Any excuse for a party!

Indians love to party, they have lavish festivals for all sorts of occasions  At a recent Parents meeting, when I got handed some printed Tamil filled invitation accompanied by the typical Indian head wiggle, I instantly wondered who was getting married or what other religious event was happening, how many firecrackers would be popped this time round?! However, after reconvening with Sarah after school, I discovered that the invitation was actually to celebrate a Seer. This is a festival unique to the tribal people and was in order to celebrate a girl coming of age. One of our pupils, Durga Davi, had recently been absent for a week, the week that she got her first period. As the tradition goes, she must stay in a makeshift hut, built from coconut leaves positioned away from the house. She’s allowed visitors but she may not leave, her parents bring her food and water and there’s many washing rituals depending on how far people enter the hut. The girl must then stay in this makeshift hut until her family organise her Seer.

When I learnt about all this, through Sarah and Nandini Maam, I had no idea what to make of it. Firstly, why didn’t I get a party when I had my first period?! And then…god, imagine all my school friends knowing about this, poor Durga must be mortified. Finally I thought about how cool it would be to camp out in a little hut by myself for a week. However, when I thought about the whole thing deeper, it seemed awful. All of this fuss about coming of age, was because she was coming of the right age to be married. Obviously this was a tradition and the festival didn’t necessarily hold the same meaning any more. Durga’s family had sent her to Vidya Vanam and were clearly keen for her to finish her education before they considered marrying her off, but there was still lots of connotations surrounding the celebration and problems it could cause for the family.

Indian families are tight knit groups of people, they may not always be close in a friendly way, but they’re engineered so everyone is involved in each others lives and they can get insulted easily if they hear gossip from their neighbours before they’re directly informed. In a village like Vardakkalor (where incest is pretty common) everyone is cousins with their grandpa’s son in laws sisters child and the children all have the same Patti who’s actually an Aunty etc. As you can imagine, it would be pretty difficult to inform all of the extended family before the gossip spreads. Often, in the case of a Seer or other similar events, arguments and family feuds are started because one Tata ( or whoever) has found out before the other. There’s a lot of pressure on the family too, as every uncle on her fathers side must buy her a new sari and money must be found to spend on celebrating the day in style. Ultimately I find it difficult to commend something which is technically a celebration of the start of marriage. Many of my colleagues have been affected by the plights of arranged marriage and to listen to their upsetting stories of life with their cruel mother in laws and inconsiderate husbands is terrible. If Durga had been alive and having her Seer a few generations ago, she would have been just starting off the tedious visits from men to decide in 3-7 minutes whether they wanted her as a wife.

Aside from my personal opinions, it was an amazing thing to witness. The day was nothing like I’d seen before and I was intrigued by the different parts to the ceremony and the rituals involved. We’d woken up early to arrive by 7.15 (we’d been told that this was the ‘correct’ time to arrive) sari’s were fussed over and wrapped, a quick trip to the bus stand to buy flowers and a hasty breakfast of biscuits later we were on our way to Durga’s village. As we were walking, someone waved on a passing motorbike. Used to the routine we plastered on the smiles and the three famous white girls waved back.  On closer inspection, the waving hand connected to an arm which came from Durga Davi’s body! Where was our pupil going when we were going to her house? Maybe it was some ritual? Could she be transported to her Seer from a temple perhaps? None of us knew, but we noticed that our walk had been surprisingly quiet, considering there was a party about to begin.

We arrived into the village, greeted by a bunch of cheering children (I’m getting used to this response wherever I go, don’t know what I’ll do when I get home and random people don’t just stop to have a chat). There still didn’t seem to be a great number of people around and all the kids from our school were half dressed with sticky up hair and bizzarre assortments of clothes. I started to panic that I was overdressed in my sari and jewellery, but before I could think too deeply, we were led away by Durga’s tangachi (younger sister) Vaidehi. She sat us down in three plastic chairs outside their house and bounced about excitedly with the other kids. There was still no people about…but Indian’s are always late…for everything, so I wasn’t too concerned.

Three hours later… After sitting outside, watching the preparations, being brought tea, seeing all of Durga’s new jewellery, doing each others mhindi (henna) and playing with the children the official ceremony began! In some way, the first three hours were the nicest bits, we had a behind the scenes view on everything that was happening and got to sit with a nervous but excited Durga whilst she prepared for the big day. The Seer is made up of several different parts and seeing as our kids were amongst the best English speakers in the village, we had little to no spoken explanation as to what was happening. Luckily everyone was desperate to make us feel comfortable and even if they couldn’t tell us what to do, they tried to anyway, which resulted in lots of confusing exchanges in Tamil and awkward gesturing!

