Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Hello, hello, whoever is reading this … INDIA IS TOO NOISY.
Gee, and what was I expecting, to hear the chirping of the birds and the photosynthesizing of the plants? Ha! I know I should not use this venue to gripe, BUT … There is a rooster who is part of the workers’ household (more on that later). A beautiful rooster. He is part of a harem of hens and chicks, and they are greedy at worst, kind of cute at best. But this rooster …!! He starts crowing at, ohh, 3:30 in the morning? You hear this slapping sound as if someone is knocking on a door, and then the crowing ensues. While I am in bed, wide awake, I have wondered: does he regularly do his “cock-a-doodle-do” thing eight times? ten? Is there a regular interval between the screeches? I have counted. No, he just DOES whatever pleases him. That flapping sound MIGHT be HIM, asserting himself and trying to get away; he is tethered to a post during the evening and night. Sad to see, but I do wish they would tether his MOUTH. And, starting at 6:45, cars start careening down the highway that is right in front of our house, Assamese music vibrating so loud it can make your fillings jingle. Screeches from humans are also de rigueur.
However, there is good news: when we need water, we have to turn on a switch that activates the water pump. This results in a hideous electrical jarring sound that sort of drowns out the car noises. And we barely hear the ducks then. Oh, I didn’t mention the DUCKS …
OK, OK, I guess the Indian honeymoon is over.
Down by the Riverside
I really should not be spending time griping (but everyone knows whining is a hobby of mine) when so much has gone on. Let’s start with the New Year’s Day picnic. . . New Year’s Day is a national holiday here, and many people head on over to the banks of some small river (it’s not the Brahmaputra, the main river in Assam Province) for a picnic. Chandan and Anu very kindly invited us to join them for their annual picnic there, and I looked forward to going. I’m fairly used to the gawking and gaping that ensues when the Assamese see a Westerner (one should not forget that, for MOST, Jnanamati and I are the ONLY WESTERNERS they have EVER seen), but what I experienced there made me feel like a cross between Madonna and the Elephant Man . . . Celebrity? Freak? A bit of both? First, we took the mat and food items, and waded through very low riverbeds in order to reach a rather nice spot. Well, “rather” . . . the scenery is lovely: misty Himalaya Mountains in the distance, shallow, flowing water and rather rocky river beds that one can put a blanket over. But if one wishes to commune tranquilly with nature . . . ?? Ain’t gonna happen. The noise that I had mentioned that streams from zooming cars continues from the stationary cars here, parked along the riverside. And trash: everywhere. And why not, I’m afraid. There is no regular trash disposal system in this area. Trash? It’s the way it IS.
So. Before we have even settled down, people literally rush up to us, bumping into each other to get a look. We get the usual: “Where you from?” “How long you here?” Every small utterance we made was met with rapt attention, as if we had just uttered Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. As soon as we have settled ourselves on the mat, groups and groups of people came our way, pushing into each other to get the best view. I closed my eyes, trying to maintain my calm and not snap. Mostly, I felt badly for Chandan and his family, who deserve a nice, quiet get-together in a place they have been going to on this day for years and years. We finally did ask people if they wouldn’t mind giving us space, as we’d like to spend time with our friends. And people did amiably agree. Now, I think, we can relax . . .
However, as we were enjoying our tea and namkeen, that wonderful mixture of crunchies and sweet things that is found in almost every Indian household, we saw two lines of people moving towards each other. They were moving purposefully, eyes glued to the opposing group of people. We heard noises raised in anger and I realized we were about to watch a huge, huge fight in progress. People started gesticulating and shouting; two men began to wrestle and other men (and women) struggled to separate them. What the . . .?? Well, I thought, I might as well DOCUMENT this, and I took one picture. Jnanamati hissed at me, “Put that camera DOWN! We don’t want to bring attention to ourselves!” and I sheepishly, with regret, put the camera down. All I could get from Chandan is that soon police would come and get things under control. And, before the police DO come—which is no surprise—anger simmered, dissipated, at least slightly, and people wandered back to their blankets. Idly, I looked over to where a bunch of men are dancing to blaring music. “They are drinking alcohol,” I observed to Jnanamati. “This place is a tinderbox,” he responded.
