A Word From The Wise

Besides being a curiosity in these parts because I have white skin, I am also a curiosity because I am a single woman.  No matter where I go, eventually the talk turns to the topic of my marital status.

Such was the case in Babuan, when Urksilla, mother of 12, asked me about being married.  I replied that I was not.  She asked why I was not.  “I don’t know,” I said in a sincerely bemused way.  She pondered this answer for a second and replied, “Maybe it is because you don’t speak the right language.”


I have tried now for the last three and a half weeks to get the hang of The Art of Eating With One Hand.  But when my host yesterday observed my food wrangling for a few minutes, then disappeared and came back with a spoon which she thrust me, humbled, I knew I had to surrender.  I am a Utensil Eater – there is no fighting or hiding it, apparently.

Babuan Voices

It took about an hour to have tea at Ritu’s house.  I had brought my karate gi, so I quickly changed, thinking we would go back to the school.  But no.  There were the family I had to meet.  And the awkward periods as everyone around me chatted animatedly and motioned in my direction, and me not knowing what they were saying, but just smiling and looking interested as the center of their attention.  Finally, we returned to the school.  And immediately I knew why the delay.  The school teachers had cleared the schoolyard and even added dry dirt where before there was only mud.  I now thankfully had a teaching area for the girls’ karate class.

Usually there are 40 girls here, but the floodwaters prevented about half of them from making it to school.  And, in a manner that I am now accustomed to, 17 girls showed up initially; another 6 followed about 30 minutes after class had started.  They ranged in age from 10 to 14.  Their manner of dress ran the gamut:  tunic top and pants; dresses that had been hand-me-downs several times over, the zippers broke and now held together by safety pins; some in their Sunday best dresses that looked like this was the first time they were worn, with lace and ruffles and sequins; and others still in a school uniform of short-sleeved buttondown shirt and skirt.

The girls never cease to amaze me.  If this were back in the States, it would not surprise me at all to see these girls register at the karate school I go to.  They have an immense natural talent, a strong competitiveness, and a hunger to not only do, but show what they can do.   Put them on a team and give them some resources, these girls would be a butt-kicking force to be reckoned with.  As it is, because of their location and the inherent lack of access to the area, I am the closest they will ever get to doing karate in their lives.  It is such a waste and it makes me very sad.

But yesterday, I did not think about that.  In front of an audience that included half of the village,  the girls did calisthenics, basic punching, and some blocking.  I also had some unexpected help from the village men who had gathered to watch and offer approving ‘ah-ha’s when a girl would do something right and ‘tsk tsk tsk’s when wrong before shouting out what they should be doing.  Two men would even walk right into the class and physically correct a girl who was struggling with something.  I tried my best to shield the girls.  Very challenging.  There were some girls who were not happy with the extra teachers, and they kept their worried eyes downcast, and did not smile.  Other girls, however, were natural-born warriors, and they knew what they were about and who they are, and did not pay attention to the men.  Very interesting experience, because the men were earnestly trying to help the girls.  At the same time, I don’t think that they got it that some of their ministrations and directions were a bit intimidating and controlling.

Anyway, that was the morning session.  The clouds started to melt away and it was becoming very hot, especially in my karate gi in a lightly shaded schoolyard.  With morning class over, we went back to Ritu’s house where her mother, Urksilla, had made a wonderful lunch.   I ate and drank, my one liter of water that I had bought earlier that day ever dwindling.  “That’s okay,” I thought, “We’ll pass by the stall in that village again, and it is only half an hour away.  I can make it without more water.”

Then Dheeraj came up to me, quiet as ever, asking if I would give a private lesson to Ritu and three of her six sisters (she also has seven brothers) in self defense.  We went to a little, windowless room where it was just supposed to be the four sisters, me and Dheeraj, but quickly ended up with the grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, girls from morning karate class, and other children and adults from god-knows-where crowding the doorway and eventually lining the already small room.  We went over wrist grabs, neck grabs, hair grabs.  What was supposed to only be 20 minutes turned out to be an hour.  So goes time keeping in India.

