Short, descriptive stories of random things that happen to me.
Blessed by an elephant
The first day we arrived in Pondicherry, we visited the local Ganesha temple. Outside the temple was an elephant, it’s trunk painted with flowers. Here, we could make small monetary offerings to the temple. The elephant sucked the coins up into its trunk and then patted us on the head.
The other day I was shopping for clothes. I went to the dressing room and the woman working there handed me the tag for the number of garments I was trying on. I said “Nandri,” Thank you in Tamil. She then replied in Tamil, which I gathered was her asking me if I spoke Tamil. I said “Illa,” No. Then she said something else in Tamil, but I was lost after that. At least I’ve got Thank you down pat. Too bad everyone here just says “Thanks” in English.
Not knowing French
Many people in Pondicherry assume that we are French. On one occasion while we were house hunting, the prospective landlord actually began speaking to us in Tamil and then, making the common assumption, in French. We were told this afterwards because at the time we had just stared on, not realizing he had made this switch. I do know a few words and phrases in French, but not enough to try to pretend like I speak it well. Bonjour, merci, s’il vous plaît, sortie, où est la brosse à dents – you know, the important stuff. Well, one day, we were walking down a street in the Muslim Quarter, and some kids were outside playing. The girls started whispering and pointing at us, and as we passed, one of them proudly shouted “Bonjour!” She was so cute! I could pretend for this little girl. “Bonjour!” I replied. She said it again; so did I. Then she said something else, in French, of course… seriously, kid? I smiled and kept on walking.
“God is not Religion”
On the first day of our Tamil lessons, our tutor asked us if we believed in God. My co-ETA, who has identified as Christian, answered to the affirmative. I hemmed and hawed for a moment, then replied, “I don’t affiliate with any particular religion.” “That’s not what I was asking,” our tutor replied, “God is not Religion.”
Meeting the neighbors
One evening soon after moving into our apartment, my housemate and I were invited into our downstairs neighbors’ living room. They gestured for us to sit on the couch and offered us each a glass of water. “They” being at least eight people. From what we gathered, there are three generations living there, and the Patriarch is our main contact, who is friends with our landlord. The grandson told us he was studying Commerce, and his English seemed to be the best out of the whole family. That evening, we sat there with sixteen eyes staring at us, nobody quite knowing what to say, though some gestures were made and some Tamil was exchanged among the family. At one point the Patriarch asked us if we were Christians. A portrait of Jesus hung over the doorway to the kitchen. My housemate answered “yes,” and I quickly nodded, to avoid any unnecessary awkwardness. explanation, or confrontation. We went through our spiel of what exactly we were going to be doing here. More awkward silence. We finished our water. Then my housemate excused us to go finish our Tamil homework. Coming in clutch. We scurried upstairs, equally glad to have had those important initial interactions and relieved to have escaped a potentially everlasting stare down.
The Road is a restaurant in Pondicherry. I believe they call themselves a “motopub.” I passed by one night when they had a live DJ and it seemed like a happening place, so we went there for dinner the next night. What a place! It’s small: Inside there are only four six-person tables, four bar stools, and one beanbag chair. Yes. A beanbag chair. And a motorcycle, on display in the center of the room. On the walls are framed sketches and photographs of bikes and motorcycles, and mock bull heads made of bike seats (for the head) and handle bars (for the horns). The stereo speakers played U.S. techno-pop. They had an extensive drink menu, listing juices, cocktails, mocktails, The Road specialties, beers, and spirits. The food menu was multicuisine (very popular here in Pondy), including North and South Indian dishes, sandwiches, pastas, and “Continental Dishes,” under which was listed fish and chips, stroganoff, and the very intriguing and mysterious “Halloween Chicken.” I ordered butter chicken masala with garlic naan, but the real treat was the Orange Hibiscus juice – so tasty I bought two. My friend ordered a “chicken burger.” This had no description on the menu, but came with a side of fries and was topped with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and a fried egg! Overall, a pleasant meal in a strange place. I still don’t understand that beanbag chair! And we’ll have to go back to find out what that Halloween Chicken is…
Paris is another restaurant in Pondicherry. I doubt you would guess what their cuisine is, because it’s not French. Nope, actually they offer Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. (They also call themselves “multicuisine.”) We went there for lunch one day, and as we were waiting for our orders to be served, we tried to read the name of the man whose portrait was on the wall. The name was written in Tamil, which we still could barely read, so we sounded out the letters like first graders. The owner must have seen us looking at the portrait, because when he brought the bill over to us, he pointed to it, and said, “My brother… died. In the night. Heart failure.” “Ohh,” we said, “I’m so sorry.” He repeated this several times, as if to make sure we understood. “Died… in the night… heart failure.” We nodded our condolences, not sure what else to do. Eventually he walked away. We paid the bill and scurried.