For years, Assam has been the site of ethnic conflict. Let’s hear it for colonialism: The British, who owned tea plantations in this area, hired people from outside the area, often giving plummy jobs to Hindu Bengalis (now Bangladeshis) and bypassing the Assamese, for the Hindus were better educated than the Muslin Bengalis and the Assamese in general. Eventually, with the development of an Assamese middle class, resentment began to fester about these Bengalis taking the good jobs. Also, the Muslim Bengalis would settle on land that had been cultivated by both Assamese and the tribal peoples in this area—this just added a match to the tinderbox of conflict in the region. While most of the damage has been done in areas that border Bangladesh (hundreds of miles away), there are bad feelings everywhere. I guess this little spat had to do with some sort of ethnic conflict, but who knows? And don’t worry, I am very, very safe here, for I am well looked after. Once Jnanamati leaves, on January 13, I will be living with Anu and her daughter, Mayuri. They live in a very rural area, with neighbors, they tell me, who are all dying to meet me. So I may indeed die here—but of too much attention, versus a terrorist’s bullet.
This is not to minimize what has gone on in the area. As recently as July 2012, a tribal group, the Bodos, fought against the Bengali Muslims for the reasons I mentioned, above. During this time, Assamese students living elsewhere fled their residences, having heard or read about rumors that Muslims would retaliate against them. While Jnanamati is right to advise caution, in case people start attributing all this woe to the Western colonialists, I do feel safe, for I am surrounded by people who are happy I am here.
Back to the riverbank: once I became aware of alcohol, I saw that its presence permeated the festivities here. Indeed, as we were trooping back to Chandan’s car, a group of quite drunk young men practically accosted us, insisting we pose with them for various photo ops. It was yukky; we survived.
Teaching / A Very Strange Afternoon
The school’s children continue to endear themselves to me, as I become aware of individual personalities . . . their names still elude me, but that is my next goal: names! Each class has at least one shining star—as classes do. These special kids, for the most part, are quite well scrubbed, bright-eyed, and so eager to learn it’s heartbreaking. You also get the other spectrum . . . some students seem to have a certain dullness of affect that cannot, I think, just be attributed to a less-than-stellar intellect. . . what’s the story there, I think, as I work with a young girl with a dirty, dirty shirt, runny nose, and a drooping spirit. Who knows. Even if I found out, what could I do? Almost all the kids, however, are OK with taking instruction, and are doing the best they can. They could still be in THEIR honeymoon period with me, for working with a Westerner must be a very interesting experience for them—this novelty would give the most mediocre teacher a real advantage. And I am learning to relax with the new sensation of working with young kids, and to suss out each class’s particular character. Class 2, I am realizing, can best be reached with drama games, with action. Class 3 students are equally good at both kinetic and reading activities. Class 5 has a mix of very, very bright students and those who seem to not be getting it very well. But! In trying to help a class understand the nature of spoken English, with its various tonal and stress changes, I began to spontaneously use my body to do a dance that stomped out the strong words in sentences, and bent down to denote the weak words. It seems to work! The kids began to do this little dance with me, and then to say complex sentences in perfect rhythm. “OK, OK! The ANT (I stomped and clapped my hands on the word “ant;” so did the students) WORKED HARD (stomp, stomp, clap clap—students enthusiastically did the same)in the FIELDS (clap and stomp only on FIELDS) … etc. I will continue doing this! and will trust in fluid young brains to make a connection between these sentences and the many, many more English-language sentences they will say in the future. Finally, as a teacher, I am relinquishing my own dependence on words and delving into a more kinetic way of teaching. This is very, very good. It’s part of why I came here in the first place: to learn.
The Meeting: On Friday, January 4, there would be a parent-teacher meeting, I was told, so I expected to have parents line up to talk with the different teachers. I was expecting to be in the background because I am so new to the school. Little did I know. A good number of parents or guardians showed up, perhaps 30. Chandan began by giving a ten-minute speech. All I could understand was “Madam,” “Amy,” “USA”, and “English”, and there was a lot of gesturing towards me. The parents’ eyes zoomed towards me and flickered between Chandan and myself . . . back and forth, like an eyeball tennis match. Chandan sat down and said, ”Madam, give a talk, please.”
