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Thursday, February 9, 2017

A visit to a Pushpa school--tbr

January 12, 2017  

On the first Friday of this year's India trip,  we make our first visit to a PUSHPA evening school (only in this case the teacher, Sudha Rani, cannot come later in the day, so the Medikonduru Pushpa community has agreed to send their children for sessions in the early morning. Sudha Rani has been with Pushpa evening school here for six years.  She is a business student, currently studying for her MBA in a town on the other side of Guntur.  Quite a commute, to look after our school as well!

The sky is pink, foggy and polluted as we set out after a snack, at 6:30 in the morning. After a mile or so of narrow neighborhood lanes, we have to drive over, then around and through a tunnel under a highway overpass, much like the I94/Hennepin/Lyndale interchange in Minneapolis. We enjoy a three and then two lane highway both directions for most of the way, with little traffic. Trucks are fueling up at a series of gas stations near town.   Gray dust coats everything as we descend another bridge into the quarrying town of Pericherla, where a pair of gray hills on one side has been chipped in half by stone cutters over the years.

Cotton and chilli fields are interspersed with huge cold storage warehouses.  The scraggly branched cotton fields look harsh and unforgiving. Acres of harvested chillies redden the ground where they are laid out to dry before going to market.  The approach to Medikonduru is over a brand new, low, two-way bridge over a narrow stream. In the past cars have had to wait to cross one direction at a time,lone car at a time.Today's passage is seamless. That we are entering  Medikonduru town proper, is recognizeable by narrowing of the highway, walls of older homes literally sitting on the edge of the road, (nor uncommon in lanes of cities and town, but this is a national highway!).This part of town, where wooden doored walls flanked by narrow ledges,( 'sit-outs'  in lieu of verandahs), line the edge of the road let us know, every year, that we are in Medikonduru.. A few older residents hjunker down  on narrow stoops just outside their gates, with cars passing by a few feet away..

Then the roadside opens up, and we pause at a pair of tall  crude concrete posts with a sign announcing the name of the neighborhood where our community lives.  We turn into the narrow concrete lane which people use freely as though it were part of their yards; children at play step aside, a man calmly rises and moves his chair out of the way, other neighbors sit on their steps and chat. At the foot of a surprising sharp-angled dip, we cross over a murky sullen stream where two women are washing clothes. At the intersection of another narrow concrete lane, which looks impassable for our crv sized vehicle, our driver deftly turns, inching methodically forward and backward as I try not to look fearfully into the open drainage along the compound walls  and drops us off near the government school where Pushpa children are gathering on the verandah. We walk unsteadily up a stony incline; neighbors' are ready and willing to help anchor our steps.  Chairs are brought for us to sit facing the children seated cross-legged on the slate, verandah floor.  It is chilly.  The school is locked.  Two chalkboards are painted on verandah walls.  

The teacher, Sudha Rani, has not arrived yet, but children from four to about ten years old form rows, sorting themselves by class (grade) as they come. Franklin quizzes some of the children to test their knowledge.  They are shy to answer.  But when Sudha Rani arrives they scramble up to exclaim "Good Morning, Teacher!" as children do in classrooms all over India.  She nods; they sit.  A pair of students, groomed and readier than many of the children who've come just as they are, presents us with a pair of paper flowers.  We wonder how they knew to be ready with them; Sudha Rani said they knew we'd come some time this month. This boy and girl are a bit more awake for, and forthcoming, answering, simple introductory questions: What class are you in?  What's your favorite subject? Are you getting good marks (grades)?

Franklin leads a lesson in question words, who, what, when, where, why with painfully elicited responses from the students.  (After two or three attempts in different schools and the teachers' meeting in February, we realize the TOEFL process has to proceed, for all classes, not to mention teachers, at the most basic level.)

On a little rise next to the verandah, a family has set up housekeeping in a blue relief-issue tarp hut. They are just waking up. A toddler walks forth; gradually at least three generations.  The child, about three years old, stares.  Two lambs, one snow white and one coal black, climb up, then tentatively test and step down with cute awkwardness, on broken building stones tumbled between their small yard and us. A man, perhaps the father, dressed in a banyan and lungi, emerges, and appears nonplussed. The adults all go about their business apparently unperturbed they are 'on a stage' for us as much as we might be for them. Only the three year old stares, as three year olds are wont to do..

I read a story of 'The Town Musicians of Bremen" to the class, translating as best I can, with Franklin assisting, Sudha Rani quietly prompts and corrects us and the children when we're stuck..  It will take more than one reading, and I promise to come back and re-read it with the children repeating (yes, by rote, as it is, like it or not, the commonly accepted practice in most Indian schools.) after me the next time. (A promise, unf. not kept, this season.  Next December, perhaps?)  I give the book to Sudha Rani to review with the class when she has time..  We need to liven things up.

Given the morning chill, "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" is a welcome exercise, for us adults as well as the children.  We review the names of the relevant body parts. Now all the children are quite awake and attentive. (Note to self: Never depart from starting out a visit with lively interaction. Get husband to be on the same page.  Each of us tends to be direct, though in our own individual ways, himself with interviews and direct instruction, myself with stories and songs.)

