Sunday, August 12, 2007

Punera Gamana Yuchuh (I will return)

Here is my final post before I leave this, my temporary home. If it feels sudden to you, I know what you mean. I haven't the time to summarize my final week properly. I haven't wanted to stop moving even for a minute. Today (Sunday) I left Phaltan at 9 am. Right now, I'm pausing in Pune, but soon I'll move on to Mumbai (where it is pouring). I leave for America, via Amsterdam, at 1 am India time. In a speedy 24 hours I'll be back and then I will sleep for a few years. However, when I awake from hibernation, I'll regale you all with more tales of the play, KNB, Maxine, and my lovely host family. If I'm lucky, I might even get to tell some of you in person.

For now, India, I will miss you terribly.
America, I'm looking forward to seeing you again.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Reality break

Manju Nimbkar (the principal of KNB and all-around amazing person) took me to see the exceedingly poor Mahar neighborhood where Maxine started her first school back in the '70s. The Mahars are the local caste that was formerly considered untouchable. We developed a small following of children as we walked through the streets of huts. They and their parents were delighted to host us for even a few minutes and one young woman who works at KNB showed us over to her home. It was a cement house, smaller than any dorm room, which housed and fed a full three generations of her family at one time.

You might have noticed that I haven't spoken much about poverty or hunger on this blog. That was a choice I made early on, partially because that wasn't the tone I wanted to create and partially because I didn't know how to begin. Poverty is everywhere here. The slums of Phaltan are not hidden, and even more importantly, are not a huge step down from the rest of the housing and amenities in town. Five-year old girls carry bundles bigger than themselves, and their only response to a smile is to stick out their hands for money. It's ingrained into their muscles because they need it to survive. I see the same two girls pass the house every day, but I'm not ready to speak for them.

After I have some time to think I might have the words to describe what I have seen here. Perhaps then I can let myself feel the full impact of their shacks and the overwhelming smell, but I'm not there yet.

KNB countdown

My work here speeds up as we count down the days until I go home. I've gone into the 9th standard class twice to answer questions and I'm still working with both the 8th and 10th standards. The 8th kids spent a week trying one of three jobs in the Phaltan area. They worked at either a tree nursery, a poultry farm, or at a company called ARTI (Appropriate Rural Technology Institute). If any of you are interested, I'd be happy to tell you all about smokeless chulas (stoves) powered by cow dung.

The kids spent the last week starting a brand new KNB bulletin (see ealier posts for info on the first one). The news items this time are:
--The bulbul bird that Pratamesh found and which is now living in the principal's office
--The water problem in the front of the building. [The next-door neighbor built an illegal wall which cut off the drainage system]
--The district volleyball tournament
--the play
--their work experience
--The Palki
and again
--me. This time on my return to America.

This is the other 8th standard teacher, Raman Balkar. He is awesome and about as enthusiastic as the kids. Also he saves my butt in translation emergencies daily.

The play is going very well. They've learned their lines, painted a backdrop, and are busy collecting costumes for a sari-draped mayor and businessmen in Gandhi caps. None of them have much acting experience, and particularly not in English, but they are throwing themselves into their parts. One of the narrators, Moulik, is new to the class, and a very serious little student. He had his lines down the day after I assigned parts, in spite of the fact that he speaks for most of the show. After we run through the show and I'm slowly giving notes, I can see him mouthing my words to make sure he understands.

Here's Moulik (on the left) and Milind (my favorite monkey) on the right.

A sweet, shy girl named Akshaya is playing the village Mayor and is clearly relishing her part. As soon as I told her to act much more important than all the other characters, she puffed out her little chest and started striding across the stage like a miniature Napoleon Bonapart.

I was so proud.

"Would you like to meet my palm reader?" --quoth Ari

In my last post, I only touched on the range of our trip. Here's a few more highlights:

-In Jaipur we met Ari, our tour guide, who immediately told that not only was he a member of a 85-member joint family, but that it was truly a "small piece of heaven." He also enjoyed telling us about his blissful life with a woman he married when he was seven and she was three.

One of the first sites we visited in Jaipur was the ancient observatory full of fascinating instruments for telling time and days of the year. I could only describe them as gigantic gadgets for very wealthy boys. This included the world's largest sundial, which loomed over the yard like the stone sail of a ship headed around the world.

--At the Jaipur Palace and museum we confirmed that India's largest carpet is long enough to decorate a football stadium and that Indian men have always dressed well. We also learned that the easiest way to keep the Maharajas straight is to refer to them, as Ari did, as the "skinny one," the "fat one" and the "very good-looking one."

