Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Stopping Suicide in India

This is the story of Joe Curiale. He was watching CNN about the farmers in India who are so desperate and in debt that they are committing suicide, and leaving their families behind. Joe then went to India and met some of these families in person, and donated his own money to pay off their debts and essentially free them. His story goes as follows :
My name is Joseph Curiale.

Late one night I took a break from working and watched CNN.com and saw a story about Indian farmers in Southern India committing suicide, so I watched it. I see many sad stories in the world but for some reason this really went right to my heart, especially a widow named Anjamma they interviewed... There has been a drought for the past 7 years in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and on top of that the farmers were duped into buying bad seeds, so year after year they borrowed money just to stay alive hoping "next year" would be better, but it was not. I heard some horror stories on my recent trip to India that when the farmers couldn't pay the debts some moneylenders raped their wives right in front of them which further drove some to suicide...But I guess in general they felt hopeless. One old man CNN interviewed drank pesticides but lived and when they interviewed him he said there's no reason to live. Most of the farmers have killed themselves by drinking pesticides or hanging themselves. There are many stories in the media about this.

The problem that bothered me most though, is that the debt did not end with the death of the men. The moneylenders expected the wives to pay it back and it's basically impossible. I even met one grandmother who is now responsible for a 2 year old girl whose parents both committed suicide. Anjamma, the woman that touched me most, said on the interview that she makes 50 cents per day rolling cigarettes and has no money to buy rice and she has a 12-year-old son...

When I saw her eyes filled with tears, I heard a voice inside me very clearly say, "Pay her debt." Then my intellect kicked in and I said, "Huh???" I'm struggling myself! The voice repeated, "Pay her debt." Knowing that my intuition is always right, and following my own advice I wrote in the book, The Spirit of Creativity, about following one's gut, I said, “OK.” So, I contacted a friend of mine who was one of the producers of CNN in Atlanta and asked him how I could I get in touch with Satinder Bindra, the correspondent in India who did the story... My friend gave me his email address and I wrote him an email telling him I wanted to pay Anjamma's debt, which was more than $1,000. He wrote back to me within 12 hours and said he was very touched that someone would be willing to do this and gave me the numbers of Madhu Yaskhi, the Minister of Parliament in that area who was a champion for those villagers. He too was on the CNN interview.

So I called Madhu and he was so grateful that I was willing to help. He said the villagers felt hopeless and that this would give them hope. I told him though, that I wanted to meet the woman in person and pay the moneylender personally. He said, "Please come! I will take you to the village to meet Anjamma and you can pay the moneylender yourself." From that, and the way he spoke to me, I trusted him, but I wanted to pay the debt with my own hands. Plus Satinder Bindra said Madhu was a very good man. So I committed to going to India and paying Anjamma's debt without even knowing where I was going to get the money to do this! I sure did pray a lot and anyway, I felt I was being Divinely guided. This was an experience no different from writing "Gates of Gold"... the same feeling of being guided... So I thought of the scripture to put God's things first and the rest will be given...

A few days later I got a royalty check in the mail for $1,600 that was totally unexpected! I had enough to pay the woman's debt of $1,300 and have a bit for expenses... And then I woke up one morning and heard that voice again say, "Why are you doing this yourself? Ask your friends to help." So I got up and wrote nearly 200 emails and was so encouraged that friends started writing back and committing to contributing $100 and then $200, $300, and a few, $500 and more! I was hoping to have $3,000 by the time I got to India, but in the end, with the help of friends from here and Singapore, I was able to bring $8,100! My friends in Singapore came through just as I was about to leave Singapore for Hyderabad.

One of my best friends in the world, a Buddhist woman, collected @$2,700 Singapore dollars from members of her temple, and people I am close to in Singapore, just hours before I left, came through with almost $2,500! And you must keep in mind that this is all based on people's trust in me, and the others who collected money in the USA and Singapore. I told everyone I was going to pay the loan sharks face to face and and free as many women as possible. Of course many people worried about my safety and it was starting to wear on me... But I made it known that no matter what happened, even if I lost my life, I was doing the right thing by following that very familiar voice that brought the music to the world... So I headed to India with the money strapped to my body and prayed... I saw Anjamma's eyes in my heart and mind and kept telling her to hang on...that I would be there soon to help her...

There were glitches the few days before I left that almost sabotaged the trip but Satinder Bindra helped me. He had given me his cell phone number and at a point two days before departure I called him because I was on the verge of pulling the plug because I could not reach Madhu and had no confirmation that anyone would actually be at Hyderabad airport to meet me and guide me to the village. I couldn't do it myself, and carrying that much money in India made me feel extremely vulnerable... So one minute, I see Satinder in Nepal reporting on the riots and a few hours later I'm speaking with him at his home in Delhi!

He promised me, with his wife standing there as a witness, that he would call Madhu in the morning and not give up until he reached him. He and his producer encouraged me to proceed and kept insuring me what a good man Madhu was... Through this experience I had come to have a deep trust and respect for Satinder and based on his word, I decided to proceed one way or the other... Fortunately he did reach Madhu and his office called the day before I was scheduled to depart for India. It seems their emails kept bouncing back, so they tried another email address and I got Madhu's letters. He said he had an emergency and had to go to New York, but that his staff would be at the airport to pick me up and take care of everything. He was correct. I was well cared for in Hyderabad especially by his Personal Secretary, Dr. K Shiva Shankar, and Madhu's wife, Dr. Shuchi Madhusudan, who accompanied me through the entire trip. Madhu's staff in Nizamabad, and the media, were also very caring, gracious, and supportive, as well as greatly appreciative. Honestly, despite many of the harsh realities of India, I felt safe and protected.

