Tuesday, July 7, 2009


There's a very useful saying in the Indian NGO sector which is mostly uttered by foreign interns, but not strictly reserved to foreigners. Whenever things seem stagnant, frustrating, or downright unjust, and you just keep asking 'kyo, kyo, kyo?' ('why, why, why?'), there is often no answer other than "B.I.I"..."Because It's India." I guess, in short, BII means that you can't really explain why processes develop the way they do in a culture...I mean, you could, but this would mean a lengthy history lesson in Indian culture and the origins of Indian governmental structure, gender relations, religion, etc. We're not talking about 'It happened on the Mayflower in the 1600s ' here. We're talking about 'It happened in the Indus Valley in 2600 BCE.' India gives a whole new meaning to 'old.' Regardless, it's just easier to accept and work within (but by no means embrace) the way India does things.

Yesterday was BII overload, I have to say. A little background:

I've been working with this one woman Sati (pseudonym) on English and just talking about her beyond-shitty domestic situation in general.Sati and I have become fast friends: she's one of the most animated women at Sambhali, probably only slightly older than me. We've been having a great deal of fun together, me teaching her English while she teaches me some Hindi. We have this joke, 'ap mera adyaphak hai, ap mera viyarthi hai' (You're my teacher, you're my student)...she seems to really enjoy this relationship - I think it makes her more excited to learn English.

She showed me her wedding pictures and her husband looks no older than 15, no joke: his face is covered in acne, and he has that naive 15-year-old grin on his face. His family demanded 3 lakhs (300,000 rupees - a.k.a. a lot of money) for Sati's dowry, and her father, dollars signs in his eyes, forced her into marriage for the financial security that her husband's family would bring. It was funny, she had this photo album from her marriage with about 100 pictures in it, and after she finished presenting to me, I asked which one was her husband. She sort of had this reaction like, 'whoops,' and then pulled out one single blurry photo of him from underneath a picture of her mother. This is pretty much how she feels about her husband.

Her in-laws and husband are extremely abusive-she has bruises on her arms from where her mother-in-law threw her against a table and scars all over her face from her husband. Her father-in-law pours dirty water on the floor when Sati is cleaning it, just so she has to do the entire thing over again. Her husband wants her to give up her teaching position to help in his neon-sign business. Then, about a few months ago, Sati starts to realize that her husbandis literally mentally disturbed (from her description, he sounds either bipolar or schizophrenic). He can't work because of his mental instability, and his family essnetially demands that her family pay for his medication. Of course, their answer was absolutely not - they need to feed their own family and pay for their children to go to school (Sati has a younger sister and brother).

So Sati has been going through the process of trying to get a divorce in India, perhaps one of the most difficult and bureaucratic processes imaginable because a) it's not a very common process and b) it's looked down upon. Fortunately, in Sati's caste, she can remarry, so she has a choice in the matter. However, I can't help but think about all of the women who in the same situation stay with her husband because otherwise, she would be essentially disowned - I mean seriously disowned. Like people won't eat food that's cooked by her or drink water she's touched.

Yesterday, I went with Sati, her brother, and her mother (I had met them before when I visited Sati at her house after the program one day) to the High Court in Jodhpur, which is where all of the major Jodhpur district business gets done. This was pretty much my first exposure to India's government bureaucracy beyond the local panchayit system (this is the more local system of government representation where someone from the local area is elected to represent local concerns - the unique aspect of this system is that it's on a rotating caste and gender system, meaning that each year, there's a representative from a different caste and every certain number of years the rep. must be female...).

Like most institutions in Indian society, there isn't much red tape. Even in this government building, where the magistrates and collector (the equivalent of a US mayor) work, pretty much anyone can wait outside their door and walk in whenever they have the opportunity to. People just come for the day with their written complaints/cases and sit there for HOURS, waiting for various officials to show up. If the person is traveling to a meeting, people try to get into the car with him/her. Then they wait more. If the official doesn't show up, they do it all again tomorrow. This is just how it's done.

So we went to the high court and waited for 2 hours for this certain magistrate who my supervisor has a relationship with (this is also how things work), but this guy never showed. Then we're told that he'll be back at 2. So we go and grab some chai and bananas in some sketchy park nearby. We come back and wait another 2 hours. It's finally evident that this guy is not showing up anytime soon. So we go to the associate magistrate and walk into his office to present Sati's case.

The craziest part was that I thought that I was there to sort of stand in the background and represent the organization she's a part of and present the letter from my supervisor pleading the case...not so. As soon as we got there, Sati's brother just hands me the case statements and pushes me forward. Because of the color of my skin, I'm the natural spokesperson. Why? BII.Even though I have absolutely no authority in this situation...I'm not a lawyer, I'm not her father, I'm not familiar with the legal system...of course, after all of that waiting and asking different officials where to go, the guy just said he couldn't help us and that we needed to go to the civil court, which is on the other side of town. So next week, we're going to go to the civil court (which, I imagine is worse because there will be more people trying to file cases) and do it all over again. Sort of a moment of comic relief, however, was when I told Sati's brother that while today was a bust, Monday, "Ham kick some ass ja-on ghi" (We will go to kick some ass). He found this very funny, so now it's like an agenda item: "Dani, I see you on Monday at what time to go kick ass?"

The other 'BII' moment was when we were meeting to organize a press conference for the organization's year's activities and future projects, and my supervisor tells me I have to go and buy bedsheets as gifts for all of the journalists. And put them in shiny wrapping paper with ribbons. This, apparently, is how things are done: journalists only write stories when they're bribed with samosas, numkeen, chai, and fucking bedsheets, BII.


  1. yo Betee...

    I love that you are keeping your sense of humor amidst all the craziness and sadness. It's really important given the magnitude of all the problems swirling around you. When things get really nuts..think agenda item #1 Dani see you on Monday at what time to go kick ass?

  2. Part One of my comments Fran
    Dear Dani--
    I find it interesting, and scary that you are
    forced into a position of being an advocate for a woman when you are neither prepared, nor asked to be put in that position. What I find most strange is the fact that the organization you are working for has put you in such a position;
    I personally think that it is wrong, wrong, wrong; without your being asked, without your being briefed, without your consent, without training or cultural knowledge. I know you want to be helpful, but this is quite a big burden to have had it foisted on you. What a peak into a legal system.

    What power, or right does an organization have to put you in such a place?
    I am totally lacking in more than a cursory knowledge of what your NGO's mission is;
    does this paternalism come with whatever they are given permission to do in India?;does the head of this India organization have the authority to act on behalf of anyone?;is this authority self-assumed?;does he have the right to pass-it-onto anyone else?

    read the following comment for more on the subject