Athithi Devo Bhava (A Guest is God)

You might or might not know but Indian people consider a huge honor to have guests as it is said that God comes in their house in the form of guests (Athithi Devo Bhava).

Well, that is the way I have been welcome everywhere in India, with garlands of flowers sometimes in hotels, but mainly in Jaipur where I have friends, and the family which has become my own.

As I said, I have received flowers when arriving the first time at my teacher (and friend)’s house after not meeting for 5 years. That was a great surprise and so nice from her !

During my experience as a Volunteer in Jaipur, I made friends, some guys working for the Non-Governmental Organization, and one of them has become a closer friend. Everything started during a Hindu Festival called Raksha Bandhan. During this festival, girls tie a Rakhi (bracelet) to their brother(s) or a boy who they consider their brother and the brother, along with a gift to his sister, will offer her his longlife protection.

Example of a Rakhi

 

I had done a small celebration with the slum children, drawing Rakhis on a piece of paper that they had to cut them and tie around their wrists. And drawing them, I was thinking, if I was Hindu, who would I tie a Rakhi to? Well, probably that guy from the NGO I was under his protection anyway as per his position of staff member of the NGO…

One day we were talking about this festival and he asked if I had tied a Rakhi and who was the lucky person…so I told him I had not tied any, as I didn’t know if, as a non-hindu I could, but if I could, I would have tied the Rakhi on his wrist. He got emotional about it. From that day, we started to call each other “brother” (bhai, in Hindi) and “sister” (behen).

Visiting India now, 5 years later, in order to commemorate how our friendship had started, I have brought him 2 “Irish style” Rakhis one all green with a Shamrock, and one with the colours of the Irish flag that happen to be the same than the Indian ones (green white and orange).

Since then, we had been writing emails to each other several times a week for 5 years, asking all the questions we had about each other’s culture, everyday’s worries, and the good moments of each other’s life. He also helped with my Hindi online course, to clarify on the questions/doubts I had. I remember his dream was to learn how to swim, and one day I got an email saying he had had his first lesson. Knowing the background of the story, I was so entousiastic and happy for him! He was going every day before work, even though the swimming pool was not close to his workplace, or home, and it meant getting up earlier!

I had taught him a few words of french and spanish which he still remembers today! When he came to pick me up at my Indian Family’s house to bring me to his place, as he wanted me to meet his family and his daughter’s birthday was the perfect occasion, he came with his niece. She greeted me saying “Bonjour” (Hello, in french) – he had taught her how to say something in french for me ! So sweet ! Small things but very heartwarming.

Once at his family home, everyone was very welcoming , I was touched when his father told me “you’re most welcome” and happy to see his wife Dimple again, that I had met last time, who’s a lovely girl, and even she knows less english that he does, we manage to communicate and have a good laugh. Their daughter, Vanshika, is a little princess full of energy! To thank them for that lovely evening, I have taken a lot of pictures, each one of them with the birthday girl, have printed them as soon as I was back to Europe and posted them.

The next day was a sunday, and my friend Amit was off work and wanted to take me around Jaipur, he let me choose the place and we drove to Jal Mahal (Water Palace, in Hindi), the name speaks by itself: it is a palace in the middle of the water, with the mountains behind. A relaxing landscape a bit outside the crowded Pink City. We also went to Krishna temple just next to it, which is also beautiful with its green gardens. At night we went to the restaurant, in C-Scheme area, and I invited them to return their invitation for dinner the previous day.

At my family’s house my little Indian brother was constantly serving water, sweet drinks and biscuits when I arrived while I was chatting with my dear Papaji. It is amazing how time was flowing once we started talking! First of all I was taking time to realize he was in front of me again…I could see clouds around his face sometimes as if it was a dream…and I was going to wake up soon…but I never woke up! Every day Papaji was asking me to stay for dinner but sometimes I had other plans, but was dying to accept his invitation.

But when I did accept it, we had a great time together. One day he switched on his computer, and asked me about how a few things worked, as I was the one who had, 5 years ago created an email address for him and taught him how to send and receive emails, and also asked me to show him pictures of my daily life back in Europe.

One other day, my little brother (the most lovely and well educated boy in the whole world! Not lying!) asked me what I had learnt in Hindi and I told him what letters I had studied in the Devnagari alphabet, and that I had learnt how to write my name, so he ran to get his home copy book for me to write it. We then took a few examples in my book and he showed me how to “draw” them, and asked me to copy the word in front of him! A great moment all together!

The food cooked by my Indian mummy is lovely but because it was the food I used to have every day 5 years ago, it tastes even better! And just sitting at that table again was a great feeling!

Then going back to my accomodation was on my Papaji’s son’s (Sudeep) motorbike in the amazing city that Jaipur is, a sensation of freedom, you have no idea!