The first part of the Seer consisted of all the ladies crowding round into the small back yard whilst Durga was undressed, bathed and redressed. She began wearing a half sari which consists of a skirt and blouse and a draped bit of material, it looks similar to a real sari but definitely not the same. Different ladies and girls, various aunts and friends, attacked her with make up and combed her hair, attatching clips then jewellery then changing it and putting more on then taking it all off again. I felt so sorry for Durga Davi being pulled all over the place by her various female friends but I caught her eye a few times and was granted a cheeky excited looking smile. She was enjoying being the centre of attention and getting spoiled with lots of new things for a change!

After she was dressed, she was led back into her house and sat on the floor. She was handed a bundle of various household things, (including talc and a comb) and her sister, cousin and friends sat in a circle around her. There was lots of posing for pictures then a plate full of food was produced. This was part of a ritual which also involved oil and water. Durga Davi was to pour the oil into her hand and then attempt to smear it over her head but the girls in her inner circle were to hit it out of her hand before she could do this. There was a certain number of tries that she had for the oil, then it was water, then lastly food. By the end of it, the pretty coloured half sari was covered in all sorts of interesting things. It was hilarious watching the girls begin by gently hitting her hand and the older ones, who’d been through this ritual many times before, leaning over their shoulders and trying to get them to hit harder, then eventually the younger girls getting more and more excited and the food and oil flying all over the room. After that was finished, Durga Davi was led backwards out of her home and behind into the back yard once more, to wear her first ever sari.

Once more, the women flocked around our student, dressing and undressing, redoing her hair, putting jewellery on and taking it all back off again, smearing dark make up across her eyes and threading flowers through her hair. We watched all this from afar, observing how Durga just gave off an air of excitement. Then again she was brought round to the front of the house, where she was presented with plenty of gifts of fruit, bangles and sari’s. The family members took turns to smear orange and red pastes across her face, everyone getting more and more enthusiastic until Durga ended up a mass of bright colours with these teeny tiny eyes poking out. All the family members had completed the painting and to my surprise we were next! I was called up first, posing for the photographer with the different sticky things wiped all over my fingers as I transferred them to her face. Luckily China Chitra, Peepal class teacher was there to help me as she is also Durga’s cousin/aunt (it’s unclear.) Once Durga Davi was fully painted, fed lots of grapes and more and more flowers were added to her hair, the festival was over and it was time for photos and food to end a wonderful day.

Even though I have mixed feelings surrounding the origins of this festival, I felt so incredibly privileged to have witnessed such an event. These kind of traditions are sacred amongst the tribal communities and to be allowed to be part of this celebration was immense. As we left the village, we were thanked by Durga Davi’s elder brother as he felt incredibly lucky to have shared the family’s special day with us.

 

Project Day has finally arrived

After weeks of lessons on rivers, chart making and clay modeling…the long awaited Project Day had finally arrived. The kids arrived early, very excited and looking smart in their clean uniforms. There was an atmosphere of suspense as we waited for our guests to arrive and finished off the last minute preparations. In the science zone, we added the fish (collected the previous day by Ayshweria, myself and a handful of hyper children from the nearby dirty river!) to our make shift river, in the library we laid out the straw mats on the floor and tidied away a few leftover books and in the Junior school we were already so well prepared the children just sat nicely and practiced their singing!

At 10.30, Gandhiji’s grandson, our chief guest, finally arrived. The children nervously filed into the dining hall to sit amongst their parents and watch the first part of our event unfold. We were beginning with a display of music, drama, dance and debate, this was in order to showcase the variety of work our children do and the holistic way in which they learn. Archana (a pupil from Gangaclass) opened with a welcome speech. Krishna class continued with some classical Indian music, followed by a dance group who were all decked out in beautiful costume and make up, there was a skit by Banyan class, Kaveri sang and there was a debate with a few children from Ganga and Krishna. Overall, despite the odd fumbling over words or wrong step in the dance, our kids were so professional, standing up on stage in front of all their parents and our special guests and performing like that.

