Two posts in one day may be a little excessive, I agree. But I wrote them over the weekend, and so here they are. Below this one is a post about a haircut.
A friend demanded more details of life in India. I live to please, so here’s a day-in-the-life blog, perhaps expanded a bit to include things I don’t do every day, but perhaps every other day.
In the morning, the alarm goes off at 6, before dawn. The bedroom is usually about 55 degrees. Without central heat, and a fireplace at one end of our rambling house, the bedrooms don’t get much heat. Anyway, the cold stone floor is just the thing to wake up bare feet. I hit the bathroom where I turn on the hot water heater, a 50 liter geyser that’s attached to the wall, for a shower about an hour later. I then head back to bed for another ½ hr. of repose, brown study and contemplation of the day ahead.
At about 6:30, I get up, go to the kids room and open their curtains so the newly risen sun shines in on them. If the weather is clear, I can see the sun rise over the mountain next door through the trees in our backyard. Most of the time clouds fill the valley between. Sometimes, I can’t see our backyard when the clouds rise up and engulf us.
Then I hit the kitchen and put on some water to heat for tea or coffee. Our stove is run on a coveted propane cylinder, about 9 gallons, a strange size, I think. These cylinders cost an amazing 850 rs. each, take an act of congress and several bribes to acquire. However, we had an easy time of it. Jeannette only had to take off a day of work to get ours, and the bribes were relatively small, two at 100 rs. each. We needed a letter from the principal’s office saying we were employed at the school, proof of our address and a special government form that had to be notarized the magistrate’s office and approved by the police department. The police department’s form is a “No Objection” form. I guess they refuse cooking gas to criminals and anyone that looks suspicious. Then you’re allowed to hit the gas store where you have to buy a lot of pots and pans to make the gas cylinders available. Otherwise they’re available after a three month wait. This is why we covet our propane cylinder and don’t even let guests look at it too long.
Food here is, well, expensive. On Western wages, it’s cheap as anything. But we’re living on middle class Indian wages, the equivalent of about $500 a month. A loaf of bread at 12 rs. (25 cents) is affordable. But instant coffee with 30% chicory (the only way we can find it in India) costs 100 rs. ($2.20) a package, and Nutella is 180 rs. ($3.75) for a small jar, more than it would cost at home. Finally, petrol for my motorcycle is an astounding 40 rs. per liter. That comes to about $3.40 a gallon for gas. I don’t do much riding.
But I digress already on the cost of things, when I haven’t even described things. Breakfast around here consists of bread (cheap) and butter (expensive), coconut cake (cheap) and tea or coffee (expensive). Sorry, I can’t seem to beat the obsession quite yet. The coconut cake is particularly good, like a thick pancake with coconut jam spread in the middle. Toast it crispy on the outside and sweet and moist in the middle, and, well, yum.
From there, we pack up and head to school at about 7:30 am. We greet one of our security guards (we have four who take shifts 6 hr. shifts) as we head out the gate. The road to the school is about 200 yards long and downwardly sloped. Busses, motorcycles, idling taxis, pedestrians, stray dogs, cows, horses, and other things dot this stretch of road, though not all at once, since it is a relatively quiet road. The kids don’t much like this stretch, with the horns, the noise, the danger of being hit, the poop to avoid stepping in, and so on. At the 7 roads junction right in front of the school gates, we pass a row of taxis lined up and waiting for rich school teachers to command them. There are the ubiquitous Ambassadors, a British design unchanged from the 1950’s. There are also these tiny vans, smaller than small and yet able to fit six people. Why they ask “taxi sir?” when I’m stepping into the school beats me. I can understand when they ask as I’m exiting. But do they really think I need a taxi to travel the last ten feet of my voyage to the school? Hope springs eternal, I suppose.
Inside the school grounds, we take the kids up to the Alumni hall, near the Covered Courts where their school bus waits in faded khaki green and bald tires. It will take them another mile to the Ganga compound where their school is situated. The bus leaves at 7:50. Josephine has her friends Emma (South African) and Caroline (Indian) to play with. Isaac has the entire second grade as friends, it seems. They run about until the driver calls them in, and then off they go, in a cloud of black diesel smoke.
Then I head to the maintenance department, next to the woodshop. Every morning at 8 am exactly, the maintenance department holds “devotionals.” The thirty or so workers, men and women who do everything from plumbing to carpentry to sweeping the steps, gather together to read a verse of the Bible, hear a prayer and sing a song. Then they take attendance and get to work.
