Telling the story

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Indian girl with samll baby Photo © Catherine Rubin Kermorgant. Lakshmi, 14 was dedicated by her aunt, against the will of her mother.

At 1pm on Saturday 21 November, we welcome Catherine Rubin Kermorgant (author of 'Servants of the Goddess'), to a special event at the International Slavery Museum: 'Telling the Story'

Catherine is one of three authors taking part in the event, all of whom have been inspired to write books about modern slavery in India.

Here we talk to Catherine about what first inspired her to put pen to paper, and about the impact that working with the devadasis of India has had on her own life.

What led you to take a special interest in the devadasis of Kalyana?
"Initially, I was hired a by film director to help him write a proposal for a historical documentary about the devadasis system. I soon discovered that the system was still practiced in India’s southern poverty belt, and organized a research trip to northern Karnataka. I spent three weeks travelling with a car and an interpreter, going from village to village, and talking to devadasi women.  I settled upon Kalyana for two reasons: firstly, because the devadasis were very open with us, and secondly, because the village elder welcomed us.  He was a wise and intelligent man and understood that we would do our best to help the women.  In most villages, the upper castes were suspicious of our intentions."

Tell us initially how you felt about what you saw when you went to do your research in India?
"I was outraged, intrigued and mystified all at once.  How could this system, which forced young girls into prostitution, still be practiced openly? And how could the families accept this?  It was devastating."

What inspired you to write ‘Servants of the Goddess: The modern day devadasis’?
"The devadasi women I met inspired me to write the book.  They embodied Shakti – divine feminine energy, power and strength.  They had hard lives, unimaginably hard lives, but they were warm, generous and they found ways to overcome and to survive.  I wrote the book to showcase their extraordinary heroism, but also to bring awareness to their plight so that people would reach out to help them.  People think of slavery as a thing of the past, but it’s thriving, perhaps now more than ever."

Young Indian girl wearing necklace Photo © Catherine Rubin Kermorgant. A young girl slated for dedication. She already wears the red and white bead necklace that signifies her service to the goddess.

What long term effects has working with the devadasis had upon your life?
"I look to devadasi women as an example of strength, courage and wisdom.  No matter how hard life is, you have to pick yourself up and march on.  I learned from them to concentrate on what is good in life, work, friends and family, and I always try to make the best of it.  There’s a famous quote attributed to Saint Francis, but which may be Greek in origin: "Give me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference between the two."  Strength, courage, wisdom, this is what I saw in devadasis and what I try to emulate in my own life. "

Do you think it’s possible to change this age old “tradition”?
"For today's devadasis, who are for the most part non-literate, the "oldest profession" is the ONLY profession open to them. They are living at subsistence level poverty. Droughts and crop failure bring near starvation to tens of thousands of families on a regular basis. Even in good times, adult members of the family go hungry so the children have enough to eat. Dedicating at least one girl per generation as a devadasi is a form of insurance; she will provide for the family in difficult times. Change is possible, but not without economic empowerment. "

What do you think needs to be done to bring about change?
"We must educate the children.  By teaching them to read and write, we give then the tools they need to help themselves.  If they have an education – even just up to the 8th grade level, they can get jobs as clerks in shops, for example.  And those who are good at school can go on to college.  A daughter of a devadasi just earned a 4-year full scholarship to study at Bard College in the USA.  This is extraordinary and inspiring; a good example of what is possible.  Education and economic empowerment are effective tools.  They can be used to bring an end to sexual slavery."

What specific message would you like people, especially in the UK where you will be giving your talk, to take away at the end of your session, or after having read your book?
"I hope that readers will learn from the devadasis, as I did, to find happiness in the small pleasures of life.  Our culture teaches us that money brings happiness, but happiness comes from having a solid social network, taking pride in one’s work, whatever that work may be and by contributing to society.  It’s never too late to start."

Meet Catherine and other authors of books about modern slavery in India at 'Telling the Story' at 1pm on Saturday 21 November 2015. Hear why they write and how they translate the issues into a story on the written page, and maybe become inspired to set pen to paper yourself.

The other authors on our panel include: David Skivington ('Scar Tissue'), and Baroness Cox ('This Immoral Trade').

The event will include interviews with the panel, readings from their books and the opportunity for audience questions.

'Telling the Story' is just one of the events supporting our exhibition 'Broken Lives - Modern Slavery in India'.