July 14th. The anniversary of the start of the French Revolution. A day of revelry in France (I imagine – I’ve never been), and here in Pondicherry, the French are also celebrating, and those of us who aren’t French are taking full advantage of spectacles. The Consulate was decked out – and I do mean ground-to-roof draped – in blue, white, and red string lights. Music played from the courtyard, the gate to which was guarded by officials with a list of VIP invite-only names and mock-velvet ropes. A crowd was gathering on the beach outside for the main attraction – the fireworks. It was quite a show and cell phones clicked and recorded every minute. Just when we thought it was over, a light applause already half-finished, another round shot into the sky! Vive la France!
Buying a trashcan
Fun fact: one (contributing?) factor to India’s serious trash (waste management?) problem is that home trash cans are tiny. Ok, they’re normal sized for most rooms in the house, but usually, we would expect there to be a larger trash can in the kitchen, right? Our apartment came with a tiny, maybe 5 liter, trash can for the kitchen. Sure, we could have made it work, but it was kind of annoying to have to take the trash out every two or three days. So I was on the hunt for a larger trashcan, but I was told I wouldn’t find any that were much bigger. Well one day, I passed by a plastics store and there they were! The big trashcans! There were two sizes that I was looking at, one that was maybe 12-15 liters, and one that was around 20. I asked the man sitting in the shop how much they cost and he encouraged me to check them out first and see what fine quality they were. So I tested the foot pedal and said, “yes very nice… how much?” His English was not great and said something about having to wait five minutes. “Why?” I asked. He didn’t understand and asked if I was speaking French. “No,” I said, “English. Why wait 5 minutes?” “Five minute wait,” he smiled and wagged his head. “En?” I tried, asking why in Tamil. Apparently this man did not work there. The owner had gone across the street for the moment and would back. He invited me in to sit under the fan while I waited. Soon the shop owner came back with two bananas, handed one to the first man, and then offered the second one to me. He told me the prices of the two different trashcans and I went for the smaller one, thinking larger trash bags might be harder to find. We then had a confusing exchange of whether I wanted the trashcan put in a bag to carry. They asked me to stay for tea, which I politely declined, and walked home, my proud purchase in hand.
Going out with a bang
Today I was in my apartment when I heard a series of loud bangs. They sounded like gunshots but I was more inclined to think they were some sort of fire cracker, which are not uncommon here. But I was taken by surprise because it seemed to be right outside my house. I quickly replaced my pajama shorts with a pair of pants and went outside to our terrace to see what was going on. There was indeed cracker smoke filling the street below, and by the time I got outside, there was also the sound of drums and trumpets. A parade…? Is it a holiday? No… a funeral procession. This wasn’t the first I had seen, but this was the first one I noticed that had a mini- bugle corp leading it. Just a handful of musicians, leading the way in colonial style blue and red uniforms. Followed by a few men wearing the traditional South Indian dhoti, a white cloth cover wrapped around their waists. Then came the flower-laden float carrying the deceased. Brightly colored – oranges, yellows, magentas, and reds – a trail of flowers was left in its wake. This seemed to be the extent of the procession, the shortest one I had seen. Nobody else around took much notice to what would have been quite a scene in the U.S. Just another day.
The Scientists can’t make blood
A woman at my school wanted to explain to me proof of the existence of God. She said that our bodies intake food and convert it into everything we need – proteins, nutrients, fat, blood. The scientists can manufacture most of it. They can take their chemicals and make equivalents of just about everything in the human body. But they can’t make blood. And there, you find God.
Why would anyone want to be a dentist?
No offence to anyone out there who’s a dentist, but dentistry has always seemed like such a disgusting profession. Something about digging around people’s mouths is exceptionally unappealing to me, and I just can’t understand why anyone would want to do it. Every time I meet someone with an interest in dentistry, I ask them what the heck they’re thinking. Please, I need to understand. I’ve heard “money,” I’ve heard “family line of dentists,” I’ve even heard “puzzle solving”… which is fair, but there are lot of other professions where you can solve puzzles.