I arrived late on the 16th of April and the next morning I went to the bank with Madhu's wife and assistant to change the money to rupees. I was guided to only change enough money that day, to pay the 20 villagers that we decided to pay @$100 each, to keep them from total despair...They had never received any compensation from the government or private funds and had really lost hope and that amount, 5,000 rupees, would be able to sustain them for nearly 6 months. I had intended to pay debts in full and not get involved in paying small amounts to a lot of people. With interest rates as high as 90%, I felt paying a little bit would only be a very short-term Band-Aid and they would basically be in the same situation... I had discussed this with many of the donors before I left and told Madhu's secretary that I had a responsibility to the wishes of the donors too. But we came to a compromise that in retrospect, I feel was a good choice. Even with giving hope to 20 village families, we still had enough to pay 5 debts in full, and enough left over to help a few other people in great need. In addition, we bought 50 sarees at $3 each and distributed them to the village women the second day.

Because the media felt it was extraordinary that a foreigner would go all the way to a remote Indian village to help, it got heavy media attention. Anyway, a few weeks back Satinder Bindra said he would have the story followed from the moment the plane touched down in Hyderabad. The media was WONDERFUL, and since some of then had come from that area, they knew very well which families were in greatest need. They helped Madhu's staff decide whose debts would be paid in addition to Anjamma's, which I personally paid in full.

The next day, we drove 2 1/2 hours to Anjamma's village, Isiapeta. We met the Media along the way and they guided us to where she lived. When I got out of the car I noticed several soldiers in camouflage carrying machine guns! Although it was a bit startling at first, it helped me to feel more secure since I was carrying so much cash... I believe it was Madhu that had arranged this for our protection... After we sat for a few minutes, waiting for more moneylenders and media to arrive, Madhu's secretary asked me to follow him and then said, “This is Anjamma.” I couldn't believe my eyes... There stood a woman who looked like and angel... Yet she looked so traumatized and dazed… Looking into those eyes, that I remembered from the CNN segment, was like looking into an infinite void... I soon after learned that she had had nothing to eat for three days. That, plus just learning before our arrival that someone was coming to pay her debt, must have added to her dazed state...

Standing before her in the very same place I saw the CNN segment only a few weeks before, I said to Madhu's wife, "This is a miracle!" I looked at the landscape around me, and the sky, trying to realize where I was on the globe... I was on the other side of the world in a remote south Indian village helping to free 5 families from despair, and all this materialized from just a thought...a thought that was followed through with complete faith and love, and supported by quite a few very loving and trusting people. I was once again living what I had written in The Spirit of Creativity...

When I finally began paying the moneylenders, I paid Anjamma's debt first. She stood next to me and after paying the lender I was given the promissory note that had kept her in bondage. I wanted to keep it, but handed it to her and motioned for her to tear it up. As she did, the poor thing broke down sobbing and got down on her knees and touched her forehead to Shuchi's feet and then mine. I felt so unworthy of the honor... In fact, I felt that it was I who should've gotten down on my knees and touched MY forehead to HER feet for her amazing courage and grace.

We proceeded to pay four other debts. One of the other touching stories was a 17 year old girl who earns $3 a month rolling cigarettes, and with that supports her mother and brother. They had lost their home trying to pay their debt...they had sold it for $250!!! I had some extra money of my own and asked if I could buy the house back for them and they said it was not possible... But this family was so lovely, and it felt so good to help free them from their debt and despair. I personally set up a trust for Anjamma, this family, and two others, including the baby whose parents both committed suicide. It cost @$200 for each. Madhu was setting up the trust whereby each month the closest bank would allocate 1,000 rupees to them for their living expenses (@$25). This was also to help insure that they keep their children in school...something Madhu and his wife have been stressing to them. But first they need to be taken out of the hole they are in and given a level playing field before they can even think about that. Their being poor is understood. That's not why I was there. I was there to help the widows have that fair playing field. There is a scripture that tells us to help widows and orphans, and I never lost sight of that.

The long term goals also include teaching them crafts to make a living. I was told that rolling cigarettes was very unhealthy work for the women... So, I flew to Bombay (Mumbai) and met a young Indian businessman who is a partner of a friend of mine in Singapore. He has a heart toward helping others and promised me he would help with setting up such a program to teach these village women crafts, which are then sold as the souvenirs many tourists buy. I hope that a "woman's co-op" will be set up in Hyderabad and elsewhere, similar to the one I have visited in Kathmandu Nepal.

Now, I am trying to raise $10,000 in the next month, through donations, to return and continue paying the debts that remain. I now have friends in Iceland, Wales, London, Holland, Japan, and Singapore helping, some raising money from their circle of friends besides their own contributions... I'm also trying to set up a Foundation to be able to obtain corporate sponsorship etc... But it takes time… In the meantime the villagers are suffering, so as before, I refuse to sit by and wait... There is a lot of good that can be done in the meantime. I just follow Mother Theresa's advice that if all that can be done is "one at a time," it still makes a difference.

I've done my homework on this issue in India and I have seen it first hand and put my own life on the line... I touched these women's hands...I have looked at the despair in their eyes, as well as the gratitude and hope now in them... I'm well aware of the corruption in India, the magnitude of the problem, and the fact that there are many such problems in the world. But I recently came across a quote that basically said, there are a million reasons not to do something, when all it takes is one good reason why we should.

If you'd like to help, please contact me, or you can make a contribution. http://www.s91680232.onlinehome.us/curiale/

Sincerely, and with thanks,

Joseph Curiale


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do not hear to this person. He is nothing but fraud. Even though he has good intentions to help, everywhere he went has created nothing but trouble and very little help. He curses everyone, all Indians, India and still wants to get name through media and wants to use the money that he raises in USA and Japan for his luxury in India.

11:57 AM  

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