Another day the guesthouse family, Girija and Padmesh, and their son Khush, who had relatives visiting from Delhi, Meenaxi and Subodh, wanted to take me to the Sound & Light show at Amber Fort. They planned to go on a certain day but I had other plans so they have changed theirs so that I can go with them, so nice! It was a wonderful story (about how Jaipur was formed) and a gift for the eyes! We bought dinner in town on the way back and came to eat at home. Great night also ! They had some beers, and when I am in India I refuse to drink alcohol, as a girl traveling on her own should be careful at all time, but because we were at home and I was safe, I had one with them.

During the week I could also visit the new premises of the NGO, which basically are across the road from the old one, and my friend Amit introduced me to the whole team, one by one, they all seem to be very nice and said I was welcome back to Jaipur!

Unfortunately my holidays came to an end….and it was time to say goodbye (Alvida)…Oh Gosh…I don’t like that at all!

We went for a coffee with my friend to say goodbye, but the next day he called my Hindi/Indian cuisine teacher to ask if he could come and say goodbye to me again, this time with a present for me. The said present was earphones and a microphone – there is a reason behind that: he always wanted to talk on skype, but I had always lost mine somewhere so now no more excuses for me ! 🙂 I also got a present from my teacher, and two from my family, and one from the guesthouse’s family. They are all so lovely…How could I possibly wish to leave that place?

I hope reading this blog, you have felt like discovering that breathtaking country and its people: there is so much to learn, so much to see, so much to smell, so much to taste, so much to discover, so many people to meet…I wish I had a thousands lives to do all that!

All I have to say is:

 Jai Hind! (Long life to India)

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MasterChef in Jaipur

My Guru (teacher) was giving me the Hindi lessons first and then giving me Indian Cooking classes. Once ready, we were having the food we had cooked for lunch, and that allowed us to spend some more time together.

If you love Indian food in European restaurants, well … the food in India is even better and probably healthier! For someone who does not cook at all at home like me, this immersion in an Indian kitchen was a complete discovery!

To start with, have a look at the cupboards, and you’ll be amazed at the collection of different and colorful spices!

 

 

This is the basic element to the chemistry Indian cuisine is all about.

Again Subhadra had edited a book with the recipes and even though she could cook all those dishes her eyes closes (I am sure!), we were following the steps described on the recipe and if there was something missing or I wanted to takes additional notes, I could.

As soon as the first ingredient was thrown on the fire, the good smell started to flow in the room ! Dear Rajasthan you smell so good !

Day 1: we cooked a dish called Dum Aloo (Aloo meaning “potatoe”) which is originally from the region of Kashmire, in the northern part of the country, and where tourists are not allowed to go because of political tensions. A pity as it seems to be a wonderful place!

Then she gave me the secret of making Chapattis. It is a kind of Indian bread they use in the way as we, in occident, use a fork and a knife. The Indian people eat most of the time with their hands (something I absolutely love when I am there!) and wrap the food in it before putting it in their mouth. That was so much fun: she made a demonstration of how to do it and when it was my turn to make one, I could not make it a round, it was always square! The best I could do was an oval… She said the round would come with practice. Some very good people can do it only on the hand, round and flat, a proper chapatti!

And we also made a sweet desert with milk and safran.

 

 

 

Day 2: we worked hard to make a good Channa Masala and this one is a dish from Punjab also in the north of the country. If you are not too sure where it is, you have probably seen in magazines a picture of that lovely place with a Golden Temple surrounded by water…and that is Amritsar, located in Punjab. Punjab is also the place where the Sikh religion was born (men wearing turbans). But what I like most about Punjab is the Bhangra music, and the sound of the main instrument in it: the Dhol, which drives me absolutely crazy 🙂

 

Another type of bread we made was paratha. It is the bread I used to have every morning at my host family (now my own family!) when I was living in Jaipur, and I love it. As the paratha does not need to be round, it was easier for me to do those!

Day 3: The great discovery of that day was learning how to make cheese (Paneer)! We had to make it by cooking milk and adding vinegar, before starting to make the gravy that goes with it and the coriander chutney.

 

 

 

Day 4: There, my teacher adapted the course to my request: she knows I am mad about Gol Gappas which are crispy shells which you can stuff with all kind of vegetables and lemon juice (or lemon juice only). She explained that it is quite difficult to make the shells and usually Indian people buy them all ready at the market but we would try to make them ourselves. So here we go, making small rounds and throwing them in the boiling oil, hoping it would make a ball! A few came out correctly and you could hear cries of joy when one was nice!

 

We also made Samosas which are triangles filled in with vegetables, and an apple pudding: Kheer, which is ready very quickly (in case of unexpected guests, as they say!).