Here in India, I met a dentist. Now, this man told me that he originally became a dentist because that’s what his entrance exam scores qualified him for. But then he said that once he began to study dentistry, he got more interested in it. And he explained to me that the oral cavity is essential to human life for three reasons, 1) eating, obviously; 2) talking, we are a social species; and 3) equilibrium, i.e. breathing. So, taking care of the mouth is therefore a pretty important task. Here I have finally found a satisfying answer to “Why dentistry?”
Catching a bus
Most buses in India are such that you just look for one that has your destination on the front, hop on, and pay for ticket after it’s left and the conductor comes down the aisle to collect the fee. On our way back from Kanchipuram, we hopped on a bus that had Puducherry on the front (these are times when we’re glad we spend time learning to read Tamil). It was a full bus, so we were both standing, and I was on the steps near the open door. Some men on the train didn’t think I should be there, so they traded me spots and I joined my friend standing in aisle. The conductor made his way to the back of the bus to sell us our tickets, at which point he told us the bus wasn’t going to Pondicherry… it was only going to Tindivanam, which was on the way but only about 2/3 of the way to our destination.
Ok, well, I guess we’ll take another bus from there. Eventually we were able to get seats and we watched out the windows in the dark, and checked Google Maps on our phone, making sure we got off at the right stop. I overheard a young man near us ask the person next to him something about Pondicherry, so I asked if that’s where he was heading. He wagged his head yes. I motioned to the two of us and said “us too.” We followed him when he got off the bus, and he pointed out to us the bus we would take from Tindivanam back to Pondy. Another hour long ride. I sat between two women holding toddlers on their laps, bobbing my head in half-sleep.
Before our Independence Day holidays, we had a half day of school. A fellow teacher offered to take me home since she was heading that way anyway for her sister-in-law’s baby shower. Since I had no previous plans for lunch, she took me to the function to join them there to eat. Baby showers in India, in South India at least, are vastly different from baby showers in the U.S. They are two-day events that are very ritualized and family-oriented. I was introduced to several aunts and uncles and cousins in just the hour or so that I was there. Inside a large open function hall, there was first a prayer by the elders to bless the pregnant couple and their child. I was given some sort of gritty brown paste to dot my forehead, and handful of rice, which we threw at the woman after the chanted prayer.
Then we all went downstairs to eat a full catered lunch. We all sat on one side of the table as paper was rolled out to cover the table, and a large banana leaf was placed in front of each of us. We washed the leaf with a little water, and then it was quickly filled with spoonfuls of different dishes – some sort of savory pumpkin mush, plantains, green beans with lentils and coconut, cucumber in curd, ghee rice with sambar, lemon rice, a thin crispy wheat tortilla, pickled mango, warm spiced almond milk, and a bright orange sugary rice sweet.
My first taste of Indian rain
Ok, not quite the first, we’ve had a little bit here and there, but this was a pretty big storm. I was with some friends at a café to hear some live music. It was a rooftop café, with a thatch covering. Not long after we got there, there was a power cut. And soon after that it started to rain. The musicians tried to sing acoustic, but it was hard to hear them over the storm. Later, the café owner came to tell us we might want to leave because soon the street would start flooding. With that warning, we scurried out, even though it was still raining pretty heavily. With three of us on one bike, my friend dropped us off at our apartments, and I found mine to be moated with a half-flooded street. I hiked up my pants and waded through ankle deep water to the gate, and dodged raindrops up the stairs to my dry room.
I thought there were lots of crows in Pennsylvania and New York. Wrong. No, it is here, here in Pondicherry, where there truly are LOTS of crows. So many murders of crows! I don’t know why because in Kanchipuram there definitely were not as many. Well, as it turns out, old Tamil beliefs maintain that crows are our ancestors. Many people still believe this and will put food out for the crows (so I was told, I haven’t really seen this happening though). One of my fellow school teachers spoke about her widowed mother-in-law who would not eat until the crow ate, because she believed it to be her husband. And, of course, the rest of the family could not eat until she ate, so they would all wait for the crow.
