As I write this, I am waiting for my flight from Guwahati to New Delhi. Due to a slight goof up, I will be in New Delhi for a day, and then finally shall reach Srinagar, on the hills surrounding the Kashmir Valley, where I shall spend the remainder of my break.
While I started this project with complete intention of making daily updates on what I was up to, things really never turn out according to plan in anything I do. Probably because Murphy is my uncle (Murphy's law, wink wink). As such, Mark and my days were interspersed with days of complete inactivity, or business in the heat of the afternoon sun that would leave even the most industrious of a worker completely exhausted. So, this serves as a culmination of my updates from Guwahati, and also acts as an encompassing survey of what all we did, and didn't do. I like doing things that way, makes for less writing for me.
Guwahati has been a revelation in many ways. I saw many things that I took at face value all my life, and only living in America for the last two years made me realize their presence. (Who says reverse culture shock is a bad thing?) I also saw the problems my country faces, in stark relief to the problems my host country, America, faces. I saw the Slumdog Millionaire Effect in action, and that made me think long and hard about my own presence in this place. But most importantly, I saw a bunch of really dedicated people do a load of good. I think it is a saving grace that I worked with Operation Smile, and not a different organisation. I would have become disillusioned with what I was doing a long time ago otherwise. But, let me not get too ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
Guwahati is the capital of the Indian state of Assam, which lies in the “north-east”. It is pretty much in the east. So east that sometimes it feels like you could huck a rock from the border into China or Myanmar, or Bangladesh. Connected to the rest of India by what is known as the “chicken neck”, it is widely considered to be one of the most underdeveloped areas of the country. I cannot say much for the underdeveloped, having not visited the industrial areas, but it does show the signs of a typical Indian city.
From the slums by the train tracks, you can see the high rises being built in the better parts of town. Here, living across the train tracks and being on the nicer side of town is quite literally the case. The shanties (even calling them shanties is a compliment), are less than 5 meters from the train tracks, and you see children playing barely a foot away from an onrushing train. Their primary activity, and indeed, the primary activity of most of the slum, is to collect plastic bottles and other refuse, and sell it for recycling.
You might wonder why I am going on about poor slum dwellers, when I worked in a project related to cleft palate, and cleft lip. Because, as with most problems, everything is interrelated. Cleft lip and cleft palate, for some reason, are more common on the eastern side of the country. Which also has the most mineral rich areas, and the biggest tribal concentration. For those not familiar with the ways of India, and most of the third world, that means the east also has a huge economic imbalance. And with poverty comes Illiteracy, and superstition. How do you eradicate superstition? With education. How do you get education? With money. See my point? It is somewhat of a vicious cycle. Throw in an obvious facial deformity, which becomes conflated with a sign of the god's ill will, and you got a stew goin'.
Operation Smile has a center in Guwahati. It is called GC4. GC4, by the last count, has completed over 9,000 cleft surgeries in the last 2 years. That means there are 9,000 people in Assam, and most of the north-east, able to smile, eat, talk and fit into society, properly. All of which, by the way, was for free. On top of that, this is one of the rare examples where a public private partnership in India has worked fantastically. The government of Assam helps bankroll part of the process. It is pretty legitimate, and, if I may please fall back to the 80's, righteous.
Mark and I were here in Guwahati to help GC4 with supplies and logistics, and to help out. And to help mobilize the local volunteer base. I have already mentioned in previous updates about us buying stuff, and it being really nice for everybody concerned. We did other work too, but that is for a later post, which reports on what we actually did, rather than what I realised (or thought I realised) and felt like and all that good stuff, which is in the purview of part two of this post.
Rahul is a senior art major from Jammu, India.