--In the Bahratpur Bird sanctuary, buffalo sometimes wander down the main path like southern ladies taking an evening stroll. The monitor lizards, jackals, antelope, deer, kingfishers, turtles, and cranes were less accommodating.

-- The owner of a carpet shop gave me a free sample and told me to convince my father to buy a pure silk carpet for my dowry. Oh Daddy!

--Even after visiting the India Gate, Ambedkar's tomb, the site of Gandhi's cremation, a 12th century mosque, The Amber Fort, and riding a camel, I was excited to take a shower instead of my usual bucket bath. Sooooo excited.
[Here, we are at the jeweled and mirrored lady's rooms in Amber Fort.]

Friday, August 3, 2007

Wallowing in Tourism

Hello and welcome to the Cliff notes edition of the Carroll family rush through the "golden triangle" of India. In five days we covered Agra, Bahratpur, Jaipur, and Delhi and managed to stay alive and mobile for a good portion of that time.

Our trip really began in Delhi. [I won't discuss the flight we almost missed getting there.] As we left the airport, a man about five foot not much and holding a “Rachel Carroll” sign, perked up and started moving towards his car. I pointed in his direction and he gave a kind of sardonic smile as if to say, “well, duh.” Over our time with our lovable driver I would come to know that smile very well.

We drove directly from Delhi to Agra, where we met our first enthusiastic guide. That also happens be the point when we figured out our driver's name. Up until that point we were trying to decipher the difference between the name on our vouchers and the one he told us, but when we met AgraDepak, DelhiDipak (the driver) piped up with a helpful, "Dipak and Dipak. Same!” complete with pointing and a big smile.

Agra is a city which completely revolves around the Taj Mahal, thanks to tourists like us, and the great building does not disappoint. As we entered through the main gate I heard a British woman order her friends to keep looking down so that they could see the whole Taj in one stunning piece. I followed her example, starring at my Chapals through the final red stone until Dipak told me to stop and I brought my head up slowly. This is what I saw.

Here's a shot of my mother as I remember her for most of the trip. Our tour guide even commented lightly, "lots of photos," and this was at the Taj of all places.

Here's Dad posing in Fahtepur Sikri, the abandoned city between Agra and Jaipur that Akbar originally wanted to use as a capital city. The idea failed thanks to a lack of water, but it must have been a happy place for him while it lasted. He used to play a giant game similar to backgammon on this board and
used his courtesans as playing pieces.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Playing to the crowd

I just gave a lecture at the college! They sent me an official invitation about a week ago and then, after about fifteen minutes of very formal thank yous and introductions, I gave a short speech to the third-year English students, about five current profs, two retired profs, my host family, and the principal of the entire college. No pressure, especially when my talk was preceded by the presentation of a flower bouquet and a coconut. Most of the hour-long lecture was a well-planned question and answer session with the students. I can’t explain how much fun this was or how nervous I was beforehand. They asked almost forty questions ranging from my life ambitions to the status of women in America. Plus (and you are going to enjoy this one) they got me to sing. At first I only had to read a poem and I thought I was off of the hook, but then they asked for a song and I managed to perform a little bit of “Shalom Rav” in Hebrew. Public singing is much more common here, so I think they found my hesitation pretty funny.

After the lecture the students surrounded me and actually asked for my e-mail and autograph! That part of the day was amazing but awfully surreal. They all kept asking about my favorite moments and the Marathi I knew, and then several girls asked if I would come over to their house right away for tea and a meal. Luckily, I had to get back to KNB after lunch for the 8th standard class after lunch. Together they and Maxine keep my head from swelling completely out of control.

As before, pictures will arrive when my pen drive feels better. Please wish it a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Back in my little town

Hi everybody!

I just got back to Phaltan after a week-long whirlwind tour through Agra, Jaipur, and Delhi with my parents. They spent about half a week in Phaltan visiting the school and trying to get over jet lag. As if that wasn't enough, everyone I know wanted to host them and feed them enough sweet, fried and spicy Indian food to down a small rhino. They held up remarkably well, particularly at the school where they got attacked by the insane balls of energy known as the sixth standard. They all caught a glimpse from a distance and their little eyes all went wide. I could almost hear them thinking,

"Wow, the American was cool, but it has PARENTS?!"

Sadly, the pen drive which has allowed for all the pretty pictures on the blog is having temporary issues, so I'll get you all up to speed on the Taj Mahal and the Jaipur Palace when I have my technology back.

Back at school, I've hit the ground running with the new realization that I only have two weeks left. In that time I need to give lectures in the ninth standard and at the college, write two articles, continue work with the 8th and 10th standards, and put up an entire play.