Sweetened condensed milk
The milk here is most certainly fine for us to drink. My roommate has been making yogurt out of it several times a week for the past few weeks. The cartons say the milk has been processed, but they don’t say “pasteurized” and they say to drink within 48 hours of opening. I don’t like to commit myself to drinking a liter of milk in 2 days, though, so I buy sweetened condensed milk and make my own. This is nothing I had ever done before. And the only familiarity I had with sweetened condensed milk was that scene from Machuca, and in case you were uncertain, that’s exactly what sweetened condensed milk looks like. Thick and sticky. One part sweetened condensed milk to 2.5 parts water, and voila! Milk for my morning cereal.
Today, teachers at my school handed out the annual de-worming pill to every student. These are provided by the government and are apparently meant to help with any stomach issues, like constipation, which is apparently common because of the junk food kids eat. It was a chewable tablet that many students hid under their tongue, refusing to take it, waiting for it to dissolve in their mouths.
Coffee for everyone
I asked one of my students what age people start drinking coffee or tea, something I’ve been curious about since seeing seventh graders drinking it on our field trip to Black Thunder. I was shocked by her answer – sometimes as young as 3 years old! Usually 4 or 5, but sometimes 3! I still don’t really drink coffee or tea – only when it’s served to me here. But I don’t think people younger than 14 or 15 drink it in the U.S… right? Definitely not 3-year-olds!
Times when I wish I had my camera
The other day on the ride home from school, the van was travelling behind a vehicle that struck me for some reason as quintessentially Indian: a flat-bed truck, small, with two wooden boards on each side, piled three-times its height with hay. And on top of it all, there was a man, lying on his back, relaxing, seemingly perfectly content. The mound of golden hay was framed by the colorful street scene and sunlit-green overhanging tree limbs which grazed over the man’s face as the truck passed under them.
Six hours roundtrip for one hour on a boat
The other weekend, we journeyed south to Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, the third largest mangrove forest in the world. According to Google Maps, this is only about 30 kilometers south of Pondicherry, but it is a two hour bus ride to Chidamparam, the access town to Pichavaram, and another hour by bus from there. Don’t ask me how that works. We arrived to Pichavaram around noon and were planning on hiring a rowboat for two hours. But a group of six was looking for two more to join them for the 8-person one hour long motor boat tour, so we made some new friends. The mangroves were cool – I had never seen any before. And our companions talked our boat captain into taking us deeper into the grove for 50 more rupees per head. But after the boat tour, there was nothing else to do in Pichavaram, so we made our way back home, another three hours by bus.
My first time wearing a sari
Saris are beautiful. Since I’ve been here, I haven’t had a reason to wear one. Lucky, perhaps, because some other U.S. friends have had to wear them for school and have talked of their discomfort. Even some Indian women I know have complained about saris. But I can’t deny that I’ve been wanting to try one, despite their seeming complexity. This weekend, I finally had my opportunity. I was visiting the hostel (read: dormitory) of the student teachers who are working at my school, and they quickly saw the chance to dress me up in Indian clothes.
The sari consists of three pieces: the blouse, the skirt, and the wrap. The blouse is a tight-fitted belly shirt, sometimes (all the time?) with a built in bra. The skirt is very simple, more like a petticoat or a slip to wear under the wrap. And the wrap is a 5-meter length of fabric that the wearer must hand pleat each time to encircle the waist. Pins can be (and are often) used. The remaining fabric is brought up across the body to drape over the left shoulder. I’m not sure if it was poorly tied or if I’m just completely unpoised (100% possible and probably more likely), but I could barely walk in this thing. I don’t know how women go up stairs, and I’ve heard going to the bathroom is nearly impossible. I’m sure it gets easier with practice, but I really don’t know why woman would choose to wear these when kurtas are perfectly comfortable.
Every morning on the van ride to school, there is stretch where we always hit traffic. It wasn’t until a month or so into my teaching that I realized the traffic was waiting at a train crossing. The boom barriers (apparently this is the technical term for the bars that keep traffic from crossing the tracks) lower to close off traffic, and it seems like some thirty seconds to a minute passes before the train actually crosses – it feels like a longer wait than one would experience in the U.S. In the meantime, pedestrians are still walking across, and people ride their two-wheelers either around the barriers or straight up to them, where they hop off their vehicles and crouch with them to pass underneath. Eventually the train comes, passes through quickly, and the barriers rise again. Traffic in the front of the jam moves quickly to resume the commute, and those in the back inch forward to follow the crowd. As the van takes the crossing, people and animals can be seen walking along the tracks in either direction.
