Saturday, August 23, 2008

Denouement: thoughts about India trip and the need to grow out of selfishness

Now that I'm back in Brooklyn (and not only back, but on the verge of a move within the borough -- as I type, all my stuff is in boxes awaiting the movers!) and about to start the next semester of grad school, I've been thinking a lot about this short India trip. On one hand I am so glad to have broken through the invisible barrier of setting myself apart from the poverty, or rather the inequality that I always see when I visit but in the past have done nothing about. Even now, I cannot say I have done anything about it. What did I do? Just go attend a class being held in a Mumbai basti by a couple of idealistic teachers who are doing and giving that which I idealize and yet am too weak and mired in my own selfishness to give and do.

This going to the Down to Earth class was just a dip of the toe into the pool, just a tiny percentage of the time I spent in India. The majority of my time was spent enjoying the luxuries of shopping, eating, and lolling about in air-conditioned environments at posh houses of family friends. Not only that, but I was pretty selfish even in that posh environment. I was traveling with my father, but I resented having to always be there for him. In the past he's had a tendency to expect to be served, but this time, he is older, weaker -- he genuinely needed help. It's not that I didn't help him, but there was a side of me that resented this intrusion into "my India trip." And so I often escaped under the guise of shopping or hanging out with friends, when he would have benefited from more company during this tiring journey.

All in all, I cannot say I am satisfied with myself or my behavior. Yes, a small inching forward in terms of a different mindset of service, to some tiny degree. But then a huge backlash of selfishness accompanying it, not to mention returning with loads upon loads of fancy clothes and other shopping that I don't really need. You might say I'm being hard on myself, but am I? I don't think so... I read somewhere once that when given the chance to spend money or time, one should always choose to spend it on experiences versus things. And I think that while I have endeavored in that direction in this trip, it was a bit of a teetering effort, with many failures. Perhaps the backlash was because the monkey mind got scared of this new direction? I don't know... I just know that I hope to remember this feeling of disappointment I have in myself right now, so that I don't repeat the same mistake in the future.

And now, I should go, as the movers will be here any minute.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Down to Earth - revisited

I had the honor of visiting Niki and Mansi's Down to Earth class one more time before leaving Mumbai. On this visit there were a lot more kids... It really seems incredible that the kids and teachers are able to get anything done, with such a lack of space, and yet they do. Determination.

We played word association again, and then Nikki invited me to conduct activities with the kids. First I taught them the "I went on a picnic and I brought..." game. Except I forgot to do it in past tense, so I had the poor kids stumbling over "I am going to a picnic and I am bringing..." Everyone giggled when one of the picnic-ers decided to bring a garden.

Then, on to mathematical crafts. I had brought some craft supplies for kids to make birds using paper circles cut into full circles, halves, quarters, and eighths... It was a bit chaotic, with lots of Hindi-English translation. I also made fun of my American accent, and explained that yes, I do say the word "bird" in a funny way, but that they should excuse me because I just have a funny American way of speaking that I can't help.

Above are some photos from this visit. The one of the kid (Ahmed is his name I believe) with the littered field behind him is one I took on my way out of Ambedkar Nagar (the little slum neighborhood of Cuffe Parade where the Down to Earth classes are held). This field is not only a dumping ground for garbage but is also the playing ground for games of all sorts.

In retrospect it seems that I spent far too little time engaging with the good folks of Down to Earth. I hope to strengthen our connection and spend more time and energy working with them in the future. Next time, it would also be great to have some time to talk to the teachers and other organizers in a separate meeting to get a better sense of the background and mission aside from what is of course obvious in the field.

Monday, August 18, 2008

New Delhi

So I did something incredibly indulgent on this ever-so-short India trip - I took a 26 hour trip to Delhi to visit some close friends - Seema and Ajay and their kids, Pallavi and Priyanka. (It was Seema who enticed me to visit via a very persuasive phone call, but, as I told her, it was seeing the kids that was the big reason.) Pallavi is now 15 and Priyanka is 11. When I first met them, they were 5 and 9. Time, as they say, moves too fast, and I didn't want to lose the opportunity to spend time with them while they are still kids, and so I went off to Delhi to spend it... During our short time, I managed to hang out with the whole family as well as mutual friend Anu.

