Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pt. 8: In Which We Begin Our Final Journey With Kerala and Goa

There’s one piece of insight a Fulbright alum shared with me about the short time they had left over at the end of his teaching exchange: we made a bee line to Kerala. This most southwesterly Indian state has the distinction of having been ruled by an elected communist government for virtually all of its existence, that power having been relinquished only in the last few years when the Congress party finally claimed electoral victory. So what is the communist legacy? The highest literacy rate, the highest Human Development rate, and the least corruption in the country.

But this was no bleak communist bloc technocracy, bent on industrialization and doctrinal hegemony and intent on destroying the rights of the individual. This is just one of the prettiest places we’ve visited. It’s really best known for the so-called backwaters, large lakes, lagoons, and the rivers and channels that connect them. And in between are miles and miles of rice paddies, palm stands, jungles and waterside villages. But perhaps our favorite experience here was attending a dance performance at the Folklore Museum in Kochin. It’s a beautifully constructed, 3-story, purpose-built structure designed in the local traditional styles which houses a trove of antiques and artifacts, and also houses a beautiful performance space. We arrived early enough to see the performers putting on their makeup right onstage and then enjoyed a thrilling performance of several dance styles, including Baratnatyam and Katakali.

After several days at a beautiful lakeside Ramada resort that I can safely say resembled none of the aged motels of the same name along the turnpikes back home, we spent 24 glorious hours cruising the backwaters in a plushly appointed riverboat. It wasn’t an action-packed thrill ride, but a quiet, lazy, meandering kind of cruise, where we just sat back in comfortably padded rattan chairs and watched the riverbank drift by, traced the flights of waterfowl and hawks, and got a steady stream of peaks into the everyday lives of the people who lived along the banks. Too bad we accidentally erased all but 3 of our photos. See, I knew there was a downside to digital.

Goa was equally chillin, and even better still, we had our own house—with 5 bedrooms! Our extravagant accommodation was the result of an accidental double-booking at our chosen hotel, and to honest, ended up being a much better deal. Set in a grove of palms, our “mansion” had a large porch and 2nd floor veranda, huge livingroom and kitchen, and several bedrooms to choose from. It was a 10-minute walk to a gloriously uncrowded and surprisingly clean beach, somewhere between the tourist jams of Colva and Benaulim beaches, and a 5-minute walk to the resort hotel where our embarrassed host arranged pool privileges. We even had the use of a cut-rate scooter to cruise around on.

Our days in Goa quickly slipped into the comfortable routines of rising at a civilized hour, breakfasting, snacking and dining at our own convenience, strolling to the beach in the morning and late afternoon, and to the pool in the heat of the day. We took a side trip to spice plantation, visiting several attractive temples and colonial Portuguese areas of old Goa. But really, we relished the slow-paced comforts of our temporary home, and time shot by much faster then we wanted. Then it was north, to Rajasthan.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pt. 7: In Which I Learn That The Beatings Won’t Stop Just Because Morale Has Improved.

There is, at least among the people of India I’ve met, a very strong work ethic. Actually, it’s more like a work ultimatum: work hard, or fail. Especially in school, which is seen as the gateway to middle class success. But they know that hard work is no guarantee they won’t fail. Nor do all choose hard work. Many of my students have accepted failure (at least in the academic sense) as a given, and they have more or less given up on hard work in school. But they still show up, every day, and attend classes, and often they even do what I ask them to do (copy these instructions, write in this poetic form, read this story, etc.). But what happens when they refuse to do these tasks, and worse, when they choose to distract other, more work-oriented students; and worse still, when they purposefully and calmly refuse to follow my direction? “Ah, such is the time for beating” one of my esteemed colleagues said to me not so many weeks ago.

“Beating” is broadly used term in the school. It is, within the context of teaching and administration, the application of corporal punishment. It is also, within the context of student society, the striking of a peer. In both cases the act is usually limited to the open hand, although several teachers employ small sticks, pieces of wood trim (1” x ¼” x 24” seems to be a popular dimension), and in one case, a well-worn similarly dimensioned segment of bamboo. When teachers refer to the practice, it is usually along the lines of, “he will receive a beating if he continues this behaviour”. When children make a reference, it is usually in the form of: “sir, this boy is beating [me]!” The first case requires no response other than a knowing and agreeable wobble of the head. The latter form seems to call for some more active response, but I have yet to parse out what that should be. I suppose this child should in turn, receive “a beating”.