A “Classic Burger”
I recently went to a multicuisine bakery in Pondicherry and was tempted by the “Classic Burger” on their menu. There was no description other than that it was made with beef. I suppose I should take some caution when ordering beef in India, but I went for it. I’m not sure where this place got their standard for Classic, but it definitely wasn’t the United States. A nice fluffy bun (probably the best part – it is a bakery after all), a bed of lettuce, a slop of coleslaw, some small uneven slices of beef, a fried egg, a small slice of tomato, and two cucumber slices.
One evening I was sitting at a juice stand with a friend at a busy intersection. We noticed a big LED projection screen had been installed on the opposite corner. Soon it started showing images of the current political leaders. They were commemorating 100 days in office, since being elected this past Spring, and showing all that they had accomplished in those 100 days. This was at one of the main intersections in town and some people stopped to watched the presentation. Vehicles drove past, some slowing down, others taking no notice. We didn’t stay much long as the speakers were incredibly loud. On our way out, a man handed us a booklet about the 100 days’ achievements. (It was all in Tamil, of course.)
A few weeks ago I was sitting on the beach a man came up to me asking for money. He had bandages on his legs and was showing a doctor’s note. I usually don’t give to people on the streets – we say it’s so we don’t encourage that kind of pandering, but I think it has more to do with greed. Anyway, this man hadn’t even been persisting for very long, but I took out my wallet, thinking that I didn’t have any small bills and was going to show him that I had nothing to give. In fact, I did have some 10 rupee notes (about 15 cents, but standard hand outs), so I gave him one and we thanked me and walked away. A little while later, he came back with a small music player, like one of those old hand held tape players, playing Indian music. He thanked me again and skipped off saying something like “Bangalore! I go to Bangalore!” I’m not sure what my 10 rupees was supporting, but it seemed to help make this man’s day.
A different day, I was standing waiting for the van to pick me up for school. The corner is actually a bus stop so there’s always a small crowd of people waiting for their bus. A man called for my attention and then made the hand signal to ask for some water – a thumbs-up sign touching the back of the thumb to the bottom lip. At first, I didn’t recognize the sign and was confused by what he wanted, so I just shook my head “no.” He made the signal again and pointed to my backpack, where I had my water bottle in the side pocket. I offered the man my water bottle, knowing he would drink from it in the “Indian way” without touching the bottle to his lips. He drank some water, handed the bottle back, shook his head thank you, said nothing else, and then got on his bus to go on his way. India is hot, and random people often try to interact with me for one reason or another, but this is the first time this had happened. I guess he was just thirsty.
Someone told me it would take three months to “get used to India.” Well, it’s been about four now, and I’m proud to say that I have officially taken a six-hour bus trip, safely and successfully, by myself; I bought fresh shrimp from the fish market; I know where I am on the entire van route from school; I know almost all of my 160 students names (ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but I’d say I do know about 75%); I can walk a full kilometer and a half without being offered a ride from an auto driver who thinks I’m a tourist; and, what has really been making my day lately, is that I have finally mastered which light switches control which lights in our living room (trust me – it’s complicated). So if that’s not “used to it,” I don’t know what is.
With as chaotic as the traffic is here, I’m always astounded that I don’t see more accidents. The other day I witnessed the first I’ve seen here. We were in the van on the way to school, and our van and two buses were trying to merge into one lane. (Lanes don’t really exist in Indian traffic, but something like that was going on.) A motoscooter carrying a father and two boys in school uniform was in a very tight place between the two buses. One of them inched forward, crushing one of the boys legs in against its front fender. The boy yelped and cried out, horns honked, people shouted at the bus driver, everyone in our van stood up to see out the window what had happened. A crowd gathered on the road around the scooter, someone pulled the boy off and sat him on the ground, inspecting his leg. As the boy sat there crying, our van moved on, making our way to school.