Sudha Rani shares a sheaf of drawings by the children. She'd provided the paper and colors on her own. We expressed our appreciation for her resourcefulness in stimulating young minds as well as on the individuality and quality of the children's work--flowers, a peacock, a house, national icons... Using a few children's drawings as examples, we do a  Q/A review of the question word WHAT , with their pictures serving as answer cues.

The PUSHPA motto:  "Helping People Help Themselves."

Note to blog readers: More about Sudha Rani at and after The Teachers' Meeting, a visitor's life in India, and THE WEDDING  in other posts after a week or so.  Travelling towards home, starting  tomorrow morning

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sankranthi, a Harvest Festival

On the heels of the new year, just as schools are gearing up for classes and/or midyear exams, along comes the festival of Sankranthi, part harvest, part religious, part zodiac and sun- related.  Wikipedia says it's the only Hindu festival observed according to the solar, i.e. fixed date, calendar.  Occurring every year on January 16th, 17th, and 18th, Sankranthi has a separate name for each day's observance. Although different communities may divide it up differently, they are, approximately: Pongal, when a sweet rice pudding also called pongal, is served to family and neighbors; Makara Sankranthi, and Bhogi. The observances and names vary a bit from state to state. You can find them further described at:

Traditional festivities at this time of year bear resemblances to art fairs, sand painting, rodeos, country fairs, midsummer celebrations, and, of course, the ubiquitous emphasis on food specialties associated with the season. At Sankranthi time,a  housewife or helper will elaborate the muggulu, or usually simple, white powder designs arranged on freshly washed ground before a house or gate: For a week or so, you can drive along a virtual 'gallery' of bright colors, floral and geometric designs created fresh every morning, right on the street.

Evening news on TV shows animal rights activists protesting cock fighting (and betting) and bull baiting 'sports' practiced especially in rural areas, at this time.  Though cock fighting, where roosters are set to fight each other, is illegal, it is carried out anyway, even blatantly pictured and reported in news media.  Jalli Kattu, or bull baiting, especially prevalent in South India, consists of contestants vying to ride or tame a bull in order to win a bag of money tied to the animals' horns. Inevitably a bull runs amok, causing panic and sometimes injury amongst the crowd of onlookers.  In Tamilnad, the state south of Andhra, it was temporarily banned this year, but the resultant public outcry ("It's an ancient tradition!" "The bull is not really hurt, it's the contestant that risks everything..." ) and massive demonstrations gained a reprieve for people (not the bulls, sorry) this year.

Here and there someone burns a log at night in the street on Bhogi. Neighbors enjoy a reprieve from mosquitoes for night or two, thanks to the smoke. Meanwhile, streets and shops are thronged with shoppers taking advantage of Sankranthi sales.  An auspicious wedding season will begin and last for a few weeks after Sankranthi.

A caste based welfare society takes over a nearby schoolyard and installs painted styrofoam pastoral scenes next to a stage where speakers and an occasional singer hold forth for one evening and night. Though their amplified voices dominate the neighborhood airwaves, a periodic burst of drums overpowers even those. Neighbors and guests come and go.  Outside the gate, a billboard sized sign features a prominent member of the group, and invites one and all to a 'community' meal.

Two groups of costumed (well, one group's costume consists solely of a white lungi covering the lower torso and legs) drummers alternate with each other, processing guests to and from the gate. Robust young men of the white-clothed group stroll, beating vigorously on long, rich toned drums slung at the waist.  The bright blue and yellow clad group of slighter build, circle and bow with a backwards/forwards/sideways step, all the while beating large hand drums which they raise and lower as they play. Conversations crescendo and/or pause until the enthusiastic noise abates.

Feeling like gate-crashers, but welcomed by drummers and a couple bulls brightly caparisoned and bowing near the entrance, we wander into the floodlit venue to see what's up.  There are hundreds of chairs set out, with only a few dozen people seated to hear the speakers and singers.  The nieces and nephews pose with the decorated animals, and donate a few coins to costumed alms-collectors bearing copper alms pots on their heads.

It's late, and we turn toward our apartment, just three doors down the street.  An event host catches up with us at the gate, and implores us to stay and take part in the meal.  No, thank you, we've already had our dinner and an anniversary cake, and it's time (at least for us older folks) to retire; we demur. My husband pauses to chat with the greeter for awhile. They compare names of acquaintances likely to be members of the sponsoring group. We take leave, thanking the greeter again for the invitation.

Soon after reaching our apartments, a fireworks display begins, bursts of color against the night sky.While viewing them from our balcony, I see that a scuffle briefly holds forth just outside the gate of the event, but it is soon calmed down. Cars park along the street for a block or two on either side of the gate; guests continue to arrive and depart until midnight, when the strong lights and the highly amplified sounds fade into the darkness at last.

Sankranthi being generally celebrated as a harvest festival, a more subdued observance is also conducted in Christian churches.  I'll be travelling homeward next week, when the program is scheduled, but remember our neighborhood church's harvest festivals from the past. The sanctuary would be decorated with stalks of grain or sugar cane alongside the pews and offerings of produce at the front.  The church yard would be lined with booths featuring snacks and food items prepared by women's and youth groups, a health and wellness mini-clinic, besides the usual Bible, hymnbook, calendar and literature stall. Special speakers would come in for an additional worship service in the afternoon.

And we all have much for which to be thankful.