The vast majority of the corporal punishment I witnessed was the garden variety open-handed slap of the head of a student engaged in misconduct. This misconduct included talking during morning assembly, being noisy in the halls, responding in anything other than respectful words to a teacher’s query, or failure to have some vital article of required uniform or classroom supply. On three occasions, I witnessed much more aggressive, repeated and sustained attacks on students. These were reserved for repeat offenders who were insubordinate towards teachers or the principal. They involved from 5 to 10 blows on the head, shoulders, back and rear of the student and were of such an brutal nature as to reflect real rage.

One day, I became particularly irritated with several of my unruly male students, one of whom refused to move when I reassigned his seating to the front of the room. I told him if we would not move to the front then he should leave the room. When he smiled and shook his head, I pretty much lost it. I told him it was to the Principal, and when he continued to sit there smiling at me, I hooked my hand under his arm and led him out the room and down towards the Principal’s office. Halfway to the office, we encountered the Principal in the hall, where I reported to him that the student had been unruly, distracting, and finally, insubordinate. With that, the Principal’s mouth contorted into a scowl of pure malice and he aggressively slapped and spanked the boy about 6 or 7 times about the head, shoulders and back, bellowing at the student in Hindi. I stood there aghast at what I had wrought. The boy was sent sniveling back to the classroom, and I was left to, what, thank the Principal for dealing with my student?

I had quite a bit of trouble sleeping that night. I just didn’t really know what to do. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel I could say anything to the Principal. After all, he thought he was helping me. Indeed, he probably felt the need to compensate for my disciplinary insufficiency. But I just couldn’t take the chance on his assaulting any more of my students in my stead. So I decided on different tack. The next day, I asked the same student into the hall to talk. He acted like nothing noteworthy had happened. In fact, nothing noteworthy had happened, in his mind; it was just business as usual for a wiseass. So I apologized to him for the beating and I told him there would be no more hitting of my students by anyone if I had any say over it. I told him that this was not the way I worked, and that if he thought it weak of me to admit this, I didn’t care; I did not see any strength in beating children. I told him I thought we still had a problem but that we would have to find some other way of dealing with it: beating was out. He said simply, “yes, sir,” then looked at me for a few seconds and added, “there’s no problem.” We left it at that. I’m dying to know what was going on in his little head, but I never really got a sense. He did stop disrupting class, however.

There’s a lot of pressure to succeed in this winner-takes-all system. If you fail an exam there is no opportunity for retake. If you don’t get into college on your first try, you don’t go to college. Teachers at KV schools are held responsible for the success of their students in exams. If students fail, KV teachers can be transferred to distant schools in the KV network, or even dismissed, although the latter appears to be rare. The hitting is a reflection of this pressure, supplemented by the deep-seated culture value of respect for elders.

Two months later, I had a chance to talk a little about this with the Principal when he recalled the event and observed that I had not been comfortable watching it unfold. I admitted that I had been very uncomfortable and some of this was due to the fact that such a behavior on my part would likely have led to my dismissal from teaching, the loss of my license, and even criminal and civil proceedings against me. His response was a wobble of the head and “I knew it made you uncomfortable. It’s different here.” I don’t think I needed to point out to him that the difference didn’t stretch so far as the legality of corporal punishment; “brutality” against students has been outlawed since 2000.

But this didn’t stop the Principal from entering my classroom two weeks before the end of the term and lashing out against another frequent transgressor with 5 or 6 openhanded blows. The fact that he then turned on another innocent student whose offense could only have been proximity, or perhaps staring a bit too intently at the assault, and smacking him once very hard on the rear. In fact, the Principal made a bit of an issue of it at my farewell assembly, where he spoke on my work with the students, but also explicitly justified his form of corporal punishment as a means of teaching the students discipline because they needed to learn that the US was so successful because the students there had much better discipline. So runs the world away…

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pt. 6: In Which I Learn That There Is In Fact A Light At The End Of The Tunnel.