At the end when the chief guest made his speech of thanks and was talking to the children about their dreams and ambitions, they all answered with things like football or volleyball players, a professional dancer and typically from Manav ‘a bird watcher like Salim Ali.’ From a westerner’s perspective these dreams of our children are simply that-a dream which will never grow up to be reality. But here in India, for a child to think so wildly and imaginatively to want to choose volleyball as a career path, that’s completely unheard of! Any Indian pupil would likely answer Gandhiji’s grandson’s question with the ambition of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or (especially likely) an engineer. Our audience and special guests were shocked by these hopes for the future and were completely enamoured by our children.

After the initial programme had finished, the guests and parents made their way around the classrooms. Science was first and the pressure was on to make a good impression. Our kids had learnt exactly what they wanted to say in order to explain their charts and the different experiments they were doing, and they seemed pretty nervous! In the end they just spoke off the cuff and explained things in their own words, which suited our guests much better. They did a great job and before we know it the science zone was relieved of special guests as they moved on to the other classrooms. I escaped from science and made my way over to the Junior school. We quietly sang some songs and waited patiently, unfortunately our guests had no more time to spare as they had arrived late and all needed to be somewhere else. A few of them poked their heads round the door but there was nothing more than a glance at everyone’s hard work. I was so disappointed for our children who had been practicing their drama and songs for months. But never mind, there’s annual day coming soon!

What was meant to be a half day for both students and teachers rolled into a full day for the teachers – so my washing still hadn’t begun! We ended our months of hard work with a good old chat about how proud we were of everything that had been achieved. Needless to say we were unanimous in the opinion of how well the day had gone and looked forward together to the term to come.

Neem class waiting for our visitors

Kaveri’s display on Adaptations of Fish

Gandhiji’s grandson

Dancers from the initial performance

Catching fish for our makeshift river

Happy Birthday to me!

An 18th birthday celebrated in a small tribal school in a rural village in Southern India, with a waxy carrot, a sari and lots and lots of menthos! This isn’t exactly what most people could say would describe their 18th birthday, but it pretty much sums up mine.

Coincidentally, a week before my birthday, some family friends from Bangalore came to Coimbatore and decided to treat Sarah, Caitlin and I to a wonderful birthday dinner. The took us out for dinner in a glamorous hotel where I had non veg (delicious tiger prawns) and humous and all sorts of tasty tasty food! We were spoiled not only with food but with Indian bubbly and mohijtos, (getting more along the lines of a typical 18th). Brenda is from Northern Ireland, and after a recent visit returned with a whole pile of fantastic gifts from my family there. She sat me down on her bed in the hotel and forced me to open them all at once. There was a beautiful selection of sweeties, chocolate, treatments for my sun damaged hair and facemasks for my dust inflicted skin, lovely comfy PJ’s and amongst others my favourite present of all (besides the sweets…) A PAIR OF BRIGHT ORANGE NEON BIRKENSTOCKS! The evening finished with some cake, being Indian it wasn’t like how my Mummy makes it, but it was birthday cake all the same, smeared across my face. Apparently this is some kind of tradition in India…to smear cake all over the birthday girl’s face and then stuff it in her mouth and feed her. I was perplexed, but amused by the celebration and quickly ran to the bathroom to clean it off!

The following week passed quickly and by the 28th November my sweets were finished, shoes broken in and hair feeling soft again. I was unsure of Indian tradition surrounding birthdays, the children would give their teachers and sometimes classmates sweets…did that mean I should give the children sweets or the teachers? Or nobody?! Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what to do and when the kids discovered it was my birthday they started asking if I would bring them chocolate. I was slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and ran to the comforting words of Patti. She laughed at me and told me the best thing to do would be to not tell anyone and hide away from all of that nonsense.

Unfortunately it was too late for that! In the end, I enlisted the Tamil speaking skills of one of our pupils Vegashni, and headed into Anaikatti in an attempt to find cake. We approached her uncle’s shop and some words were exchanged in Tamil. ‘Akka,’ she said, ‘the cake master is out of town.’ My heart sank! I had finally found a solution and now I had to rethink the sweets, cake, teachers, pupils equation in my head. As Sarah watched my eyes become full of panic, hers found something on the shelves below. The cake master may have left town, but he left behind him some cake! Vegashni’s uncle mumbled that it was all made the day before yesterday. However, after contemplating my options, I decided that living inI ndia, I was sure my fellow teachers had eaten worse than a few days old cake. I bought 30 pieces of chocolate cake and a few pieces of a strange looking pink cake as Caitlin doesn’t like chocolate and snuck back into school to hide it in the fridge.