Finally back to the school for the afternoon session where I focused on self defense, going over several of the moves that I had just taught to Ritu et al.  I also got out the big pad on which to do forearm strikes.  What an experience.  I was now getting them to use their voice.  Earlier, Dheeraj (who does the Shotokan-Hapkido-Muay Thai mix of martial arts popular in this area) was helpful in getting the girls to kiai on punching.  At his suggestion, I did my kiai as an example (and those of you who know me know that I am LOUD), and it really set a great tone.  But now with the pad, and the break for lunch, the girls had forgotten how and when to use their voice.  With a little encouragement and additional demonstration from me, the girls were finding their voices again.  Except for one young lady.  I could see had an internal block to saying anything.  She had been quiet in all the exercises earlier in the day, and was very meek.  I took some extra time with her because she absolutely did not want to kiai.  But, finally finally finally, a sound escaped her throat.  And then another one, this time a little more forceful.  And then another, and another.  After about the fifth or sixth kiai (still not loud but not a mouse squeak either), a wave of release from her being accompanied her voice, so strong that it was almost palpable to me as I stood on the other side of the pad from her.  And it seemed a giant weight had been lifted from her tiny shoulders.  When she walked away, I glimpsed a small triumph that she manifested nowhere other than in her eyes.


I just witnessed an assault, the type of assault that the very self defense techniques I taught yesterday in Babuan would have made a difference in.  This all took place on the train platform about 70 yards from where I was standing (across the street and on the rooftop of the house I’m staying at while hanging my laundry to dry).  A man grabbed the wrist of woman who obviously did not want to go with him.  She sat down on the ground as he pulled at her arm.   He was verbally berating her, but she sat her ground and did not get up.  But finally, after about half an hour of this, and despite a small crowd of people, she stood.  She then protested some more, at which point the man grabbed her by the hair and shoved her in the direction he wanted her to go.  She protested and sat down again.  He grabbed her wrist and started pulling, and she reluctantly stood up and he led her alternately by hair, wrist, and shoulders down the train platform and out of sight.

There was one thing that struck me as I witnessed this:  first, if she had had the techniques to fight back, would she have?  It seemed that she finally just gave in.  Maybe she thought, ultimately, she had no choice.  And this is the prison of what a lack of education and exposure to new ideas creates.  It is why my heart jumps every time I see a school here.  It is why I gently admonish the students who rush out of class to see the white foreigner back to their studies.  Because without education, I could be just like that woman.

10x Fast

‘Numb buns.’  I dare you to say it ten times fast.  So, besides being an excellent tongue twister, it is also what happens when you sit on the back of a motorbike for 90 minutes getting transported toward the Nepali border for a visit to the last of the three girls’ schools:  Babuan.  And I do mean border – on one side of the road is India; the other, Nepal.

My trip to Babuan is a day early, and I have advance notice of only half an hour; I get a knock on my door at 7 am, and the intrepid Dheeraj is standing there, sheepishly saying, “We go to Babuan.”  I peer back at him quizzically, and say, “Uh, today is Saturday.  Babuan we go to on Sunday.”  “Yes,” he replies, “But my mother is sick and I have to go to hospital with her tomorrow, so we go Babuan aaj (today).  Abhi (now).”  Well okay then.  I grab my stuff, put it into my backpack, and we’re off.  But I have forgotten something very important…

Other than its location, Babuan resembles the hundreds of small villages I have seen, and the ride there yesterday was remarkable only in the long stretches of open road that connected the otherwise isolated communities.  It does seem that this area is a little more prosperous than others I have seen:  many more livestock (cattle, water buffalo, goats, chickens; ducks); semi-advanced farming techniques (somewhat large scale hoop-and-tarp shelters for seedlings); more brick buildings, though thatch still the predominant building material.  However, this area has been especially hard hit by monsoons, and there is water everywhere.  Several times, we had to motor across streams or one foot deep mud ‘puddles’.

On the way to Babuan, I yell at Dheeraj (so as to be heard from the back of the motorbike), “I need to get water.”  He yells back, “Not possible.”  Not possible?  Are you kidding me?  The plan is to be in Babuan for the entire day and teach two two-hour long classes.  “No,” I say, “I must get water.”  I didn’t have time in the morning to boil my water for the day, of course.  The beautiful green countryside lulls my panic into a dull pit.  But everytime we come to a village, I anxiously scan the little shops to see if they sell water.  We are so far out, and foreigners don’t come out here, there is no need or profit in selling bottled water.  Village after village passes, farther and farther out from the ‘convenience’ of Forbesgunge.  About an hour into the ride, I spy water in a stall.  “Pani! (water!),” I yell.  We stop and I get a liter.  This is my second mistake.