Oy, but this is fun.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Enter the Palki

On the 18th of July, the largest event of Phaltan's religious and social calendar passed through Phaltan. 400,000 people are walking for over fifteen days and 250 km from a town near Pune to a temple in Panderpure on a journey called the Palki. They follow the path of the 13th century Saint Nyaneshwar (literally: god of wisdom) who was a religious child prodigy. After writing a poetic companion to the Bhagavad Gita and purportedly performing a number of miracles, including causing a bull to speak from the holy scriptures, he chose to starve himself to death at the Panderpure temple when he was only 22 years old. The procession has been in existence since the time of Chaucer and is only one of several parades leading to the same holy site.

The procession, which carries symbols of the god's footprints on a silver chariot, passes directly in front of Maxine's home, so I camped out for the day and watched people sing and dance from before 9 am to nearly the same time at night. I also walked with the parade in the afternoon and joined in as men played tiny cymbals called "tara" and women led the call and response. I got some fairly odd looks at first, but as soon as I started singing they laughed or smiled and accepted the new Pilgrim into the fold. The women carried all of their clothing, bedding, and often food on their heads in giant parcels, as wide as they are tall. They also balanced holy basil plants to give to the god upon arrival.

The road was this full all day and the sleeping tents for the Pilgrims lasted for miles. I am amazed at how well organized every piece of the trip is in terms of timing and location. Not only does each town have a set day, but it has a set time when the main chariot should arrive. At 5:30 pm on the dot it showed up in Phaltan and everyone rushed in to touch the carrier for the saint affectionately called "mouli" or "mother."

Not only did I get to travel with the vast sea of people on Wednesday, but my family had a close encounter on Tuesday night. We accidentally came back from Pune by the same road being used by the pilgrimage and, as such, landed right in the middle of 400,000 people and all the cars/ trucks/ rickshaws which had found similarly bad luck. For over three hours we couldn't do anything but watch the squirming, swarming mass squeeze past the cars and motor bikes still singing and jumping like the sun was high in the sky. They kept up with their groups leaders like American speedwalkers and all with either thin sandals or nothing at all on their callused feet. While walking with them I soaked in their infectious devotion, and laughed with the women who adopted me into their groups. However, in that car, depending on the mood of the moment I either enjoyed watching their enthusiasm or longed for the opportunity to run over a pilgrim.

KNB Update

There's a lot going on here at KNB these days. Here's a few tidbits:

We hosted a former student named Waseem, who graduated with the very first class at KNB. He's now a successful filmmaker with his own company, who dabbles in a variety of other kinds of art, including drawing, painting, and sculpture. He spent about half a week leading an art workshop with the 5th-7th standards. Here's a 6th standard girl trying water colors for the first time. Especially vast work on the building construction forced everyone out of the usual classrooms, so they got to make masks and plan stories in a home next to the school.

Speaking of art, the 8th standard has just started working on a short play I wrote for their class. The plot is a simple adaptation of a children's book entitled: When the Monkeys Came Back. It's a cute little story about a monkey filled forest which gets destroyed by rampant development and then recreated by a determined girl. In the play, I divided every charactor into two or three smaller characters, so most of the class will either get to speak or be a monkey.
On our first day with the script they were so excited they refused to go on their break. When we got to the stage direction where the monkeys were supposed to hoot and yell, a rowdy classroom suddenly became very bashful. After three good tries to get them going I asked, "Who's brave enough to hoot like a monkey?" A room full of faces held their breath, until a short, bright boy near the front of the room looked up at me, smiled, and started hooting. Suddenly the entire room was full of hooting, laughing 8th graders. Thank you Milind. You carried us into the animal kingdom.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Rachel meets her nemesis

Everybody, this is Evil Deathbike, destroyer of worlds. Deathbike, this is everybody.

We have developed an on again, off again relationship during my time here in India. One minute I am on and then just as quickly I am off again.

Maxine was kind enough to lend me her lovely old bike for my time here in the country. She doesn't ride it anymore, but it was her daily form of transportation for years. Its 1950s body, brakes, and bell still work. However, it's a little tall for me, so I'll be standing by the side of the road, hop, hop hoping, and trying to get the thing going, all while dodging buses, obnoxious motorbikers, bikes, rickshaws, the odd donkey, and miles of mud.

It isn't particularly dangerous, since drivers here are used to avoiding oblivious bikers. Mostly, it's just embarrassing. Everybody is already staring at the foreign girl. I'd prefer it if they weren't also staring at that foreign girl falling off of a parked bicycle. As I was wobbling my way out of the school lot, a group of girls suddenly decided to crowd around and introduce themselves. I hope I wasn't too short with them, but I was afraid I was going to tip over and squash the sixth standard.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


In the days before the Pune trip (see the post below) my stomach suddenly realized that I was in India. It wasn't anything serious, so I decided to wait rather than scaring everyone back home. I got an over the counter prescription from Dr. Manju Nimbkar and have been very careful about my food for the last week or so. I was on a chapatti, plain rice, and banana diet for a couple days, but I was past that by Saturday.