You would think I would be used to this, since I was placed in this position once before, just about nine days ago. I was at a public-health meeting that Chandan’s charity, the Tatagatha Trust had set up. I was sitting quietly, enjoying looking at the audience—great faces; I even took some photographs while Assamese washed over me. Then Chandan said to me, “Madam, you will now give a talk on the healthcare system in your country.” Oh, sure, like I know tons about THAT. I stammered out a speech on how fat Americans were getting and how this is placing a huge burden on America’s healthcare system (with Chandan translating) and that was that. It’s disconcerting, really: there still exists in this part of the world a post-colonial perception that ALL Westerners have something that Indians don’t. That elusive “it”…could that special something be the insouciance of Western culture? Its brashness, it popular culture? Hence, as a Westerner, it is assumed, of COURSE I will know something about my country and I should communicate that to others. Ha. In fact, one of the teachers I work with actually said, “Madam, Indians are backward and stupid. Americans are smart.” How representative is that attitude I don’t know. I’m sure better-educated young Indians would take umbrage at that perception, but here, in rural, isolated India, that glorified image of Westerners is still going strong—hence the goggling and gawking. And, no doubt, there are politicized Indians who dislike what Westerners have actually done to the country and who may take it out on offending Westerners—but thus far I’ve been spared any ire regarding that.
So. Back to the parents’ meeting. I stood up, and to my surprise, began to speak clearly and coherently. It does not matter what I said; let’s just say I tried to communicate a message of East and West learning from each other, and that I was happy to add an extra dimension to this school’s curriculum. Easy, easy . . . I breathed a sigh of relief when the speech was over, and slumped down in my chair.
Then the parents had the floor. A very attractive, slender man stood up and spoke very well and eloquently . . . in Assamese, of course. I recognized the words “Hindi”, “English”, and “Assamese.” He pointed to me once or twice in what I thought was a fairly disapproving tone of voice, and held the floor for at least four minutes. When he finished, people applauded. I glanced at the teachers. They were fidgeting and looking nervous; one of them sat there, with a face that seemed carved from stone. I gestured to one of the teachers to sit next to me. “What did he say?” I hissed. “He say students should study three languages: Assamese, Hindi, as well as English. He say teachers should work harder, give homework every night. He like the English, don’t worry,” the teacher reassured me. I sighed. The teachers make so, so little money, and this gentleman wants them to put in huge amounts of hours. While I could understand his sentiments, I wondered how the teachers actually felt: their faces seemed to tell a unified story of fatigue and . . . ennui? Many of these parents pay practically next to nothing to send their kids here. I don’t know . . . Where do they think the money comes from to run this school? Finding money to pay their meager salaries is a monthly task that often can barely be met, or comes out of individual pocketbooks. As I thought along these lines, I had to smile: I was becoming protective of this small school in the middle of nowhere. How did that happen?
Well, one thing is true, I thought to myself: these parents may be poor, but their vocal capacity is not. Many of them got up and had their say. The teachers often chimed in, nodding their heads for emphasis. Then the parents interrupted and spoke. Occasionally I heard the usual “Madam” or “Amy” or “English”. Chandan was sitting next to me, calmly taking notes. I was getting a bit tired of all this. I don’t speak Assamese. I was feeling quite . . . stupid, and a bit put out. They could have TOLD me this meeting was in large part an introduction to meet ME, I sulked to myself. Also, this is the school’s admission time, when new families can sign up their children. Of course Chandan would want to parade me around in order to get new students. While I did feel a bit—manipulated—I had to admit to myself that if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d probably do the same thing myself. “What ARE they saying?” I asked Chandan. He leaned toward me. “They say that the school environment is no good and we need separate classrooms,” he said. He beamed at me and went back to listening and writing notes.
Great. All this talking and . . . only about the (admittedly terrible) school environment? While I was pondering how much power translators actually have, Jnanamati walked in and sat next to me. Eventually, he gave a speech. Everyone was given tea and biscuits, and the meeting came to a halt.
During this meeting, many of the school’s students would come in, run to their parents and then run out again. They saw nothing inappropriate in running in, three abreast, each child talking as loudly as he or she could. Noise, noise, noise, India is all NOISE, I thought. Honking ducks (yes, I live near ducks, too). Squawking chickens. Blaring music. Crowing roosters. And the school classrooms are only divided by these thin, portable bits of CARDBOARD, really, on wheels. In other words—no dividers to speak of. Imagine five classes, separated only by bits of movable cardboard, with students laughing and answering lessons all up and down this large space, and each teacher trying to teach above the noise of her fellow teachers. This is not conducive to learning, but what choice do the teachers have? So. More noise.
On this note, I’ll stop; I’ve written far too much now as is, and thank you to anyone who has waded through all this! I hope you enjoy the pictures. The long and short of it: it has been quite a ride thus far, and I can barely imagine what surprises will be in store for me in the future. It’s a bumpy ride . . . and such a good one. I’m fortunate to be here.