There has been much said and done, and very little reported. Sorry, it’s the same old problem. We’ve taken several trips around southern India, namely, to see the amazing carved temples of Ellora and Ajanta in Aurangabad, in the state of Maharashtra, and also to the east coast, ostensibly to attend the Fulbright Fall Conference in Pondicherry, but with stops at the pilgrimage temple of Tirapati, to see the shore temple and other carvings of Mahabalipuram, and a brief stopover in the megacity of Chennai. School has continued apace, and I’ve just finished marking half-yearly bundles (grading midterm exams). It fulfills one of the last large requirements of my work here, so for the next 2 weeks or so I get to kind of cruise through some curriculum just, as they say, for kicks and giggles.

What you should know about these highlights: In Ellora and Ajanta, people used to carve temples out of the igneous rock cliffs. Now I know that people have been cutting and carving and piling stones on top of each other in the name of god for thousands of years, but there’s just nothing quite like seeing it carved by hand out of the “living rock” (as they put it in Spinal Tap). These temples range from 10 to 40 meters deep, from 5 to 20 meters wide, and from 3 to 10 meters high. In Elora we found Temple 16, dedicated as all of the Hindu temples there are to Shiva, the Kailashnath temple, which is the masterpiece of the site. Here they dug one “trench” into the solid rock bed 20 meters straight down into the rock with sides of 40 meters. With the block in the middle created by this trench the carved out a 6-story temple, complete with larger than life full relief statues of the gods, demons and mythical beasts du jour. There are large galleries, stairways, porticos, windows, balconies, and terraces. Into the outside of the trench they carved a continuous columned portico that runs almost 150 meters and every meter is another larger-than-life full relief depiction of a god in battle pose. Their every action, gesture and expression is vividly portrayed with a vitality that makes you think they were caught by some cosmic freeze ray in mid combat thrust. We wandered Temple 16 for over an hour, and even though there were many other visitors there as well, I don’t remember hearing the sound of people. Mostly they walked with their mouths agape, staring dumbly. If this does not suitable impress you, then I guess you just had to be there. There are 34 different temples cut into the cliffs of Ellora over about a 4km stretch. I think we made it to 9 or 10 over about 4 hours.

Much older, more remote, and IMHO more impressive, compacted as they are along a single 1 km bend in the Waghora River, the Ajanta, 28 Buddhist temples rule this stretch of cliff. You’d think they might’ve paused after completing the first few of temples and maybe say, “well, that’s a suitable tribute to man,” but apparently not. It turns out that these temples were thriving communities, hosting thousands of artist-monks who lived in antechambers lining each temple gallery. And while the enormous stupa and 5-meter statues of the Buddha that dominate each temple (usually in a separate chamber at the back) are a highlight, it’s the remains of the intricately painted interior walls which held our gaze. Blessed are the forces of preservation at Ajanta. Visitors are kept back away from the walls, the lighting is muted, and guards limit the number of viewers at any one time. The result is that entering one of these temple caves we were enveloped in semi-darkness and quiet, much the way their creators would have experienced them.

Never mind that our visit to Ajanta was bookended by about the heaviest downpour of rain we’ve witnessed here. We waited out the opening salvo at the first temple and took the opportunity to enjoy a picnic lunch on the ancient portico, much to the bemusement of the Indian tourists around us. Then at the end of our visit, at the bus shelter by the Visitor Center and Craft Market, a highly motivated shopkeeper found us waiting out the shower, disappeared for 5 minutes before returning with a pair of umbrellas. All we had to do was accompany him back to his shop. Seemed fair enough to us. And $38 later, we were on our way back to Aurangabad’s citrus-fresh Lemon Tree Hotel.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Part 5: In Which I Break The Rhythm With Some Brief Observations Of India

I see more vehicles coming at me on the wrong side of the road than I do using their turn signals. The huge dump trucks hogging all the road around here often have car hubcaps hanging from the tailgate. I think it's a trophy of some kind, but I don't get too close to find out.

Of the 10 teachers who eat their lunch in the staff room of my school, all are vegetarian. But they all eat eggs and dairy (originating from buffalo milk, of course), which technically makes them Lacto-ovo vegetarian. I had to look that up.

The food here is really good, especially if you like vegetarian and flat breads. My hosts keep telling me they will not make it too hot for me and it never is. But I have still never tasted anything as hot as the Thai food we eat at Pok Pok.

They don’t hire substitute teachers when you are absent at my school; they simply assign a teacher on a free period to babysit your students. It’s called an Arrangement. I think that makes it sound much more innocuous and productive than it actually is.

