A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) vio; sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Wednesday, 25 February 2009

On Hindi teaching, and death & life and the gratitude there-for

Hindi Teaching

I was going to wait to meet Teacher #4 again before dropping out from Bablu's class but it was impossible. I had kept a somewhat negative memory of #4 from last year, but I knew it couldn't be as pointless as with Bablu. Yesterday his class started out badly again so in discouragement I asked to look at the two books he was using for teaching. The first one was a grammar book for Indian children. A book to explain to children who can already speak Hindi what grammar is; what a noun is, what an adjective is, how sentences are built etc. The second book was for Indian people to learn English! It was definitely useless to carry on, and thus half way through the class I told him, exasperated, that I would not come again. He couldn't quite believe it and took it very personally. As surreal as it felt, he liked me so much, me being his sweet good girl and his good student etc. as he told me. He was all the more upset that I was the first pupil to ever drop out from his lessons. I couldn't believe I had affected him so much; somehow such a situation could only have happened in India, never in a western country. At the end he had taken it so personally that he asked to speak to Vijay on the phone! I told him that it was no big deal, that he was just not providing what I needed, and I tried to explain why it didn't work, but there was no way he would understand, and I knew he couldn't. No way he could understand, basically, the difference between first and second language acquisition. But then I guess I should have taken earlier notice of his English “brokenness”. His English grammar is very poor, which means he has never learnt another language (properly) and therefore has no insight into the difference between teaching a first language as opposed to teaching a second language. He has only native knowledge of his mother tongue, i.e. implicit rather than explicit knowledge, which I am afraid may very well be sufficient to teach very basic Hindi to foreigners, but not enough to teach intermediate Hindi to people whose objective is fluency.

First language is acquired implicitly from birth, just from exposure to our parents or guardians' speech during infancy, when “universal grammar” is still available to our brain. We then learn how to speak our mother tongue, but its explicit syntactic and grammatical rules are unknown to our intellect – obviously at such a young age. Some explicit grammar knowledge about our mother tongue we only learn later in the schooling environment. The knowledge necessary to teaching foreigners is even more subtle and requires some linguistic awareness. For instance, English speakers may not know explicitly what modal verbs are or be aware of verb irregularity or complement order in the English sentence, but they apply the rule correctly because they have been exposed to them from a very young age. Thus in short, first language acquisition starts from practice then moves onto theory. But generally-speaking second language acquisition goes the opposite way; I need to learn Hindi from theory to practice! What I need is to start from exposure to rules which Bablu seems to have no explicit knowledge of. I know what a noun and an adjective are, and I don't need to learn the definitions it in Hindi! I need not know what they are (and I know already), but when to use them and in what way. In the end the only good thing we did was dictation, but now I need to move on from topics such as the jackal going out hunting for dinner, or the fox stealing the crow's piece of chapati from his mouth!I want to move on from simple sentence structures, which I know by now; I want to learn practical, relevant, grown-up vocabulary; I need to practise conversation about life, about myself, about mature subject and the world around me, about India, not the clever fox and the crow on the mango tree.

Straight after my last class with Bablu I met Teacher #4. I did remember he had told me all I needed was to practise conversation, and I could also ask him to get me reading and writing, surely. I had prepared him on the phone about my difficulty in finding a good teacher. We had a great hour or so of talking. He told me some interesting historical details about Varanasi yet not an overload. He did not treat me like a child. He spoke a lot, but as soon as I pointed this out he reversed the roles. I didn't know how to start talking but he was great at asking questions, leading a conversation, correcting my grammar and giving me lots of useful vocabulary. It was a very good motivator to speak and speak and speak and let go of the shyness I have about building more complicated sentences. He was great, and definitely what I need. I couldn't remember exactly why I had not wanted to trust him last September. We agreed to meet three times a week. That coupled with the classes with Incredible Hindi Teacher #3, I think I am finally satisfied, this time!

On death and life and gratitude there-for

This morning I had a lovely violin class with Sukhdev. He has the same other student coming after all my lessons, but he was early today so he was present during most of my session. He is a young French violin maker and musician. We had chai with Sukhdev and he was great to talk. I left the class with my belly full of profound love and gratitude, a feeling of being exactly where I should be, and that I am on a path building “something” beautiful. I was full of joy and positivity, and I loved the noise and the colours and the smells and the multitude of people and souls around me. Somehow if last year I compared walking the Varanasi streets (full with people and mud and rubbish and cow shit and rickshaws and motorbikes that almost touch you when they pass by you, and people constantly asking your name and where you're from) to rodeo, this time it felt almost easy and peaceful to walk. I am forever grateful to my dear violin teacher, as I like to repeat again and again like an old woman, but I also felt immense gratitude for being in India and in Holy Varanasi, and in Life. Just alive. I am forever in deep love with Life and Humanity, and Love, and Consciousness, and – dare I even say? – God. India is where I have to be right now. Last year before returning for the first time to Europe, I had regular feelings of being far away, of not knowing where I was going and what I was doing, of longing for and missing Europe. Of “being in India”, which still implied being in another, mad world. It seems to me now that coming back to Europe has simply taught me that India is not “another” “different” country after all. It has taught me that I have no longer a reason to miss Europe. That before my reference point was the Occident and therefore there was the dichotomy “West” / “India”, whereas today the dichotomy is gone, and instead, my world has expanded and embraced India into it. And I feel I will be here for a while; India is definitely part of me and of my life. In France my feeling of not being able to build something is still as ever present as it has been for the past twelve years. When I arrived in Edinburgh two months ago, I felt like I came from another planet. The feeling subsided when I found my cocoon again, but it was clear that building my life there again would be regression – for the time being anyway. In India, right now, I am home, I feel good, I am without judgment, and I can consider a future. I have the strong desire to master Hindi and to decipher what it is that so intrigues me about this fascinating, complex culture. Why it is that on the one hand I feel at home and in tune with the Indian mentality, yet on the other hand, countless aspects of the culture exasperate me beyond comprehension. Everything is not pink and beautiful here, clearly, but I am willing to accept and study and embrace and love the difficulty, too. It feels like a project in its own right, like the adventure of my life must include “studying India”, and deeply.