Of course the entire maintenance staff is Tamil. Many, but not all speak English to varying degrees of Western intelligibility. They are working class and none are really well off, though by Indian standards the school does well by them). They are almost all Christian, attracted to work at the school for its missionary roots. Tamil Christianity has a deep, elemental flavor that I am still learning to comprehend. They feel and live their faith in ways that I haven’t known, and perhaps never will. This isn’t describing much. I should probably simply say their faith mystifies me.
Devotionals are often led by Alphonse, the head carpenter. He is a strong spiritual presence, the type of man you can feel in a room. He has a clarity, peace and humanity about him that always impresses me. Speaking with him I sometimes get a sense that this is what holiness looks like. I enjoy chats with him on a number of levels, especially as he teaches me useful Tamil phrases such as “Poe tu anga” which means “I’m going, but coming back.” I have guessed that this is the phrase one uses to avoid any immediate demands for work.
At devotionals someone reads a few verses of the Bible in rapid Tamil. I can’t understand a word, but the language patterns are fascinating to hear. Then Alphonse leads everyone in a Tamil hymn. These songs are not Western, their tunes follow no pattern I can figure out, yet they seem so familiar in their plaintive beauty. I’d imagine they’re western hymns adapted by missionaries to local songs, but that’s only a guess. Alphonse always sings the loudest, and his voice is quite beautiful in a rustic, untrained way.
The assistant chaplain comes down each morning. He is Indian, but very fair and from the North or Kerala I would guess. Now and then the school principal and two other teachers come, but generally I’m the only white boy there. All the maintenance employees salute the regular staff and call us “sir,” or “mam.” They very much let me know that I am somehow high caste. But the warmth of their greetings is tremendous. When I say hello to them, it seems to make their day. When I show up for devotionals, they all, and literally all, greet me with “Good morning sir” and bright smiles so to say “we are so happy that you are here, you honor us with your presence.” What it really might be, I don’t know, but something tells me it’s genuine.
And yes, they shake their heads in that funny Indian way when they’re happy. Or sad. Or listening. Occasionally, I’ve caught myself shaking my head when happy too. Or sad. Or listening. Or thinking.
And after the song, to whom do they turn to for a spoken prayer? Me it is. Almost always, unless George is there and sometimes he offers the prayer. “Sir” must lead the prayer.
This is a spiritual exercise like none other. I stand there in my coat and tie, Western shoes and laptop in a bag on the floor. I feel like, and am compared to them, Ritchie Rich. I am standing with men who make pennies a year, who treat me with undue reverence. I have this horror that one day I will begin a prayer with something like “God, thank you for my ipod, my laptop and access to pain-free dental care….”
After devotionals, I hit my woodworking shop, Snape’s Dungeon, unload my gear, and get a look at my schedule. Then the sprinting starts and does not stop until lunch. I find Jeannette in her office and we go eat if she isn’t too busy.
Lunch at school is a peculiar affair. It is one part typical prep school cafeteria, and one part India. The servers are all Tamil, and have been alerted to my peanut allergy. So as I work my way down the line, they smile, “good afternoon sir” me, and are all too happy to say “no peanuts today!” and point out each dish that is devoid of peanuts. We eat off stainless steel trays that are rather military in style. The knives are so dull, it is only by the profile that you can figure out which edge to use. The food usually consists of a soup, white or saffron rice, dal, a beef, chicken, fish or mutton curry that is medium hot, a chick pea dish, runny gloppy yoghurt, a really, really hot dish of something unidentifiable, salad makings and then some fruit or ice cream or cake. All things considered, remembering what I ate in prep school, the food here is excellent. Admittedly, our ayah makes much better dal, but the cafeteria dal is perfectly good. The ice cream is particularly delicious. I have no clue how they do it, but it is simply superb. Ben and Jerry’s can’t hold a candle to this stuff.
Now, as the trays are wisely heated (food cools off really fast at this altitude), the main dish stays warm as we head to our seats, but the ice cream suffers. So now I eat my ice cream first.
Then there’s the water. Jeannette still prefers not to drink the cafeteria water, but I drink the tank water no problemo. Yes, sometimes I pick things out of my teeth after drinking it and there’s a chlorine aftertaste, but hey, that’s part of the Indian experience.
The weather at noon is generally around 70-75 degrees and sunny these last few weeks. So we often eat outside on the flag green.