I’ve heard they worship snakes in India. But whenever one slithers into the schoolyard or our apartment complex, the locals practically fall over themselves trying to kill it. When I raised the question of worshiping snakes with one of my colleagues, he replied, “not in this region”.

They cut the grass in the small field outside our apartment recently. They mowed it with an electric mower instead of sending a flock of 20 women out there to hand trim it with little sickles like they did last time. It looks lovely, lush and thick. But we can’t play on it, so the kids and I play soccer in the parking lot. Why can’t we play on the grass? I don’t know. Maybe there are snakes in it.

For Diwali, the festival of light, they prefer crackers (fireworks) that go Bang really loudly. Apparently, the light is optional; but the Bang is obligatory. And they don’t fire them all off on the night itself, so we get loud Bangs for days afterward. Weeks, now.

The really big, room-shuddering Bang I heard just now outside our apartment is from the local quarry, so that doesn’t count.

Today there were a number of teachers out, or “on leave”, as it’s called here. So instead of having my 9th graders for two 35-minute periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, I had them for four periods. And they combined my 9th grade section with the other 9th grade section for all four periods. So I had 75 9th graders in one room for four periods. How’s that for teaching efficiency!

What do you teach 75 9th graders for 140 minutes? Why, I lectured on the elements of fiction, of course. And I mentioned a lot of stories. But of course they hadn’t heard, seen, or read many of them, so I had to summarize such things as the entire Star Wars saga, The Wizard of Oz, Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. That’s how you fill 140 minutes.

I don’t think it’s particularly safe driving in Hyderabad, but I had not seen a serious traffic accident since I’d arrived. Until this weekend. I saw two victims of traffic fatalities in one day. Thankfully, one was covered with a blanket and had been moved to the back of an open truck by the time our portion of the traffic jam inched by. The other, we weren’t so lucky. Of course, we were still a lot luckier than he was. I’d insert a link here to some local news article about traffic fatalities, but they don’t seem to think it rates a column inch. So there ya go.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pt. 4: In Which I Acknowledge My Negligence In Blogging

I’m not so hot a blogger. For instance, in my last entry I should’ve used a link to explain the Ganesh myth, rather than waste space copying from Wikipedia. Won’t happen again. So if you want to know about the last two festival holidays we’ve witnessed, Dasara and Diwali, you can just tap those links. Also, I don’t keep up too well, but I hope to remedy that as well, with shorter, more frequent entries. There’s a lot to tell about this place, so I should stop composing long works and get down to the nitty-gritty.

This is the paragraph about driving in India. First of all, I should be clear: everyone recommended against driving in India. Fulbright recommended against it, foreigners who lived and visited here, even Indians recommended against it (except, I should point out, my exchange partner, whose atypically adventurous attitude is most pleasing and empowering to me). The thing is, driving in Hyderabad is pretty close to chaos. Sure there are laws, and lines, and all sorts of signs, but ultimately, driving in the streets of Hyderabad is pretty much dog-eat-dog. There are hundreds of buses, diesel spewing, horn blasting behemoths that look like they've never had an exception, and their drivers have absolutely no interest in your driving or your safety. Then there are thousands of motorcycles and scooters, all in the 120-180 cc range, and they move around you like schools of fish, always seeking the path of least resistance. There are huge gravel trucks, overloaded cargo carriers, oxen carts, bicycles for god's sake, all plying the same right of way. And then there are the auto rickshaws.

A general rule of thumb is: always assume the right of way. If you do this, you will probably not get in an accident. If you don’t, you will become as a rock amidst stormy seas. But you’ll get nowhere. Fact is, we’ve seen no serious wrecks in the streets. For one, the volume of traffic means one rarely accelerates to anything approaching terminal velocity. Or even the speed limit, which is posted at a ridiculously low 40 kph (24 mph) on most city streets, even the main ones. The other thing is, people give way. If you want to enter the stream of traffic, or even cross it as a pedestrian for that matter, you pretty much stick your hand out (turn signal? Not likely!) and hit the gas. Pedestrians regularly claim the right of way not by waiting for the rare traffic light to go their way. They just hold up their hand sort of half-heartedly and walk. It’s a beautiful thing, really. You see, no one wants to be responsible for injuring another driver or pedestrian. You’re not likely to be arrested if you do, but it’s quite possible that you will be beaten to within an inch of your life by bystanders. Then they’ll carry you to the police station, if you’re lucky.

