Monday, August 16, 2010

Our First Bengali Wedding

Last night, the four of us took a trip with Father Joe Paul to Simna, a village just about an hour from Agartala, to attend our first Bengali wedding. Aja, Ellen, and I dressed in salwar kameez, typical Indian tunic and pant dress, and the five of us presented the bride with a pot, which we picked up on the ride there, as our wedding gift. The wedding was for the sister of one of the teachers at the village school, who we had befriended this past week. Indian wedding invitations are not nearly as exclusive as those in America. We were extremely excited to have been offered the experience of attending a Bengali wedding so, we graciously accepted the invitation. The wedding was to take place at the house of the bride's parents.

The drive to the wedding was beautiful, passing through numerous tea farms and rubber tree orchards. At one point in the journey, we encountered a portion of land extremely close to Bangladesh and commonly called, “No Man's Land”. This land is neither the territory of India nor Bangladesh and it sits as an unclaimed piece of this world. Upon entering “No Man's Land”, from a border guard, we received a token with the number "5" (representing the number of individuals present in the vehicle) and then drove through this unclaimed land for approximately one mile until we bumped into Indian territory. At this point, we returned our token to the guard and were allowed back into the country of India. It was a very interesting and strange experience because prior to this road trip, I was unaware that there were significant portions of land in the world that have yet to be claimed.

The wedding itself was such a joyous celebration for everyone involved, except the bride. This young bride (no older than 18) was unaware that she was going to be marrying a man until she was told one week ago. I know that I must remain respectful to the culture in which I voluntarily threw myself into; however, the entire process of arranging marriages in India is a concept with which I cannot seem to grasp. There are people in this country who spend their entire professional careers as, “Marriage Brokers”. These individuals are hired by families with children, who are of marriage age (typically females are 18 and males are 21), and they seek out potential husbands and wives in nearby villages based on age, family name reputation, horoscopes, education, income, etc. In America, it is fairly standard to attend a wedding full of love, beauty, and with an overall joyous atmosphere for every individual involved. I am fairly confident that the majority of young females in India presented with an arranged marriage, are quite upset to be forced upon a husband and faced with the concept of leaving their home and family forever. Let's be honest, who would find that predicament appealing?

Upon arriving at the brightly lighted entrance to the wedding festivities, we were treated with such respect and it was quite apparent that family and friends were honored to have Americans attend the wedding. We had an amazing meal with extreme variety including, rice, chicken, paneer (milk/cheese tofu), goat (yes, I did in fact eat goat!), fried fish, fish head curry, dahl (lentil soup), some sort of sweet and sour drink with anise (I chose to avoid this dish...), and desserts both before and after the main course. We had our own private dining area with about ten caterers waiting on us and snapping photographs of the Americans from time to time. I am sure that I will become used to the fact that, as Americans, we will continuously receive a different level of respect here in India, but as for now, I feel as if I am experiencing such a surreal and exciting life.

After the meal,we sat in the tented room in which the marriage ceremony will take place later in the evening. We did not stay for the ceremony, as it is not important for invited guests to attend this portion, but we did receive an explanation of the many different sections of the room. In the front, there was a intricately decorated gazebo in which the actual marriage would take place. In the back of the room, a new bed, surrounded by gifts, was assembled for the couple's “first night”. In between the two sections, guests were socializing, dancing was taking place with a small Indian band accompanying music from time to time (see the attached video), and various rituals were apparent. Soon after we received insight on a typical Bengali wedding, it was time to present our gift to the bride, who we had yet to see. We entered her room and collectively noticed her depressed and saddened state. Her eyes were bloodshot from crying and all she was capable of was a simple head bow in appreciation for our gift. Her brother, the teacher from the tribal school, insisted that we take a picture with her, although it felt extremely uncomfortable for us (the picture is posted in this entry). This young girl was being forced into a loveless marriage and taken away from her family. I had to fight back tears because through my American eyes, I still saw a child. We expressed our feelings to Father Joe Paul (we joke that he is our Dad here in India and Moukta, our cook, is our Mom) and he said that, in the Hindi religion, it is quite typical for the bride to feel depression and fear on her wedding day. The majority of Hindi marriages in India are arranged, but some love marriages do exist, depending if the family accepts the son or daughter's spouse choice. The four of us will continue to be invited to weddings throughout the year and I hope that we experience at least one love marriage. It will be interesting to witness the difference between the two types. Even though I was emotionally bothered by the arranged marriage concept, it was great to be able to experience yet another element of this culture that is far outside my comfort zone.