After lunch, it’s some work in the English office (email, student meetings, grading papers, course prep, etc.), then more classes. The faculty lounge offers Indian coffee and tea all day long, so I pass through and have a cup quite frequently. The school’s version of Indian coffee is not quite like American coffee. It is 10 parts hot milk, 1 part chicory, 2 parts coffee, and 7 parts sugar. It’s like a hot chocolate without the chocolate and a distant memory of coffee aftertaste. At the Daily Bread, they serve excellent Indian coffee, which is 8 parts hot milk, 1 part chicory, 8 parts coffee and 3 parts sugar. It is over the top delicious. Anyone who visits, I will take them directly to Daily Bread for a coffee, my treat at 5 rs. each. The coffee is also prepared with great panache. I should make a movie of it.
Of course, the faculty lounge has its malingerers, teachers too shell-shocked to go back to the classrooms, etc. No heavy smokers, so thankfully the air is breathable. But this makes it hard to sneak a cup and escape back to the office. All too often, as I’m stirring the sugar into the sugary coffee, and turning to go, I hear: “You. Poordy. You are carpenter. I have needing boordage.” “A what?” I reply. “Beek boordage.” “Oh, a big birdcage?” I counter-query. “Yes, you will be helping me. In shop.” “Of course, I’ll be glad to,” I offer graciously and take off into the hallway.
Classes and students are a whole subject unto themselves. In short, I’m really enjoying it. Few of my students have any hand skills, so of course, the first day they touch sharp tools, two of them end up with the school nurses. Cut fingers here get lots of iodine, thick bandages and a tetanus shot. But this is a minor blip on a good horizon. The school approach to teaching and learning is very healthy, and my students seem to be responding well to what I’ve brought them. They like it. They come to class on time. Sometimes they listen.
English class is even more fun. We’ve been reading Macbeth. While the language is very hard for them, they’ve been diving into the play and actually finding ways to participate in class discussions.
At 2:45, Isaac returns from the primary school. At 3:25, Josephine returns. I’m often in class at this time, so Jeannette meets them, or they go look for her. Often they do neither, and head off to play with their friends. The main campus has walls all around and guards at the exits to keep all unaccompanied kids inside. So the campus becomes their Theme Park, endless paths and buildings to explore, complete with odd-looking middle-school and high-school animals roaming around.
The biggest attraction on the main campus, however, is the Gymkana—a snack bar huddled between dorms on a grassy spot. There the kids can get French fries for 12 rupees, a bottle of Fanta or a Popsicle for 6 rupees, candy bars, you name it. You can’t use real cash at the Gymnkana, only tickets that can be bought by adults at the Financial office and given to the kids (this is to cut down on abuse, supposedly, but I think it’s mostly from an Indian delight in bureaucracy). There are tables with umbrellas to sit at, and the kids are free to roam. They love being on their own for an hour or two after class.
At 4:30, it’s tea time. The cafeteria doles out juice, cake and somosas (a sweet and savory tradition at all such occasions). The faculty lounge offers a separate tea. We catch up with the kids then and eat our cake.
Then I take the kids home, or we all go home as a family if Jeannette doesn’t have 5pm dorm duty. We come back to a clean house, a fire ready to light, laundry drying, and warm dinner waiting. Our Ayah leaves at 4pm, so I rarely see her, though Jeannette comes back to catch up with her during the day. The kids get down to homework, we warm up dinner, eat, have some family time, get the kids to bed, do some work, then get to bed ourselves, if Jeannette isn’t at the dorm.
Mail goes to the school. We have no telephone. I can’t get wireless internet access at the house. Consequently, there is a wonderful feeling when I arrive home, knowing there is no news (good or bad) and consequently no work or further complications to the day. There is only dinner, time with the kids, and course prep for the next day. The relaxation factor is much greater than at home, with the phone ringing during dinner and email to double check. On cool and damp nights, we light a fire. It doesn’t give much heat, but it’s nice to sit by. Our iPod and Bose sound dock bring us the delights of J.S.Bach or the Power Puff girls at dinner time. I could not ask for more, and know I have too much.
We also sometimes head back to campus at night so Isaac can skate around on his roller blades and Josephine can ride her scooter. On Tuesdays, there’s faculty volleyball, which is a hoot. Sometimes the kids join Jeannette at her dorm, Sherwood, and watch the antics of 7th and 8th grade boys as they pretend to study in the main hall outside their bedrooms.
At night walking home, the constellation Orion is directly overhead, and so very bright. The planets pop out colorfully from the background of colorful stars. When it rains, the clatter on the roof is quite loud, but very soothing.
Such is life in India.