I also forgot to mention that the Dani's son, Rushikesh, who works in Saudi Arabia was visiting for the week. He gets to come back to India to see his family for three months each year, so we were even more social than usual. Even the Mayor of Phaltan ws happy to see him. Now we've dropped him off in Pune so he can spend his last few days in the country with his wife and children. He heads back to work this Friday.

Pune [take one]

On Saturday after both Aai and I were done with school, we (Aai, Baba, their son Rushikesh--or Rushi--, Baba's brother, a family friend, and I) drove up to Pune for the weekend to see Rushi's family and his sister Pria.

I got to meet Rushikesh's wife, Megane, and his adorable girls: Mika and Shrushti, seven and three respectively. They are absolutely delightful.

Mika's the quiet, shy one and the younger girl clearly doesn't have any problem with being loud. Lots of energy in that one. After she walmed to me she started grabbing my leg and hiding behind me, before running back around to the other side and giggling like a mad woman.

Here's Shrushti with her Aji (grandmother) and my Aai.

We packed lots of activities into two days including:
--A trip to the Indian version of a Barnes and Noble. It even had the promise of a coffee shop upstairs. I ordered three Indian comedies recommended by the new post-colonial lit Professor starting at Carleton next year. Somehow, I managed to keep myself from ordering the new Harry Potter book too. They're going pretty crazy about that over here.
--I saw something known as a thread ceremony on Sunday morning. It takes when a Hindu boy is 12, and sybolizes his transition into maturity in his studies. He gets his entire head, but a circular patch, shaved and then everyone feeds him to show that this is the last time he can eat off of his mother's plate.

In the past, the boy would go to live with his teacher/guru for about a decade to study, but now, like most traditions, it's just an excuse to party. The kid was pretty big for his age, so many of the rituals, like having the kid sit on his father's lap, became more comical than reverential.

And no, I am not the only one who thought so.

Here's my host family's daughter Pria with another guest at the thread ceremony.
--Pria and I went straight from the thread ceremony to a birthday party for a 6 month baby girl. She was born in America and will have her first birthday there, so the whole family decided to celebrate in advance. The child's great, great grandparents, got to hold little Keayaa and look at her face in bowl of pure ghee (clarified butter), while their children blew silver flowerd over their heads. The great, great grandmother was absolutely crying with joy.

Friday, July 6, 2007

German in India?

I'm starting to get into a rhythm with the 10th standard now. They have English class every day, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. Their teacher, Manju Nimbkar, is also the official principal for the high school and acting principal for the rest of the school. Maxine has been running around like a crazy woman trying to get funds for the school or for the communication center they have been working on, and now she's ill, so Manju does everything, including teaching several different classes.

Manju sends the students out two at a time to read the English passages I wrote (on such scintillating subjects as Maslow’s torture experiment and birthday parties) and practice their pronunciation, comprehension, tone, etc. Some of the students are doing quite well. They can read and understand the passages, for the the most part, and just need to figure out how to read more naturally. Others really have a lot of vocabulary work to do before they are doing to be able to read aloud with any understanding of what they are saying.

On Monday, a whole crowd of 10th standard girls (Snehel, Prenali, Komal, Chineh, Sanchita, and Pria, just to say a few) walked into Maxine’s office when I was eating a snack and seemed at a loss for what to do next. At some point I mentioned that I knew German, so they've taken to asking me how to say "My name is. . " and other little phrases auf Deutsch. It's fun and they laugh when I make the throaty noises, but I don't think it's the language we're supposed to be working on.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

From India. . .

Happy Birthday Mom!

--That is all.

At Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan (KNB)

I haven't written much about the school, because even after three weeks my time there seems very much in flux. I've been working with the 8th standard almost since my first day in Phaltan and have slowly added more classes and groups as the school has figured out what to do with me.

Now I'm with the 8th standard Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; with the 10th standard Monday-Friday; with the teachers working on conversation for three or four class periods a week; and spending two or three periods a week tutoring a young woman named Shalini who has just started working with the Apli Shala, a supplementary school in the poorest area in town. I'm generally at the school from 9:30-12:45, when I bike home for lunch, and then I return from 1:45 to 4 or 5 in the afternoon.

Generally, 1st-4th standards have class in the morning and there are two teachers to each class. The 5th-9th standards run from 11-6 pm, and the poor 10th standard kids have class almost all day, including Saturday.

