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.