Painting and drawing with Priyanka, a long talk about teenage-land with Pallavi, a visit to the beauty parlor for a head massage - and girltalk- with Seema, playing a slightly altered version of Scrabble with Priyanka and Anu (wherein Priyanka enforced somewhat communistic rules of sharing tiles to help each other win better double-word scores and the like), a short shopping excursion with Ajay, Priyanka and Anu to the hip-n-happening Select City mall complete with designer stores within and cavernous potholes without, a late dinner and drinks with the adults at fancy-shmancy Shalom, and then finally, the next morning, getting to drop off the girls to school on my way to the airport.

Yes, incredibly indulgent, but money well-spent, to strengthen the ties of friendship.

Friday, August 15, 2008

from Suvarnabhumi airport

It amazes me that I can understand this word -- "suvarnabhumi," as it's of Sanskrit origin, and yet here it is in Thailand. Suvarna means gold and bhumi (bhoomi) means land or world (depending on context.) So Suvarnabhumi means Golden Land! Here I am in the Golden Land airport, awaiting my delayed flight to Mumbai.

Pardon the random thoughts of this post... am actually not feeling well at all... My dad and I went to Pattaya for the wedding of some ultra-wealthy Indian folks to whom we are connected tangentially via my dad's college friend. Lest you get needlessly jealous, let me explain... My dad's health is such that he cannot travel by himself, therefore he asked me to go with him. And, it turned out to be cheaper to fly via India than directly to Thailand, go figure. So, that's the story.

The resort where the wedding was held (and where we stayed) was beautiful and huge. But I really would have preferred a different type of Thai experience. As it was, it was difficult to get "off-campus" especially due to the social obligations of attending the actual wedding events, of which there were a plethora. So all in all, the effect was more Indian than Thai. The food, I must say, was, to use my dad's favorite superlative, "superb!"-- until I got sick.

To be honest, though, I did duck a few of the wedding shenanigans to simply enjoy the breeze on the lovely balcony in our room, on a recliner and in the company of a good book - Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

But, before I fell sick with dysentery, I did get to go see the town itself (very commercial, with lots of Thai ladies walking arm in arm with white men of all sizes and ages). Better yet, I got to swim at the beach near the resort, which, albeit smelling a bit fishy, was lovely warm.

And then, of course, I got dysentery. (I'll spare you the details, other than to say that I went to the hotel clinic at which the nurse, after giving me antibiotics, activated charcoal, and some other minty stuff, suggested that I give her my silver bangle. Which, in my stupefied state, I did.) All in all, am glad to be back on my way to Mumbai again. Above, by the way, are some pics from Pattaya and from the wedding.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Down to Earth in Mumbai

I am on a rare short trip to India (and Thailand--more about the Thailand bit in a later post) and thought that, unlike other trips which were basically selfish in nature - about shopping, touristing, and spending time with family - I would like to do something a bit different for this trip, something service-related, something that would take me out of my little self and pour me into something bigger and moving, something about others.

Well, I cannot lie and say that I have completely fulfilled this goal, because I have indeed indulged in shopping and relaxing -- old habits die hard.

But I did, on Monday, have the honor of beginning to experience another side of India, one I would like to get further into.

Before I left, I contacted Nipun Mehta to ask him for suggestions/contact info for educational nonprofits with whom I could make contact in the Mumbai area. He immediately (less than half an hour) wrote me back with the email for the folks at Down to Earth (no website yet), an organization which works with kids living in the Cuffe Parade area of Mumbai.

Upon receiving my tentative email asking if they would mind a visit from me, I was welcomed immediately by Team DTE (Down to Earth) to come and observe - or even teach - one of their educational sessions, and that I should contact Niki and Mansi, two of their teachers, to figure out logistics.

And so, with some trepidation and after a few phone calls, I went down to the Backbay Bus Depot in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai to meet up with Niki. The class she teaches is in a Bombay slum called Ambedkar Nagar, which sits right up against one of the more moneyed areas of South Bombay, within a stone's throw from the 27-story, $2 billion dollar home of the fabulously wealthy Ambani family (still being built). She had me meet her at the bus depot rather than at the actual place where the classes were held-- as it is so inside a labyrinth of huts and small buildings that it would have been impossible to give me directions -- or for me to follow them.

