Archive for September, 2010

“It’s kind of like Christmas in India” and other Indian festivities

September 13, 2010

I’ve come to the conclusion that three things are more important than anything else in understanding Indian culture: food, family, and festivals.

While I plan on giving food a post of its own sometime, I’d like to talk about the latter two of those, since all three are inseparable from Indian culture, and all three were a big part of this past weekend.

I was told earlier that the reason Rotary places us with host families is because the family is at the heart of every culture. And they’re completely right about that with India.

Prajyot and his parents came into town from Pune on Friday, and this weekend has had a certain energy that hadn’t been present for a while. Since Mayank left for Michigan, life had been a little quiet; the energy in the house had lessened after the months-long buildup of preparing for his trip came to a climax with his departure. We weren’t exactly sad, but things felt a little stale.

Festivals bring flavor to life in India, so things never feel stale for long.

Here’s a sampling of the celebrations we’ve had since Independence Day:

August 24: Raksha Bandham

I was confused the first time I heard Mayank refer to Saket as his “brother”. Since they have the same grandparents but different parents, that makes them cousins, right?

But “cousins” are considered brothers and sisters here, which means I, an only child in America, have several “brothers” and “sisters” in Nagpur and Pune. Our extended family here is so large I’ve lost track of all the aunts and uncles, and I don’t know most of their names. When addressing an elder brother, we’re supposed to say “dada”, which means Saket is “Saket-dada”.

Raksha Bandham is about the relationship between brothers and sisters. One of my “sisters” tied three bands – rakhi – around my wrist to symbolize our relationship, and did the same for Saket, Mayank and Vedant (a 12-year-old “brother” who lives nearby and visits almost every day). In return, the brothers offer gifts to complete the ceremony and vow to always protect the sister.

Of course, we had a feast as well.

September 2: Dahi Handi (Krishna’s birthday)

Since I attended college like any other day, I didn’t realize anything was happening until I heard the celebration that night.

My host mom, Saket-dada and I went to the nearby field, where over 100 people were gathered around a long rope stretched 15 feet high. Tied to the rope was a pot filled with buttermilk. As drums were rhythmically pounded, water and pink powder were thrown into the crowd. About a dozen people closed in beneath the pot and formed a human pyramid in an attempt to break the pot.

Of the many attempts, only about three or four times did a group succeed. I kept my distance and stayed dry, but Saket contributed to some of the successful efforts, earning him several buckets of water splashed on him.

I’m not sure what it all had to do with Krishna’s birth, but it was a lot of fun to watch.

September 10: Eid ul-Fitr

Our family didn’t celebrate this, since our family is Hindu, but this Muslim holiday was celebrated around the world and India was no exception. Eid marks the end of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, which here is called “Ramzan”. (Romanization of many of these holidays, by the way, can be inconsistent.)

September 11 – present: Ganesh Chaturthi

This is the holiday that’s confused me the most.

I usually don’t hear about these holidays until the day before or the day of, so they’ve lacked the buildup and suspense of holidays I’m used to, like Easter or Thanksgiving. It’s probably because this is my first time celebrating them. Ganesh is no exception.

For ten days, people celebrate the Hindu Lord Ganesha, probably the most recognized of the Hindu deities. It’s impossible not to immerse in the festivities – drumbeats from a parade thundered through our living room the other night and we’ve already had two well-attended feasts with friends and family.

Now we’re in the process of decorating part of our dining/ sitting room. Where before sat a swing-like bench there is now a space for an idol of Ganesha, which comes in tomorrow morning. The surrounding frame is decorated with leaves, flowers, and several kinds of lights in many colors. It’s not finished yet, and it already looks quite flashy.

It’s kind of like an Indian Christmas tree.

Actually, it’s kind of like Christmas in India.

Seven days to go. There’s much more to come. And we haven’t even had Diwali or Holi yet…


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Clarifications about my college life

September 10, 2010

My last blog entry caused a little more outcry with a couple people than I think was necessary, so I thought I’d clarify something.

I’m not unhappy at Hislop College.

Of course it’s impossible for me to make assumptions about all schools in India – I’ve spent 99 percent of my time in two cities. I don’t yet know enough about all the schools in India, all the schools in Maharashtra, or all the schools in Nagpur.

My secondhand knowledge of Indian schools exceeds my firsthand knowledge. Firsthand, I’ve only seen Hislop College, the school where the Independence Day celebration was held, and the school where we have our tabla and dance classes. Other Rotary students and area kids have told me about the schools in Nagpur, but I’ve only read books that talk about schools elsewhere in India.

