April Goodbyes / by Aedin Wright

April draws my time at Manav Sadhna to an end. Leaving is an emotional prospect for a few reasons. I decided to go back to the US a few weeks earlier than planned because of a death in my family - this way I will be able to spend some much needed time with family, grieve, and find closure. On the other hand, it means leaving my Manav Sadhna family early. The prospect of leaving India was always sad, but now, rushed and topped with the anticipation of going home to confronting loss, feels at times a bit overwhelming.

While the present is a bit of a commotion, I had a wonderful talk with Anjaliben, - Yes, I’m feeling torn between two wonderful families, but alternatively, how wonderful is it that I have two homes to be torn between? I have felt so supported by my community here since my grandfather’s death: I’ve told stories about him at our volunteer meeting, read his poetry, and held silence for him and lit candles at prayer. While I look forward to being with my family, I also see that I am in a beautiful place to process grief. For this I am acutely grateful. 

Though my grandfather’s passing colored the past weeks here, I am surrounded by such vibrant life I cannot help but reflect on how the world continues forward, dancing, honking, shouting, and singing, just as it did and always will. It’s a lovely current to be held in, just to relax and float, letting others buoy you.  

So let me show you just how I have been buoyed! Above are the kitchen ladies dancing around some very large pots of dhal and rice at Mishu’s birthday party. Sunilbhai, the director of Manav Seva has a daughter, Mishu, who just turned three. A feast was held for her birthday celebration for the community around Seva in her honor. Hundreds of kiddos and some of their parents came for a big meal and some raucous dancing! We helped serve the food along with the Boy and Girl Scouts of India.

Left to right: Me, Mooneyben, and Emma after we collected our ~5kgs of recyclables.

Left to right: Me, Mooneyben, and Emma after we collected our ~5kgs of recyclables.

On a different project, last Saturday I went “rag picking” with paryavaran mitra (friends of the environment). Paryvaran mitra is a project that aims to help the rag picking women who comb the streets for recyclables and sell them to middle men, who sell them to recycling centers. The paryavaran mitra project took out the middle man so the sisters get all that the recyclables are worth. Among other things, the project also provides the sisters with money management, loan aid, groceries and supplies, and covers their children’s school expenses. The volunteers at Manav Sadhna have an opportunity to go along with the sisters early on Saturday mornings to help pick up the recyclables and get a glimpse at the exhausting work the sisters do most mornings to make around 200 extra rupees in order to support their families, which is usually in addition to another or several other jobs. It was an extremely special opportunity to spend with Mooneyben, who was very welcoming and showed us the ropes - we wanted to pick up the most dense and abundant items to get the most money for our time. Plastic bottles are easy to spot and make 23 rupees/kg, paper is very condensable and goes for 25 rupees/kg but can be too dirty to recycle. Such a puzzle because, of course, Mooneyben has to carry everything she picks up but also is paid by weight. Despite our knowing that this is an excruciating job and the sisters wouldn’t be there is they had a choice, Emma and I had a really good time. We made a game out of it and got very excited when we found a good stash of plastics or paper. It was also lovely to walk around in the cool air before the city had woken up. In the end, it was a keen reminder of how nuanced and complex our interaction with poverty is as outsiders. For example, a key outcome of having the volunteers help the sisters, as the directors explained to us, is that other locals see the volunteers picking up trash which has much more of an impression on them than seeing just the sisters pick up trash - this way they pay attention and potentially think about littering and recycling. Further, this spurred our conversation about the fine line between recognizing the saintliness of our friends in the communities we work in and tokenizing their experience of poverty.

Poised at my manicure station!

Poised at my manicure station!

Next, we had an event for earth day at the new Paryavaran Mitra center with displays on water and soil filtration and the recycling process. Two other volunteers put the event together and we had out own self-conducted experiments on charcoal water filtration! We also had a “spa” area where the sisters who pick up trash could receive manicures, which you can see I was quite excited about! They consisted of a soak, hand massage, and nail painting. It was so lovely to hold these women’s hands, a much more intimate experience than I had expected. The event lasted around two hours and about forty sisters attended and the festivities concluded with pani purri.

Before I left I also got to a stopping point with the highschool english curriculum. I was able to finish an outline and action plan so that the next volunteer who works in this role will be able to hit the ground running.

The next days were full of goodbyes and lovely cards and more celebratory pani purri. I cannot express how held in love I felt in my last few days - everyone was so thoughtful about how difficult it must be for me to leave. They sure know how to send a lady off at Manav Sadhna! With heaps of lovely words while you’re overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed in the middle of a circle, posters of Gandhiji quotes, lots of Gujarati food, and all the cards so you can have a thorough cry in the airport while you read them.

I’m publishing this post as I’m in the airport in San Fransisco, not quite home to Oregon. I feel light… Light because I left at least one atrium and ventricle in India (remarkable I’m standing!), it’s got to be at least half a kilo of heart I’m missing. But also light because my time at Manav Sadhna gave me a peace. As Virenbhai said to me once,” meditation is service for the mind and service is living meditation”. Working and living for others removed some of the weightiness of isolated & egoic thoughts from my shoulders like dusting the cobwebs detachment from my bones. MS will always be with me, regardless of how soon I can go back (hopefully soon!) and I am so grateful for all I learned and all those I met and connected with in my time there.

Love and light,
Aedin