Friday, October 8, 2010

Seven Khands

Anjali and Neelam run a school in Ranip for some of the local kids, which the kids themselves have named Patangyu ("Butterfly") School. The school is sort of like an after-school program where the kids (aged 9-12) are tutored but also do and learn holistically through activity, art, environment, and reflection. Yesterday both teachers were out of town so Nimesh and I filled in as substitutes. Nimo had a vision of doing a lesson about the world's geographic and cultural diversity. Expand the kids' thinking beyond their immediate surroundings to realize that there is a vast world beyond.

Every day at 5pm Patangiya school kicks off with a clean-up session. The kids sweep and organize their "classroom" which is basically a huge backyard and patio of a house which Anjali and the kids took over, located nextdoor to Jayeshbhai's house. After clean-up we gathered in a circle and said a prayer, and then introduced ourselves. There were about 8 kids. Nimo then kicked things off by asking everyone to describe where they were currently located. One by one the expected responses were thrown out: India, Ranip, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Patangiya School. But no answer in terms of geography beyond India; it was as big as the world got. But then Nimo reminded about other places, like America. He pointed out that even bigger than countries there were continents. One of the kids said "Oh yeah, we are in Asia khand". Neither Nimo and I had heard the word for continent in Gujarati, but here was one of our students educating us. Yes, we are in Asia khand. Then there is Africa khand, Europe khand, North America khand, Australia khand, etc. There are seven khands across our earth. We showed them on a map and had the kids try and memorize them.

Then we had the kids grab paper and colors and draw a map of the world, anchored by the seven khands. They came up with some beautiful renditions. We had them carve out India from the blob they had drawn for Asia khand. Then within India, carve out Gujarat. Then, put a dot for where Ahmedabad is. Then, Ranip. A dot within a dot! Such a vast world, we are just a small speck of it.

After the drawings we brought the kids inside to show them some videos. Nimo began by flashing faces on the computer screen: black, white, asian. The kids had to guess which khand the person was from. It was funny hearing the kids yell out "Cheen" (China) for when a black face was shown. They loved guessing Cheen.

The point of showing the faces was to show how different people look from around the world. Then we tackled diversity from another angle, through a language they could easily understand: dance. Nimo had a bunch of videos of traditional/ethnic dances from around the world, and we showed them one by one. We asked the kids to reflect on the movements, even the clothing/costumes. Why were the people form Europe khand wearing so many heavy clothes, while the Africa khand people wore so little? It must be hot in Africa, and cold in Europe.

Finally Nimo ended with a video of Bob Marley's "One Love" performed by musicians from around the world. The lesson: unity in diversity, "Ek Prem". The world is so vast, there are seven khands, and we are just a blip on the map. And there are people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and their dances are so different. And yet we are all part of the human race, we are all citizens of the globe.

I really enjoyed learning with the kids. I was most struck by their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge. I had an impression that kids in the Indian school system were sucked dry of those attributes through the emphasis on rote memorization, but it was alive and present with these kids. I also found the kids quite disciplined and well-behaved (as far as 10-year-olds go). And finally I was impressed by how they behaved and looked after each other as a family, brothers and sisters. All of the kids lived in a nearby slum. After class when they departed to walk home, the group waited for the last kid so they could walk together. Of course they had their inner fights and teasing and what not, but they also showed a lot of love and caring for each other.

I'm hoping to work with the kids more when I come back to India next time. One of the things some of us have discussed is teaching through sports, which I couldn't be more excited about. We are specifically thinking about soccer. It's a sport that doesn't require too many resources/space to play, is inclusive of girls, teaches teamwork and other skills, and is really really fun. Can't wait to kick it around with the kids some time soon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gandhi Day

It is really special to be in Ahmedabad on Gandhi Jayanti, so close to Gandhiji's ashram. There are always special celebrations and events in honor of Gandhiji. This year there were two at the ashram that I checked out.

In the morning, I took part in the Kisan Swaraj Yatra kickoff. The Yatra's aim was to raise awareness across the country about the troubling practices and policies in India today that threaten food security, environmental health, and farmer's livelihoods. Starting from the Gandhi Ashram, the bus yatra will pick up farmers, farm workers, activists, students, consumers, and others from 20 states till it reaches Rajghat in New Delhi to have the voices heard by the central government.

Kapilbhai was the chief coordinator of the yatra in Gujarat, and he organized a rally and speeches at the ashram, which among others featured the legendary Gujarati farmer Bhaskar Save. Then everyone climbed aboard a fleet of vans and jeeps and set off. As I saw Kapilbhai and others march off on their mission for farmer's "self rule", I thought of Gandhiji's Dandi march.