There are bumps and benders aplenty, but I still have yet to see a traffic accident resulting in injury. Not that I haven’t been bumped. Just yesterday Kaya and I decided to navigate our way through the city to the iMax cinema at a centrally located mall. On our way I inevitably took a wrong turn on a main road with a central divider. So I did what any Hyderabadi would do: I drove to the first gap in the divider, moved to the right (other side, remember?), stuck my arm out the window to indicate my intention (and, in a fit of nostalgia I guess, hit the turn signal as well), and began my u-turn. Well the auto rickshaw driver linked almost anatomically to my bumper, saw, or rather felt me decelerate and looked upon it as an opportunity to pass me on the right. He ended up sideswiping my rear door. No big worry; he couldn’t have been going more than 10 mph. But the family of three on the motor scooter behind him wasn’t quite so lucky (3 on a scooter is nothing. I’ve seen 5; Jen claims the record sighting at 7, but 5 were children). They hit the rickshaw hard enough to be jolted off their scooter, cracking its turn signal light cover. No one was hurt. Actually, none of them even fell to the ground, which is kind of shocking in itself. The rickshaw driver yelled something to me in Telegu. I yelled back to him in English. And then his passenger, a middle aged woman in a beautiful blue sari, translated, “he says you didn’t signal to turn. But I saw your hand out the window.” And indeed, my hand was still sticking out the window, so I raised my palm to him as if to say, “and what the f—k do you think this is, a—hole?”

I pulled the car to a parking spot and turned my attention to the scooter driver, a middle-aged man, his wife, and their 10-year old daughter, and asked if any of them were injured. I received his assurance that they were all unhurt, albeit angry and shaken. “What shall I do, sir!?” he exclaimed, obviously unsure about whose fault the whole was. Hell, I was shaken, having heard all these stories of drivers being hauled from their cars and beaten to death by mobs. And indeed, there were 6 or 7 young fellows gathering around the scene. But they didn’t look threatening, or even particularly concerned, just curious to see how the gora was going to handle the situation. I figured I had a way out. I think it helped that by this time the rickshaw driver had taken off. He seemed a more likely candidate for a beating than I. And since nobody was hurt, I offered to pay to replace the man’s turn signal cover. He was completely taken aback, looked even embarrassed to accept, but I pressed him to take the 100 rupees ($2) and he shyly accepted. He even shook my hand before we parted. But his wife still scowled at me. She probably would’ve contributed to the beating plenty, given the right circumstances.

We made it to the movie without further drama. Afterward we spent a couple of dollars in the arcade, racing each other through the streets of LA, but we had a terrible time: we couldn’t stay between the lines.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pt. 3: In Which We Are Blessed With Rain By Ganesh; Thank you, Elephant-Head-Boy-God!

When I asked one of my colleagues why students at my school wore a different white uniform on Wednesdays, he shrugged. “Is it just tradition?” I prompted him further. He gave me the head bobble so typical of Indians, along with an enigmatic half-smile, and concluded, “I don’t know. But we really love our traditions here.” The morning assembly on Wednesday resembles nothing less than a naval boot camp graduation, circa 1943, replete with white dress uniforms for boys, and what look suspiciously like nurses’ uniforms for girls. The only difference is that some gray uniforms dot the class lines, evidence of participation of both boys and girls in scouting. Wednesday assembly is also the day for Mass Physical Training. In their class lines, students engage in 30 minutes of stretching, yoga, and calisthenics, while the few teachers committed, concerned, or sadistic enough watch from the shelter of several shade trees around the yard.

In the course of the exercise session, several students will leave the ranks before passing out. One or two won’t make it. Classmates will carry them into the shade to recover, then return to their places. It’s hot, and it has been since May, but the monsoon has not produced the kind of rains this agricultural region is used to, or needs. In some reports in the newspapers, farmers are selling their wives to cover the financial losses. More than 140 farmers in the state have committed suicide in the past 7 weeks, while rainfall was less than half the annual norm.

