I have decided to devote an entire post to what was quite decidedly my favorite day in Bangalore. That day, I hailed a rickshaw to take me to the Bangalore Center of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary. Not long before I left for India, my Aunt Maureen had come to visit my family in Maryland, and had shown us slides from her own India adventures, which happened back in 1986. She had been in Bangalore (though she also traveled all over India) and spent most of her time helping the Bangalore Schoenstatt Center establish itself. For those who are unfamiliar with Schoenstatt, it is a Roman Catholic movement which was started in Germany by a priest named Father Joseph Kentenich. The movement now has centers all over the world. For more information in a very readable format, please see the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schoenstatt_Movement
After a very long rickshaw ride, I arrived at the Schoenstatt Center on the far outskirts of the city, far away from the crowds and pollution of Bangalore proper. Once I was dropped off at the gate, I wandered inside. Not sure where I was supposed to go, I walked hesitantly into a large building, whose sign told me that it was the Schoenstatt Convent School. Finding no one in the Principal’s office, I continued to wander until a middle-aged woman in a sari stopped me sharply, and asked me who I was. I explained myself, and the woman quickly fetched the Principal, Sister Lizzie, who had actually appeared in several of my Aunt’s pictures and stories. Sister Lizzie walked me over to the sister’s quarters, where I received a warm welcome from a group of other nuns, all of whom had known my Aunt. Especially happy to see me was Sister Nirmala, who had known my Aunt the best, and with whom I had had all my correspondences. But all of the sisters were incredibly welcoming, and exclaimed that I looked “just like your Auntie, but you are also looking so Indian!” One particularly enjoyable aspect of talking to them was that, as they had trained at the Schoenstatt Center in Koblenz, Germany, all spoken fluent German, and even their English was peppered with “ach so”s and “sehr gut!”s. Though I had eaten breakfast several hours before, they fed me some delicious upma (a South Indian savory cream of wheat type of dish), chiku (a small brown fruit) which had actually come straight from the chiku tree in their garden, and of course, chai.
|Sign in English and Kannada|
After breakfast, Sister Thresselita (a friend of my Aunt Maureen’s) took me on a tour of the center. She showed me the chapel, the shrine (which looked exactly like the Schoenstatt shrine that I had seen in Koblenz, Germany), and the Christmas nativity scene. My favorite part however, was visiting the school. The children were tiny (I visited the pre-nursery through fourth grade classes) and so sweet and well behaved. One thing that amused me was the universal greeting for every nun who walked into a classroom. Whereas at the school I teach at, the children stand up and chorus “Good morning, ma’am!” technically in unison, the Schoenstatt school had taken the greeting a step further. Every time I entered a classroom with one of the sisters, the children would stand up and say “Good morning sister, welcome to our class! Nice to see you again!” complete with choreographed gestures. Maybe I should introduce this at Navyug…
|Inner courtyard of the Sisters' house|
|Me, standing in front of the tree that everyone is asked to pose before|
|Inside the shrine|
While I was touring around, the children filed out of their classrooms, fetched their packed lunches from their backpacks, all of which had been neatly lined up outside the classrooms, and sat down in a reserved courtyard in orderly rows to eat. Quite a contrast from my school, where recess is an unsupervised free for all, with children tearing down the hallways and jumping out of windows.
After I was able to tear myself away from the adorable but incredibly inquisitive children, Sister Thresselita and I walked back to the Sister’s quarters for lunch. Again, I was fed a great deal of wonderful food, including vegetable curry, rice, beef (!) stew, and dal. And then more chiku. I was then sent off to “take rest” before drinking some chai and eating some snacks, then setting off to tour the other Schoenstatt school, about a ten minute rickshaw ride down the road.
The other school was a 1-12 school, but had a women’s college attached to it as well. I was able to meet some of the college students, all of whom were very friendly, some of whom were thinking seriously about joining the convent after graduation. There I visited many more classes, some of which were shy and reserved, others of which were excited and rowdy. In several of the classes, at both schools, the nun taking me around introduced me as “your new English ma’am from America. Are you ready for her to begin teaching you tomorrow?” Sometimes, usually in the older classes, the children grinned, appreciating the joke. In some classes however, the children just nodded solemnly, at one point prompting Sister Lizzie to turn to me, smile, and wink saying “Listen! They actually believed me!”
|School bulletin board|
|In a classroom|
After my school tour, I sat down with several of the sisters for cake and juice (I am discovering more and more that the Indian idea of “guest is God” transcends religious differences). Around this time, the sisters brought out a few school photo albums, most of which chronicled such special events as Annual Day and Sports Day.
As I pored over the pictures, the sisters continued to explain various aspects of the school, all of which were very interesting. For one thing, the pictures showed me that the Schoenstatt Sisters made up a relatively small percentage of the teaching faculty; the majority were “lay-teachers.” Also interesting was the fact that the majority of the students were actually not Catholic; they were simply in the school for its good reputation and strong academics. I suppose this is true for many Catholic schools the world over, but it was still interesting to hear. The pictures showed me the ways in which Catholicism and India’s other religions were blended at the school: Awards and felicitation ceremonies included district officials anointing nuns’ foreheads with red tikka, and also nuns blessing their students with the sign of the cross. It was refreshing to see this kind of acceptance of other’s religions, particularly in a country that has so often been wracked with religious violence. It was equally refreshing to see a school that was so honest about the reality of religion. The school served as a stark contrast to the sterility of many American institutions, which strive so hard for political correctness that religious dialogue is often shut down. India has shown me that the rich beauty of religion, as well as the problems it creates, can live side by side. There simply needs to be a healthy dialogue. India as a whole has a long way to go before its many religions are at peace with one another, but I saw the Schoenstatt School as an inspiring step in the process.
My favorite series of pictures in the albums immortalized a student skit about the life of Father Joseph Kentenich. There were scenes of Father Kentenich as a child in Germany, giving sermons, and doing time in prison. One group of pictures made me smile, but also left me quite confused. They depicted a scene of Father Kentenich in jail, surrounded by a group of marvelously decked out bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance) dancers. I seriously doubted that Father Kentenich had ever been exposed to bharatanatyam, so I asked the sisters about this picture. At this point, they shrugged. “They are children. If we do not add some masala, then they will not take an interest,” they said. Cultural fusion at its best, in my opinion.
Soon, school ended and most of the children went home, but many stayed for after-school activities. This was very interesting to me, as in my Government School, the gates shut at 2:30, allowing for no school-sanctioned after school activities. The Schoenstatt school, on the other hand, was buzzing, even at 4 o’ clock. In one room was a meeting of boy scouts, in another room were the girl scouts. Outside, karate and bharatanatyam classes were going on. I spent a good deal of time watching the little martial artists, but quickly ran back over to the bharatanatyam pavilion when I heard the familiar tala sounds of “tong ta tong tei ta tei” which signaled to me that the girls were practicing the bharatanatyam exercise known as alarippu. I have many fond memories of struggling through alarippu with my Headlong Performance Institute classmates, and this demonstration certainly brought them all back!
I, along with Sister Philomena (a Sister visiting from a convent in Kerala who had also known my Aunt Maureen) stayed and watched the various after school activities until the rickshaw that Sister Nirmala had called for me arrived. I said my goodbyes seriously hoping that I would be able to return again someday. As mentioned above, this was by far my most enjoyable day in Bangalore; many thanks to Aunt Maureen for the connection!