After the violin class I went on to check my emails. I had one from Dorota informing me of Tom's death, our old friend we both used to look after in the nursing home, and whom we had continued visiting regularly after we left the job. I am glad I saw him again before leaving Scotland. Life is odd; he passed away just a day before my Grandfather did. I had known before about Grandpa too; his health had been declining seriously just a few days before I left for India. He could not eat anymore and was weakening day by day. He stopped walking altogether the day I saw him, and I had helped him stand up with Grandma. It had been sad but he still looked good despite his weakening, he was very conscious, and it had made me happy to care for him like I had done in the nursing home. Between the tears in me there had already been acceptance, and mostly love, beauty and joy. And he knew he was on his way, he had wished me a good life and told me to pray for him. I had cried a few relieving tears (hiding) and told him Goodbye in a way that I had never done to anyone before. I knew and it felt like a very strong and beautiful “Au revoir Bon Papa”. He was almost 89, a very good age to Leave, and he and Grandma had been married for 62 years. To me that was most amazing and there was no way I could be sad – only concerned about how Grandma would cope alone.

I am happy to be in Varanasi, where Death is ever present, and where I could offer a Karma candle to the Ganges. I did for my Grandfather, and I will also do for Tom; it is a beautiful, lovely thing to do. I don't really know what it means; I have near zero intellectual knowledge as to why Mother Ganga is holy, and I don't know a lot more about Hindu mythology at all. But I feel good near Ganga; and there is the yogi philosophy which I feel very close to, the openness of my heart which I can live fully here and experience in the world around me. Perhaps I do have some knowledge, not in my mind and memory and thoughts, but in my heart and body and cells. I feel so very welcome in India; it is beyond comprehension but I do know that real comprehension is of the heart, not of the mind.

I was not sad about Grandfather or Tom. When I thought of them on the Ghat and in the Internet cafĂ©, my eyes were wet with tears, but no sadness: joyful tears. I guess I might be a lot more affected by the death of someone who had more directly been present in my life, or someone younger, but this time the death of other provoked more enchantment than sadness. Enchantment about the beauty of life and thus death, about the incredible cycle of life; and also gratitude for the magic of just being, consciousness, breathing for a time however long it may be. I am not sad about death because I find it fascinating, and because I feel like I do see now, that what is real is the soul – that which is immortal and merges with the whole of the Universe after death. So that the real person is still around, no-where and everywhere, and forever in our hearts. I feel this is my real perception, and indeed it is more joyful than sad...

Monday, 23 February 2009

Shivaratri, an Elephant, and the Hindi teacher's quest

Hindi Teacher#2

Today was a long and full day. Hindi Teacher #2 is not that great, actually. The first few lessons were good because he revised the basics and forced me to master all the numbers, a task I had been reluctant to tackle on my own. And he started with dictation which I had forgotten all about from school so it kind of impressed me with its oh-so-schooly-feeling if I can call it that way. It made me feel like a student, and of course it is very good to get me practising reading and writing in the Devanagari script, and of course spelling. But a week on and Bablu just gets on my nerves. Well, he doesn't bother me as much as he did telling me he likes me and all that, yet he still does a bit. But most of all he treats me like a little child and still teaches me “child Hindi”, silly simple sentences over and over again, which is far too easy! I told him I wanted to focus on grammar. The other day we did touched on something grammatical which I didn't understand, but he was completely unable to explain to me WHY it was so, i.e. the rule behind it, and he was replying beside the point of my question. When I told him yet again that I wanted to focus on grammar he gave me a list of the grammar terms in Hindi (how we say “verb”, “sentence”, “letter”, “noun”, “adjective” etc.) and “taught” me that letters make up words, which make up sentences etc. It was discouraging. He then told me to remembered the terms for the next lesson but today he didn't even ask about them. Today it is Shivaratri in India; Shiva festival, so he had “Bhang lassie” (the typical Indian milk drink, but mixed with a little hemp leaf to get you stoned) so he felt lazy and he hadn't brought the books with him. He is completely unable to check out my level and adapt his lessons to my need; I have to tell him what to do during class and it is just ridiculous. When I wrote my blog entry about his classes after just a few sessions I was overestimating him greatly... taking what seemed like structure or awareness on the surface for what I was hoping it to be...

So again my linguistically-aware self is frustrated, although it is interesting in a way too, because – it seems to me that it is typical of India or Indian language teaching. In general perhaps, for I hope biggest or richest places have better resources or facilities and more educated teachers. Vijay's two youngest sisters are in 12th class (the last of high school) and thus have reach a supposedly high-level of English at school. I read there exam papers once; they were full of complicated questions about religious or historical or social sciences subjects. But they are incapable of actually speaking English with me, beyond just a few words. To revise for their exams they were learning answers or bits of texts by heart, with no insight into the sentence structure or grammar or meaning whatsoever. Whenever I have seen Vijay's siblings doing their homework it always involved copying. I don't think I have seen them do any exercises for examples maths operations or problems, anything involving analysing or problem solving, or essay-writing, or “anything that comes from them” type of skills. Homework always involved copying parts of a book or each other's copybook or mathematical equations or whatever. I remember them telling me that it was a way for the teacher to check that they had learnt their lessons – if they had recopied it in the notebook they could see that they had studied it. So, when they had too much copying to do, even Vijay or Rita would help out their younger siblings because they all have similar handwritings! I have not been to school in India, but the schooling system intrigues me – to say the least. The whole ten days I was in Khajuraho this year, I didn't see the two sisters go to school one single time; it is more acceptable to miss school altogether rather than being late, etc.. So, perhaps this explains my frustration in finding a GOOD Hindi teacher. And also, I guess, because I have reached beyond “basic Hindi” which is easy to teach and which most Western people want from teachers – I guess? – well, then perhaps I am just too demanding for most teachers here...

