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.