I work with Maxine and (more commonly) a man named Raman Balkar in the 8th Standard English classes. The classes run for 90 minutes with a five-minute break in the middle. Usually, we spend the first half of the class working as a full, 33-student, group and then we break up for small group work after the break. For example, the huge rainfall became the unofficial theme of everything for about a week after, so we recently spent the first half of class coming up with vocabulary and phrases about rain, and the second half in small groups trying to turn that vocab into correct sentences.

We just finished my first project, a wall-posted newspaper called the “KNB Bulletin.” We broke the students into six groups to write on what they considrered the biggest news stories at the KNB: the rain, the construction for new classrooms, the two boys which just jointed the school from a smaller town called Aina, the notebooks the school has started producing, the exam results, and me.

The two boys from Aina, Mahesh and Sanjay, are in the second row.

Prinali and Akshia were really excited to type up their finished articles on the school’s ancient computers.

See their uniform colors? That was Maxine's little joke.

Upstairs/ Downstairs

In the last week I've been exposed to the complete range of living situations in and around Phaltan. Last Thursday, I tagged along with Aai and five of her former students to see another former student who has just had a new baby. The young woman lives in a rural village just outside of Phaltan. Theirs is a joint home, so the entire extended family lives together in a series of huts. Aai wanted to show me a traditional cooking area, so she took me next door and asked the elderly grandmother to pose in the cooking area.
This woman was adorable. Her daughter kept trying to get her to do "action shots," but she'd just poke the fire a few times and then turn back to smile/grimace at the camera like she clearly knew you were supposed to do in pictures. Then she was so excited to see the finished shots that she made us sit down for more tea.

Here's the whole group including the girls who went to visit, the new mother, and several neighborhood children.

This is a young woman named Komal with the "big sister."
The next day switched to the other side of the tracks. I lunched with a former colleague of Aai's named Shobah, whom I met at their monthly dinner gathering for the female faculty. She and her family spent years in America, her English is superb, and she clearly enjoys adopting people into her social circle. It seems very common for all but the poorest Indian families to hire a maid or a cook, but her family's home keeps more servants than inhabitants.

While we ate our western meal, I had a long conversation with Shobah's sweet little mother, and reflected on how my middle-class host home sat so securely between the very high and the very low extremes. In our kitchen, a grinding stone sits by the gas stove. We watch dvds while drinking water from earthenware pots, and watch young men avoid hitting cows with their motorbikes. The ancient and modern intermingle without any sense of conflict. It's both a chosen and forced mix, and it isn't just in our home. The veggie seller I pass on my way to school has a cell phone and she's more likely to have a TV at home than running water. Coming from a country where the past is placed on a separate, venerated pedestal, it's fun running into 1000 year-old temples in the middle of two-lane intersections.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sorry for the recent silence. Since my change in location, I have to grab five and ten minute bits of time on the one computer at the school that gets internet or try to find an internet cafe (very expensive). I probably also won't be able to call, as the phone booths charge over five dollars per minute. Ouch.

Do know that I still love all of you, will try to write as much as possible, and love to hear what is going on in your lives!


On Tuesday, the government released the results for the National 10th standard exams and everyone was in a well-deserved frenzy. 100% of last year's Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan tenth standard students passed and this is no little achievement. Only the private English Language Medium School sometimes sees similar results. This single test can determine not only whether the student will be accepted into a good school for 11th and 12th standards, but also if/where that student attends college, and what he or she studies. Most assume smart students will go into science, while more mediocre ones will try arts or humanities. The teachers at the KNB try to keep the best History and Art students from immediately becoming physicists, but it's hard to go against a society which wants all of it's bright young achievers to become doctors, scientists, IT specialists, and engineers.

A steady stream of past 10th standard students and their parents return to the school to thank their teachers, celebrate with the current students, and discuss the next step. Some hand out sweets as a way of sharing their joy. For many of the poorer and scheduled caste families, their children have just earned their way to better opportunities than their parents or grandparents ever dreamed of. Some will find good jobs in Phaltan or other local towns, others end up in Pune or Bombay, and a few --like Madhura's sister-- will do grad school in the states.

A New Home

On Monday, I moved in with the Dani family and into their social whirl. I spent most of the day either at Maxine's getting ready or shopping for little things like anti-mosquito cream (called Odomos). By the time I got to the Dani's, it was almost six, and Madhuri (my host mother or "Aai") informed me that we were going to a party at 6:30! It was a house-warming party for the new owners and I was, again, something of a spectacle. Madhuri was very sweet and considerate, introducing me as "my American" and making sure I could eat the food, but I couldn't help feeling like a kind of pricey fashion accessory. Work hard, and you too can have your very own foreigner!