In the morning, whilst I was showering, Caitlin decorated the room with some beautiful birthday banners and sparkly sprinkly things. Then I opened my cards from home, had a few tears and approached the mammoth task of putting on a sari. On your birthday you’re expected to wear nice clothes, lots of jewellery and just generally look pretty. Whilst I have worn a sari quite a lot since I’ve been here, I still haven’t mastered the technique of putting it on. Every time I try I’m convinced I’ve got it, until I double check with Sulo and she finds something which isn’t pleated correctly or a massive bit of material not tucked into the right place! Sulo helped me with wrapping, pleating, tucking and folding, I draped myself in earrings and bangles and finally I made it out the door to school.

The children were adorable, they are so impressed by us wearing sari’s and showed it by telling me I looked beautiful all day long. I was showered with not only compliments but also adorable little gifts. I’m a little suspicious by the origin of these- I reckon the earrings probably came from someone else’s ears-but the children’s careful wrapping with paper or the making of little boxes to put them in filled me with happiness! When they inevitably asked how old I was and I said that I was 18, my kids eyes opened wide with shock. ‘Akka, my brother is 19!’ exclaimed Manoj and everyone giggled. I’m not sure whether that was an attempt to set us up or simply an expression of surprise, but none of the children could believe that I was only 18 and had come so far from home. They kept reminding me about my family and couldn’t comprehend how I hadn’t even spoken to them on my birthday. The internet had been down for about a week and a half and the children asking all these questions about home caused me to struggle to keep the tears at bay. However the children kept me going, shaking my hands and smiling and singing to me and wishing me a very happy birthday.

During Kanji, Caitlin and I ran back to our kitchen and smuggled the cake to the staff room. I awkwardly presented it and smiled, telling people to help themselves. Half the teachers looked around in confusion, it took them a while to grasp that it was my birthday. Then they all proceeded to burst into song. Now, Indians sing Happy Birthday a little differently to us so I just stood there, absolutely mortified, whilst they all clapped very quickly and sang strangely and then all came to shake my hand before taking a piece of cake.

That evening I went on our usual 5pm walk, chatted with the girls and did some preparation for school the next day. After dinner, we were chatting some more (in the dark) about how hilarious the presents Sarah and Caitlin had scavenged for me were. They included some square tuppaware, (I have been on a 3 month long hunt to find tuppaware which isn’t round!) lots of mentos (a favourite after school snack) and cotton buds (to clean my scabby nose piercing). Suddenly Sarah jumped up from the bed and ran into the kitchen, Caitlin followed but the told me not to move. The next thing I know, I was being sung happy birthday for the second time that day, but, instead of a cake, Sarah was holding a carrot decorated with candles. We had such a laugh about it and I went to sleep that night feeling happy and at home in Vidya Vanam, Anaikatti.

DSC08621DSC08616 DSC08614 DSC08594

Humous and falafal!

Humous and falafal!

Caitlin and Sarah with mohijtos!

Caitlin and Sarah with mohijtos!

Happy Birthday to me!

An 18th birthday celebrated in a small tribal school in a rural village in Southern India, with a waxy carrot, a sari and lots and lots of menthos! This isn’t exactly what most people could say would describe their 18th birthday, but it pretty much sums up mine.

Coincidentally, a week before my birthday, some family friends from Bangalore came to Coimbatore and decided to treat Sarah, Caitlin and I to a wonderful birthday dinner. The took us out for dinner in a glamorous hotel where I had non veg (delicious tiger prawns) and humous and all sorts of tasty tasty food! We were spoiled not only with food but with Indian bubbly and mohijtos, (getting more along the lines of a typical 18th). Brenda is from Northern Ireland, and after a recent visit returned with a whole pile of fantastic gifts from my family there. She sat me down on her bed in the hotel and forced me to open them all at once. There was a beautiful selection of sweeties, chocolate, treatments for my sun damaged hair and facemasks for my dust inflicted skin, lovely comfy PJ’s and amongst others my favourite present of all (besides the sweets…) A PAIR OF BRIGHT ORANGE NEON BIRKENSTOCKS! The evening finished with some cake, being Indian it wasn’t like how my Mummy makes it, but it was birthday cake all the same, smeared across my face. Apparently this is some kind of tradition in India…to smear cake all over the birthday girl’s face and then stuff it in her mouth and feed her. I was perplexed, but amused by the celebration and quickly ran to the bathroom to clean it off!