Despite the growing crisis, or maybe in answer to it, during the first week or so after we arrived, neighborhoods and communities around the region geared up for Ganesha Chaturthi, the Hindu holiday where the elephant-headed god bestows his presence and goodwill on humanity. Wikipedia explains the background of the myth thusly:

“According to the legend, Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of resolution, was away at a war. His wife Parvati, wanted to bathe and having no-one to guard the door to her house, conceived of the idea of creating a son who could guard her. Parvati created Ganesha out of the sandalwood paste that she used for her bath and breathed life into the figure. She then set him to stand guard at her door and instructed him not to let anyone enter.

“In the meantime, Lord Shiva returned from the battle but as Ganesha did not know him, stopped Shiva from entering Parvati's chamber. Shiva, enraged by Ganesh’s impudence, drew his trident and cut off Ganesha's head. Parvati emerged to find Ganesha decapitated and flew into a rage. She took on the form of the Goddess Kali and threatened destruction to the three worlds of Heaven, Earth and the subterranean earth.

“Parvati was still in a dangerous mood. Seeing her in this mood, the other Gods were afraid and Shiva, in an attempt to pacify Parvati, sent out his ganas, or hordes, to find a child whose mother is facing another direction in negligence, cut off his head and bring it quickly. The first living thing they came across was an elephant. That elephant was facing north (the auspicious direction associated with wisdom). So they brought the head of this elephant and Shiva placed it on the trunk of Parvati's son and breathed life into him. Parvati was overjoyed and embraced her son, the elephant-headed boy whom Shiva named Ganesha, the lord of his ganas. Parvati was still upset so Lord Shiva announced that everyone who worships Ganesha before any other form of God is favoured. So Ganesh is worshipped first in all Hindu occasions and festivals.”

From what I was told, the tradition of immersing painted plaster and mud idols of the god at the end of the 10-day festival was only popularized in the 19th century, both to unite different castes in Indian society, and also as a nationalistic rallying point against British rule. So the smallest statues of Ganesh (a couple of inches) to the largest (in Hyderabad, about 50 feet) are displayed by local clubs, organizations, or just interested neighbors under temporary tents and scaffolding in local streets, squares or lots. They are decorated with flowers, jewels, glittery stuff and bright paints, and communities gather nightly for chanting, dancing, making offerings of fruits and vegetables, and general celebrating. There are a whole bunch of other community events scheduled around these celebrations, including art exhibits, music performances, games and competitions, social service projects, and of course, lots of eating. We received many invitations to join in the celebrations, but to be honest, the kids were still a little arrival-shy, and just weren’t prepared for the crowds. We even had to abandon our effort to see the Hyderabad colossus due to the impenetrable mob of celebrants we encountered on the streets around it. But we wandered over to our neighborhood shrine a couple of times, met some new friends and neighbors, and were generally swept up in the joy and goodwill of the occasion.

At the end of the festival, amidst loud drumming and chanting crowds (something along the lines of “come again, next year), each idol is taken by truck or 3-wheeled auto to the nearest lake, or other large body of water, and ceremoniously dumped in. After the idol dissolves, the frames are recovered for reuse next year. The Ganesh in our apartment complex was about 8 feet tall, painted to look like it was made of wood, and was situated in a tent on the worn gravel clearing where the kids normally play cricket; there was another one, tended by students from the neighborhood, in an unfinished storefront across from my school. The big immersion day brought hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Hyderabad, where a large lake is a popular site for immersions. About 30 or 40 heavy construction-grade cranes were set up around the lake to conduct for-hire immersion services. We were told it was best to avoid downtown Hyderabad during immersions, even more so as it happened to coincide with the untimely death of the state’s Chief Minister in a helicopter crash, so Jen and Niko had to be satisfied with seeing off our neighborhood Ganesh in a parade of chanting, drumming, and fireworks as it made its way out of the complex. After its 15 mile drive into the city, it was taken to to an appointed crane for immersion. Each service lasts about the time it takes to secure cables to your neighborhood Ganesh statue’s base, lift it and maybe several others (if they wanted to share the cost and there was room on the platform), and then drop them into Sagr Lake. Yeah, there are some environmental issues connected with dumping 2000 statues of various sizes and materials into an already polluted lake, but let’s not allow that to get in the way of a much-beloved tradition. And within days of the holiday’s opening, almost 10 inches of rain fell in Andhra Pradesh. Thank you, elephant-head-boy-god! Come again next year!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pt. 2: In Which I Am Treated With An Obscene Level Of Respect By Complete Strangers