Hindi Teacher#3

In my despair, hihi, the other day I had set myself to phone Hindi Teacher #1 again, whose lessons I dropped out last week, because even though he couldn't read with his eye infection, and despite his “creepiness” and his unstructured and hesitant classes, he is a genuine man who can actually explain the Hindi grammar and so I hope we could try again discussing exactly what I want from a teacher... But the following morning, that's yesterday, I went to Sukhdev's for my violin class. There I met an American guy, about 40 and who studies sarangi with Sukhdev's brother. I was amazed; he spoke brilliant Hindi! Obviously then I asked him if he knew a good teacher here and yes, he did. He told me to go and meet him in the Nagwa area near Assi Ghat. He didn't know his phone number, but I could just go and ask the neighbourhood around, they would direct me to his house. He told me he is an older guy, who has been teaching for at least 15 years, and who often goes to America. I started my quest straight after the violin lesson. Nagwa is like a remote part of the city. It was quiet and it felt very rural and local, like small Indian village. I could have forgotten I was in big, noisy Varanasi and liked it; it felt refreshing. There was confusion in the teacher's last name, but it must have been the right guy because everyone indeed knew him, and all other information about him agreed with what the American guy had told me. He was obviously a rich man, perhaps a Brahmin, but his house was pleasant and friendly, unlike the cold house of the very first Hindi centre I visited (Hindi Teachers #0!?). When I saw him he was having a lesson with a European woman, and the same book I have was lying on the table. I felt safe. We agreed for a lesson today at 3pm.

Shivaratri Festival & the elephant

This morning I did some shopping in the market (in India “market” refers to “town centre”) and I walked a lot in the heat. The temperature is rising pretty fast; it went up to 32 degrees today at least – only one month after my arrival in India. A little later, on my way back home after lunch, when I reached the main road, I turned my head left and was surprised (and enchanted!) to see a beautiful, big elephant. Shivaratri; I had forgotten! It was dressed with a giant, long piece of red velvet with black flowers and a golden border around it. Its face was decorated with white make-up ornaments, a garland of mala flowers was hanging onto its forehead, it had a bell around its neck and earrings. It was funny to see an elephant with pierced ears; the thickness of its rings was in proportion with the largeness of its ears. I sat in the shade on the front steps of a shop and watched the elephant. It feels extraordinary to be so close to such a massive animal. I was glued for at least half an hour. People were coming to give him food, usually fruits, or they would put a 1-rupee coin in its trunk, which the beast lifted up to the man who was sitting comfortably on a layer of thick blankets on its back, and the man reached out to the trunk to take the coin. I don't know why I love elephants so much. There was also a camel a few meters away but I had no interest in watching it at all. But I was watching everything about the elephant. Its flapping ears and swinging trunk, its tiny eyes compared to the massive head, the few hairs on the top of that almost squared head and below its ears; its thick, massive tongue and the insides of its mouth as it took the food into it; and the end of its trunk shaped like two fingers when it took the items with it. And the countless creases of its thick, wrinkled skin all over the enormous body, its toes and nails, its flabby thigh and belly, its funny bottom... Everything... I was studying every part and movements of the fascinating animal.

But I didn't have my camera and it bothered me. After a while I decided I would quickly go back to my guesthouse, which wasn't far, to take it. I had a little time before meeting Hindi Teacher #3, and surely the elephant would still be there. So I gathered into the long narrow street that follows the Ganges. I walked fast but there were so many people everywhere. I walked passed a gigantic, stunning, silvery and all colourful statue of Shiva and his wife that was only here for the festival and again wished I had my camera. And soon I heard the drummers, and the processions of musicians and the dancing children with their skin painted black and their scary shiny masks (they would be very appropriately creepy for Halloween!), and more drummers and loud horns, and people with make up, dancing and shouting, and the procession of children and adult Gods, on decorated horses or big carriages. The children highly perched on those long wooden sticks could not have been very comfortable up there, and with the heavy make-up and costumes! All the Gods were depicted, from Shiva to Lakshmi to Hanuman and all the others I forget. Men had to guide each pair of horses in those crowded lanes, and the carriages almost touched the people packed against the walls. It was insane; I had to grip tightly on my flip-flops not to lose them! This is typical of India. I had imagined I would quickly go to my guesthouse but exactly the opposite happened in reality. Obviously it took quite some time until I reached my room! But I got there, emptied my bag from the purchased goods and took my camera instead. I changed my flip-flops for my more stable walking sandals and went back to the main road, avoiding the narrow lanes! I quickly found the elephant who was now just a little further, walking towards the burning Ghat. I studied the elephant some more and took close pictures. Some of the scary children in black pose-danced for me. The music was even louder, with heavy beats, coming out full blast from the old-fashioned loudspeakers. Men were dancing madly, that dance you get at Indian wedding and that looks more like pogo to me. At that moment my sister phoned on my mobile. I hardly heard it so I didn't pick it up; a shame otherwise she could have heard Shivaratri en direct from Benares in Germany!

Hindi Teacher#3 (cont'd)

Soon it was time to go for my meeting with Hindi Teacher #3 and it was a relief when I finally reached the Ghat, walking along Ganga up to Assi Ghat. A relief from the crowd, but some music was coming out loud all the way still. And I was ill stwalking in the heat, although there was some shade from time to time. It was finally quiet when I reached Nagwa.

My lesson with Hindi Teacher #3 was amazing! He gave me 1 1/2 hours packed full of useful tips and phrases and structure bits. He was quick to pick up my level, got me to read passages of the book and then asked me questions, forcing me to reply with fully-built sentences. He gave me new words and rules and asked me to make up more sentences – but not to write them down; that would be my homework. We didn't lose a moment; I had thought I would be sleepy from the hours of walking in the heat but I was so happy and focused, and was refreshed after the class. He knew the book by heart and could come up with examples spontaneously. He gave me a lot of homework, to rewrite the sentences, to write up a diary, to read more and some exercise from the book. A revolution! He is more expensive than the others, but his lessons are so full that seeing him just twice a week will be enough. I will have plenty to work on my own.