On a side note... I received my class schedule and will begin teaching this week! I will be responsible for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English Language classes along with 7th and 8th grade Moral Science classes (a combination of Psychology and Sociology). I met some of my students today at our Holy Cross School welcoming ceremony and I look forward to a weekly routine of teaching!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A New Way of Life

A few days ago, the four volunteers had a meeting with three of the Holy Cross administrators and we decided where each of us will be teaching throughout our year of service. Along with Ellen, I will be teaching at the Holy Cross School until the end of December and Aja and Ben will be teaching at Blessed Andre, the tribal village school. After Christmas break, Ellen and I will switch sites with Ben and Aja so that all four of us will have the same experiences here in India. In a few days, we will be told more on which specific classes each of us will be teaching. However, it sounds like we will all be teaching some sort of English class (Grammar, Literature, Shakespeare, etc.), but we also will have the opportunity to teach a subject in which we have a strong interest. I hope to teach some sort of math or science course since those are the fields in which I have been involved with this past year at graduate school.

During this past week, we took our first, of many rides, to the police station in downtown Agartala to apply for a residence permit with the Indian government. Since arriving in India, this outing was the first time that I truly noticed that by being Caucasians in Northeast India, the four of us are capable of producing some rather large crowds. The moment that our flight landed in New Dehli, I became a minority in this country, which is something that I have never had to face back home. Although these crowds can sometimes feel uncomfortable, from what I have experienced, Indians mean no harm by gathering, staring, and taking pictures; more so, we draw this attention because Aja, Ben, Ellen, and I may very well be the only Americans in the entire state of Tripura. This is one reason why the Extension India program was created. It enables the children and surrounding civilians of this area to be exposed to individuals from a culture and ethnicity outside of their comfort zone, while the four of us are subjected to the same situation, only reversed. As a group, we may not make a huge impact on the lives of our students by teaching them the proper usage of adjectives and verbs but, by assimilating to their culture and values while opening our lives up to them is where the impact will take place.

Besides the stares that we received at the police station, I was even more taken aback by the overall level of efficiency that occurred in the office that dealt with passports and visas. It was if I had stepped into a time warp and traveled many years into the past. There were old fashioned typewriters, never-ending stacks of papers, and a lack of overall organization. This is their way of life, but it became humorous in time because we were told to revisit the office again and again on numerous occasions in order to add more information to our residence request. In fact, we have to stop by the office on Monday once again. The way any matter is handled in India is completely different than in America. When something needs to be taken care of or fixed, the individual in charge of that specific problem takes care of it when the time is right for them and when they are able to get around to it. Whereas, in America, that is perceived as rude. Here, we never know when the internet repairman will arrive, if we ever will be granted a residence permit, or even what time to set our alarm in the morning for certain events. Yesterday, I woke up to Father Joe Paul in my window exclaiming, “Good morning! Good morning! 9am zoo!” The four of us have definitely learned to turn our frustration into laughter, brush it off our shoulders, and are excited to continue learning the way of life in India.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I Have Arrived in India!

Welcome to my blog! I have created this website so that everyone back home will be able to share my experiences with me while I am in India. For about ten months, I will be volunteering with three other Stonehill alums as a teacher at the Holy Cross School in the city of Agartala, located in the northeast region of India. This school has approximately 3,500 students ranging from nursery school to 12th grade. We are not sure which subjects we will be teaching as of now and we also will have the opportunity to teach at a school located in one of the tribal villages. More details on the teaching aspect of this adventure are soon to come!