So, we finally arrive at Babuan.  It is 9:30 in the morning, and children are in school.  I learn later that they start school on Saturday mornings at 6:30.  My presence causes the usual disruption until I motion all of them back to their classes with a stern, “School!”  They laugh and smile, and with many backward glances, head back to their classrooms.  I meet the principal of the school (no English) and a teacher (little English).  I check out the schoolyard where class will be held:  a pile of the ubiquitous red bricks used in this area covers a large portion of the yard; mud takes up most of the remainder.  Oy.  I scout around, but this is it.  I will have to make do.

I am then introduced to a teacher, Ritu, and we go for a little walk to her house just down the road.  The odor of cow is strong; there are three of them standing in a small pen just off to the side of the main entrance to the family compound.  Ritu is from a large family, and most of them live in a complex warren of single room dwellings.  I am asked to sit down, and I meet everyone, including her grandmother and grandfather, who are remarkably savvy and humble.  The grandfather can read English (which he did when I handed out a U. S. dollar bill to show).  In their presence, these people were so, I don’t know, it is hard to explain.  They were curious without being judgemental, maybe?  I liked them immensely almost immediately.  That’s all I know.

The Hospital

I got a little reminder of why I am not allowed to roam free here as I was heading home from Uttari Rampur.  We had passed a hospital on the way to the school, and I wanted to get a picture of it.  Imagine a four-story apartment building in Cabrini Green in Chicago, then you’ll get an idea of what this hospital looks like, and why I wanted a picture of it. Well, in fact, here it is:

  I truly couldn’t believe that this was a place people went to when they got sick.  Anyway, Dheeraj stopped the motorbike, and within the time it took me to get off the bike, take ten steps, take the picture, then return to the bike, a crowd of about 30 people had formed.  I kid you not.  So, what is one thing I am missing?  Anonymity, and the ability to go anywhere without drawing a crowd.

Uttari Rampur

Five minutes from Apne Aap headquarters in Forbesgunge is the Kishori Mandel girls’ school in the village of Uttari Rampur.  It is a small area on the outskirts of Forbesgunge, and it is like many of the small villages I have seen in Bihar.  It is surrounded by swamps and agricultural plots.  The houses are huts.  The difference between this village and others like it is that it is populated mostly by ‘Untouchables’.  And the lucky ones get to send their children to Kishori Mandel.  This means 20 young girls, between the ages of 10 and 16.

I arrived there yesterday, again late (my driver, Dheeraj, seems to have a very poor sense of time).  So, again, girls had to be located and asked to come back to the school for a karate class.  Three out of 20 came.  So at 5:20 pm, with their teacher, Kalpana, I began to teach karate.

I began with basic punching and proper stance (feet shoulder width apart; knees slightly bent).  We started slow, added some speed.  The turning over the fist thing was kind of difficult for them to grasp, but they were catching on quite well.  I then thought it might be a good idea to show them a kata; this worked so well at KGBV.  So, I motioned for them to wait and watch.  I took a position in the schoolyard – a piece of ground just 30 feet long by 10 feet wide.  I started to do Bassai Dai.  And every time I put my foot down hard, it sunk into the ground like a hole had opened up.  And, sure enough, the entire yard seemed to be undermined by some creature’s burrow.  I finished the kata and walked back to the three girls, who very quickly said that they no longer wanted to do karate.  ?????  I thought I had got through Bassai Dai fairly well. ; p  I still don’t know what happened, but I then told them that I would do self defense.  Like at Kavaspur, basic wrist and neck grab escape.  I just started doing the drills with them and they really liked it.

Throughout the 40 minutes that I had to teach, I corrected fists, positioned arms, and adjusted shoulders.  These girls are just like any other girls in any other karate class.  And they were not untouchable to me.


Two days ago I went to my first girls’ school:  Kavaspur.  Kavaspur is located about 30 minutes by motorbike from Forbesgunge, and it is an entirely different world.  Fields of rice and jute as far as the eye can see, small settlements of mostly thatched-roofed and -sided huts, small naked children running around with livestock.  Women, knee deep in water, bend over and harvest or plant for 12 hours a day in the heat, in addition to taking care of the house.  I will never complain about work again.  It has been one thing for me to see this on TV or in National Geographic; it is totally different to see it face to face.  Such an impact seeing backbreaking work like that.

