A Very Vallipuram Wedding

(Note: I’m now in fact in Japan, and have been in Indonesia for the past month… I will catch up on interesting, important, or otherwise relevant scenes as possible, while chronicling my time in Yamaguchi-ken and beyond. The hiatus is now over!)

The first time I wore a saree was at while my fellow volunteer at Pathashaala, Camille, and I were helping out in the school laundry. As usual, we were communication largely through sign language, with shared English and Tamil words where possible, when Leela Akka suggested swapping clothes with Camille. A great deal of fabric-winding and giggling ensued, until Leela was wearing an alien ensemble of t-shirt and trousers, and Camille was swathed in a beautiful purple and red saree. It struck me once again that western clothes can be stupendously unflattering, while a sarees look fantastic on anyone.

Since I was requested not to post photos of this particularly colourful occasion on the web, I leave this amicable scene to your imaginations. However, the same occasion led to an even more colourful set of pictures that I can share. Tucked safely in the rafters, Camille found a wedding invitation. One of Pathashaala’s employees was getting married on the 4th of March. Not long after the day at the laundry, Veera asked us to attend himself, and our friends from the kitchen and the laundry invited us to come over to their houses beforehand and wear sarees to the reception.

I am left with a blur of images and impressions from that evening: how Camille and I were taken from one house to the next in the village of Elumichampattu to experience the amazing sweet coffee hospitality of people who live in one or two rooms, how most of the men already smelt of liquor in the early evening, how Shakila’s daughter asked me to take her with me to Germany, the laughter and loud music of our drive to the wedding in Vallipuram.

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Leela, Camille, and me.

The wedding reception was a blast of sound. A cover band was belting out Tamil hits to the detriment of our eardrums. They were followed by a magician with many mysterious umbrellas he pulled from every available surface. The wedding dinner was delicious, but because of the number of guests we were required to eat in shifts, and be chased out quite quickly for the next lot. One question remained throughout: where’s the couple?

It turns out that, at least in south India, begin one evening with the reception, go all night, and conclude with ceremonies the next morning. While we attended their reception until around 10 pm, the bride and groom were still making their way through the town on an elaborately decorated float. We were able to shout our good wishes as we drove past them in the centre of their very own bridal traffic jam on the way home.

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There they are!

Unlike some of my other posts, this one doesn’t actually have a moral or conclusion – it isn’t a recipe, or a particularly deep contemplation. I simply want to express how wonderful it is to get such a close glimpse into daily life for some of the people I worked alongside for six weeks. We may not have had a language or a culture in common, but we loved to sing for each other and exclaim over a lovely colour or fabric as we got dressed for a wedding.

 

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Soap-Makers Extraordinary

Every Thursday, the 11th graders at Pathashaala have ‘cow time’, which has surprisingly little to do with these beauties.

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Cattle with humps don’t need much water, and were once common in throughout south India. Govinder the Bull and his lady friend live at Pathashaala as part of a conservation project.

Instead, ‘cow’ stands for Community Oriented Work. It’s a day devoted to activities such as taking stock of maintenance issues in the dorms, painting the paving stones outside the dining hall white to prevent burnt feet, and other projects that benefit the community. Today they were making their second batch of soap for the school’s use; at some point they will also be called upon to assist in soap-making workshops for women in nearby villages. I’ve always been interested in learning to make household staples like that myself, so I tagged along and took notes…

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Feeding the Masses

(3kg Chocolate, 5kg Cheese… It must be European Food Day!)

At some point last month, Camille (my fellow volunteer, who has now left me for Nepal) and I decided that it would be fun to cook some food from our home countries for the community here at Pathashaala. ‘Cultural awareness’ was certainly the motive we named, but it might have been that we were simply hungry for a meal or two that didn’t involve rice. We confess to nothing. But wait —

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Outreach

I can only describe the morning of February 23rd fully by acknowledging how little I understand, and how much I am a guest in this place, privileged by my brief glances into village life, and by the warm welcome I have received from everyone I have met.

Over breakfast, Gautama (Pathashaala’s director) suggested I come along on a journey into the villages near Chengalpattu and Thirukazhukundram to distribute solar-powered lights. He explained that during the rainy season in November and December, there was a great deal of flooding throughout this part of Tamil Nadu, and Pathashaala was one of the only places lit up at night because of its exclusive use of solar power for the lamps. The school took donations from parents and friends to help the local communities stay afloat, and in the process discovered that quite a number of households in the area never had use of electricity at all. Continue reading “Outreach”

Enter Pathashaala

It’s been almost a week since I followed the coastal toll road south from Chennai, through Chengalpattu, into a flat and richly coloured corner of Tamil Nadu. As I write, I’m looking out a screened window at the rice fields, and in the distance, the domed buildings of Pathashaala. These 55 acres were purchased by the Krishnamurti Foundation India in 2006, with the intention of building a small residential school. This dream has since become reality for around a hundred students (called Learner-Educators, or L.E.s for short), several handfuls of the reciprocal ‘Educator-Learners’, a variety of staff from the area, and two volunteers, my roommate Camille, and myself.

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A glimpse of the Bay of Bengal.

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How I Got Here

(Above and Beyond Flight EK544)

I got a message from an old friend the other day, reminding me to play my turn in our virtual game of Scrabble, and wondering how my exams were going. It took me a moment to realise that a) most university students were taking exams at the time, and b) he still thought I was a student at the University of East Anglia. I’m sure there is a universe where this is the case, but it’s not in this one.

Back in September, shortly after deciding not to commence my studies at the university, I considered making some sort of public announcement. A blog post, or something scrawled on your Facebook feeds. Lightning changes of heart are made of the same thing as poetry, though, and what I can describe as ‘I was looking for another uninsulated kitchen to call love (and love is a warm place)’ in my notebooks was more likely to get question marks than comprehension that I was no longer in Norwich. The closest I can get to colloquial is to say that it was the wrong place and time, and I was unwilling to unpack my roots for three years in England.

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