Sunday, August 19, 2012

Snapshots of my final week in India

After a lovely week in Gujarat, I returned to Delhi, where I would stay for one week before returning to America again.  Naturally, this week was extremely busy, filled mostly with packing, stuffing myself with food leftovers, spending time with friends, playing with my little landladies upstairs, and saying many difficult goodbyes.  Beautiful experiences for me, but hardly anything to make up a terribly exciting blog post.  There were, however, some fun moments I hope never to forget.  In no particular order:

Hauz Khas Village

Very early in our grant, my roommate Jessica discovered Hauz Khas tombs—a cluster of crumbling Mughal tombs commemorating the 14th-16th century rulers of Delhi.  Perhaps more of a selling point than the tombs themselves is the “tank,” or man-made lake, surrounded by flowering trees, inhabited by ducks and swans, and just down the steps from the tombs.  Adjacent to the tombs was Hauz Khas village, a hip, artsy area of Delhi with a large number of galleries, bars, boutiques, and cafes.  Jessica had spent many a Delhi afternoon by the water, and recommended that I do the same. 

Hauz Khas tombs did not disappoint!  As with many tombs and green areas in Delhi, Hauz Khas was a hotspot for young lovers, but I managed to avoid them as I wandered through the tombs and around the lake.  Due to the fast encroaching hot season, the lake was looking a little low, and a little palak paneer-like, but it was still host to a number of beautiful birds, and even the odd human swimmer!

Tombs, with the neighborhood in the background

The tank

From the tombs: a view of the tank in all its palak paneer-y wonder

Shankar’s International Doll Museum

Ever since my first browsing Lonely Planet’s “Delhi” chapter in 2009, I had been eager to check out Central Delhi’s International Doll Museum.  As a former avid dolls player, I have always been interested in seeing the differences and similarities between toys from different countries and different periods in history.  I was also curious to see what a dolls museum in India might look like.  “A veritable dreamland for the children,” chirped my Delhi Tourism booklet, bringing to mind hordes of screaming youngsters pounding on the glass, trying to extract the exhibits from their cases.  A ringing endorsement from one of my 8th grade boys, however, convinced me that the museum was not only for babies, and I resolved to visit during my last week. 

Getting to the museum itself was somewhat challenging; the roads around it were all closed, so arriving was something of an adventure.  Finally though, I did find it, through a side door in a shabby old building that also housed the National Childrens’ Book Trust.  After forking over fifteen rupees for my ticket, I climbed upstairs and entered the museum. 

I began by reading a brief history of the museum and its founding.  It was actually far more interesting than I had anticipated.  In 1957, the political cartoonist K. Shankar Pillai founded the Children’s Book Trust in New Delhi.  It was around this time that a Hungarian diplomat presented Shankar with a Hungarian costume doll.  Though the doll was not intended to be for Shankar, but rather as a prize for the winner of Shankar’s International Children’s Competition, Shankar fell in love with the doll, and begged to keep it.  This first doll ignited an interest in Shankar, and he went on to collect many, many more.  For several years, he showed his dolls in temporary exhibits around India, but grew very concerned with the wear and tear on the dolls that this kind of travel caused.  When he voiced his concerns, none other than Indira Gandhi supplied the solution: to build a permanent museum for the dolls.  The museum was inaugurated in 1965.

Parts of the museum were admittedly creepy—no repairs or cleanup jobs had been performed on the oldest dolls, and several were gray faced, cracked, or eyeless.  Overall however, the museum was delightful.  Nearly every country in the world was represented, with a particularly impressive turnout from the Eastern European countries.  There were Spanish flamenco dancing dolls, lederhosen-wearing German dolls, kimono clad Japanese dolls, and a beautiful, varied display of Indian bride dolls from at least a dozen of the country’s regions.  Bhangra-dancing dolls, ragdolls, pre-French revolution style dolls…as the museum’s promotional material promised, it was indeed a kind of “doll United Nations.”  Letters and school projects from children decorated some of the walls, and were a nice touch.

My favorite dolls all represented the same person.  This was, of course, the “how to tie a sari” doll.  The dolls were sequenced carefully, and each showed a different step in the process, with instructions describing exactly how to tuck, wrap, and pleat.  If only I had such a doll to help me with my sari tying…

Unfortunately, photography is prohibited in the museum, but the museum website has some great pictures!

Manzil, and “An Evening With The Children”

Almost as soon as I began teaching at Navyug, I began thinking about and trying to research NGOs or schools in Delhi committed to furthering a method of education different from the one into which I had suddenly been dropped.  I loved my students and fellow teachers of course, but I was frustrated with the exam obsessed, rote memorization centered school system. 