But I still want to see another teacher everyday, for the reading and writing, and talking with someone. I thought I could keep up with Teacher #2 but his class was so ridiculous tonight; I had to tell him to give me more difficult sentences and he had not even brought his books because he was still stoned from his Bhang lassie. He loves me because I do everything so well and I am a good student, but it is all for his satisfaction – I should be the one satisfied and am not learning anything! But then I remembered the teacher I had met just once last year in September. I hadn't particularly trusted him at the time, but he had focused on conversation and had taught me some useful tips. So I went back to the restaurant where I got his number, and phoned him. I will thus meet Hindi Teacher #4 tomorrow. I have already told him that finding a good Hindi teacher is a difficult task for me. We will discuss what I want from him tomorrow evening...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Violin Love Consciousness

So I have one Hindi class everyday in the evening, and I see my violin teacher every other day. It is lovely to have lessons with Sukhdev again. I kept practising the violin very regularly when I was in France, but hardly did when I was in Scotland – that means I had hardly practised for over a month. I used to feel guilty for not practising the violin, but I realise now how useful periods of rest are from time to time, and so I no longer judge myself for it. Violin is only joy anyway, so if I have to force myself there is no point in playing. And after this monthly break, there feels some sort of refreshment in my play – resting when genuinely needed (e.g. not out of laziness) is as important on the road to progress as practising.

I still do not know why I am learning Indian violin really, other than it being a great way to learn more skills and an opportunity to play with someone and to progress on to some kind of path. I do not particularly want to be able to play Indian music as such. I do not imagine wanting to learn it forever, or being desperate to learn to play with a tabla player. I am not really interested in learning about the Indian rhythm itself, however complicated and fascinated it may be. Or perhaps that is just fear? But I love Sukhdev; he is an excellent teacher and I am very lucky and grateful to study with him; I will never say it enough. I have a lot of respect for him and love him dearly as a friend. I love when we practise together the scales silently, over and over again – those scales that would sound so plain and boring to countless ears but which, to ours, sound full with the intricacies and the subtleties and the thousands of ways in which we can play them – and the shear and simple joy we have playing them. It is just another way to communicate, with the violin, and there is no-one else in my life with whom I can communicate in such a different, beautiful, fun, and subtle way. With the violin we also joke, as when he goes off track showing off some more impressive exercises that I can usully still copy pretty well, and then he smiles cheekily, and I do too, and then we laugh, and then we're silly sometimes, for he too is very childish. And I love when his beautiful wife comes into the room and interrupts our practice to ask him for something. They are a very lovely couple, the first Indian couple I have met whose love they have for each other I can see like the nose on their faces – for they do obviously love each other. Sometimes she brings us chai when we practise, and she is always happy to see me – and I her too.

My bowing used to be my weak point but I feel it is a lot better than it used to be. I used to be obsessed with being able to do “long bows” (to play the whole length of the bow) “some day” – when it felt so difficult and uncomfortable, but now that I have been practising it a lot, I feel more free to play and there is more lightness in my sound. Oh, and my ear is slowly but surely refining – I was obsessively wanting to get better at this too, but I feel good tuning the violin now, and it feels like a wonderful little miracle. Today I can hear sounds within sounds; it really is impossible to describe the reality with words, but it might be comparable to hearing different subnotes, or harmonies, or tonalities, or qualities within whole notes – as though the purer the note becomes the more it... shines.

I am forever in love with this instrument and with how, without frets or keys or holes, it allows exactly for note-to-finger (or perhaps ear-to-finger) association. The distance between two notes in my ears corresponds exactly with the distance with which I place my fingers onto the strings. It is impossible for others to see or ear, and it used to fascinate me so much too before I started learning to play the violin – oh, how intrigued I used to be, and how obviously I can see it today! My ears hear the distance between two notes, which my fingers instantaneously translate into where they will go onto the strings. The more focused and Aware I am of the note I will play, the purer the note my fingers will play – for violin is meditation. Thus, and especially if I play a melody just on one string, I don't even need to know what notes I am playing in order to reproduce the right tune – it is just like when you sing; you do not need to know which notes your voice goes to, you just “go” to the right places in the musical realm and sing the right distances between the notes, somehow. Yes, I guess that's why the violin is the instrument closest to the human voice; not just in sound but also in how you play it. With a guitar you would have to go onto the right frets; with a piano you would have to hit on the right keys; on a flute you would have to cover the right holes. Or in statistical terms, with other instruments the distance between the notes is discrete, like the distance between two categories. But with the violin, the distance is continuous, like between 1.23343546365...6 and 1.23343546365...7 – ...to Infinity! There are no words; I do not know how “I” do it; my mind does not know; it is beyond thoughts and beyond mind. All I have to do is to keep trying, and then my cells, my fingers know. It is beyond mind's comprehension; it is of the Heart, or more accurately, it is the Love in me that knows, yes, the Love, and the Consciousness that fills me – for they are but the very same thing – the very same Beautiful, Miraculous Thing. It is in me, but it is not me.

I have started “copying” Sukhdev when he plays his alaap (introduction to improvised composition) now. Back in September, when we started to practise this I was always very shy and tense, fearing the difficult exercise. Trying to copy his twidling bits and subtle slides and all those fast, subtle things. It feels like a miracle that I am actually getting a lot more comfortable and relaxed and better at it now! And it is incredible how the road to progress is shaped; for it is not me. You can do some exercises for what feels like ages, get the frustrating feeling you will never be able to do it, and move on to something else. When some time later you will return to the first exercise, just having let go of it and having played something else altogether in between, this time you will do them as if out of miracle... And so I can do the alaap bits better, surprisingly better. The purpose of this is that some day I will be able to improvise. Of course for now this is still copying – when I am away from the lesson I cannot do it really because I forgot what is it that Sukhdev played. I remember in patches. I guess eventually I will have do my own thing – I will master and go beyond; the techniques I will have in my heart, and I will find myself with spontaneity... You start by copying; keep trying and keep trying. Trying is already halfway to success... “Koshish karna saphalna hai”. Yes, all you have to do is try, practise, and Love-Consciousness will miraculously fill you and do the rest for you...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A cheeky monkey, and daily Hindi classes

The other day I was sweeping my room (with one of those typical Indian “jharu”, i.e. small straw brooms). I was going to take my small bin bag downstairs, but before I did, went to hang my wet towel on the line, leaving the bin bag in the rubbish bucket on the terrace. Suddenly I heard a loud monkey's cry; it sounded very close I thought, but I didn't take much notice. Just a little while later I went back to my room, and on the way glanced in the rubbish bucket, noticing to my surprise that it was now empty. I realised in a flash, looked around me, and indeed, my bin bag was now a little further on the terrace, torn open. Cheeky monkey! He hadn't even been interested in the orange peels...

