How It Strikes Me

I am living in India.  I am not on vacation anymore, or on hiatus from my "real" life.  I have taken up residence in India.  India has taken up residence in me.

Cows in the road, dogs sleeping lazily wherever they please, sparrows the size of doves, none of these surprise me anymore.  They are a part of my life.  I get up early in the morning, just after the sun.  Not because the dogs who howl all night long have kept me up, they haven't.  I am immune to their incessant bays.  It is the birds calling and chattering away that get through to my slumbering mind.  I go into my little kitchen which has been newly equipped with a kerosene burner and a toaster so that I can begin my mornings slowly, solitarily.  I open my door to the outside world and the second gated door that keeps me locked safely inside while I sleep.  I set up a low slung chair at the top of my steps and sit and sip coffee and watch the birds do their morning dance.  Today I fed them scraps of my toast to bring them closer to me on the ground.

I roll up the mosquito nets that cover the windows, I pull back the curtains, I open the shutters if they have been caught in the wind and closed a little in the night.

I check my email.  I get frustrated with the infuriating speed of the Internet.  I should have faster speeds but the Internet guy has royally slacked off and we've been playing phone tag for over two weeks.  Chandana has been the heavy and gone to his office to intimidate him into action, but that's only gotten him so far.  Yesterday I decided to call him every 10 minutes to see if that would get through to him.  I felt like the boy in About a Boy buzzing on Hugh Grant's door: buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz...... Unlike the boy, I am still waiting for a reply.

Around nine I get dressed and load up my bike and head off to work.  Monday through Friday I teach at Antaranga.  I've started doing a little show with the 8 and 9 year olds.  They are writing it, based on an Indian folk tale that they told me.  On Sunday's I work with my Chitra girls.  In both cases, I am amazed each day how much we are able to understand each other despite the fact that we do not really speak each other's language.

At Antaranga my biggest challenge is that one of the women teachers doesn't speak English and yet wants to tell the kids what to do.  She can't know what they are to do, because she hasn't understood me.  She bosses them. Sometimes she pulls them forcibly where she thinks they are meant to be.  As a visiting teacher, part of my purpose is to give the regular teachers another method of working from which to draw from.  She doesn't understand my method of working.  I am comfortable with the learning curve.  I know that the kids may not understand what we are doing perfectly today.  But tomorrow they will have absorbed it somehow and they will get it more right, and the day after that, even more right.  That is if they are given space to fail and to find their own way of understanding.

I've discovered that "imagination" is not a word that translates easily into Bengali.  Imagination is rampant in these parts, but when I use the word, people look at me as if I've spoken martian.  This makes teaching how to use the imagination very difficult, but fun.  I've had to go about it slyly.   I've had to trick both the students and fellow teachers into using their imagination without asking them to use it.  It wonderful for my teaching skills.  I'm having to relearn how to teach everything I thought I knew already how to teach.

At 11 or so I ride to the shops or back home where I write or work on the website I'm starting for Chandana's Ahimsa programs, which is where my Chitra group gets it's funding.  I usually eat lunch made by the ladies who work in my house, I nap if it is hot outside....and it's always hot.  In the evening I may go back to Antaranga for the evening classes, or write some more, or read, or visit with Chandana.  There are nights coming up where concerts have been arranged, visits to villages, I'm not sure what else.  People are gently anxious to make sure that I am entertained.  Last night I kept to myself and went to a cafe for dinner and started to read a new book by Vikram Seth, An Equal Music, that made me weep at almost every page.

Santiniketan is easy to live in, once you accept that the well may literally run dry in the night and therefore there is no way to wash in the morning.  The electricity, too, might go at any minute.  Shopping for groceries is something you can only do between 10 and one and then again between 5:30 and 9, except on Tuesdays when you can only go in the morning and Wednesday and Sundays when you can't shop at all.

I am beginning to get a feel for the strange interplay in India between what is locked away and what is always kept exposed.  It is a common sight to see men peeing in the street.  I've even had cab drivers stop, get out of the car, walk to the back of the car and unzip to pee, then they get casually back in the car and continue on.  Indian's can sleep anywhere too, especially the men, sidewalks, fences, the edge of the railway track, the street.

When Nicole and I were waiting for the train to leave Howrah station we watched a young man of 16 or so, use the spout in the middle of the next set of tracks to take a bath and brush his teeth.  Hundreds of people were around him, either on the platform opposite or the train right next to him.  He took off all his clothes, except his underwear, washed with soap and water, used deodorant that he'd kept in a plastic bag along with his aftershave which he put on next, then he opened up a brand new undershirt, put on his pants and a belt 4 times too big, and a cleanly pressed shirt.  He combed his hair, brushed his teeth and looked a million bucks.  You'd never know he lived on platform 9 of Howrah Station, where he also, it turns out, went back to work selling fruit when his morning bath was done.