Niki turned out to be a serious young woman who, in contrast to me, had taken local transportation to the locality. I was embarassed that I had taken a taxi. This was indication number one that I have a lot to learn and a long way to go in the arena of service and humility. In our conversation on the tangled way into the community where the class was to be held, I learned that Niki has been involved with social work and teaching for the past ten years, and that in the mornings, she teaches for Akanksha, another educational service org in Mumbai. As we walked the twists and turns of the gullies, every other kid who passed us greeted her with a wide smile and a "Hello Niki Didi!" Here and there she stopped to make conversation--in Hindi.

One kid she mildly berated, with palpable love under the surface toughness, for not coming to the last session. We also visited another kid briefly, who had recently gotten a terrible electrical shock due to some exposed wiring in his home. His right arm was laced with scars and hung by his side as he sheepishly accepted Niki Didi's assertions that he definitely needed to go to the doctor. Despite one last exhortation from Niki Didi that he should take care of himself and get medicine from the doctor, one did not get the sense that he would be able to go. As we walked along we collected a half dozen companions - kids who were coming to the Down to Earth class.

The classroom was a tiny room accessed via a built-in ladder. Niki kindly took my backpack from me so that I could manouver myself into the room. Soon there were about a dozen of us seated cross-legged in a circle, with all eyes on Niki Didi. She began the session with some breathing exercises to center our attention. The kids smiled at me and I sensed their curiosity about this new person. At this point Niki introduced me briefly and asked each of the children to introduce him/herself to me--name and one thing that they like to do. Some were shyer than others, as English is definitely not their main language. Nevertheless, they persevered, and I learned that sports is very important in their lives -- many said that football (soccer) was their favorite activity.

Having been a teacher myself in the past, what impressed me about the kids is that despite the crowded classroom and distractions -- bad weather all too palpable in the room with holes in its corrugated tin walls and visitor from abroad-- the kids were remarkably focused and intent on learning. Their respect for their teacher and for the spark of education she was cultivating in them was visible in their intent gaze and their immediate attention to all that Niki Didi asked them to do. When I taught middle school I would have given an arm and leg for such dedicated students!

Then Niki asked me to tell them a little -- in English -- about what is it that a librarian does, especially a librarian in the U.S. As I spoke of the kinds of programs that I conduct with the youth at my library in Brooklyn--gardening, arts and crafts, computer games, help with research--I couldn't help but wince at the relative wealth even average and working class Brooklyn kids have as compared to these bright young Mumbai-ites. Niki and Mansi explained to me later that Mumbai has no free public libraries in the tradition of what we take for granted in most cities in the States. I felt ashamed to have tantalized the kids with what is not available to them, but I only told them out of a sense of enthusiasm to share... It is difficult to know what is the right thing to do or say, especially when there is such dire disparity in our world.

Then, much to my relief, we moved on to word games. We played a word association game where we went around in a fast circle, each naming an English word that closely related in any logical way to the one just spoken by the previous person. No words could be repeated... The words went something like: black, white, paper, pencil, pen, school, child, boy, girl, child, school, desk, book, notebook, draw, bird, fly, sky, cloud, high, low.... (You get the picture.) If you couldn't think of a word within 5 counts on Niki Didi's fingers, you were out. The game moved quite rapidly with some funny attempts that didn't always pass the sharp scrutiny of Niki Didi. The winner was shining quick Jyoti with the mango-tied braids and the open smile.

The next activity was to think and write down as many br- words as possible, with the br- sound appearing anywhere in the word. As I myself could think of only two or three words off the top of my head, I was impressed at the diligence of the kids in creating quite a voluminous list of br- words. They could give Sesame Street a run for its money -- or at least help out with script planning!

And then, all too soon, my time there was over, as I had a promise to meet my dad early that evening. But I hope --no Plan!-- to go there again before this too-short trip to India is over.

I can't help but wonder how I - short on time in India - can help in any way besides donating funds. When I asked Niki and Mansi, they said that what they most need is not supplies but human power. It also seems painfully evident to me that they also need more classroom space. I can't help but marvel at the irony of the $2 billion Ambani tower going up in the neighborhood of these very same kids, and wonder if somehow wealthy folks like the Ambanis could not be prevailed upon to provide more space to these kids and their teacher. As far as human power, what with grad school and a full-time job, I won't be able to come out to help anytime soon after the conclusion of this trip, but I have a fledgling of an idea involving establishing some kind of cooperative project between the kids I see every day at the Brooklyn Public Library and the kids of Down to Earth.

Any other ideas?