Day 5: We made Spinach (palak) with baby corn. I have realized in this session how keeping colors is important in Indian cuisine. A few things in the preparation were only aiming at keeping the green color of the spinach until it is served.

We also prepared some daal which is mash of lentils as I have explained in the Jodhpur post. There as many sorts of daals as varieties of lentils (yellow, brown, black…)

While the daal was cooking, we made another type of Indian bread: the naans.

Day 6: We have prepared some vegetable byriani (rice) and raita (made of milk and cucumber)

 

 

 

Day 7: we have not cooked but only made some chai (masala tea). Indian people do not prepare a teapot with Masala chai they always make tea for a cup or two, to have fresh spices, water and milk for every cup they drink! That is some work, but the result is wonderful. It is not only a cup of tea, but the taste of India making you feel so good inside!

Subhadra, cooking

Jaipur, the Pink city, once my home

Last bit on the road, with Ram Narayan, my driver. On the one side, I can’t wait to be in Jaipur because it has been 5 years since I left the city, tears in my eyes, in my heart and pains in the belly…and wonder how I will feel being back there again, and having missed the place so much and for so long, if I will recognize it or not, and on the other side, leaving lovely persons found on my path is not the best part of meeting new people…

Ram Narayan is from Jaipur and once we reach our destination, he will have 5 or 6 days off and will spend this time with his family at home. We stop one last time before arriving, having a chai (Masala tea) together. I told him the background of the story and he knows this is an important part of the trip for me. As soon as we arrive, he says: “Welcome to Jaipur!!!”. It comes from a local and it is all the more valuable!

I settle in the guesthouse where I will be staying for those 8 days (friend of a friend’s house) and well, I am now a few miles only from my Indian Family’s home, who I was living with five years ago. I have waited for that moment for so long…and now I am a little stressed about how it will go. I wouldn’t want to start crying or even having tears in my eyes! Self control is needed! But anyway I have to go now, they know I arrive today in Jaipur and they will expect me to come…and from the bottom of my heart, I want to see them NOW!

First thing, jumping in an auto rickshaw direction Apex Mall in the Lal Kothi area. It is only a 40 rupee-journey (yeah I wouldn’t know the distance in km…maybe 2!). Just saying my destination to the tuk-tuk driver, I felt I was telling him “I am going home!”. Sitting in there again is a wonderful sensation, rushing between the cars and motorbikes, feeling the vibrant city all around you, that you can actually touch!

Apex mall has not changed at all. I start walking the usual way to my family’s home but there are so many houses that have been built in 5 years that I get lost. I ask a local where number D31 is and he gives me the answer me in Hindi but believe it or not, I understood the directions! Yeepee! Happy days! 🙂

When I finally get there, at the end of the street, there is the blue shop (part of the house) where they work and the house where I lived. I am there again, after 5 years. I made it! Sudeep sees me outside and smiles at me, making a sign that I should go inside. Sushant, my little Indian brother, is waiting for me, and smiles at me. He seems to know who I am. He was only 5 years old and now he’s 10, it’s half his life, I would understand if he didn’t remember me…I ask him, he smiles and says he does remember me. My heart drops.

He goes in the back room, calls my Papaji (Papa = Dad, Ji  = a postposition showing respect, in Hindi), his grand father (Dadaji – in Hindi they differenciate the grand parents from the mother’s side: Nana & Nani and the ones from the father’s side: Dada & Dadi). When I see my Papaji appearing behind the curtains, I can’t prevent myself and call “Papajiiiiiiii!”. “Haan betiii” (yes, my daughter) is his reply, and he takes me in his arms, which makes me feel emotional, as physical contact between a man and a woman is not that common in India, in public I mean. That tells me how special this moment is.

News from him, I have had, all the time, every week since I left him, during those 5 years, but seeing him again, in front of me, with all the wisedom I see in this man, and his pure heart. The house has more light then before because they have painted the walls in light green, and removed the cyber cafe part they used to have. So definitely more space, very nice! I sit, and there, I am lost between the past and present. Am I in 2008 living here and working in the slums, or in 2013 visiting and on holidays?

He asked about my trip beginning in Mumbai until I arrived here: how was the weather, what did you see, was your stomach okay with the food, do you bear the heat, do you sleep well at night…the same, still worrying and taking so much care of me as usual!