Schools vary everywhere, though. Anyone from Champaign-Urbana could tell you there’s contrast between my old high school and Urbana’s other high school. Michigan Tech is a much different college than Massuchusetts Institute of Technology. I’d appreciate the feedback of anyone who knows more about schools in India – and how they vary.

Given what I know, then, I feel I may have misled people in two ways: 1) as far as I know, Hislop College is not actually that different from other schools in India, and 2) I do not feel uncomfortable there.

True, there’s no air-conditioning and no Powerpoint presentations. At most Indian schools, teachers are more likely to be truant than in America. Pens – rather than pencils – are the norm, as are notebooks with covers that seem to be chosen by American third-graders.

But the teachers aren’t necessarily “bad”. They can be quite passionate about what they say. Whereas some teachers get to class five minutes late and leave ten minutes early, our sociology teacher kept us ten minutes after class on Thursday to talk about the difference in stigmas between graduating from arts, commerce and science colleges in India.

In English, mostly.

The people aren’t all bad, either. I’ve become good friends with many of the kids who always go to class – the people who aren’t just interested in me because I’m American. In the hallways, the others don’t give me trouble, just attention, and even that’s beginning to wane as I become a more familiar face. Since I’m a regular in the classroom, it’s become a comfortable place.

As for now, I’ve got a three-day weekend to deal with. More on that later.


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Hislop College: Not your ordinary college (even for India)

September 7, 2010

I’d heard the rumors from past exchange students from India – who told me they didn’t see the point of going to school after a few weeks.

I’d heard the rumors from current exchange students in India – who had already been going to school for a few weeks.

I’d heard the rumors from people in Nagpur: When I told them where I would be going to college in town, they would often give me a sympathetic half-smile or look down and shake their head.

My first day at Hislop College gave me just a glimpse of daily life at the school. My first week, however, gave me a larger sample size with which to test those rumors – many of which I’ve found to be true.

I’ve found my enjoyment of each class depends greatly on the answer to these four questions:

1- Is the power on?
2- Is the class in Hindi or English?
3- Which students came to class?
4- Is there class?

When I walked into my first real class last Monday, the fans offered me no relief to the classroom’s 85 degrees and humidity. Nor was there any air-conditioning. None of this would have been a problem, except I was already covered in sweat from my ride there.

I’d heard about the frequent power outages in India before I came, but I’d been pleasantly surprised by the constant stream of power we had in our house. What I didn’t realize was that our house uses a generator. Power outages occur frequently throughout Nagpur and India, but our family is lucky enough to never have to worry about them in the house.

So I just had to get used to a little heat, right?

Everyone had told me Hislop was an English-medium school, and I’d heard the same for the other schools Rotary used. But I couldn’t understand a word of what the political science teacher was saying. Nor the Hindi teacher. The history and sociology teachers also spoke in Hindi half the time. I can understand the security guards not knowing English, but I’m perplexed as to why I was never told half the classes would be in Hindi.

Even when our classes are in English, it’s easy to lose focus. The rumors I’d heard about the teachers mostly turned out to be true. Teachers will usually just read from textbooks, and sometimes they’ll tell us to take notes. At least in my classes, the blackboard seems to be there only for decoration. Unfortunately for me, the teachers only seem passionate about what they’re saying when they’re saying it in Hindi.

And that’s if there’s class at all.

About 25 percent of the time, teachers just don’t show up – sometimes with notice, sometimes without. The concept of a substitute teacher doesn’t seem to have caught on. Perhaps that’s the reason most students don’t show up for class either.

The same ten to twelve students usually show up from a roster of about 40 for each class – boys on the left and girls on the right. As a general rule, the people who go to class tend to be better people than those who bunk and spend the day in the courtyard joking with one another. I’ve spent as much of my time as possible in the classroom with the three or four students I can trust, away from the mass of kids in the courtyard calling out to me with choice Hindi words. I’ve had to be far more cynical in choosing friends than I’ve ever wanted to be.

What gives me hope is that I know not all schools in India are like this. A couple of the exchange students are quite happy with their schools and the people in them. The infrastructure is similar elsewhere, but the people that populate the halls aren’t all like those that roam the courtyard at my college. Hislop may not have as many good people as I’m used to, but I’ll keep going to class because of the ones I’ve met.


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