Today I only had time to say two words to my American neighbour. He had just finished doing his laundry so I took mine away which was dry, to free up some space on the line for him. Then he asked “Hey, did that monkey take this orange from your room?!” I couldn't believe it! You live and learn, I said. But there was a further part to the lesson. Just a few minutes later, I was doing my Hindi homework inside my room, door open. I looked at the last of my oranges thinking I should eat it soon. Another thought occurred to me although not even phrased into words yet, when that very thought came true: I heard some fast steps running quietly behind my back, turned my head to look at my shelf, and for one second stared at that cheeky monkey who now had my last orange in his hand – and who was staring at me, too! Just about 50 cm away from me! I shouted “Eh!!!” more out of amazement (and amusement!) than anything else! I couldn't believe it!! One second later my iresistible thief ran out and settled comfortably a little higher on the roof to enjoy my orange, grinning at me...

Well, now that I also have bread and bananas, I will make sure my door is closed, even when I am in!! Yes, I now have a few provisions in my room. As well as a small gas bottle and some pots so I can boil my own water. Clearly, it is better to rely on gas than on electricity in Varanasi to boil water... It feels great to be independent “water-wise” now; I can boil water for drinking whenever I need to make sure I will not buy another plastic bottle. As my Australian neighbour remarked however, what is best: to pollute with gas, or to pollute with plastic? To this I can only shrug... and do the best I can... Oh and it also means I now have the luxury of hot showers, which is a lot more pleasant than cold showers when the temperatures are mild I have to confess – although I am slowly getting used to them...

I have had five classes of Hindi with my new teacher Bablu, now, and I like him. He didn't pester me about having chai and food in his house for long. I guess that made me become more serious and very focussed on learning Hindi, so he understood the message quickly. The day before yesterday he asked me to count until 100 again, but this time I had to write down all the numbers. A far more challenging task (which I had carefully been avoiding until then!), but I am glad I am not getting away from trivial yet important bits with him. This first week he is thoroughly checking my Hindi level; asking me to translate sentences checking which structures I know and which I don't, and making sure I know the basics well. He has also checked on my reading, and he does say that I read well. Before I could concentrate solely on the reading, leaving out the meaning completely, but I do catch some bits of meaning now, recognising some words more often. And I don't read too slowly, and apparently have a strong basis. But I have set myself to read for about 20-30 minutes from a borrowed newspaper everyday, outside of the homework he gives me. I cannot wait to be able to read a word as instantaneously as I see a word in European alphabet!

Today, after the first week of teaching Bablu gave me an “examination”; I got 58/60, hihi. He keeps telling me that I am a very good student, and I do know this. Today he also told me that when I speak Hindi I sound like a little child and I sound very sweet. I guess it is true; I can hear how much more childlike I sound than when I speak English! And he is not the first to tell me... It is funny: In French I feel like I speak like a teenager; in English I feel like I sound mature yet gentle; now in Hindi I feel like I sound like a child. And I love speaking Hindi.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Hindi fun

I did plenty of Hindi homework this morning, and enjoyed it immensely. It just takes a teacher to motivate me... Well, so I didn't enroll onto the programme with 6 hours of Hindi everyday, but thinking of it now it seems like it would be quite crazy, too hermite-like etc.. And given how much I feel I am learning with just 1 1/2 hour of lesson everyday, and how happy I am to have resumed the violin lessons, I am glad I didn't go for the 6 hours/day.

The first teacher I rented was not very good. I had three lessons with him. Firstly he was a little too expensive, and secondly even though he had much knowledge and he knew well how to explain grammatical notions, he had no pedagogy at all. He didn't prepare for the sessions, there were no structure in them, he didn't realise that bombarding me with information without giving me time to digest it - and without giving me homework, just wasn't going to do it for me. Besides he had bad eye problems, and even though I did feel much compassion towards him, he could hardly read and check what I wrote. And he was talking to me about his being intoxicated with antibiotics all the time, his body was shaking, and his house was very dirty. So I changed teacher - I can't carry on with him just out of compassion because I know he needs the money!

A Varanasi friend of Vijay I now see around everyday recommended to me a better one, and the new one seems better indeed. I have had two lessons with him and he feels like a "real" (senior) teacher (he must be around 60). First class he checked my level by giving me Hindi dictation which was a lot of fun. And he got me to count from 1 to 100 - which was a little laborious but very useful. We revised alphabet and pronounciation, he checked out my grammar book, and gave me homework. He talks to me a lot about how great a yogi and astrologist and palm reader and priest he is, but at least he says all this clearly and in Hindi so that's still good practice. And he seems to like me A LOT, has already told me how soft my heart was, has expressed concern for the persistent caugh I've had due to change in weather (he tells me which medication I should take, that I should gargle every morning with hot salted water, that I should rub mustard oil with garlic on my chest and the like...). He also told me that his house was mine, that if I have any problems I should let him know, that he doesn't know why he feels so much respect towards me, and he has already asked me to have chai and food with him. This I have refused for now firstly as I do not want to take milk with this persistent caugh, and foremost because I know all too well that I should be careful with such people when I do not know them well yet! He does feel like he is genuine and a good man, but I want to take time to befriend him if I ever will. And I have told him that as a white woman in India I must be careful. He knows this, but insists on telling I should not be scared of him - but I am am not scared of him - I am just cautious! So I tell him I am here for Hindi and that is it. Because he is a good teacher. And he also keeps saying that "mera dimag bahut tej hai" (my brain is very strong) and that my Hindi is very good and that one day I will read newspapers in Hindi, and that he has complete trust that I will be fluent quickly. Which I have faith will happen, too. :)

We haven't done very complicated things yet but I trust there is structure in his way of teaching and it will come in time. Even though the first teacher was not good, I did learn a very useful - and somewhat complicated - grammar structure in just three lessons with him, and so although I dropped out from his lessons I have still been doing self-induced homework from my own book to practise thesaid structure. I will take my time to assimilate it - but I will do the homework about it everyday. I am learning a lot everyday already, and a lot of vocabulary, and it is fun and great to be able to put the newly acquired forms and expressions into practice with people around me as soon as I step out from the classes.