I ask how life is around here, what’s new and he tells about his relatives (some of them I have met), stories from the NGO I was working for, and a few volunteers staying with them, some spanish guys saying they would be back home at around 11pm and not there until 2am, when my Papaji is waiting, sleeping in the living room to open the door as soon as volunteers are back, some mad Norwegian sick with fever, making a mess to train on his skateboard in front of the house, pretending if he does not practise, he will forget all about it *smile*, and putting Sushant on the damn thing, a mother and daughter who left after a few days only because the daughter was missing her boyfriend, etc…so many stories of volunteers, …my fellow volunteers…

But also nice stories, all Ireland-related, a coincidence, I am not sure 🙂 … such as Sara Mc Murry, an English woman married to an Irish man, living in Ireland who I was lucky enough to meet at the EIL network week-end in Cork last year (November 2012), a very nice woman indeed, who came back several times in a row to Jaipur volunteering and then learning Hindi, like me, or Emer Jackson a lovely Irish woman who was also staying with my Papaji, who I also met at the EIL network week end but the previous year, in November 2011. I had taken a picture with Emer, and one with Sara to send to my Papaji, he was so surprised that we had met miles away from his house, in Ireland! And he also told me about a nice fellow, Irish guy (of course !) called John if I remember well, who works in a jail in Dublin. I don’t know him but from what I heard, I already like him!

After a long chat, poor Sudeep, who had worked all day at the shop with his wife, took me home on his motorbike, through the noisy streets of the Pink City,  as they thought I was not safe enough taking a riskshaw back to the guesthouse. I insisted that I would be grand, but when your Indian Papaji says you should do something…you’d better do it, and discussion is over. So off we go, my hair flying all over my face, being part of the mess on the road, together with the locals, belonging for some time to the Indian chaos…I could not be happier!

Bikaner, the Camel city

The reason why there are not so many foreign tourists in Bikaner is because there is no airport. The plan though is to have one built soon. According to the locals most of the foreign visitors are from Spain or Italy.

Here, the Fort is owned by the Royal family but they live in another place. The Fort is just for tourists to see, and the money collected (entrance tickets) goes for the restoration of the Fort, consolidation of the building, and giving a new life to the wall paintings. The city is well known in India for its Botanic painting school and from this school, students come and help in restoring the Fort.

During the visit, we meet a group of French people and my guide tells me, a big smile on his face, that their guide is his student, listening carefully to what he was saying. The said student was turning his back and as soon as he was finished, he saw my guide and felt embarrassed, and joined his 2 hands as a sign of respect to his “Guru” (teacher, someone who teaches you something), who complimented him on the job. I told him when passing next to him: “Vous parlez très bien le Français!” (“You speak French very well!”…in French) and he smiled, pleased with the compliment. His Guru explained to me he had learnt French at the Alliance Française in Bikaner, and then went to study a few months in Switzerland. The boy was his nephew. My guide himself, gets to go to the Italian part of Switzerland (Tessin/Ticino) quite often and has some friends in Lugano (beautiful place by the way…!).

Then I could choose between 2 visits: Jain temples, or the Camel Research Institute, I chose option 2 where I have learnt so many things about the hundred of camel living here!

A camel lives for about 25 years, It is mature at the age of 3-4 years old for a female, and 5-6 years for a male.

The main 3 different breeds are:

– the Bikaner Camel: very tall, brown color, long eyelashes

– the Jaisalmer Camel: slightly smaller, light brown

– Gujarat Camel (Gujarat is a state of India): white and not a good breed

In one park we could see only females with their babies, under their belly trying to feed themselves.

The institute is like a small town, several buildings for each purpose, and around, some grass and flowers. Here scientists, researchers, doctors, … are working but also trainers, who know the Camels’ behavior very well, get them fit with physical exercises and train them for races.

One of the main subject studied at the moment is the skin diseases and dentition problems which are the main issues the Camels face in their lives.

And oh! I made a wonderful discovery: Camels, in winter, love the smell of Tobacco! Did you know that ? It is why the Camel cigarettes (the company I work for) uses the Camel logo. Well, that is what I was told. I am sure it would surprise many of my work colleagues. The fact has been proved but the reason is still to be found.

Now let’s talk about money…a camel usually costs about 5000 USD and a well trained camel, from the institute for example, is 10 000 USD!

In Bikaner, the camel is often used for handicrafts: you will find a lot of souvenirs in Camel bones (I was assured they do not kill the Camel for that, they “recycle” the bones when after a natural death), and Camel whool. For that the hair of the neck is used for a quality whool as it is the softer hair. You will also find scarves in Pashmina (which is the sort of sheep the whool is taken from), Baby Pashmina (even softer) and Antilope whool.

Anyway the nickname given to Bikaner is “Camel City” and now you know why !

As I said above, the botanic art is Bikaner’s signature and I was lucky enough to meet Raju Swami. The name may not ring a bell to you, it was my case but he painted one of the pieces exposed at Galleries Lafayette in Paris. One feels honored to be taken to his private studio. He also draw some cards for UNICEF, which he showed me.

