WaterBridge Outreach (WBO) has been engaged for several years with Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR) in that nonprofit organization’s wonderful work on behalf of Merasi communities in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, northwest India. On January 2, 2015, WBO friends and supporters Jenny Li and Angelo Lamola, visited the Merasi School in Jaisalmer on behalf of WBO. Barbara Bundy and Peter Coughlan asked them about their visit:
In 2014 you gathered no less than 245 children’s and young adult books/DVDs in English, weighing 155 lbs, and carried them with you as luggage when you visited the Merasi School this past January. That was an extraordinarily generous thing to do. Considering the number and the weight of the books it cannot have been easy for you two “book mules.” What made you decide to do it?
One constantly reads about and/or views on TV or in documentaries about the sad and sometimes horrible plights of the large fraction of people in our world. Our reaction is usually “this is not right, this can’t be, something must be done, what can we do to make a difference in the situation?” But then there is the realization that one cannot do much. And when the opportunity comes along to join in organized efforts to send some funds to aid tsunami or earthquake victims or to fund surgery to fix cleft palates, for example, we feel good that we can join because our donation or effort is well directed and effective, as small as it is. So bringing the books to the Merasi School was this kind of opportunity for a directed contribution. Added to that was the experienced witness of Peter and Barbara, the WBO’s effort to install the water tank at the Merasi School, the information Jenny got from Karen Lukas of Folk Art Rajasthan (FAR), and a letter from Dr. Sarwar, the founder of Merasi School, telling us what the books would mean to the Merasi students. All of these indicated that our effort would have a major amplification because of the previous work of these folks. The Merasi students were ready and eager for the books and would cherish them and use them to genuinely advance. The books would remain at the school’s library for many years and would benefit many students, of which some may follow the lead of the books to college one day. Of course, once we actually experienced the general situation in India and the particular plight of the “untouchables” we were more convinced of our decision.
How did you go about collecting all the books? Were there many problems in getting all these books together?
The book/DVD collection reflected some careful thinking and planning, as the coverage needed to be broad both in terms of age and subject. Merasi School has over 60 students from 5-year old to 17. Most of the books were purchased at nominal prices online via Amazon.com, secondspin, etc., from thrift shops such as Goodwill and Salvation Army. So the work was to read the abstracts and reviews of the books online, and go to the shops to sort through loads of books in order to find the ones that would fit the criteria. This took a few months. WBO contributed 20 books. Barbara donated 9 books. Relatives and friends offered some books as well. We cleaned up the used books, and cataloged all of them. Jenny applied her “military training” on packing and securing the two large boxes for transport, which made through the long journey and reached Merasi kids safely.
You had originally intended to include the visit to the Merasi School as part of an organized tour in India. When the tour fell through, you were not put off but went to Jaisalmer in any case. Did that make the trip more difficult?
Not much except adding some extra detour to the whole trip. We were lucky to locate a tour agency online that was able to arrange a car and driver to transport us to Jaisalmer and then cool his heels while we “secretly” dealt with the delivery of the books and a visit to the “untouchables”’ village in the desert. We could not tell the driver due to the general animosity towards the local “untouchables”. For the same reason, we could only stay at a hotel where an “untouchable” is allowed to enter.
What was the reaction of the children at the Merasi School when you arrived with all the books, actually carrying with you a gift of an entire library for the school?
The two boxes were picked up from us the night before our visit to the school, thanks to the efforts of Demi, the current intern from FAR, and three of the Merasi students. The books were at the school waiting to be opened in the afternoon during our visit, so the kids were in great anticipation all day and a night before that. Dr. Sarwar had told us that none of the Merasi kids has ever owned a book! The boxes were opened and books distributed for the kids to see and handle. This was accompanied by great joy and enthusiasm! The cheering, excitement, and appreciation coupled with bright smiles made all the efforts worth many folds more. We will cherish the memory always!
What are the main things that struck you about the children, the School, and what the School is trying to do?