Ha! The joy and feeling of achievement one gains from learning a new language. The Hindi language barrier is a huge thick wall between the local culture and me, but I am steadily hammering into it until one day it will crumble into pieces, and then I will see clearly and understand the differences in front of me. I will step into that new landscape, and one day I will be part of it and it will all just all be - clear, transparent and familiar around me...

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Settling in Varanasi

So I had a lovely few days with the boys. There was some time with the French group of tourists we had met in Khajuraho and who also conveniently moved on to Varanasi the same evening as we did, and there was the Ganga bath (for the boys, not me!), and eating in the German Bakery, ha. Vijay left yesterday afternoon, so I have moved back to my homely guesthouse now, where I lived in September 2008. I have a different room on the same rooftop. It is smaller and I don't have a bathroom in it, but for the first time in India I have a room with shelved carved within the stone-walls, those very Indian shelves I love so much. That's why I chose the room, even. The bathroom and toilet are outside a bit like in the Khajuraho house. There are many people in the guesthouse, because it is touristic season. I haven't met them all but there is at least a French man, an American man and an Australian man. Most guests learn Indian music; I've already heard my neighbour practising on the sitar, the American guy downstairs playing the sarangi, and at least two people play the tabla. It makes a nice atmosphere. I haven't practised the violin yet, but I met my teacher again two days ago. It was lovely to see him again, and he was happy that I had remembered to bring him Belgium nut chocolate!

The day after we arrived, we also visited the Bhasha Bharati Hindi centre where I was booked in to start on 16 February for a month. It was a big house owned by the teachers who belong to the Brahmin (highest) caste. But they were not friendly, almost cold, and they wanted a RIDICULOUS amount of money. Even the young woman I met who had almost completed two months was not convinced at all that it had been worth the money. I asked her many questions about how she had found the centre, and she told me that even though she had lived in the teachers' family, outside of the Hindi classes she hadn't mixed with them at all. Which loses the point if you ask me – I wanted to live in a family to be immersed in it. If I won't mix with them there is no point and I might as well return to my cheap, lovely guesthouse, and rent a Hindi teacher. I have met one already, whose mobile phone I found on a forum on the Internet – and from the reference I had read he was a remarkable teacher too. I have met him once with Vijay, we have liked him both, and I will have my first class this afternoon.

I also visited Bal Ashram, again with Vijay who always likes to visit places with me before I commit to them, to make sure that they are safe and reliable. But we always have the same impressions on people, which makes me feel even safer. Bal Ashram is an orphanage located along the Ganges on a Ghat at the other end of Varanasi. I know now that he was established in 2001 by Baba Ji, a disciple of Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram, who lives three months there and the rest of the year in his associated orphanage in California. Most volunteers here come from America or Italy. I hadn't initially thought I would work there because of the unbearable heat in Spring season, but I wanted to visit the place for reference. We were showed round the place by a lovely man, and well, apart from the heat problem, I really love the place. It is quiet and beautiful and clean and it looks well-organised. And they “only” have 20 children in because they want to focus on making them good people (after a difficult, rough early life on the streets) which demands to to spend a lot personal time with them. With helping with homework, and caring, and activities and all other needed things, and a lot of love. Normally only volunteers who know Baba Ji can live within the ashram's walls. Otherwise you have to live outside and come in for work. But it seems inconvenient to do so, since the place is remotely located, so I asked whether, should I decide to work there, I could live in the ashram. So we were invited to meet Baba Ji. We sat in front of him on a rug, and started to talk a little. The first thing I said was “Mujhe kaam karna hai” - “I want to work”. We spoke about the skills I have and the work I can do. He offered us to drink chai. He didn't speak much, but he had kindness in his eyes, and soon he said that he would love to have me with “all these skills”. Before we left he offered us prasad (sweet). I will go again tomorrow to meet the people responsible for volunteers, to see in which areas I could work. The first two communities I visited in Rishikesh and Dehradun will not lead me anywhere now, but I have good hope for this one – despite the heat... but perhaps just for one month now I would cope...?

Since Vijay left I spent my time cleaning and setting up my room, which is lovely. And I did some more work on the website, and caught up with journal-writing. Last night I also met a fun English man, who will be here for two weeks. I am happy to be here.

Varanasi, Birthday, and "Slumdog Millionaire"

So many days have past, so much has happened, and I haven't found the time to write about it yet. And whenever I find myself in a public Internet place the computers or the keyboards or the connections are shaky and I can't possibly spend time writing. I am glad that I have my laptop actually, because I have been able to write in my own time, quietly in my room. I can then save the text onto my MP3 player to later plug it into the public computer and quickly upload it onto my blog. But this last week or so I spent a lot of time on my laptop, not to write for my blog, but to design a website for Vijay's Handicrafts shop. That's what I did most of my time during the last few days in Khajuraho. It was Tif who had suggested to me that I build an E-commerce website for Vijay so he could sell his metal pieces on the Internet. She could help me, she even offered. And well, why not? So I started working. I have countless photographs of Khajuraho and the shop and everything I need to build a good site here. We spent hours with Vijay and his Uncle to gather more images of the Nakashi craft procedure; Vijay explained many things to me which I translated into well-written English; we checked out information with his uncle; we took photographs of many pieces from the shop, weighing and measuring them. I checked out other bits and bobs from the internet. I worked one hour up until we were due to leave to Varanasi, but by the time we left I did had all the material and information I needed to finish the website from Varanasi. The work is almost complete now, and I am very happy with it. It will not be an online business website, just informational page, but a lovely one I feel, that might hopefully attract some more visitors to the shop. Who knows... The only thing I will need now is to connect my laptop to the Internet, somehow, in order to put the site on line. Which may not be easy as internet connections from Internet cafes are often pretty poor, and well, I haven't seen any Wi Fi anywhere... Yet?

