Of "Masala Flavored Dirt", Rotlas, And Beyond

Posted by Audrey Lin on Nov 25, 2012
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Was recently moved by these reflections from a volunteer, Stephanie, in Pedhamali:

I came to Pedhamali on the invitation of Jayeshbhai, who was visiting the village on the occasion of the first day of the NSS camp. As we stepped out of the car in front of the school, crowds of children arrived, and Jayeshbhai pulled out his nail scissors.

Clip, clip-clip, clip, he cut my nails in front of the children, and then handed me the clippers: “This is your project,” he said, “cut the nails of the children and teach them to wash their hands.” He acted out for the kids how dirt was accumulating under their nails when they scratched their heads, picked their noses, and went to the bathroom. They all giggled as he then pretended to be delighted with the extra “masala” flavor the dirt was adding to their food when they ate with their hands without properly cutting their nails and cleaning their hands. Then he sent the children over to me for nail inspection, clipping and cleaning.

I laughed to myself and thought, “Okay, this at least is something I can do.”

Since completing my studies in International Development, I have always had a lot of skepticism about so-called “charitable work” or “development” in general. I am conscious of the terrible impacts that people with “good intentions” have had over the centuries, especially privileged people from Western countries such as my own. Working in my own community in Canada, I know how complicated and challenging community development can be, and I question how much of a positive impact I can really have in a village where I have little understanding of politics, culture, language, religion or social norms.

However, while touring the village together, I was very moved and inspired to see how Jayeshbhai meaningfully connected with so many of the villagers. Even just sitting with them for a couple of moments brought light to their faces. Jayeshbhai and Sureshbhai talk often about the power of the “heart-to-heart” connection, and I was intrigued to discover if such a connection could be made across so many differences.

Over the course of the week that followed, I clipped lots of fingernails, washed lots of small fingers and experienced both the power of “heart-to-heart” connection and of unconditional giving. In between helping out with various projects in the village ranging from beautifying a urinal to the extent that it was like a temple, to dressing up in traditional clothes in my role as a “foreign wife” in a skit about valuing women, I stayed with Madhubehen’s family. This was where I learned the most.

In Indian culture, they have the phrase: “Guest is God”. And it’s true that, as a guest, every small care is taken for you – the words I would hear most often are “Please sit down” and “Take some rest.”

For me, I couldn’t feel very comfortable resting while the women of the family worked so hard all day – from sweeping and mopping the house three times a day, to making all of the meals, dishes, washing clothes, caring for the children, working in the fields, there wasn’t a moment’s rest. It was a big fight the first day to help out with anything, and besides so much of their work I didn’t know how to do. But I still went with them to the field and picked the cotton, and did the dishes with them, and helped them with their daily work, because I had come to do "seva" and they were offering me so much, food and a home and so much more. But still I would feel badly, it never seemed to be enough to give them any respite. When I tried to express this in my basic Hindi—that I was here at least to help out with some things and give them a break—Vidya, the daughter-in-law of the household said, “But we are married, right? So we never have a chutti [day off]”.

Starting maybe the third or fourth day, when I would leave to go and help out with the community service projects that the NSS students were working on, Vidya would ask me when I was coming back. She would explain to me in simple Hindi so that I could understand, “We don’t feel good when you are not here.”

And the night before I go, Madhubehen and Duksa start asking, “Will you miss us when you go? We will miss you.”

And I see that Rekha, the youngest, has tears in her eyes. They are giving me so much love and I can’t even come close to being worthy of it. I have tried. I try by insisting on washing dishes with them and insisting on washing clothes with them, even though after I have washed the pot they quietly take it and wash it again, scrubbing harder, and still they will say, “You are doing good work, very good work.”

I see even in what I am trying to give, they are still the ones giving to me. I remember these very wise words that someone spoke at a retreat I attended before my stay in Pedhamali:  “It is easy to confuse working really hard, with being very generous.” How can I actually be generous, instead of just trying to work hard? 

They obviously don’t need my work to get by, as they have lived long enough without it, and besides I’m even able to help very much – all they want is for me to be happy, have this heart-to-heart connection. That doesn’t mean that helping out with their work around the house isn’t important. It is. But it’s not the point. It’s not what they are hoping for out of me staying with them. Rather, if I feel this heart-to-heart connection with them, then of course naturally I will want to help with their work, because who among us does not jump up to help a loved one who is heavy laden in that moment, especially if our hands are free?

And so it’s the morning of my departure, and I let them pamper me like a baby, sitting on the burlap sack next to the fire because the floor is cold, next to where Madhubehen is making hot fresh rotla for me and pouring me yet another cup of tea. And in her smile there is nothing but pure love and some sadness, that these are the last rotlas she will make for me.

When I pick up my bags to leave, many tears are shed on both sides. I hope that I have given something to them, as I have learned so much in my time with them. But I also know deep inside that there is love now between us, and that is the most important thing.

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Comments (9)

  • Ragunath wrote ...

    Beautiful. Thanks Audrey for sharing.

    Here is the Service Space version of the bulb question inspired by this article:

    How many dishes does it take to make a volunteer happy?

    With practice, just one. After that one stops counting.

  • Audrey wrote ...

    Love that question about the dishes, Ragu! So very true. :)

  • Gayathri wrote ...


  • Sheetal wrote ...

    I have met Stephanie and she truly is a service rockstar.. So glad to read up on her journeys!!

    Loved these lines:
    "They obviously don’t need my work to get by, as they have lived long enough without it, and besides I’m even able to help very much – all they want is for me to be happy, have this heart-to-heart connection."

  • Nisha wrote ...

    Amazing story Stephanie. Love the picture from the skit!

  • Madhur wrote ...

    I can feel what is written here. So glad for the experience you had, I am sure it gave a positive transformation in some ways.

  • Dharani wrote ...

    I knew when i met you and saw the way you have dressed in the Indian attire, knew the dishes you were going to serve and trying to speak in chaste hindi, that you are SPECIAL and wherever you go you are going to win everyone's heart. What you are doing is "Trying to give" and making a bond with everyone you come across....I loved talking to you. Here in the pictures i see you trying to learn everything whatever one could teach you....You coming from a different culture n atmosphere and learninng n following something totally different is wonderful....or shall i say MARVELLOUS. Keep up the good heart and work...would love to catch up again with u.....hope to c u soon....tc

  • Suresh wrote ...

    Hi Stefanie, glad to read ur seva experience here, now I understood why ur return ticket was forcefully postponed :), appreciate your commitment to such seva projects.

  • service space wrote ...

    Thank you so much for your amazing report on your experience at this event. Very inspiring!