A deep desire to serve the poor and marginalised enthused Australian couple Mark and Cathy Delaney to choose philanthropy and live in an Indian slum for over two decades.
A huge decision at the time, considering voices in their family and society echoed high-paid job, car, home, the good life. Cathy had a degree in mathematics and computer science, and Mark had studied law. “That would have been the normal thing to do. However, we thought no, partly because of our Christian faith, actually life is more about serving and caring for others. We need to take a broader view of society,” says Mark.
“At home, social services were already in place for local refugee needs. We considered Sudan, Africa, then decided to come to India. We had made short trips before, knew a little Hindi, the culture, poverty, so it made sense for us,” says Mark.
The initial idea was to experiment for two years, Mark says, “We were careful not to be the expatriate know-it-alls, trying to fix things. We asked Indian friends and colleagues, if there was space for us in preliminary elevation and development, or should we just head back home?”
They were asked to learn Hindi to speak to the ordinary Indian, commit more years for substantial change, and work in partnership with local NGOs than setting up their own. “Those conditions were reasonable, so we learnt Hindi, have mostly lived here since, except some short periods, and have always worked in Indian organisations,” says Mark.
The pair jumped in the deep, with little Hindi knowledge. “We moved into Nizamuddin basti in Delhi. It was full immersion from day one. We learn Hindi by talking to people on streets, Aap kaise hain, ye kya hai? We learnt formal language much later, only to make sense of grammar,” says Mark.
Mark downplays the initial adjustment period, “It wasn’t too bad. As Australians, we grew up camping, it felt like permanent caravaning. Early on, we learnt to duck sheets in water, lay them over the fan, hoping to sleep before they dry. We have largely lived like our neighbours.We have never owned a fridge, air conditioning, or washing machine here. We use shared toilets, sleep on mattresses, our bedroom turns into a lounge during the day, meals are eaten on the floor.”
For Mark, being an introvert, dealing with the sheer number of people wanting to speak to him, with angrez-angrez kahan se aaye hain, was most difficult.
For Cathy, it was the different cultural setting. “I had to think of simple, external… little things like my dressing, how quickly I walk, who walks in front. Plus the bigger things like my expectations in life, deeper questions. What is cultural and neutral that I will just fit in, and what ways are things actually wrong that I will rebuild local culture and be different,” she says.
There was also her life as a foreign woman, in Delhi. “The whole difficulty with white skin and commonly held perceptions of being morally open. I was 30 and looked younger, so a lot of men staring and touching, all those kind of things,” she says, continuing in jest, “I noticed when I was 45, there was much less of that, but it was a long time to wait.”
Cathy learnt early on that being viewed as someone with moral standards made a big difference to her life. “Of course it’s very hot and unpleasant to cover my head but what to do. I almost exclusively wear salwar kameez, wear a dupatta, and cover my head outside. Inside our home, I tend to leave it elsewhere, until a man enters,” she adds.
Fortunately, she enjoyed sewing and cooking, traditional Indian handcrafts, which helped Cathy integrate. “It gave me social credit in Indian society. If I had different hobbies, or was hopeless at cooking, I don’t know... so in those ways I could fit in, in other ways I couldn’t.”
Cathy finds it disheartening and disturbing to watch how women are treated, “I also get that same treatment sometimes. It is also different in terms of educational opportunity for girls, or what is expected from them, or provided to them, as opposed to the boys.”
Brought up in a fairly egalitarian country like Australia, Mark found it difficult to get used to the hierarchy, working at Emmanuel Hospital Association where he helped poor get legal entitlements from the government, “Everyone, be it the garbage man or PM, is on a first name basis back home. Here, there is the attitudinal thing where many believe life won’t change for them, the middleman almost feels the right to take bribe, especially with people’s fear of challenging hierarchy.”
The couple also lived as a minority among Muslims. “We made some wonderful friends yet in many ways, have seen a very slim slice of India. Our neighbourhood friends are poor Muslims, not very educated, our Christian friends are highly educated working in NGOs,” says Cathy, adding. “We hear about tensions between Muslims and Christians in the rest of the world but in India we are cousins, and minorities together. In many ways, they protected us from outside conflicts, like 9/11, the Iraq war.”
At the 10-year mark, the couple did think about going back to get a job, buy a house, and didn’t. “We realised raising our kids in a poor neighbourhood was good parenting experience. Our kids have a much broader view of the world, a nuanced perspective on life,” says Mark.
Cathy concurs, “We don’t feel they were deprived in anyway. Anything we felt was important for our children to have, they have had. We had wonderful family holidays, very good friends, spent time with them, and they met their grandparents and relatives every few years.”
Their sons Tom, 22, and Oscar, 17, have had a combination of online, long distance, university and home-schooled education. Ask Tom how he found his visits back to Australia after growing up in India, and he quips, “It was a bit of reverse culture shock maybe, as I feel partially Indian. In many ways, and some contexts, I don’t feel at home in Australia. At university, I gravitated towards ethnic minority. I appear white on the outside, so it was a bit startling. India is about hospitality, spontaneity whereas Australia is more formal, call before you meet.”
The altruistic family’s unique perspective combined with Tom’s interest in climate science also sparked a book Low Carbon And Loving It, co-written by Mark, challenging readers to rethink their lifestyles in the light of global warming. The Delaneys currently live in a Lucknow slum. While they have adopted Indian culture, lifestyle and near-spicy food, house work is shared equally, except for chapattis which only Cathy has mastered. The one on house duty on the day washes clothes (by hand), shops and cooks lunch, sweep and mops the floor, buys milk to set yogurt.
Oscar has just finished school and is set for a short ‘fellowship’ with Pollinate, an environmental NGO. Mark is alternating between online courses, teaching Hindi, and travelling to NGOs in Delhi, UP and Bihar. Cathy works as an administrator in an NGO.
The family is enjoying time together before Cathy, Oscar and Mark return to Brisbane in May 2019, where Oscar will join Queensland University. Tom will stay in India, volunteering with NGO Devi Sansthan, teaching poor kids how to read Hindi, carrying the family’s tradition....