He works with painting made of precious stones, and squirrel tail enabling him to draw things in details. I could see a tree he drew, and he counted more than 17 000 leaves on it. He was painting some everyday and counted on a daily basis the leaves he had added…That requires some patience…that I certainly don’t have…

He told me about Competitions he had won everywhere in the world and about his Awards. In the studio, there were some articles from magazines and newspapers about him on the walls, even one from a French newspaper.

In this studio, he has 9 students coming everyday and they also expose their paintings. People passing by can stop to see them and buy if they wish to. I have bought a lovely one representing a blue flower which he has kindly signed for me, in front of me! Thank you Raju!

His website, where you can see his Botanic art: http://rajuswamiart.com/Flowers/

Jaisalmer, the Golden City

After zigzagging between cows, goats, camels and trucks driving on the wrong side of the road, coming straight towards you, making you doubt that you are living the last seconds of your life, and then crossing the line to go back on the left side at the last minute, … we arrived in Jaisalmer.

We found those pilgrims all along the road, walking, sometimes bare feet, under the Rajasthani heat, towards a Temple at 80 km from Jaisalmer, with heavy bags dscn2247on their heads, some are on motorbikes, on bikes, or on a camel backs… There you can see Faith is carrying them… The small restaurants on the side of the road provide them with free food, again because their purpose of their trip is religious.

My eyes are wide open and I am thirsty of all those landscapes, and the life happening behind the window! On the radio, I realize I know more songs here in India than back home in Europe, that’s so funny.

My hotel is at the entrance of the city when we step into Jaisalmer, a very nice one, where I have enjoyed a walk around the well preserved gardens, with green grass despite the heat and desert a few steps from here. I find at the entrance, a staff member with typical clothes and a turban, but he does not speak English, so I start asking a few questions in Hindi and explaining where I am from,and he was happy of me making the effort to speak his language, and accepted to pause for my picture.

Late in the afternoon, I went to see the sunset from the “Chatteries”, a place where there are cenotaphs with an amazing view on the whole city and the Fort on a small mountain. What a lovely place! I walked around again and again,  goats on my way, the light becoming red as the time passed, and the sun going down in the sky, changing the colors of the walls of the city in front of me. A feeling that you own the world!

Early morning the next day, I’ve been taken to the artificial lake where fishing is forbidden dscn2352as fish have been introduced here and people feed them as it is said to bring luck. In the old times, that place was the only way to the city, and every night the gates of Jaisalmer closed until the next day. That way, if boats arrived late at night, they could stay there, and the people could stay, cook their dinner and sleep before the sun rised and the doors opened again.

Visit of the Fort, some Jain Temples, and Havelis. Havelis are houses made of the local stone, and letting the air come inside – “hav” in the word “Havelis” comes from “Hawadscn2408which means “air” or “wind” in Hindi.

One Haveli was built by 2 brothers, and each brother had built a half of the house, in a quite similar way except for some details. There are 100 differences between the 2 parts (apparently someone had  counted them!).

Inside the Fort, there are many guesthouses, restaurants and shops, which should be ignored, because they are destroying the fort bit by bit… So guides and even the Lonely Planet encourage people not to buy anything, and wait to be outside the walls of the Fort to do so. That is sad to think the Fort might in a near future, fall down…but there is nothing we, as tourists, can do, except discouraging this practice, so I have contributed in the preservation of Jaisalmer Fort in my own little way…

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The flag, the symbol of a whole country

India is divided into States (like France into Regions, Spain into Provinces, Ireland into Counties etc…) and each of them almost have their own culture, traditions and language.

But if there is one day when the whole country is reunited for an occasion, it is August 15th, their Independence Day.

I owed to celebrate that special day with my little students in the slums so they could understand what national pride was, and know where their country was on the World map. The Indian Flag would need to be involved in some kind of way…

IndianFlag

I was afraid to offend my local community unintentionally, so I went to my Papaji (my Indian Dad) for advice, in order to avoid any wrong step. Just because I could always go to him and he was always happy to be that figure taking care of me. He called me “Beti”, Hindi for “my daughter” (what a feeling to feel part of another family, so far from home!).

Once, the idea I came up with caught the attention of my Papaji, and he explained that in India, there is a whole law about the Indian Flag. By law I mean rules on how it should be made, how it should be displayed (eg. if it is displayed with other flags, no other flag should be placed higher than the Indian one), how it should be used (eg. it should not cover the desk of a speaker at a conference…or anywhere else where it could get dirty), how it should be placed according of its place (eg. official building, vehicule etc), the flag should not be used in advertisement, should not be covered with letters…

No Indian flag should be damaged, or in a position to be damaged. Therefore it should not touch the floor. For that reason, people should not dress with the flag.