The house didn't have any permanent furniture yet. Instead, one room was covered with pictures of gods and saints, garlanded with flowers. In another, bowls of different colored grains filled the floor, as gifts for the gods next-door. In the center of each wall, someone had planted two red handprints, symbolizing the gods' universal protection. I kept doing double takes as I noticed what looked like a bloody handprint by my ear. Any space without a god or a gift was occupied by food and people eating it. Bowls piled high with syrupy sweet ladu's or spicy green chilies came around again and again, and their carriers looked almost heartbroken when I had to start saying no to "just one more." India is going to kill me with wonderful food.

I also got to meet most of the English faculty at the local college and they've asked me to give a lecture! I'm not quite sure what that means, but I'll go visit a class first and get a sense of what they would like. Any ideas for what I could tell Indian undergrads about America?

Since this first day, I’ve also been to a party for the entire female faculty at Madhuri’s college and to see a newborn baby with six of her former students. [I'll get some pics up as soon as possible.] India is turning me into a social butterfly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Maxine Berntsen

Here's a shot of Maxine in the little autorickshaw we used daily during my stay in her home. We bump and honk along to school and then get ourselves back on some different route, often stopping for groceries or flowers at a street stand on the way. When I mentioned that we hadn't used the same path twice, she said that a friend had likened the many routes in Phaltan to the Hindu dharma, many paths all-leading to the same destination.

I wish I could write out some of our late night conversations. Without the constant invasion of tv, computers, and homework (at least on my side), we've gone on for hours on everything from "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" to our blood types. For the most part, we like the same food, we're both late for everything, and we keep to similar night-owl schedules, although she has been beating me in that last regard. I've crashed into bed earlier than her every night and she wakes me every morning. Plus, she must be working on six different projects, for the school, for their foundation, and for the new literacy center she and her colleague are working on creating. In a couple days she's off to Bombay and then back to host more people. She's even volunteered to host my parents when they come to visit in July. I don't know how she does it.

On Monday I officially moved from one my temporary home to my more permanent home with Madhuri and VJ Dani. They live closer to the school and this will give me a much more authentic experience in India, so I'm glad for the move. That isn't to say I won't be back though. Maxine has invited me for weekly dinners and I'm pretty sure that I'll be at her house more often than that, to use the rowing machine, say hi to Nanda, or for some good conversation over tea and biscuits.
Here's a picture of the flooding, as promised. The water has, for the most part, gone down, and now everyone is just talking about how wet it was.


Maxine’s cook and helper, Nanda, seems like a wonderful person. She’s bright, incredibly organized, and, rather importantly, she likes me. Nanda and Maxine have been working together for years now and it shows. She has also made a real effort to make me feel at home for the short time I am with them. We’ve started trading English and Marathi words while cooking lunch [ I am turning into the go-to girl for veggie prep] and we have gotten better at using charades to get our points across. If you look at the post immediately below this one, she was the woman I accidentally referred to as a man, while trying to ask how she was doing. She paused, and then had a good laugh while Maxine corrected me.

Here’s a sampling of my baby talk, with English transliterations for the Marathi:
yes= ho
This is accompanied by a head waggle that everyone in India uses constantly. I even noticed it in Bollywood film before I arrived. It replaces the Western nod. You quickly bounce your head from side to side, right ear towards right shoulder then left ear towards the left shoulder. Repeat ad nauseum.
no= nihi
tea= chaha
brown sugar= gaul

Recently, I got up to help make pasta sauce for dinner --Maxine typically has Indian lunches and Western dinners-- and Nanda made me sit right back down. I hadn’t finished my lemonade yet.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Flood Cometh

We had about 160 mm of rain last night and now Phaltan is dealing with a flood. This is about 30% of the rain they would expect over an entire Monsoon season, and it isn't even the rainy season here yet! Although it may be Monsoon season in Mumbai, the Ghat Mountains keep this area (in the “rain shadow”) from getting much rain until around September. Here, towns are more prone to drought and, apparently, Phaltan hasn’t seen this much rain in over thirty years. The area behind Maxine’s house only has about six inches of water, but other, more low-lying areas nearby have it much worse. Our next-door neighbor is an English teacher at the KNB and acting principal of both the primary and secondary schools. Her family’s land usually has a small drainage stream, but now they are dealing with about two feet of dirty water.

First thing this morning, we visited Nanda’s house (she’s Maxine’s long-time cook and helper) to make sure that her family was ok. Her house has been leaking recently and she lives fairly close to the river. Luckily, she was on high enough ground to escape all but leaking damage, but it must have been hard to live in that house while it poured all last night. Right now, the local authorities who would usually deal with this situation are on vacation on the coast, so the families with a great deal of water damage, blocked transportation, and compromised sewage systems, will have to manage on their own.

