led me back to a bed in her house, and then she went back to the circle. I had been outlasted—out-partied—by a 14-year-old.

Three hours later I awoke to the sound of the drums. Incredulous that the girls could still be dancing, I hurried outside and was somewhat relieved to see it was just a couple young boys messing around with the drums. I wandered around the village—which looked entirely different in the daylight—and was shown how to brush my teeth using a special type of fibrous stick.

 Before I left the village around midday, the Yuwa girls gave me a makeover. This included henna on my hand and wrist, painted toenails, a bindi on my forehead, sequined earrings, lipstick, darkened eyebrows (as if I needed that), coal around my eyes, and powder all over my face to make my skin lighter. I looked like life-size Indian Barbie.

This entire experience is fairly representative of how I’ve been living in a place where I don’t know the culture or the language. Thanks to the acceptance and hospitality of the Yuwa girls, I am included in whatever is happening despite my degree of understanding. I ask questions, but accept that I’m probably not going to get complete answers.

Although it doesn’t really go with the theme of this post, I would like to conclude this entry with some of my favorite misuses and mis-translations of English that I’ve seen here. A local hostel advertises its premium lodging and fooding. A company that sells agricultural supplies stocks liquid fartilizer. A young boy who lives nearby wears a shirt with a picture of a cat on it with big letters that say “A Cat Has No Eyelashes.” The store down the road sells baked rolls that are stuffed with bluffy cream. I passed a man wearing a shirt that inexplicably said, “Life is Too Short to Stuff Mushrooms.” Indeed, it is.

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3 thoughts on “Kickin’ it Up a Notch

  1. Fascinating reading! Thank you for sharing! It’s really impossible to understand why, in this day & age, that the girls are expected to honor their brothers or future possible husbands by a difficult to endure fasting period! It was great to read of the boys -vs- girls games and that they both attack it vigorously…no feminine “put downs” here. How neat that you could spend the night, or wee hours of the morning with Kalawati and her family, to hopefully restore your soul from the vigors of Karma-Pooja! It was so wonderful to see the photo of “our” Rose with the group of girls. I know you are doing fantastic things for them, but you know what? We miss you and Wisconsin is still calling your name! xxxooo

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