The following week passed quickly and by the 28th November my sweets were finished, shoes broken in and hair feeling soft again. I was unsure of Indian tradition surrounding birthdays, the children would give their teachers and sometimes classmates sweets…did that mean I should give the children sweets or the teachers? Or nobody?! Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what to do and when the kids discovered it was my birthday they started asking if I would bring them chocolate. I was slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and ran to the comforting words of Patti. She laughed at me and told me the best thing to do would be to not tell anyone and hide away from all of that nonsense.

Unfortunately it was too late for that! In the end, I enlisted the Tamil speaking skills of one of our pupils Vegashni, and headed into Anaikatti in an attempt to find cake. We approached her uncle’s shop and some words were exchanged in Tamil. ‘Akka,’ she said, ‘the cake master is out of town.’ My heart sank! I had finally found a solution and now I had to rethink the sweets, cake, teachers, pupils equation in my head. As Sarah watched my eyes become full of panic, hers found something on the shelves below. The cake master may have left town, but he left behind him some cake! Vegashni’s uncle mumbled that it was all made the day before yesterday. However, after contemplating my options, I decided that living inI ndia, I was sure my fellow teachers had eaten worse than a few days old cake. I bought 30 pieces of chocolate cake and a few pieces of a strange looking pink cake as Caitlin doesn’t like chocolate and snuck back into school to hide it in the fridge.

In the morning, whilst I was showering, Caitlin decorated the room with some beautiful birthday banners and sparkly sprinkly things. Then I opened my cards from home, had a few tears and approached the mammoth task of putting on a sari. On your birthday you’re expected to wear nice clothes, lots of jewellery and just generally look pretty. Whilst I have worn a sari quite a lot since I’ve been here, I still haven’t mastered the technique of putting it on. Every time I try I’m convinced I’ve got it, until I double check with Sulo and she finds something which isn’t pleated correctly or a massive bit of material not tucked into the right place! Sulo helped me with wrapping, pleating, tucking and folding, I draped myself in earrings and bangles and finally I made it out the door to school.

The children were adorable, they are so impressed by us wearing sari’s and showed it by telling me I looked beautiful all day long. I was showered with not only compliments but also adorable little gifts. I’m a little suspicious by the origin of these- I reckon the earrings probably came from someone else’s ears-but the children’s careful wrapping with paper or the making of little boxes to put them in filled me with happiness! When they inevitably asked how old I was and I said that I was 18, my kids eyes opened wide with shock. ‘Akka, my brother is 19!’ exclaimed Manoj and everyone giggled. I’m not sure whether that was an attempt to set us up or simply an expression of surprise, but none of the children could believe that I was only 18 and had come so far from home. They kept reminding me about my family and couldn’t comprehend how I hadn’t even spoken to them on my birthday. The internet had been down for about a week and a half and the children asking all these questions about home caused me to struggle to keep the tears at bay. However the children kept me going, shaking my hands and smiling and singing to me and wishing me a very happy birthday.

During Kanji, Caitlin and I ran back to our kitchen and smuggled the cake to the staff room. I awkwardly presented it and smiled, telling people to help themselves. Half the teachers looked around in confusion, it took them a while to grasp that it was my birthday. Then they all proceeded to burst into song. Now, Indians sing Happy Birthday a little differently to us so I just stood there, absolutely mortified, whilst they all clapped very quickly and sang strangely and then all came to shake my hand before taking a piece of cake.

That evening I went on our usual 5pm walk, chatted with the girls and did some preparation for school the next day. After dinner, we were chatting some more (in the dark) about how hilarious the presents Sarah and Caitlin had scavenged for me were. They included some square tuppaware, (I have been on a 3 month long hunt to find tuppaware which isn’t round!) lots of mentos (a favourite after school snack) and cotton buds (to clean my scabby nose piercing). Suddenly Sarah jumped up from the bed and ran into the kitchen, Caitlin followed but the told me not to move. The next thing I know, I was being sung happy birthday for the second time that day, but, instead of a cake, Sarah was holding a carrot decorated with candles. We had such a laugh about it and I went to sleep that night feeling happy and at home in Vidya Vanam, Anaikatti.