Don't worry. I am in no danger.

pictures to come.

Accidents. . .

I’m starting to keep a running mental tally of the silly mistakes I’ve made here. Nothing big, yet, but lots of little accidents that make me look like something of an American ditz. For example, on my very first night in the country, I don’t know if I was tired or if I just wasn’t thinking, but I started pouring the milk for my tea into the sugar bowl. I caught myself after a few drops, but the expression on Maxine’s face was priceless. She was almost frozen and just looking at me, as though saying something about what I was doing might spook me into doing something even nuttier.

The list of things I’ve done wrong is endless and to be expected, after all, my list of firsts is also growing by the minute:
first bucket bath
first mass bucket laundry (buckets are big here)
first several meals of rice, sauce, and vegetables, eaten entirely with my right hand
first ride on an Indian motorcycle (my ride home from school)
first lizard running across my bed
first time trying to speak Marathi and using the masculine form very incorrectly

I’m expected and expecting to do everything wrong at first, but it’s those things that shouldn’t be new that will come back as funny stories at the end of my stay. Yesterday, I put my dessert on top of my dinner, thinking it was a garnish, and then asked about the delicious looking “circles” on the stove. They were the dog’s food.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I got to see a wedding on Wednesday with a group of students who graduated from the school where I’m working! I’m staying at Maxine’s house for the week until I move into my more permanent home with another family, and she has been playing social director the entire time. Whenever someone comes to the house, she has the two of us sit down and chat for a half-hour or so. This has the double benefit of giving them English practice and giving me some social contact with people closer to my own age. Her most recent “playdate” was a student named Tahir who just earned his bachelor’s degree in Engineering and starts his job in Mumbai in a month. He came over to help with Maxine’s dog- Roni- and by the end I was invited to attend the wedding of his friend who was in the same year at the KNB.

So today, five of us packed into a mini-van while the rest of the former classmates rode motor scooters to the neighboring town where the ceremony would take place.
Here's Tahir (looking rather stunned) and Madhura, the one who took me under her wing. Together, the two of them made sure that I was involved with and generally understood every bit of rice throwing and eating during the day. Plus, her English was exceptional. The room where the wedding took place was a about the size of two tennis courts, with a small stage tacked on the front, and it was packed. The crowd only attended the first portion of the ceremony, and they couldn’t see anything! The bride and groom were completely surrounded on the stage, so the audience only had the singer’s voice to tell them when to throw their rice forward, a gesture towards the happy couple. In such a space, the rice had no chance of making it to the stage, so it all just ended up in the hair of the next person in front.
This is the second of three ceremonies. The bride is giving the groom a bracelet of strings and he does the same for her. Both must remain on for the next three days. Another tradition says that the bride can not say the husband's name until they are officially married. After the ceremony, the grooms friends started teasing Snehe, the bride, and calling for her to say his name. she finally did, in a memorized poem, and they all cheered!


For those of you who are interested, my mailing address will be the same as the school's:

Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan
Ring Road, Behind Adikargrah, Laxminagar,
Phaltan 415 523, Maharashtra, India.

I'd love to hear from everybody and I am very curious to see how long it takes for letters to arrive. Weeks? Months? Place your bets folks.


This is one of the three outfits you’ll see in almost all of my pictures. The style is called salwar kameez and it’s what most younger Indians wear these days. Mumbai and some parts of Pune are more ‘anything goes,’ but many still go this semi-traditional route. It’s comprised of the long top, or kameez, which reaches the knees and has a slit up each side, and the pants, or salwar. The later have a drawstring top and are so baggy I could probably smuggle small farm animals out of the country, if I was so inclined. The scarf over the top is called a dupatta and is not optional. [Remember that modesty, ladies.] I really like this part of the outfit, but it is a bother to keep in place. If all the Indian girls I see are constantly adjusting theirs, what chance do I have?

A Carleton student named Eberly is in India visiting her host family from last year and we should be going sari shopping in Pune sometime soon. Older women and some younger ones wear them all the time in Phaltan, so I’ll look for something I can wear on a regular day as well as a dressy one for special occasions. Salwar Kameez is much more comfortable than Western clothing for the heat and humidity, and it’s easier than a sari, but I can’t help but miss my waist. My current clothing skips directly from shoulders to hips, without referencing any variation in-between.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Traveling is always tiring, but these roads are particularly harrowing

This shot (through the front windshield) shows what the streets were generally like in Mumbai. They pack in cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, and these three-wheeled contraptions called auto-rickshaws, with handcarts and give everyone a close relationship with their horns. To call it hectic and noisy would be something of an understatement. What we could call a one-way, one-car street in Minnesota holds three cars, two directions, and no line dividers here. Sometimes the travel was really fun as we dodged a bus on one side and then a cow on the other. Also, notice the billboard on the left side of the mirror. That’s one of the political signs that seem to be everywhere in Mumbai, but particularly in the poorer areas. They’ve only recently become popular, but now they are up constantly.