In many European countries, people would go to a sport match with their flag around  their waist, as if they were wearing a skirt, around their neck as if wearing a scarf etc…and it would not be dramatic if it fell on the floor. But in India, it would be totally disrespectful of the flag.

And when Papaji asked me what about the French Flag…I didn’t have clue! I had never heard such things. All I knew was it was forbidden to burn the French Flag. I had a look on the internet that day and could not find anything.

In the centre of the Indian flag, you can see  what was originally the spinning wheel that represents Gandhi’s will that Indian people make their own clothes.

Now this wheel represented with 24 spokes is called Ashoka Chakra which means “the wheel of law”.

The Orange colour refers to Strength, White to Peace and Green to Fertitily.

Since I know how high Indian people have their flag in their esteem, how strong their love for their country is, and how proud they are to be Indian, I have to say I have a certain admiration for it, I mean even more than ever before.

“Jai Hind” (Long life to India)

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A part of my little students with the flags I had made for them.

Culture Shock, a learning process in itself

India and Japan, to me are the 2 extremes in terms of Cultures. I was well aware there would be a transition before I adapt to my new environment. This transition is called “Culture Shock”. Fortunately my Irish sending Organization (EIL, Experiment in International Living) have a fabulous pre-departure book with exercises to make you think of the issues you might have once abroad, and even more important, how you might react to those situations, and some advice on dos & don’ts.

Culture shock can be described as a stress, anxiety due to a new environment. Of course, it is a very personal experience but most of the time common feelings of loneliness, homesickness, uneasiness, being overwhelmed, being irritable, arise. The picture of a fish out of the water is often used to refer to Culture Shock, which I think is quite appropriate.

Capture

And how we react to it, is a learning process and adaptation to the new environment.

We generally say there are 3 main phases to Culture shock, and call it the “U curve” process:

  • Honeymoon: the excitement of a new experience…
  • Culture shock: the stress of unfamiliar situations, new codes of communication…
  • Cultural adjustment: benefit of the immersion in a new culture and growing from this experience…

One of the things that have affected me was the lack of sleep due to the humid and hot weather at night…I was finally falling asleep early morning when it was time for me to get up and teach in the slums… But just thinking that the day ahead, I would learn something new, a word, a tradition, a culture fact, or meet new people…helped a lot in the process and gave me the energy to keep going.

Every day I remembered why I was there, my initial passion for India, I had finally made it possible for me to realize my dream and had to make the most of every minute of this experience abroad!

I was also surrounded by wonderful people helping me and giving me the keys to their culture, always happy to share things with me and who made me understand how it worked, how Indian people thought…..which made the experience even more enjoyable. I will eternally be grateful to those people (you know who you are 😉 ). I have learnt so much during my stay in that country, and have come to see the world with their eyes too. There are things I don’t necessarily agree with, but that I can understand where it comes from and sometimes it can me much more complicated that it seems, from occidental eyes. Such an experience teaches you to see the World with different eyes.

Then of course, the return back home is another experience that can be quite difficult. It is called the “W-curve” process (the above described process + return back home…).

Things have happened back home which we have not fully experienced with relatives, changes have happened…and we need to readjust to those changes, and settle again in our environment. It can sometimes be a long process too!

When I came back from India, I started working (a week after landing home) for an oil company in Geneva, Switzerland, where there is a lot of money involved, big parties, 2 week days spent in Chamonix with a group of colleagues skiing, a Jacuzzi in the chalet…and I found it quite difficult to switch from the Indian slums…to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinema experience at Raj Mandir

Rajmandir front

Indian people need to dream. The film Industry helps them to dream. Common belief is that Indian cinema are only romantic films. False! There are, like in any other country: thrillers, horror, comedies, dramas and so on. But it is true that in a society that forced marriage and arranged marriage, Indians need to dream about falling in love and choosing the person they will live with forever.

For that reason, those who do not have that much money in India, will very often try to save for a cinema session from time to time…to escape a reality that can sometimes be hard.

The host organization was bringing this group that was in Jaipur only for the orientation session (then going to volunteer in some other parts of India) to the cinema to see a Hindi film, “Singh is King” (Singh, being a popular Indian name). Amit and Gaurav told me about it and asked if I wanted to go with them and I decided I would join.

The cinema is called Raj Mandir (Raj Temple, in Hindi) not far from M.I. Road, the main avenue in Jaipur. Very central.

The first thing that stroke me is that Men and Women do not queue in the same file. There were 2 different queues, and 2 different counters. Meaning that a married couple going to the cinema together cannot buy their tickets together. It is something that never came to my mind before seeing it with my eyes.

Once you have your ticket, then you can enter in the building, after showing it to the man at the door.

The inside of the cinema is like a palace and there is a lot of space near the front door for people to wait that the room opens, a few minutes before the film starts.

