Saris, Jack-O’-Lanterns and Marmite

Blasted barking and poignant chants, trick-or-treat at breakfast and bickies for exams, divine dancers and farewell fireworks – a motley Kiwi-American-Indian exchange.

To cite last year’s St Olaf report, the one-month course on India has indeed been a blast, packed with trips and lectures and laughs, though of course there have been some lows.

For the first days I ran in the mornings, sometimes with others, until my right shoe heel collapsed.  Worse, a St Olaf girl on a morning jog was surrounded by barking stray dogs right outside my window and bitten – only a scratch, but she needed rabies shots.  Directly after her misadventure we headed out for the day, and our bus could hardly make it as the bottom scraped through potholes.  I was not in love with India that morning.

One optimist from home emailed me that the curs are merely affectionate and starved of love, but central Bangalore signs quite rightly warn, “Don’t let the children play with the street dogs”.  I’ve stacked two slim mats to provide impact padding for star jumps safely inside my room.  One day I felt my stomach was succumbing and feared sickness-sweepstake Grant was going to cash in.  But alas, dear friend, providence has not yet smiled on your devious speculations: it was aching abdominal muscles from abominable yoga sit-up exercises.

The food in fact is great and the campus mostly serene.  The Muslim call to prayer sounds from the Whitefield mosque like a bell chiming the hour five times per day.  Its lament is haunting in the distance and when I’m reading in my room at sunset about 6 p.m. it lets me know it’s one hour to dinner.

There was no rain for the first one and a half weeks, but we now need the umbrellas we were given.  Most afternoons brief downpours turn dusty gutters into chocolate torrents, forcing us on long detours to cross the road.  Cooler weather makes the cold shower more challenging, but I’ve been warmed by the friendliness of the Indian staff and American students.

Breakfast has brought some cultural exchange.  With their supplies dangerously depleted in Egypt, the Minnesotans have stocked up big on peanut butter, some buying several jars, and introduced me to peanut butter with jelly or banana.  I shared my Kiwi Marmite spread on toast with them.  Neither of us is fully converted.

We’ve been stimulated together by lively lecturers, and nodded off together at others.  These began with long-winded promises of an “interactive” class, and then monologued in obscure accents until they finished by asking if we had “any doubts”.  Sometimes we doubted our eyelids could stay up any longer, but we perked up at evening shows by visiting performers.

A drama team from United Theological College showed us their village awareness campaign for AIDS, and a tearjerker puppet show on the struggles of a dalit boy to get schooling.  Then came a troupe of classical dancers with pleated red and green dresses, black tresses snaking down their backs and ankles jangling with bronze bells.  Gold and silver sparkled in hair-ears-nose and around each throat-wrist-waist.  Crimson henna on feet and fingertips and kohl-shaded eyes highlighted darting pupils, twisting fingers and pointing toes that portrayed gods like elephant-headed Ganesh – welcoming the pious in a posture of mercy, or glaring with wide white eyes and a trunk trembling in rage.

We also had a classical music group.  A singer wailed Sanskrit scriptures, accompanied by an electrical drone that sounded a bit like bagpipes, a violin with electric pickups, a two-ended wooden drum played on the lap, and a Jews’ mouth harp, sounding like a cross between a twanged saw blade and a didgeridoo – you’d swear it was electronic.

We also entertained ourselves in an evening of skits, songs and dances.  The St Olaf choir sang a Negro spiritual, before hot break-dancing from the normally shy lad behind the kitchen counter.  Children of the staff danced and sang a Hillsong worship chorus.  The male ECC staff dressed in saris, pirouetting (un)gracefully under parasols.

The American girls have also been tempted by saris, patronising shops walled with mirrors and shelves of neatly stacked silk rainbows like a library of bright-spined books.  They cascade over counters in a vibrant flood whenever customers enter.  The ladies’ chosen silks are now being tailored, and I bought a long white kurta shirt and baggy “pyjama” pants.

On October 31, we celebrated Halloween (see my photos here).  The Minnesotans purchased the most pumpkin-like vegetables they could find and I helped hollow them out for kids to carve into jack-o’-lanterns.  I gave out NZ stickers to “Happy Halloween”-ing kids at my room door, while the Americans gave sweets.  Costumes were mandatory, so I became “snake man”, wrapping the wooden snakes I bought from hawkers around my neck, donning my Indian kurta-pyjamas, and joining the kids for face-painting of a snake on my forehead.  (Coincidentally, over dinner the first live snake sighting was reported, though I saw a 20cm squashed baby on the road last week.)  There were impressive costumes from American cartoons, with prizes for the most creative and most scary.  The most realistic was Eric as a bandaged hospital patient, sporting live scars from his bike tumble on the ECC road.  The kids also tried cookie decorating, bobbing for apples, blindfold pinning eyes on the ghost.

Early this week everyone was busy studying for the 3-hour exam on Wednesday morning.  Staff delivered tea and biscuits as we scribbled at half-time – something we wished Western schools would implement!  At the farewell ceremony the girls were treading gingerly, lest their new saris fall off.  I said I’d been apprehensive about spending a month with 30 crazy Americans.  Now I was sad they were leaving.  Overcome with emotion, I presented my jar of Marmite to their professor for the group to share.  They seemed more amused than touched at my sacrifice.

The Director Dr Chacko reflected on three components of every journey – origin, purpose and destination – with three corresponding questions: “where am I from?”, “why am I here?” and “where am I going?”  All are mysterious, but he suggested the answers: I have come from God, I am created in God’s image to reflect God to others, and I am journeying back to God.

Two nights ago, Ben, Paul and I bumped through dirt ruts and potholes on the rickety bikes to the main road, remembering Eric’s scars, then wove between pedestrians and busses 15 minutes down the tar seal to the Big Bazaar department store.  Without cycle helmets it was pleasantly cool, and as exciting as a fairground ride.  “It’s all fun and games”, said Ben, “until someone gets hit by a bus.”  We got back alive with Indian quiz books and brass lamp souvenirs for a late night pyjama party, watching “Shakespeare in Love” on TV for Beth’s 21st birthday.

Yesterday we celebrated the end of the course with Diwali, the Indian festival of lights.  Blindfolded with a stick trying to smash a clay pot of water and confetti hanging from a tree.  Running races without extinguishing a burning candle.  Kids lighting sparklers on half-burned fireworks that exploded in chaos on every side.  Like biking the street, it was fun but alarming, breaking Western fire safety codes.

I’m now at the ECC computer for the last time, the campus sad and quiet after the Americans were dropped with overflowing cases at the airport this morning. 😦  I gave New Zealand calendars, wall hangings and badges to the ECC staff; kiwi, sheep and fern pencils to their kids.  After lunch I’m off on my own for the next stage of the Indian adventure: three nights in central Bangalore, then an overnight train to Hyderabad for one week, on to Chennai/Madras for another week, and then back here to fly out.