Shopping and Tailoring
A few weeks ago, I purchased a new tunic from a vendor on one of the main streets in Pondicherry. One funny thing about these places, is that most of the garments are all labeled as Large. Most of them aren’t particularly large, but are pretty close in size, and it’s basically a “one-size-fits-all” kind of deal, except that isn’t true at all. There’s nowhere to try them on either – it’s just buy and take and wear. The vendor was very friendly, helping me to pick out matching pants, asking me what I was doing in Pondicherry, and telling me to come back next time I needed to buy clothes. Like most of these small stalls, I paid cash and didn’t get a receipt. When I took it home, however, it didn’t fit well. I wanted to exchange it, but I wasn’t sure if that was possible. A teacher at my school assured me though that sure, it wouldn’t be a problem. So the next day I went back to the same stall, reminded the guy who I was, explained the situation, and asked if I could make an exchange. “Sure sure, no problem.” I picked out a new tunic and he compared it with the other to show that the fit would be better, then charged me an extra 50 rupees because the new one was longer. I took it home and tried it on, and it fit mostly well. The bottom half flared a little too much for my liking, so I decided to take it to a tailor, along with another tunic that needed to have sleeves put on, and a pair of pants that I wanted taken in.
Tailoring services are extremely common here in India, and cheap. People get custom made clothing all the time, and alterations to “readymades” are also routine. This was my second time going to the tailor. I gave him all three garments and explained what I wanted done. He didn’t write anything down, but repeated my request back to me to confirm. He didn’t take my name or contact information. He simply told me the cost – 200 rupees (~$3) – and told me to come back in three days at the same time of day. When I went back, the man I had talked to wasn’t there. I explained my order to the guys who were working, and described the colors of my garments. They found them in a bag on the shelf and asked me what the other man had told me to pay. I gave them the 200 rupees and took the clothes, and as I expected, they were exactly as I wanted them. In particular, the pants were perfect – amazing, without a single measurement! Just one example of how things in India “just work.” I don’t understand it but somehow, they do.
Technology in the classroom
My school is lucky to have three classrooms that have digital projectors. For a while, I didn’t make use of them, partly because the things I was teaching didn’t really require it, and partly because creating PowerPoints or finding videos seemed like a lot of unnecessary work for me. I had been encouraged to use them though, as a way to engage more of my students. In fact, my students had previously asked me to use the “smart board” – it’s not a smart board, it’s just a projector – and to use more pictures. So, ok, I decided to give it a try. I prepared a video for 8th standard, and a PowerPoint for 9th standard. As I was walking to catch the school van in the morning, however, thumb drive in tow, I had the thought – “what if there is a power cut during class?” This is not an uncommon occurrence, and was perhaps and unconscious reason why I had been avoiding the technology up to this point. Well, I guess I’d just have to improvise if this happened. I had 8th standard first period, so we quickly shifted them into one of the “smart classes.” Each period is 40 minutes. The video I brought was less than 25 minutes long. But it took forever to get the projector working, and we had to replace the speakers twice because the others weren’t working. We got through only 15 minutes of the video. For 9th standard, we couldn’t get the projector to work at all, I had to give my class using the chalkboard, and the video clip montage of people using different ways of saying hello in English that I had spent hours searching for the previous day went unseen. This is why I hadn’t used technology in the classroom.
“Discrimination in broad daylight”
This quote could refer to a lot of things. But here I’m talking about how foreigners are charged more than Indian citizens to visit tourist sites in India. Like, a lot more. At the Taj Mahal, for example, Indians pay 40 rupees to enter. Foreigners pay 1000. My Indian friend and I saw this a lot while we were travelling together, but we just accepted it more or less begrudgingly. It is what it is. Recently, I was in Tanjore (6 hours by bus southwest of Pondicherry) with a different Indian friend, and we had planned to go to the old Royal Palace. My friend went to buy the tickets and came back indignant: “They say it’s 50 for me and 200 for you!” “Yeah,” I responded, “that’s how it is.” “That’s ridiculous,” he said, “That’s discrimination in broad daylight.” He didn’t even want to go in anymore, but I wasn’t going to let 150 rupees stop me from seeing the second of the two main attractions in Tanjore (the first being the Brihadeeswarar Temple) that I had come six hours by bus to see. So I bought the tickets, and in we went. But he’s right. It is discrimination, which I’m pretty sure would be illegal in the United States. And, to my friend – you know who you are – I really appreciate you being upset on my behalf.
You won third place in what?
Guess. I dare you to guess. What did one of my eighth grade students win third place in? I’ll give you a hint… it has to do with Math… ancient Math… ancient calculators, to be specific. Can you guess it? An abacus. Apparently in India there are Abacus Competitions. Why? I have no idea. It’s a speed competition. Whoever can do the most calculations in a given time period – using an abacus – is the winner. This is real.
