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.