Phaltan streets sound and look much like a mini version of the large cities. Replace the buses and most of the cars with animals of all sizes and you’ll have a decent idea. The numbers on the street aren’t even close to the same, but somehow they make a huge, wonderful racket.


I’ve arrived, not only in India, but in Phaltan (pronounced fall-tin). After two nine-hour plane rides and over ten hours waiting in-between, I touched down in Mumbai on Thursday at about 11 pm. Thankfully, getting through immigration, customs, and the baggage claim was fairly simple, as was finding Maxine in the crowd outside. She was right in her e-mail. There are only so many white-haired women with canes waiting outside the Bombay International airport. The sign didn’t hurt either.

We stayed at Maxine’s friend’s home until Sunday, when we rode first to Pune and then to Phaltan. She had a taxi drive all the way from Phaltan to pick us up and then bring us back, waiting patiently while we ate lunch, did some shopping, and visited a friend in Pune. We didn’t reach Phaltan until Sunday evening and we both crashed. On Monday, I got my first taste of the school and those kids got their first taste of me. Maxine had the 10th standard students interview me and then, one after the other, every student had to introduce me to the rest of the class. After about twenty: “She is Rachel Carroll. She comes from Superior, Wisconsin in USA. She is here to help teach English and she will be here for eight weeks,” I have no doubt about who I am and what I’m doing here.
One girl asked what I thought of the school. However, since I had just walked from the car, to Maxine’s office, and then directly to the classroom, I couldn’t give her much more than a big smile. I told her that it was a very good question and promised to answer it better later. Then, when we left the classroom, she smiled and waved. I think I made a friend.

Today I got to try again with the 8th standard, only this time we had quite a bit longer and, naturally, the kids were more apprehensive. They got into groups to formulate questions and I got to draw my horrendous map of the US again (the United States of chalk blob). Then they went all around the room asking questions. I made up my favorite bird and sport off the top of my head (the Eagle and Frisbee—that was a new one for them). After class, one giggling girl came up with a group of friends and said, “I like you!” and another asked for my autograph.


I know I am going to be old news soon, but right now this is fun.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In 5. . .4. . .3. . .

I leave Duluth in just over 5 hours and I suppose sleep might be a good idea, but before I go, I wanted to mention one part of why I'm going.

Around the time when I first heard about Maxine and her school I was also reading The Cost of Living by Arundhati Roy for a "Religion, Politics, and Culture of South Asia" course. Her writing is uniformly stunning, but one particular moment stuck with me.

While trying to explain her concept of success to a business-oriented friend, she jots down her ideas on a paper napkin. This is what she writes:

"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget."

Her friend isn't impressed.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Hi all!

On Thursday, June 14th, I'll leave from Duluth, USA and head towards Mumbai, India. I won't arrive until late on the 15th (local time), but on Thursday, my adventure begins! For eight weeks, I'll tutor English to seventh, eighth, and ninth years at the Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan medium school in Phaltan, India.

I can't even begin to explain how awed I am by this remarkable school. In a country where it usually takes money and influence to buy a solid primary education, Maxine Berntsen and Jai Nimbkar make learning available to a student body which actually reflects the local population. Formerly untouchable children work with Brahman children, boys work with girls, and all in an innovative and secular environment. I can not wait to see how this place runs.

For more details, and fawning over the school, check out this online review by Dilip D'Souza. After History Prof. Emeritus Eleanor Zelliot suggested that I apply to volunteer at the Kamala Nimbkar, this is one of the pieces of information that made the decision much easier.

From our e-mails, Maxine seems like a very well-organized person with a dry wit and a lot of experience. For the past several months Maxine, Eleanor, and I have been e-mailing back and forth and around to get me up to speed. The list of "issues" to deal with seems endless: Gifts, food etiquette, bathrooms, phone booths. And I'm pretty sure I'm still clueless on most areas of rural Indian life, but I would like to thank Chapati's (restaurant in Northfield, MN) for providing such a lovely location for my education.

Phaltan is just south of Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. If you want the full background, here's the state's wikipedia page.

By the way, Bombay, home to Bollywood, massive inequality, and official corruption, is gigantic. At over 14 million people, it is the largest city in the world. If, in 2004, it had been its own country, it would have ranked as the 54th largest.

After I arrive and spend a day sleeping, that is where I am buying three months worth of saris.