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Sons and Daughters of the Land

text and photographs by Cheryl Sheridan

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THULSIPAR, Madhya Pradesh, India – I was gently taken by the hands, led to a rope-strung cot covered with a woven rug and invited to take a seat. While the women of the household chatted, messengers were dispatched to a neighboring village to gather its women for a meeting. They soon arrived, veiled in saris of dark blues, greens and browns. Walking by they giggled, covering their faces with their saris. A fair skinned, blue-eyed brunette who landed up in a jeep is not a customary sight in these parts. Thulsipar is a remote village in Silwani, a tahsil, or subdistrict, in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Even in the extreme heat – that day the temperature reached 113 degrees – this group of women huddled together, shoulder to shoulder. There was a strong sense of community among them.

Sisters Ancy and Kusum, members of the Sisters of Jesus, were in the village that afternoon to discuss the idea of holding a women’s education camp. I was pleased when the village women agreed to such an idea; I was there to get a feel for the place and develop a rapport with the people.

As I sipped hot sweetened tea, my hostesses, to the repetitious beating of drums, sang in high-pitched harmony hymns praising Ram and Siva, Hindu gods of whom stories of great love and valor are told. A woman approached me with a small bowl full of red tika powder, which she smeared, in the shape of a teardrop, on my forehead – a gesture of welcome. As the women lost themselves in the chants, I took notice of the glowing faces of my hostesses as they, in turn, accepted the swath of red powder. Their warmth and openness surprised me; they were happy to have me there. I organized my gear and began to take my photographs. They did not miss a beat.

Once the music and dance faded, a ceremonial lamp lit and a short speech delivered, Father John Vazhappilly, C.M.I., a stocky priest from the southern Indian state of Kerala, addressed the assembly:

“Tell me something only women can do,” he suggested with a twinkle in his eye.

Puzzled faces stared at him for a moment until one woman suggested, “wash dishes!”

“I have seen men wash dishes,” the priest responded.

“Make roti” someone shouted from the crowd.

“I can make roti and I am a man,” he replied, drawing laughter from a group of women who must have imagined this man of God squatting over an open coal fire, flipping roti, a flat, round unleavened bread made from wheat.

Except for some hushed voices, the crowd grew quiet. The sisters remained in the background.

“What about having babies? Only women may give birth to children,” said the priest. “Women,” he continued, “have a special shakti (power).”

Sisters Ancy and Kusum then taught the women a song with a message stressing the unique strength of womanhood.

Rural Development Service Society – Father John Vazhappilly directs the activities of the Searmau Center of the Rural Development Service Society, or RDSS, which was established in Silwani in 1980 to improve the living conditions of the rural poor, most of whom belong to the Gond tribe.

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Tags: India Sisters Education Women (rights/issues)