So we arrived in Varanasi on 8 February, on my 32nd birthday. Ram and Bharat, two friends of Vijay happened to be going the same evening too, so we ending up spending the train journey together. Travelling with three young Indian men, it seemed I was going to attract even more attention than I normally get with just one! The train was late by some three hours. We had booked our train ticket the day before so we didn't have confirmed seats. Often it is not a problem, but this time we didn't have berths to sleep, and it was new adventure for me. We shared a berth with a retired army officer who eventually went to sleep on the floor so I could sleep on the berth, at least. At midnight my friends wished me a happy birthday. They had bought some sweets and, as Indians do on special occasions, each took turn to feed me one bit of sweet. They know I don't like things too sweet so they just gave me some small bites - I am always grateful of their thoughtful attention! When we wanted to sleep, I passed my sheet to Ram and Vijay so they put it on the carriage's dirty floor and slept together in the alley. Many people slept in the alley so that people had to walk over them if they had to go somewhere else or to the toilet. But what would be unthinkable in Europe is perfectly fine here. Bharat didn't sleep until morning, preferring to read; I guess it was more convenient that way! The window didn't close properly and the air made me cold, so I slept with both my jumpers and my scarf, covering my lower half with my towel. You make do with what you can. At one point the only option for me was to rest my head in Vijay's lap while he tried to sleep sitting. Halfway through the night though someone left so another berth freed up. I didn't sleep too badly in the end, but my three friends hardly did. We arrived in Varanasi at around 10 am.

We went to our favourite hotel above the cremation ghat, again, and it felt just like home. It was lovely to see the hotel staff again, and they too were happy to see us. For my birthday I had wanted just one thing: to take Vijay to the cinema to see “Slumdog Millionaire”, that amazing film about a boy from the Mumbai slums who ends up on the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show, not out of money but out of love. In Scotland I had seen the film twice in the space of three days, because I had loved it so much. The film came out on 23 January in India – the day I flew to Delhi – so I really wanted to take Vijay to see it. We ended up going to a very fancy shopping mall & cinema complex of Varanasi. For some three hours it was as if I had jumped back into Europe. Except of course it was full of rich Indians, who looked at Vijay and I even more than normal, it seemed. I hadn't thought of it: only the rich population here go to fancy shopping malls or to the cinema. The tickets cost Rs 100 which I found surprisingly expensive. Obviously not your ordinary population would go to the cinema indeed. And the people who looked at us, the rich Indians, as I understand, are the ones who mostly look up to an Occidental way of life. They seemed to look at us more with some kind of “awe” or envy. I am in India exactly for the opposite reason though: I do not enjoy the rich Occidental way of life at all!! I am here because I want to live as far away from it as I can; I want to live the lifestyle which rich Indians want to flee!! I am not impressed by flashy malls! But it was funny: Vijay had never been on an escalator before so he was carefully hopping on the moving steps.

“Slumdog Millionaire”, for Occidentals, is 1/3 in Hindi and 2/3 in English. “Slumdog Crorepati” for Indians, however, is completely in Hindi. The 2/3 of English have been dubbed in Hindi. Waiting for the cinema hall to open, some young men came to us and asked Vijay questions about me. I hadn't realised people were more surprised to see me in a cinema hall because I was going to see a film in Hindi. I hadn't thought of that at first, but once I realised it was pretty obvious. It didn't cause any problem for me though, since I had seen the film twice before. When I didn't understand the Hindi, I knew the scenes well enough to remember exactly what they were about, and well, I understood more than I thought I would anyway, which made me happy. But the experience of the same film was amazingly different in an Indian context! And that was fascinating!! In India the cinema experience seems to be one solely of entertainment. Perhaps most Indians don't know that one can go to see a film in an end of learning or because a film is profound, or because “you really want to see that film in particular. Besides it seems to me, and from what I know of Indian TV, that the only (foreign) films the Indian has access to are expensive blockbuster, violent or flashy or funny productions, not at all the more thoughtful, profound stories. So they didn't seem to have much respect for the film, and I was almost shocked to discover that they didn't care about switching off their mobile phones (my neighbour even answered his mobile happily during the film, argh!), and talking or commenting loudly on the film was not a problem for them, either...They reacted to the film completely differently from Europeans, too. They laughed at different moments, “typical Indian moments” which the European population would not have gathered. At other moments which made the European laugh, they didn't get it. The way the children in the film talked broken English was translated differently – more realistically – too. In the Indian version the kids' English was mixed with Hindi which made it more authentic, but which would have obviously been too difficult for Europeans to understand. It made it more funny than it was in the English-for-European version. Some bits were taken out altogether. And whereas one scene profound with love made me cry the first time I saw the film, here some Indians found it hilarious, which almost upset me! But then I guess, since the rich Indian population see only shallower Hollywoodian or Bollywoodian production-type films, perhaps it is logical that they couldn't take this love story seriously...? Seeing how ridiculous the India-seen-by-European moments were for them, towards the end of the film I started wondering how they would react to the European-made Bollywood dancing ending of the film... and indeed I was relieved to discover that it had been cut out completely!!

When the film ended and the room's lights switched back on, I realised I was in India again, and people started looking towards us again. It had been pretty odd to be sitting with Vijay in a modern cinema, as if I had taken him to Europe for just a couple of hours.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Khajuraho; engagement, and a beautiful sadhu in Chhatarpur

Wedding, well engagement actually.

I don't know why, but I don't have the inspiration to write anything about the wedding of 31 January, well engagement actually. The actual wedding will be on 26 February, but I don’t know if I will go to that; it will be a celebration smaller than the engagement, and in a remote place they say. The house was extremely busy but somehow I enjoyed it, again as if the 3.5 months in Europe had allowed for some rest, so I could take the busy-ness and no-privacy-ness. There was the joy of meeting everyone again, the pampering of the bride before, the women discussing sarees and jewellery, the children playing together and a lot with me, much cooking of which I took a (tiny but existent) part. And as always, Vijay forever busy running about and everywhere doing work. The day was long. The bride was beautiful. The guests were many although for Indian standards it was of small comity. The food was lovely. The groom's family was very friendly and took a lot of interest in me. The following day I was so tired, so drained out of my energy, and my tummy was complaining, but after some 11-hours of sleep I had fully recovered again...

Shopping day in Chhatarpur and encounter with a sadhu.

