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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pt. 1: In Which I Learn My Nose Is The Coolest Part Of My Body

Even after all the time I spent in planning and preparation for this moment, New Delhi still managed to sneak up on me as I dozed through the last 30 minutes of my flight, bumping me gently awake as we arrived at Ghandi Airport. The thick airlessness of the aircraft ramp gave way to the heavily conditioned air of the terminal as we dodged through intersecting lines of passengers boarding other flights. James, my flying buddy since Frankfurt and fellow Fulbrighter, smiled incredulously at the intermingling throngs of arriving and departing passengers as we had our first taste of New Delhi-style traffic. The next impediment we encountered was an H1N1 screening that utilized infrared cameras to scan the passenger line for the telltale high body heat signature of the feverish. My nose stood out as the coolest part of my body, I noted. Judged healthy enough by a masked medical attendant, we swept through passport control and had only a short wait at the baggage carrousel before dragging ourselves almost unnoticed through customs.

We had both been flying all the previous night and day, but were buoyed by the smiling greeters and a host of ebullient young Fulbright scholars who had also been on our flight. We were led out the terminal into the thick air of the city and boarded a private coach for the hotel. New Delhi was in slumber; most of the buildings had no lights on at that late hour, and as we drove through the practically empty streets, the city seemed tame and unobtrusive. James observed, “well, at least there’s no traffic at 2 AM.”

The crumbling and stained fa├žade of the 70s era tower that was the Hans Hotel belied the relative comfort and cleanliness of my room, and after staring out into the glowing gloom of the city from my 17th story room for a few minutes, I collapsed onto my bed and stirred only when my 7:00 wake-up call came. Breakfast brought cheerful greetings and reunions with the other Fulbrighters who I had met and left only a week before in DC. After a hearty and culturally mixed breakfast of bacon, eggs, donuts and curried stews, we were taken by bus to the capital for a special meeting with India’s new Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao.

I’ve always been a sucker for the monumental architecture of government buildings, and India’s capital certainly did not disappoint, but when we were allowed to meet with a top government official in person I have to admit I was star struck. We were led down an intimidating maze of corridors of stone and marble, trimmed with dark wooden doorways bearing the names of titles of the country’s leadership. After taking seats around a large boardroom table, Secretary Rao entered with several staffers and took her seat at the head of the table. For the next 45 minutes, she talked to us about her background, her view of the Indian relationship with the US, and her belief in the goals of the Fulbright programs. She asked for each grantee to introduce themselves and their project or placement, commented throughout with interest and encouragement, and generally charmed us all. Then she took questions and when I asked her if she had one wish of a teacher visiting India to take something away, replied “I hope you will learn about our oral traditions of storytelling, something I fear is disappearing. The oral tradition reflects the power of expression…how you project yourself…literature is preparation for life.” Pretty much she owned me after that.