The school is a cluster of one and two room buildings with no electricity, so not even a fan to help eleviate heat.  I arrived with Dheeraj, my driver/escort/translator-cum-bad guy late; the monsoon rain which had cancelled class the day before washed out part of the one lane dirt road that is one of the only access points to this village.  I had to get off the motorbike, roll up my pants, take off my shoes, and wade through a calf deep muddy river for about 30 feet.  I got pics.  Anyway, all the girls had gone home by the time we arrived at the school.  So, we sat around and waited for them to be rounded up and sent back.  While I was waiting, I surveyed the area to see where I would be teaching class.  The estwhile schoolyard was under water; even without water, it was unsuitable, which says a lot since my standards of ‘unsuitable’ have come down several pegs here in Bihar.  The classroom was too small and cramped with desks.  I settled on the three and a half foot wide gangway that ran the length of the classroom building.  I then waited.

Seventeen girls showed…and about half of all the boys in the village along with some adults.  Time for class.  But there was a problem.  I started doing some drills on the gangway (concrete) and about half the girls did not want to participate all of sudden.  ?????  Dheeraj quietly and meekly came to me and said that the girls would like to do karate in their cramped classroom (apparently, they did not want to do karate in front of the boys who were looking on).   Okay, fine.  Move the desks and benchseats, sweep the floor.  Ready?  Not quite.  The few windows and doors available allowed pesky boys to watch and catcall.  Okay, close metal shutters over the windows and the metal doors, so no light or breeze.  Fine, can we begin now?  Well, yes and no.  The boys outside took it into their minds to pound on the metal shutters.  Oh, how pleasant.  And now I know what it is like to teach karate from inside of a tin can that is being used in a kickball game on a hot summer day.  Oy.

I say this now, but at the time, I was swept up in trying to teach, so just rolled with it.  And the girls’ enthusiasm was terrific.  I had them doing jumping jacks and changing directions on them, had them doing push ups, stretching.  We went over basic karate punches, and I had them hit me in the stomach.  Let me tell you, these girls really wanted to hit something.  They all had strong punches, if not particularly good technique wise.  Not much of a surprise given the type of work that they have probably been doing since they could stand.  After learning some basic wrist grab escapes, it was time to go.  Tin Can Class had finally ended.

New Assignment

Tomorrow I start one of my new assignments.  That is because I was supposed to start yesterday, but got monsoon-ed out, and then today schools were closed for a holiday.

So my new assignment will take place at three girls’ schools.  Unlike KGBV where the girls had taken karate before, the girls’ school students have had no previous exposure to karate.  Additionally, their risk is different – they are considered either ‘untouchable’ or below poverty level, so upper-castes feel they can treat them however they want, including taking advantage of them sexually.

Although the caste system in India was officially outlawed in 1950, in rural areas such as Bihar it still lives on.  India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs (such as cleaning sewers with their bare hands and disposing of the dead), and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. 

Untouchable women and girls are particularly vulnerable. They are frequently raped or beaten as a means of reprisal against male relatives who are thought to have committed some act worthy of upper-caste vengeance.  Little or nothing is done to prevent attacks on rape victims by gangs of upper-caste villagers seeking to prevent a case from being pursued. Sometimes the policemen even join in.  Rape victims have also been murdered.  Such crimes often go unpunished.

So the training for these girls will really focus a lot on self defense, with a lot of repetition.  I have two weeks to ingrain some instincts into these 100 or so girls; we’ll see what happens.

As part of this assignment, I have also been tasked with producing a list of how girls can identify and avoid predators.  It will have to be translated, but I think even the girls having this little bit of knowledge could give them an edge in surviving in their high risk environments.

Lastly, I will be creating a list of recommendations of what additional and ongoing activities might aid in empowering these young ladies to seek high goals and become leaders in their communities.

In a nutshell, I’m going to be very busy over the next two weeks, but I’m very happy to be.  All I have to do is think about my experience at KGBV, and of the two young girls singing their equality song, and suddenly I’m not so tired. : )

Thanks for reading about my journey.  Stayed tuned over the nex few weeks for more updates on the progress here in Bihar.

Karate Mystery Solved

This area is teaching Muay Thai.  I was doing some ad hoc sparring with some young guy, and he did a classic flying knee to my chin followed up by elbow to top of the head.  Don’t think that I stood there and took it; he telegraphs, so I got out of the way.  But I was absolutely dumbfounded for a moment because the moves were just like moves I’ve seen in Tony Jaa films.  But what about the katas?  This guy did two katas for me.  So I came back to my room and googled and, yes, Muay Thai forms.  So guess what I’m doing tomorrow?  Learning a new martial art….

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