Later in the afternoon there was a program which brought schoolchildren from all over Ahmedabad (and beyond?) to the ashram for a music concert in honor of Gandhiji. The kicker was that the performing orchestra was an ensemble of musicians from around the country as well as a group of guest musicians from Mexico. For the past few years, on Gandhi Jayanti this program has been a joint endeavor with the people of Mexico to stand together in celebration for Gandhiji. So there were some musicians from Mexico at the ashram to perform, along with the Mexican ambassador, and there was a live two-way webcast to Mexico City where people had gathered around a statue of Gandhiji to remotely participate in the event. Just an incredible idea, Gandhiji would have been happy to see it. I also kept thinking about how much Pancho would love it :)

I also think Gandhiji would have loved the music. The orchestra, with a medley of Spanish guitar and tabla and other instruments, played some of his favorite bhajans and other inspirational and devotional songs. The music was out of this world. I was with Nimo and we both really felt the vibe, we couldn't help but dance and sway to it. There was one Mexican woman with the most amazing angelic voice, she kept taking it higher and higher like she was piercing the sky with her voice. When she wasn't singing, she was dancing along to the instrumental with a Mexican/salsa 4-step. The open air, a pleasantly cool night, the spirit of Gandhiji, the love from strangers from across the world who don't know Hindi but understand the language of Gandhiji's universal message, it made for a really special atmosphere. I'm thankful to have been a part of it. Happy Birthday Gandhiji!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

House Hunting

MAM and I are in the market for housing in and around Ahmedabad. We are both looking for something a bit out of the city center in order to get peace, quiet, clean air, and open, natural space (there is also another reason that Meghna will have to share with you herself :)).

As we were discussing buying houses over the last few weeks, a humongous housing show came to town hosted by Gujarat Institute of Housing and Estate Developers (GIHED), held at the Gujarat University convention center. So the other day Madhu, Meghna, myself, and Jigo went to go check it out.

The show featured all of the prominent builders in Gujarat, each with booths set up sporting their generous site maps, modern floor plans, and attractive female agents in tight outfits hawking glossy, optimistic brochures. Each builder uniquely communicated the same messages of style, luxury, aspiration, elegance, and the latest buzzword, eco-friendliness. Apparently, every single housing development in Gujarat is eco-friendly. One builder was not only eco-friendly, but also carbon neutral. Most if not all the booths had green in their color scheme. The new Gujarat!

I got quite swept up with what I saw at the show. They were selling a dream, and I was buying with impunity. I excitedly talked to Jay (who serves as my financial advisor) back home to tell him that MAM and I were going to be visiting some housing developments outside Ahmedabad in a couple days, that these builders were for real and building some actually high-quality homes in well-planned out locales, that buying in Ahmedabad at this point in time is a can't miss from an investment standpoint. In my mind I was thinking we could go out there, fall in love with a choice 3-bedroom flat, and close the deal right then and there. Like I was shopping for a new sweater.

It was a different story when we actually went to visit the housing developments. We drove out a few kilometers from the city into Chankheda, which is at this point still a small village. Beyond the village were all the housing developments, one next to the other in a huge, flat, barren, featureless field. As we were driving toward them I got uncomfortable. The whole scene felt wrong. I had one image in my head earlier, but was seeing something else now. In my mind I had pictured a lush green tract of land with a modern housing complex nestled in the middle, with conveniences like food markets, stores, gardens, schools, even restaurants around. A proper community. But what I saw was just housing, laid out like military barracks on an open tract of land. I was expecting to see Palo Alto in Gujarat, but what I found was the Gujarati version of Palo Alto.

The homes themselves were nice enough, pretty much true to the shiny floor plans back at the housing show. But look out the window and you didn't see roads and gardens and quaint shopping centers, all amidst abundant nature. You saw just housing; complex after complex to the horizon. There was no personality to the place, it was all anonymous and standardized. It was factory manufactured living.

I realized quickly I was a sucker for falling for the eco-friendly propaganda as well. There was nothing to indicate that the builders had accounted for sustainability in their building plans. I mean, they wiped out all the trees in the area to make space for more housing units. What looked like central gardens and greenbelts in their brochures were in reality afterthought patches of grass off to the side of the complex.

My conclusion: these builders were not interested in building homes, they were interested in building housing. They wanted to squeeze every rupee out of every square foot of land, and the best way to do that is to cram in more units. There seemed to be no regard for quality of life. The sad thing is that at the moment people are buying this dream in droves; the housing market all over Gujarat is red hot. In a way it's understandable because it's the only option available if you are an upwardly mobile Gujarati looking to live the good life, unless you are one of the cream of the cream rich members of society, which I found out later is what it takes to have a home amidst actual nature.

In the end, we all pretty much decided to pass. While building up to the visit we were full of talk of the promise of living in the outskirts of the city, after seeing the reality our comments eventually started turning much more appreciative of the place we currently were living in, our apartment in Keshav Nagar. Sure it was a bit noisy and didn't have the cleanest surroundings, but at least it was a community. Felt like a home. It was a place to live, not just to exist.