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When the staff opened the doors, everybody ran into the room to get the seats they wanted, and shortly after the film started.

You know the way it is in Europe, once the lights are switched off, people are supposed to be quiet to let the others listen to the film?

In India it is much more cheerful 🙂 Every time a very popular actor appears on the screen, people shout, or whistle. That is their moment, they want to relax and let the pressure outside the cinema, and express themselves!

As you may know Indian films have loads of music…and that is also why they last most of the time around 3 hours! The music in the movies is the music they have on radios, everyone knows the songs.

So they might even know the songs before the films and when the song comes up during the film, they will freely start singing with the actors, at loud! Well in fact the actors do not sing themselves, it is just playback.

I feel it makes it a great atmosphere, they share something with the rest of the audience in the room.

…and that is the feeling I had about India in general…it was mainly about sharing all the time.

Wonderful Indian Children – “Aapka naam kya hai?”

“Aapka naam kya hai ?” must have been the question I have heard the most from the Children’s mouths. It means “what is your name?” in Hindi.

When I have met my students for the first time, it was probably a real question, but then I think it was just because they liked hearing a foreigner speaking in Hindi, as they did not expect me to, but I was answering in Hindi, “Mera naam Laura hai”.

I still remember the feeling of all those children gathering around me, like bees, really, in the street in general, and in the Slums where I was working. In the morning, my students knew at what time I was supposed to arrive and were waiting for me in front of their Slums, near the street, waiting to see my rickshaw on the road…

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Katputali Nagar Slums, Jaipur

They often did not even wait until I was out of it to grab my hand and take me inside, all the way to the “anganwadi” (day care centre, in Hindi): in my case, just a corridor.

In India, just being a foreigner brings people’s attention and they will ask a whole lot of questions about you, your family, what you do at home etc. They might even ask how much you earn in your job, you might get a little surprised, but money is not taboo at all in India. It is not impolite to ask such things.

Amongst the first questions also, there will often be “are you married?” – Just because it is so important in their society, they want to know. If you are volunteering there, and you are a Woman like me, I think it is important to explain to them that where you come from, Women are more independent, they can work, travel on their own, have their own activities. Put yourself in their shoes: it is generally not like that for their Women, so it might take a little more time for them to understand the concept.

But I think the whole thing is just an exchange of Cultures, and that makes volunteering such an enriching experience!

Coming back to the Children, I had never seen such a thirst for learning in Children’s eyes before that. They want to learn. Anything. From you. And those little eyes made me feel guilty remembering when I was a child myself, complaining about school to my parents. The Children I had in front of me would have given anything to be sitting facing a blackboard. I was not aware at the time how lucky I was.

In my group of students, I had 4 girls really involved in what we were doing, Krishna, who I felt was understanding things quickly, she has an outgoing personality, always happy to help her classmates, she was actually helping me, translating my explanations in Hindi, when something was not clear, her best friend Karuna, Tara (it means “star” in Hindi) and Anju, a younger girl, about 7 or 8, who did not know much at the start but who made giants’ steps learning English during those few months. Among the boys, Ravi, such a smiling face, and Vishal were my more regular students.

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Ravi, showing me he has shaved his head – Katputali Nagar Slums, Jaipur

Letters, Numbers, Colors, Shapes were the 4 main subjects I needed to repeat with the Children every day, so they can have the basics. The funny thing about it is that as I was trying to teach them those things in English, they were trying to teach me the words in Hindi.

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Anju, repeating the Alphabet, methodically, in Katputali Nagar anganwadi

As I knew most of them, I could translate those myself in Hindi: Neela-Blue ; Peela-Yellow, Gulabi-Pink, Hara-Green… because I remember my aunt (who was raised in Spain) telling me that he used to learn English with the 2 words, in her own language followed by its translation in English in a song that goes: “Pollito chicken, gallina, hen, lápiz pencil y pluma pen, maestra, teacher, puerta door, ventana, window y piso floor”, which she still remembers decades later…so I thought it was helpful for the children to remember, even after I’ve returned to Europe.

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Me, in my Salwar Kameez (Indian clothes), repeating the colors with the children of Katputali Nagar slums.

I was also preparing some counting exercises with my “natural drawing talent” (irony!) and had to reproduce about 20 times for all the children at home, during my free time, asking them to draw lines of a, b, c… (starting at the very start, as Hindi has its own Alphabet, called “Devnagari”), or just asking them to draw something and color it in such and such colors.

I have also taught in a real school, I mean there was a proper building, inside the slums, a courtyard, a tree growing in it. Inside, carpets, a blackboard, and a teacher’s desk. When I got there, the teachers had the children all around them, and they were having a chat. No teaching happening really. Some of the kids were drawing in a corner of the room, others drawing on the blackboard, others playing.

