RYLA, Part one

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.

———

In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?

———

Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.

———

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