As for my journey to India... after a one hour flight from Boston to JFK, a fourteen hour flight from JFK to New Dehli, a two hour flight from New Dehli to Kolkata, and a one hour flight from Kolkata to Agartala... I have finally made it! Three nights ago, when arriving in Kolkata, we were greeted at the airport by Father Joe Paul, the Vice Principle of the Holy Cross School, and his friend who lives in Kolkata, Manish. Manish is a business man in the city of Kolkata and provides the Holy Cross School with all of their needed supplies. He has a guest apartment that he graciously offered Aja, Ben, Ellen, and myself to stay in for that night. The ride from the airport to the apartment was something that I will never forget. There is nothing that I could have ever done throughout my life in America that would have prepared myself for what I saw in Kolkata during that drive. This city is one of the most densely populated and underprivileged urban areas in the entire world. I could not even begin to brainstorm ideas on how to fix the poverty that exists in Kolkata. Homeless individuals and families sleeping on the streets, the smell of raw sewage, the never-ending mounds of garbage apparent everywhere, stray and sickly animals roaming the city, and crumbling buildings are only a few of the many devastating characteristics of Kolkata that I witnessed. However, since the four of us were not in Kolkata for very long, we do plan to visit once again because amid all of the poverty in Kolkata, exists world famous and wonderful sightseeing spots. So, there will be more blogs regarding Kolkata in the near future...

The next morning, Manish and Father Joe Paul arrived with some breakfast and we were soon on our way to the airport to head to Agartala, our home for the next ten months! We hit some intense Kolkata traffic, but made our flight just in time. In order to fly to Agartala, one must fly through the country of Bangladesh, which was very interesting. Immediately, we all noticed how green, lush, and rural this area was, which is quite the opposite of Kolkata. We soon landed and Father Joe Paul drove us down the road to our cottages, which are directly next door to the school . They are very simple, but extremely comfortable and welcoming. We sure are living with nature here in Agartala. It is common to have cows, goats, and dogs frequently roaming the yard and the largest insects that I have ever seen crawling and flying around our cottages. I'm slowly learning to not let the bugs bother me... but it may take some time. Along with Aja, I live in the Moreau Cottage, and just a few steps across the patio lives Ben and Ellen in the Andre Cottage. We each have our own room and bathroom and we also have a common living room and a kitchen. We even have a cat named, Jax, who was anxiously awaiting our arrival and was one of the pets of the former volunteers. We had lunch with some of the Holy Cross Fathers who were extremely kind and immediately made us feel comfortable at the Holy Cross School. After lunch, we met with our cook, Mokta, who is such a sweet lady and makes great meals as well!

Yesterday, we had the morning and afternoon to ourselves and met some of the children who live in the area and attend the Holy Cross School. They all speak English very well, even those who are only in Grade 2. They taught us how to play a fun Indian board game and we also played some American card games with them. One of the students promised to come over to our cottage soon to give us our first Bengali and Hindi language lessons! Later in the day, Father Emmanuel took us to meet some of the nuns who teach in the school, the Bishop of Agartala who lives down the road, and into meet the residents of the girls' dormitory. This hostel, the Indian term for dormitory, is for the students who live in tribal villages and would have to commute much too far on a daily basis; therefore, they live on campus year round. The girls sang us a welcoming song and gave each of us a flower in honor of yesterday's holiday, Friendship Day. This holiday apparently originated in the US, but none of us had ever heard of it until now! I look forward to teaching and tutoring the girls in the hostel because they were all extremely enthusiastic and excited to be at the Holy Cross School.

We then returned to our cottages, and thankfully, the electricity had finally returned after having been off for the entire day due to maintenance. The heat here is something that will definitely take some getting used to and without electric fans, we basically melt. I'm pretty confident that in these past couple of days, I have already sweat out my entire body weight. At this point in the year, it is about 95 degrees and humid everyday. Since we arrived in the heart of monsoon season, I was expecting it be raining all day, everyday. However, we have been told that July has not had too much rain, which is uncommon for the area. We are praying for some rain to come soon because it would definitely cool down the temperature!

This morning, we walked around campus and visited the nursery school. They were the most adorable children and I cannot wait to spend morning sessions with them from time to time. Later today, the four of us are going out in Agartala with Father Joe Paul and a couple of the teachers to buy basic necessities and our Indian apparel. Aja, Ellen, and I are very excited to purchase our first saris, our uniform while teaching at school!

More blogs to come and facebook pictures to be uploaded soon!

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