Yet all the windows in India have grates or bars, usually in art deco designs, but bars none-the-less.  All the doors have locks on both sides to keep some people in and other people out.  I haven't met a cabinet without a lock, except in the Bengal Club, originally an English domain, where presumably it is safe to leave your belongings out.  It's as if things are meant to be secured, fastened to a place, hidden away, but the most intimate daily actions of humans are lived under the stares of everyone around them.

In one or two room houses where multiple generations live and sleep together, even sex becomes a sanctioned public act.  I am thankful that I haven't moved into that part of India.

Much to the confoundment of the people who look after me, I have not abandoned my western sense of modesty, or of personal space, which is one of the most foreign things about me here, where no one gets the concept of keeping to oneself.  But I'm loosening up in that regard.  Today, as I ate my breakfast, Minou came in to take the mosquito net off the bed, to sweep, to generally be in my space, helping me.  I realized after a few minutes that it has become natural to have her here, to have her gently clearing my domain while I sit in my nightgown, hair dishevelled, eating my toast.  I don't bristle at the intrusion,  I don't even feel guilty that she is on the floor drawing the broom under my feet.  I have accepted that, for her, that is the order of things and to try and change that order would be disrespectful.

I don't speak Bengali yet.  That's what gives me away, not my skin, or my western-Indian fusion of dressing.  However, I'm learning more subtle Indian vocabularies.  First, there are the various head bobs where the chin wobbles at slightly different angles to indicate different things: "Yes", "Maybe", "I want you to think I'm saying yes but the answer is really no".  Then there is the the liberal use of "hunh," which indicates to another person that you are listening and that you have understood.

"I would like you to go...."


" the store..."

"Hunh, hunh..."

"....and get some lentils."

"Hunh, hunh, hunh.'

"Not the big red lentils..."


"...but the small yellow ones."

"HUNH...!!! Hunh.  Atcha.  Tik Atche." (That last part means, "Ok.   All right".)

I've been sitting in the room on countless occasions when someone I am talking to will get a call and all I hear from my point of view is, "Hunh..........  Hunh, hunh......hunh, hunh, hunh......hunnnnh....hunh....hunh....hunh.  Atcha Atcha.  Tik atche."

Do not be surprised when I come back to the States and you hear me saying, "Hunh.  Hunh."  You have been warned.

I started to write, just then, "when I come back HOME," but it didn't stick.  It didn't stick because I am home, at least for now.  Chandana asked me the other day why it had taken me so long to get to India when it obviously suits me so well.  I told her because it wasn't the right time.  But now it is.  Now I am home.

I went out to one of the Santal villages today for a festival to celebrate all the villages of the area and what they had accomplished in the last year.  There were games where women had to run the farthest carrying a jug full of water on their heads and bicycle races where the aim was to go the SLOWEST without falling over.  There was a dancing and drumming contest where groups from each of the Santal villages competed, a ferris wheel, ice cream vendors.  All this was set out in the middle of rice paddies and thatched roof houses with dung patties drying on the walls.

The woman who lives upstairs from me, Jeanne, took me out to the fair because Chandana is out of town.  As our car was taking us back home at dusk, a mist was forming over the crimson rice fields, the palm trees were silhouetted against a dark pink and blue sky.  Streams of boys on bikes who were heading to where we were driving away from, appeared and disappeared again in our headlights.  Oxen relaxed on the sides of the road, leaning against houses painted pale blue and red, after long days pulling bullock carts.  There was nothing about the scenes floating by outside the window of the Ambassador that should have made sense to me and yet it was completely normal, completely right and I said to Jeanne, "I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful than these villages around Santiniketan."

I haven't.  Not even my beloved Paris, or the beach in Mexico, or the Olympics rising over the Puget Sound can hold a candle to these tiny backwater towns where so many people live a simple life getting married, having babies, re-learning how to be organic farmers, weaving, holding hands, serving tea to strangers.  This place is no idyll, there's poverty, drought, and child-brides, but in a co-operative fashion the native villagers, Indians from the surrounding areas and foreigners who have taken an interest have slowly, over the last 20 years, been bringing the villages not so much into the modern age, but into balance by establishing  schools, nutritional programs, even a small local hospital.   With help from people like Chandanda and groups like Ahimsa, these villages are becoming stronger without losing their souls, their individuality, their identities.  And because of it, they have a glow about them, a sense of light unlike any I've encountered anywhere else on the planet.

I don't know what any of this means.  I haven't a clue.  In terms of me, I mean.  I just know that today this is how it strikes me.  I am living in India and I am at home, all at the same time.