Education, something some children and adults take for granted in many countries and regions, is so treasured there among the students, teachers, and of course the visionary Dr. Sarwar, as he fully realizes the importance of education with connection to the future of the “untouchable” kids (see upper left video).
On the initial walk to the school one of the students, a twelve-year old boy who we nicknamed Body Guard because of his tee-shirt and bravado, pointed out with great pride the sign that read: “Manganiyar no more: Merasi!” (“We are no longer beggars. We are musicians!). The “untouchables” in that region inherit musical gifts from their ancestors for 38 generations. From Rajah to common people, they are asked to perform at all kinds of events, weddings, entertaining guests, welcoming new babies, social parties, etc. Yet, they are slaves rather than artists, begging with their talents and skills for money. In the Merasi School kids are taught general academic subjects during the day and practice their classic folk music in the evening.
The Merasi students were neat, polite, and fun kids, well-disciplined in class and eager to learn. It was also obvious that the kids helped each other with the older kids taking charge in a very kind way. The seventeen-year old girl who was deemed the librarian was already planning on how to organize and keep track of the books. There were three classes going on when we arrived to open the boxes: Math, English, and Science (parts of the human body was the topic of the day). We got to witness the dedication and skill of the volunteer teachers, which were impressive. After these academic classes the kids went upstairs to a music room for the two-hour music class. There is no notated music as such, it’s all by imitation and memorization. They start as young (toddlers) as possible, and they learn to play the Indian musical instruments, drums, castanets, and harmonium, and to sing the songs with great joy and exuberance. The songs are usually in either Hindi or Sanskrit, and connected with specific occasions such as a wedding, a newborn, or a welcome guest.
You said that while the books made an impact on the children at the Merasi School, your visit there made an even bigger impact on you. In what sense?
We had the rare opportunity to experience the caste system in real life practice. The caste discrimination, banned by Indian federal law but obviously supported by local tradition, as well as the prejudice so unfairly and inhumanly imposed on the “untouchables” made us angry. The hope for a brighter future, backed by a Hindu “way of life” that provides the “untouchables” a basis for enduring their difficulty with peace and grace, furthered our understanding of the practical power of spirituality. Throughout our travels in India we were taken by the graciousness of the people regardless of their castes and level of poverty. With smiles of genuine joy they offered us a heartfelt hospitality that touched us. We are very fortunate to live in a wealthy country where freedom, equality, and democracy are woven into the social fabric. Angelo always remembers the answer by a Polish nun, on her fundraising mission in the States for an orphanage in Poland, who he encountered thirty years ago. He had asked her about her impressions of the USA. She replied, “You have so much and yet you complain.” The experiences in India have caused us to remember to keep asking the fundamental questions about the human predicament, though we also realize answers may not be always attainable.
How do you think this experience will affect what you do in the future?
When millions of people quietly seek for basic dignity and public respect, helping to install a water tank or build a small library, as WBO strives to do in contributing to poor remote villages around the world, would seem to be very doable for many people like us. The reward of the experienced gratitude is immense, and the education is lasting and beneficial. In the immediate time, we are talking about our experiences of India, in “the real world” sense that we got to see, to anyone who will listen. In the long run, we’ll keep doing what we can to offer help, no matter how small it is. We appreciate Peter’s analogy of the “ripple effect”: enough small ripples one day may make a big wave.
What would you like to comment on about the really marvelous help you have given to WaterBridge Outreach and “untouchable” Merasi community children – communities and children whom we are helping through friends and for whom we hope to raise further funds to help them in their need?
We do not consider what we did was anywhere near heroic or tough to do, nor deserving of the attribute “marvelous”. What WBO and its partner FAR have been doing consistently for years is truly remarkable. We hope our experience and story can inspire others to understand how even small contributions made with respect can have significant impact on lives. Making a major impact for the cause of social justice throughout the world may seem a far-fetched dream for ordinary folks like us, but we do dream that one of the Merasi kids, following the path disclosed in the books, could become another Ghandiji and bring all Indians to a better life.