Okay, so by now I have been teaching at the Kendriya Vidyalaya NFC Nagar in Ghatkesar for over a week, but the hype of my presence is still pretty high, especially among the little ‘uns. For those who care to know, Kendriya Vidyalaya means Central School, a huge network of government schools across the country that share the same curriculum and exist to support civil and military families who may be transferred around a lot. And the NFC, well, that’s for Nuclear Fuel Complex, but I have yet to find any evidence of such a place in the area. At least not above ground. Mostly the area is defined by small farms and punctuated by concrete farmhouses, budding apartments, light industry, and periodic villages of shops and homes crammed into small areas and spilling onto the local byways. The school itself is a relatively new facility (1996) with about 35 teachers and 750 students in grades 1-12. The hallways are open air, and most of the classrooms are, too, thanks to unrepaired windows. The unfinished concrete interior is an acoustical nightmare, and a class of 40 sixth graders can really push some major dBs.

After my evening arrival in Hyderabad, I spent my first night at the city home/clinic of my exchange partner’s physician husband, Ravi Kapoor and their 4 dogs. Also some mosquitoes. Early the next morning, he drove me out to our new abode at the state housing development formerly named Singapore Township, and now called Sanskruthi Township. I guess Singapore stock is down in India these days. The place is really nice. It’s a huge complex of 64 four and ten story structures, built only a few years back, and it’s less than 50% occupied due to the fact that it’s middle income and the economy sucks even worse here. Yes, it’s a global economy, but who knew? We have a view of trees and bushes and grass, and lots of butterflies and dragonflies ply the airways. Also mosquitoes, but if we close the windows by 6 PM and sleep under the netting we stay sucker-free.

So anyway, we get a call almost as soon as I get in the apartment from my colleagues who want to pick me up and bring me to school for The Big Welcome. Never one to shy away from pomp and circumstance (except when it comes under the category of Pep Assembly, that is), I figured “what the hey!” and accepted the invitation. This is where I first experienced the Indian double-take, which is really just a stare masquerading as a curious afterthought. It’s subtle yet effective; it’s also unnerving when, with the precision of Swiss timing, just about every head within a hundred yards registers the fact of my pale skin. But with kids, it’s open-mouthed, wide-eyed, delirious delight that greets me in the driveway up to the school building. I am ushered into the principal’s office, although he is away, and offered tea, cookies, and 50 handshakes with a procession of staff whose names I can hardly understand, let alone remember. There are smiles all around as greetings and job titles are offered and I am thinking, “this is so awkward for me but that is okay; it will not always feel like this; soon it will feel like home.” Then they lead me out to the students.

I am led out to the main courtyard of the school, between the primary wing and main building, and invited to the assembly stage, where I am greeted by 20 classes of students arranged by grade and then by height, wearing almost identical uniforms of blue pants or skirts and white shirts, and a hearty chorus of 700 “good morning, sirs” from students who seem to have been preparing for this moment even longer that I have. I am a rock star, at least today, in this neighborhood of Ghatkesar. There are three elements to every daily assembly: a Hindi prayer for learning, the national oath, and the national anthem. And then one of the classes gives a presentation. Today it was the grade 9 students who had the honor of welcoming me.

The welcome is beautiful, touching and heartfelt. I am presented by a student in a sari with a garland of flowers and a yellow tilaka, a powdered dot on my forehead to represent my third eye. The acting principal reads my application essay on why I wanted to come to India, including my educational background, which is obviously an important factor here. Then we are ushered to the side of the stage for several musical numbers accompanied by students playing tablas and Casio keyboards. There is a dance representing India’s struggle for independence. It is not particularly violent, but the choreographed movements suggest a kind of combat I never saw in Gandhi. Of course, non-violent civil disobedience doesn’t seem quite as suitable a topic for dance.

There is a welcome speech by the acting principal (Principal Isreal is away for the week, inspecting other KV schools in the region), and by Mr. Surya Prakash, Hindi teacher, who reads part of my Fulbright application essay aloud (how long ago did I write that?) and finally I am escorted back inside, shown a copy of my teaching schedule, given a tour of the school, and sent home for the rest of the day to relax. Good thing, too, because I had a lot of cleaning up to do before the fam arrived the next day.