Hair dressers and barbershops in India are known as “saloons,” which seems to be just a misspelling of “salon” rather than a reference to the American Wild West. What’s even funnier is that signs for these saloons feature photos of people with stylish haircuts. These people either are celebrities – I have seen both Zac Efron and Taylor Lautner – or have super trendy hairstyles that I have seen very few Indians actually wearing.
At school, we have two ten-minute tea breaks during the day: one at 10:20 and one at 3:00. Sometimes the tea is ready before the break, or sometimes not until after the break. But, the women who prepare it, the “Aunties,” will come to serve the tea to the teachers either way, whether it is during break or during class time. If my tea comes during class, I usually don’t drink it very quickly because, well, I’m busy giving class. But after about 10 minutes or so, an Auntie will come back around to collect the cup. If I haven’t drank it, she always seems confused and tells me to drink it immediately. The point is, as it turns out, to drink it while it’s hot. After it cools, it’s hardly considered tea. So drink up! Or as they say in Tamil, “sappita, sappita!” (or, you know, something like that…)
One evening, my roommate and I were having dinner with a group of Europeans staying in Pondicherry. Somehow, the YMCA song came up in conversation. This was the night that we learned that Europeans, at least all of the 2 German and 2 French girls we were with, think that, based on the song and the music video, the YMCA is some sort of gay strip club. We both thought this was really hilarious and were surprised to here this interpretation. But as I was writing up this anecdote, I pulled up the Wikipedia page for the song, and um, it turns out that our friends weren’t exactly wrong…
I mean, first of all, PSA for those who don’t know: The YMCA is not a gay strip club. Originally, it was a low-cost living shelter, a safe space where men could go to, as the song says, get a hot shower, a hot meal, and a place to help you get back on your feet. Nowadays, its mostly a fitness center, which also offers summer camps and after school programs for kids, and is not at all restricted to men.
But, as it turns out, the song, or at least the video, was apparently inspired by dancers at a gay night club dressed up as a Native American, a cowboy, and a construction worker. The songwriters Jacques Morali and Victor Willis were gay and supposedly wrote the song to target gay youth, challenge masculine stereotypes, and create an image for gay men in disco culture.
“Smoking kills. Alcohol is injurious to health.”
This phrase is shown at the beginning of any TV show or movie in India that might have a scene with someone smoking or drinking. Then, in most movies, when that scene appears, the message will show again at the bottom of the screen. I think this was actually made into a joke in the 2016 Tamil film Remo. I didn’t understand that part of the dialogue, but one of my students described it to me. The main character went through some heartbreak and was out drinking and weeping in the streets – there was some song to accompany this. And his mother was consoling him (or scolding him, I’m not sure which) and said something about how “in the movies, they always say ‘alcohol is injurious to health’ but here you are getting drunk in the streets.” And of course, at the moment, the didactic message flashed across the theater screen.
There is occasional backlash (maybe more than occasional) in the U.S. from people who think the Pledge of Allegiance should not be said, or be required to be said, in schools. (I too fall not so vehemently into this camp, and once asked a history teacher if you could ever be arrested for treason if you had never recited the Pledge. [His response was that as long as you’re a citizen, you can be arrested for treason.]) I guess this backlash sometimes extends to the playing of the National Anthem in schools, but it tends to focus mostly on the indoctrination of the Pledge on young children who don’t understand its meaning. The other day in Pondicherry at our weekly school assembly, I was thinking how this compares to an entire school of children every Monday singing their National Anthem and saluting their nation’s flag. Sometimes, we (at least in my Anthropology classes) marvel at American patriotism and our worship of the flag, our habit of hanging it outside of our homes and public buildings (a practice less common in other countries), and the requisite that it be burned if it touches the ground. But I think Indian patriotism rivals that of the U.S., at least when it comes to their National Anthem, Jana Gana Mana. Not only is it sung at my school (and most schools, I think), but also it has recently become required that it play before all movies shown in theaters. And everyone in the theater will stand. The other night, I went to a movie which included Jana Gana Mana in its storyline. The lights above the center aisle of the theater turned on and most everyone stood up for the anthem that played within the movie itself. I stood so I could see the screen. When it finished, the lights went off and everyone took their seats to continue the movie.