On my first time in that school, a 14-year old boy, called Shankar came to me, I think he had the best English of all the people in that school, including the teachers. He was not very happy being in the school all day long to do nothing, he would have wanted more productive days and loved a proper class to be given….by me. “What are we going to do now?”; “What are you going to teach us?” were his main questions to me.

I had class VII to look after, and as the first impression they gave me was to be very shy about speaking the little English they had, I decided to do role-plays with dialogues from their scholar books (which they did not seem to be using a lot). At first, no one volunteered, but then everyone was having fun, reading the texts, trying to act a little bit, and in the end a good time was had by all! I left that first day in the real school with all its students around, making it difficult for me to even walk!

Katputali Nagar School, Jaipur

Katputali Nagar School, Jaipur

My host family told me that (I quote) << Government teachers are hopeless>>, they only come and wait for their salary, to get free food at lunch time: the Indian Government provides day care centers and schools with a lunch, usually some daal (lentils soup) and chapatis (Indian bread).

The lack of energy from the teachers, I think is a real loss to the children, they could learn so much in that amount of time and be more confident in who they are. However it seems the teachers sometimes do not know much more than the children, most of them being Women and probably not educated themselves. No diploma is required to be a teacher in schools like the one in Katputali Nagar. If you know a few words of English (hi, goodbye, what is your name, thank you…), you already know more than some people and can be appointed for this kind of position. And here starts the vicious circle…

That is why, middle class families in India do not hesitate to pay something and send their children to proper schools. My little Indian brother, Sushant (the son of my host family) was going to one, and a very good pupil, indeed. His parents were looking after him, his homework, could help also, and he is on good tracks now for the future.

Women’s condition in India

Although in 1966, Indira Gandhi was one of the first women elected as Prime Minister, that the Cinema Industry (Bollywood) is flourishing with about 1000 films per year & today India would be the World’s fastest growing large economy, which would lead us to think it is a modern country, in many ways, India remains a backward country.

One of them is Women’s condition. A woman’s role is to be at home, preparing the food for the family, cleaning the house, and later taking care of the children. Her status is defined by their relatives’ relationship: sister, mother’s etc… Traditionally, she will be led and told what to do throughout her life, first by her father, later by her husband, who will, most of the time, be chosen by her parents.

For that reason, Indian Society, which is a masculine society, does not consider necessary Women to be educated, and does not send their Girls to school as much as they send their Boys.

As a result, in 2011, the literacy rate was, for the whole country 74% (compared to the World’s rate which was 84%), of which 82, 14 % were Men and 65.46 % Women.

Women are supposed to be unable to learn.

This is why, when I got started on the Project in Katputali Nagar (Slums in Jaipur), I was asked by Subhadra from IDEX to give more attention to the girls. The fact that a Woman (me) was teaching them was giving them hope in their future: I knew things, I could pass the knowledge onto them and they could identify themselves with me, a Girl who had received Education. They had a proof in front of their eyes it could happen. At least somewhere in this World.

I understood that from the very first day I worked there, and it was overwhelming to think all the hope they were putting on me. And the way they were looking at me, with some sort of admiration, reminded me of it every single day.

The sad reality of those Women is that killings of baby girls still happen in their country, parents marrying their daughter still need to give some money or property to the family of her future husband, more commonly referred to as “dowry”. Then she leaves her parents’ home to stay with her husband’s family (sometimes to never see her own again).

Sometimes, if the dowry is not satisfying from the in-law’s point of view, the girl might be the killed by the husband’s family: they usually throw kerosene on the poor girl and set fire on her. Indian people refer to the tragic event as “the kitchen accident” as the official story told to the girl’s parents is that their poor daughter killed herself while cooking… In 2008 when I was there, about 4000 cases were recorded (but I can well imagine those, being only the “official figures”).

Domestic Violence is not only common in India but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

A meaningful song by Asian Dub Foundation & Sinéad O’Connor called “A thousand mirrors” denouncing Domestic Violence, and more specifically, referring to the story of an illiterate Pakistani Woman called Tsoora Shah, who has endured her husband’s violence, but also many men in her community, and ended up killing him, with arsenic.

Indian statistics show that, when I was there, 195,856 cases of Domestic Violence were reported. Against 244,270 in 2012. Amongst those:  Bride-burning (or “kitchen accident”), Honor killing (a member has brought dishonor upon the family or community), “Eve-teasing”…which means really: sexual harassment or rape, throwing acid, forcing abortion, mutilation…and so many sorts.

It seems we have not finished with tackling this issue as: 65% of Indian men believe women should tolerate violence in order to keep the family together, and women sometimes deserve to be beaten and 24% of Indian men have committed sexual violence at some point during their lives.