Yesterday most of the remaining family went to Chatarpur for a shopping trip. It was lovely and very interesting for me to go out with them “en famille” for the first time. I don't think I had been shopping with so many people ever before! There were Vijay and his brother, Rita of course, Priti, Mummy, and the oldest sister's family: her and her husband, his brother in law, and little Ramu. And me; that was ten! Chhatarpur is the biggest town nearby, about one hour's drive from Khajuraho; not a touristic place at all. We went because when a woman gets married, as she will from then on live in her husband's family, her own family has to buy the belongings she will take with her. Shoes, clothes, accessories, a suitcase, etc. Unmarried young women and girls usually wear the typically Indian matching three-piece suit (trousers, tunic and shall); once married they will always wear sarees. So the family also had to buy the sarees which Rita will wear when she lives in her husband's family. They bought so many things, but “things for life”, Vijay said. The family also bought nice clothes that they will wear at the actual wedding. For the two younger sisters, very shiny and colourful outfits, and for the boys smart, black suits. I find fashion so different in India, in an odd way. In English I would call it tacky or over-the-top, overly girly for me, with such bright colours and shiny ornaments and lacy bits. In Europe I would find it awful, but in India somehow it is appropriate and beautiful. Even on the boys' suits although they look pretty plain and simple, there are shiny ornaments that, it seems to me, would never be worn in the West in regular smart occasions. We tried to find a suit for me, too. But man! How difficult! I have seen beautiful suits on other women that I feel I could wear. But I swear, whenever I find myself in a shop and ask for some simple fabric, all I get shown is over-the-top and bright and with patterns that are just too sophisticated for my liking – and my used-to-only-wear-black-for-ten-years I guess I have to admit also... Besides, the Indian shop system is odd to me: You come to sit in front of men who present you with items according to what you asked for. You don't go and look for yourself like you do in European shops. Once you have found the cloth of your choice, you will get a suit tailor-made for you - but you don't try the clothes on in the shop. Yesterday anyway, it would have been impossible; it was far too crowded (and noisy, and tiring, and with the shop-men assisting all women at the same time, and poor me I don't even like shopping at the first place, ha!) So, I find it very difficult. And I have never worn an Indian suit before, so I feel I will need some time of adaptation on top of all that anyway! Hm, it will just come when it comes...

So we went shopping to Chhatarpur, “en famille”. To get there we shared a very crowded jeep; I counted 20 people in it. Six people were sitting on the front row, although one person was little Ramu on his father's lap! And six on the middle row, and all else at the back. Before we headed to the shops, the family went to visit a group of beautiful temple for praying. We went round one after each other, always removing our shoes as we stepped in of course. One sister asked me if I was praying, but of course I didn't know how too, I had never really done it before – following one particular way anyway – I guess I do my own thing. I tried to be as present as I could, going round each temple in clockwise direction, looking at the gods and goddesses, the pictures, the shrines, the cloths, smelling the cosy incense scents - observing slowly and carefully. It was lovely to be present and just be. At the last temple we sat down and met the sadhu. Vijay had told me yesterday that we would meet him, a remarkable sadhu, a real one, who lives in this temple, whom my friend goes to see every time he goes to Chartarpur and who had predicted that this time, he would be successful in finding a husband for his sister. He asks questions when he already knows the answers, Vijay to me; he looks at you and just knows everything. His presence is peaceful and helps people to release tension. I am used to this sort of presence and environment now, and I love it. I don't understand, I can't comment with words or say what happens, I really don't know. But I feel peaceful and happy and well and it is enough. This sadhu, Babba Ji, was indeed remarkable and I could see it. He was maybe in his sixties though perhaps more, but he looked young. He had a beautiful, full white beard and long moustache. He was wearing a white shirt and a white dhoti; he looked kind of clean and smart, not like most crusty-looking sadhus. He was sitting on his cushions receiving people; we all with the family went to sit around him. I really loved his eyes especially - big, bright and luminous eyes. Unsurprisingly he took some interest in me. Vijay told me Babba Ji doesn't normally speak very much, but he spoke quite a lot to us and he was asking questions about the “videshi” (the foreigner). I could understand some of it, but not all; Vijay was translating. Whilst in the sadhu's presence, I was all smile. He kept looking at me and smiling wholeheartedly, and it was very contagious indeed. As we spoke, he asked a few times whether I would remember him, whether I would come back to visit. One thing he said that I understand spontaneously and that filled my heart was: “apkaa dil kulla hai”: “your heart is open”. After a little while a woman brought him his lunch. He insisted that I shared his food with him. At first I was shy and kept looking at Vijay and Mummy for clues whether I should accept or not. But I was honoured, and he offered some food to the family as well. They were all sitting behind, but I was sitting next to Babba Ji, and so I had ate until I was pretty full! A full lunch he offered to me, vegetable dish, lentil dish, chapati and “puri”, pickle and even a sweet dish. Whenever I emptied my plate the woman served me more, and with those typically Indian hand gestures and his smiles and his eyes, Babba Ji indicated that I should take more – until I was full. I knew it was not necessary, but couldn't help it and thanked him. He didn't want any thank you – obviously it was his pleasure and my pleasure, we were like father and daughter, and of course even though I had thanked him I had known this all along. After lunch he gave me a sheet of headed paper with his address, on which he wrote a few lines of good wishes I should repeat whenever I have tension if I wish. With another bright smile, I took the paper to my heart and put it into my bag. As we left I really wanted to greet him as Indians do: touching his feet with my hands then taking my hands to my heart or third eye. I find this gesture extremely beautiful but feel very shy to do it. This time it was more than appropriate though, so shyly and slowly I kneeled in front of Babba Ji, touched his feet with my two hands and took them to my heart. Well, he did the same to me! I was all smile and he was too. Finally, as we left, he asked if I was married, and as I declined he asked if I wanted to become a sadhu (and if I wanted to be one I could come to him). I declined, too. After we left Vijay told me that sharing the sadhu's meal had been quite an event in itself, and in the two years that he had known him, he had never come so close to him.

And on we went to the shops. One after the other. Often I prefered to stay outside with the men and play with Ramu, who asks for my arms regularly now, because the girly shops were too crowded and noisy. With Vijay we also went for cards, and to get bits and bobs for the wedding. It was a lovely day. Later everyone went for snack but I was so full I didn't need to eat until we got back home. I was glad actually, because it is often when fed on (yummy yet oily) snacks that my tummy gets unhappy! Evening we went back to Khajuraho in another very crowded jeep; it was a good and tiring day.