For Halloween, I prepared treats to take in for my students. One such treat was apples drizzled with chocolate and topped with peanuts. For this, I had bought a ton of apples from a vendor who’s stand is on my way to school. I think it was at least a couple kilos of apples. Now suddenly, after returning from the winter holidays, every time I pass her, she asks if I want to buy any apples. But unfortunately for her, the days of my bulk apple treats have passed…
Along my walk to catch the van for school, there is a row of vendors who come from outlying villages to sell fruit. Over the past six and a half months, I have so enjoyed watching different fruits come and go along with their respective seasons. Mangoes were there, but slowly got outnumbered as their season passed. Custard apples, which look sort of like artichokes and which I only tasted once to experience a delicious surprise, have disappeared completely. Those summer blackberries have come and gone. The red grapes came, and later the green grapes joined them. A strange fruit that looks like a potato joined the vendor’s carts. Fall was also apple season here and they came abundantly. Now it looks like a renewal of apple season has come, with new deep red varieties. Pears were there for a while but have since gone. Gooseberries keep things consistent, but those devilishly bitter little round suckers have no place on a fruit cart if you ask me. Cucumbers are also usually always there, bringing in the debate on that ambiguous fruit-vegetable family, along with the occasional pineapple and frequent orange. A rainbow of edibles guiding my way and tempting my tastebuds everyday on my walk to school.
Today I needed to refill a prescription. Refilling a prescription is really easy in India – you just take the empty package to any pharmacy and they will give you a new one, no questions asked. Today, as I was walking home from school, the two pharmacies that I have refilled at before (right across the street from each other) were both closed for “lunch hour” (at 3:45 in the afternoon) and wouldn’t open again until 5pm. So, I went to another pharmacy a half a block down, showed the empty box and asked the woman working if they had this medication. She typed the name into her computer to check – they didn’t have it. “Wait 5 minutes.” She picked up her cell phone and made a call. Speaking in Tamil, she was spelling out the name of medication, asking whoever was on the other line if they had it available. She hung up the phone, “Just wait, 2 minutes they will call.” I guess who ever was on the other line also had to check somewhere if they had the prescription. Soon after, a man arrived and was talking to the woman, asking about me and what I was looking for. I listened to their conversation and they asked me if I understood Tamil. “Konjam, konjam,” my standard reply: “Little, little.” They laughed and asked me where I was from and how long I was staying. The phone rang again. Someone had found the medication, and the woman sent the man off to pick it up for me. “Wait 2 minutes,” she said, bringing a stool for me to sit on and explaining that the man would meet someone halfway to “save timing.” I sat, glad to be out of the hot, crowded school van, away from the shrill voices of rowdy middle-schoolers. I watched the man on the corner cut up jackfruit. I saw the local city bus pull up to the stop across the street as its passengers looked dully out the open windows. I chuckled to myself at how the drainage pipe from the second floor of the building next door was cut at a length that was meant so that water would drip perfectly into the gutter, but it fell just a centimeter or two short, so the water hit the corner of the curb and splashed into the street and the sidewalk. Soon, the man came back with my prescription in one of the ubiquitous brown paper medicines bags. The total was 382 rupees, about $6, and I gave exactly 582 so that I could break my 500 rupee bill for some change. The woman thanked me for the 82 rupee exact change. Change-making can often be a tricky ordeal. I thanked both the woman and the man and went on my way. As I walked away, I could hear from the secondary school across the street the Indian National Anthem playing, and a class of shrill-voiced school children patriotically belting along. Jaya jaya jaya jaya he!
Religious insights from the eyes of children
I recently had separate conversations about religion with two of my students. As usual, it is from children that we hear some of the most insightful observations.
One student was telling me about a local festival he had recently celebrated, Masi Magam. This is a Tamil festival when all the Gods come to the sea. Idols are processed to the coast and crowds gather on the beach and bathe in the purifying sea water. He had gone to the beach and to a few different temples. I asked him which was his favorite God, a question I’ve been asked several times. Without hesitation, he said, “No ma’am. God is in the mind!” He tapped his temple then reached over to tap mine. “God is in the mind.”
With another student, I learned that her mother was Christian and her father was Hindu. She told me, “After reading the Bible, you see all the Bible stories are the same as the Hindu stories. Both religions are the same!” I then asked her the same question, which is your favorite God. She shrugged, “All of them! All Gods are the same only.” When I pressed her, “but are there any that you really like?” she conceded that Vishnu and Ganesha are usually the favorites of children. “But I love Jesus!” she exclaimed. I asked her if she liked Hinduism or Christianity more. “Both ma’am. They are the same.”