After speaking with several contacts in Delhi, I was directed towards Manzil, an NGO in Khan Market.  I visited the website, and discovered that Manzil’s founder had experienced many of the same frustrations that I had with India’s Government schools.  He responded by tutoring just two boys in math.  Slowly, the organization grew and grew, until it was serving around 120 students at any one time.  Now, Manzil offers after school classes not only in math, but also in English, computer usage, drama, dance, arts and crafts, and music.

Intrigued, I contacted the organization’s director and arranged a meeting after school one day.  I ended up having a lovely conversation with several of Manzil’s staff members about the frustrating situation in Indian Government schools today, about education in America, and about different methods of teaching English.  It was suggested that I observe a few classes, and then run an English teaching workshop for some of the volunteer English teachers.  I had a lot of fun observing the English classes, and even had the opportunity to guest teach at one point.  (The request was quite last minute, but Justin Bieber saved the day!).  Although I had been somewhat nervous about the workshops, as I had never led a workshop before, I enjoyed leading them.  The participants also seemed to enjoy taking part, and seemed to learn something as well, so I was happy for that.  I was also welcomed into teacher’s meetings, and warmly invited to a “musical evening,” which turned out to be a really fun jam session with many of Manzil’s talented students.

One very memorable event in my involvement with Manzil was the India Habitat Centre’s “Evening with the Children.”  As any longterm readers might remember from previous posts, the India Habitat Centre is a rather wonderful Delhi institution home to everything from free music, dance, and theater performances, to art exhibitions, conferences, offices, film festivals, and a shockingly authentic “All American Diner.”  Through Manzil, I came to learn that the Centre sponsors an initiative called the Habitat Learning Centre.  The Learning Centre works with a number of Delhi area NGOs (including Manzil) to provide instruction both in academics and the arts.  The “Evening with the Children” was a showcase of the students’ work.  It was impressive, and a lot of fun with acts spanning from a skit about the importance of protecting the environment, to a traditional Rajasthani dance, to some original pieces played by one of Manzil’s bands.

A dance by kids from an NGO for children with disabilities

Manzil kathak dancers

Rajasthani dancers

Back to Navyug

Soon after returning from Gujarat, I had dinner with one of the Navyug Laxmi Bai Nagar English teachers at Dilli Haat.  Somewhere in the midst of our conversation, she informed me that the school’s 10th graders would be performing a street play outside of Dilli Haat the next day, and invited me to come.  I decided I had to see it— no matter that I had already had my “last day” at the school.  I trusted my students not to become too confused, and made plans to be at Dilli Haat the next day at 10 am.

Some time after 10 am (this is India, after all!) I was still sitting outside of Dilli Haat, waiting for the performers to arrive.  Worried that I had missed the show, I called one of the teachers at the school, who assured me that they were “just coming.”  Soon enough, they arrived with chairs, banners, and bags of costumes in tow.  I assisted with some chair set up, and looked on as some boys worked meticulously to ensure that their banner—hanging between two trees, was exactly even.  It was a long process.  A curious crowd gathered, the members of the NGO who had worked with the students buzzed nervously, and an Important Looking Woman, took her place in the seat of honor as NGO members made sure she was comfortable.

Hanging up the banner

Grandma vs. mom and son

Advertising banner

Details of the NGO's projects

 After the set up, the play commenced.  Though the Hindi dialogue was moving a little too quickly for me to catch every word, I understood immediately that this was a play about gender inequality in India.  The play involved a brother-sister pair, each of whom were treated very differently by their grandmother.  The boy, of course, was congratulated on his good grades and encouraged to study hard for college.  The girl’s perfect report card was ripped up as she was told to concentrate on readying herself for marriage.  Another scene involving doctors in white coats and the brother-sister pair’s mother hinted at a sex-selective abortion, most likely suggested by the domineering grandmother.  Fotunately, in the end, both brother and sister stand up to their grandmother, and a crowd of protesters overwhelms the doctor’s office.  The play ended with all of the players reciting an oath in unison, pledging to protect “the girl child.”  The play was moving and impressive, especially given the fact that the students had come up with the play themselves in a matter of days.  The Important Looking Woman (I am still not sure exactly who she was) congratulated the students, and they touched her feet in a gesture of respect.

Very Important Looking Woman, students, NGO members, and Principal
 Though I had already had my official goodbye to Navyug, I could not resist walking back to the school and seeing my kids and teachers one last time.  My kids were surprised to see me, and a little confused, as many had assumed that I'd already returned to America.  Still, they seemed happy, and made me promise to visit India and the school again.  I knew that this would be my last visit in a while, but I promised that I would do all I could to come back.  “Don’t forget us ma’am!” they said, shaking their fingers at me.  I promised that there was no way I would ever forget them.  And it was the truth.

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