We are two weeks into the trip and a few themes have emerged. Foremost has been my appreciation of Jennie, who is proving herself yet again to be a consummate teacher. She has much to offer, and most of the people in her workshops and classes are eager to learn. Jennie makes learning fun and empowers participants to put the material and techniques they are learning into use. Her students seem grateful for the teaching, and of course, her.
Here, In Chennai, the weather is hot and humid, and I am, predictably, struggling. The muggies bring out most of the challenges associated, for me, with the late effects of Polio. I feel sluggish and dense, fatigue easily, and take longer than usual to recover from strenuous exercise. (Given the conditions of the streets and sidewalks, just going for a walk on crutches is strenuous exercise.) Although we hear stories of other people on crutches or using power chairs we have yet to see them. Stairs are ubiquitous, elevators infrequent, and mobility and access issues far from the fore. (I’ve been writing about accessibility issues on my GimpVt blog.) The lack of accessibility occasionally prevents me from doing a chosen or scheduled activity.
Individuals frequently stop me to ask why I am on crutches. They seem genuinely curious and interested, and these encounters are often sweet. Jennie and I have concluded that a European looking older male on crutches is an anomaly here and draws attention. (Some young motorcyclists, on the other hand, seem to make a game of coming as fast, and as close as possible to me when I am trying to cross Chennai’s congested streets.)
A third theme is skin color and Indigenous standing. I am regularly asked why my skin is not red, or some variation of that. (Indigenous people in India tend to have darker skin tones, and color can be an important indicator of social status.) I explain that intermarriage has a long history in Eastern North America, and not so much in the West. I sometimes try to explain the problem of stereotyping skin color in television and film. When I explain that I hold both Native and European heritage, often the speaker will ask about the European side of my ancestry, pointedly ignoring the Native.
Most Indians have tribal ancestry, a historical fact that seems to hold considerably ambiguity and anxiety. Tribal knowledge was severely discounted by the British, and the ruling classes of India. Yet, tribal people have eons of experience addressing human problems. Rather than primitive, this knowledge may be quite sophisticated. There is a hunger among those I meet to rediscover the wisdom of their lost tribal heritage, just as there is often a desire to distance themselves from that heritage.
Al of this is compounded by government policies that serve to isolate tribal people in enclaves, severely limit their participation Indian society, and give few avenues for protecting sovereign lands from encroachment or seizure. Some tribal groups have, in response, become quite militant, even carrying on prolonged “Maoist” insurgencies, a strategy that is not supported, understandable, by the Indian population in general.
Finally, India has many shamanic traditions, although these seem not well integrated into either psychotherapy or medical practice. It also has a rich history of sham healers who create great harm. Given the challenges inherent in establishing the competency and ethics of reported shamans and shamanic practitioners, healing arts practitioners here are understandably reserved in integrating shamanic practices into their work. (Certainly we in the Americas face similar challenges.) In spite of that, I will be teaching shamanic techniques and practices to a group of health care practitioners next weekend.