Thailand Tales : A Photo Diary

Beginning a  post with the title ‘a photo diary’ is another way of saying – “I’m too lazy to actually apply myself to writing so I’m just going to post  some pictures and be done with it”.

I was going to do just that but I owe it to one very special person to write a little about how this mind-blowing trip to Thailand was planned and executed last month. Somewhere about two years ago, Shikha said that she wanted to take a trip outside India – just the two of us. I loved the idea but of course the dismal state of my finances brought in the much needed reality check. Three months ago, on a very lazy Wednesday morning, one mail started a discussion that by the evening, led us to booking a week long trip to Thailand. It was that sudden and that simple. Reason for the trip – Well, mostly because we wanted to travel together and also that this was going to be my bachelorette trip. Celebrating being single one last time! :) [Technically, I haven't been single in over a decade now but still seemed to be a good reason to go celebrate before taking the big plunge.]

There’s this lovely quote by Mark Twain;

 ‘I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.’

On most occasions, it works as an accurate test of compatibility of my travel companions with me. On paper, we both put together to travel is a recipe for disaster. I plan, organize, re-organize and then plan some more about everything under the sun and Shikha, well she plans too, but is more than capable to leaving her passport at the popcorn counter and completely forgetting about it. :P But the thing about Shikha is and the simplest way to put this would be;

Everyone should have a friend like her.

Everyone should be blessed with a generous splash of awesomeness like this in their lives. Every person deserves an amazing friend like that. Someone who has unwavering belief in you, someone who’s always willing to bet on you even when you yourself won’t. Someone you can learn from, admire for their strength of character and love unconditionally. We’ve gone for months without a single phone call and then picked up the threads of conversation like we never stopped talking. There have been no awkward pauses or lull periods in our conversations ever. We’ve also spent hours in the same room doing our own thing without saying a word and never feeling the ‘need’ to say something to fill the silence. She’s one of the most saintly souls I’ve known in my life, so its very easy for anyone to feel affectionate towards her.

So she can forget her passport wherever in the world, I’ll go find it for her. She can stuff her money in her pocket like it’s waste paper, I don’t mind straightening it and organizing it for her. She can roam around wearing giant daisies in her head and it won’t change in the least, the way I feel about her. So Mr. Twain’s quote in this regard doesn’t quite hold up because for some people, all rules can be thrown out of the window. And for the record, we had a peaceful trip and no one lost anything. :)

Para-sailing : Koh Larn Island, Pattaya

‘ Para-sailing : Koh Larn Island, Pattaya

I highly doubt it, but according to Shikha – that’s me up in the air. She didn’t try para sailing because got sea sick owing to a 20 minute motor boat ride. Yes. 20 minutes and sea sick! :D :D

Underwater Seawalk : Coral Island, Pattaya

Underwater Seawalk : Coral Island, Pattaya

Up in the sky and deep down under – all within two hours. Quite an experience!

Alcazar Show : The ladyboys cabaret

Alcazar Show : The ladyboys cabaret

If I had to go there again, would pass on attending the Alcazar Show. It’s great with all the costumes and dancing but nothing awe-inspiring as such.

Pattaya Walking Street - lined with Go Go bars

Pattaya Walking Street – lined with Go Go bars

It was quite an experience walking through this street on Pattaya. But in the middle of all the Go Go bars, lady boys and multiple services on display, I must say that I felt absolutely safe at all times in Thailand. It’s a very safe destination for women.

Panoramic view of the walking street

Panoramic view of the walking street

Chao Phrya River Cruise - A typical touristy thing to do in Bnagkok!

Chao Phrya River Cruise – A typical touristy thing to do in Bnagkok!

It was a funny experience seeing our Thai host on the cruise sing all the popular bollywood songs. ‘Tum hi Ho’ from Ashiqui 2 pretty much ruled the roost on this cruise and in most of the Indian bars there. Very drunk and heartbroken Indian boys in Pattaya almost ruined this song for me.

The great cocktail trail of 2013

The great cocktail trail of 2013

First destination on the bachelorette night. :)

In a tail boat to the floating market!

In a tail boat to the floating market!

Approaching Damnoen Saduak floating market

Approaching Damnoen Saduak floating market

There was a popular TV series with Sandhya Mridul as the lead in which I had seen the floating markets of Bangkok for the first time. I was in grade 5 back then and I remember being completely fascinated by what I saw. I’m glad I got to finally visit, shop and eat in the Damnoen Saduak floating market. :)

Floating coffee :)

Floating coffee :)

Baiyoke Sky Hotel - 15 minutes - 3 different elevators to get to the 84th floor

Baiyoke Sky Hotel – 15 minutes – 3 different elevators to get to the 84th floor

Thailand's tallest tower - view from the revolving deck!

Thailand’s tallest tower – view from the revolving deck!

77th Floor restaurant - Baiyoke Sky Hotel

77th Floor restaurant – Baiyoke Sky Hotel

Some people go to priests, others to poetry, I to my friends. – Virginia Woolf

Some people go to priests, others to poetry, I to my friends. – Virginia Woolf

:) Soi 22, Sukhomvit, Bangkok

:) Soi 22, Sukhomvit, Bangkok

We took this picture on our last day just at the end of the street we were staying at in Bangkok. It holds true for all my travel experiences and is surprising well applicable to my friendship with Shikha too. We met for the first time in school (11th Grade) and we both were new admissions into school. I started to  befriend her and initiate a conversation many times in the first 2-3 days. Her answers were always in monosyllables or invariably something related to academics. To be honest, my interest in her initially rose out of the lack of suitable people to hang out with in 11th grade. The entire lot at my high school walked around with this sense of ‘I’m too cool to be alive’ air. I remember going home in the very first week and telling my mom that I met a girl and she’s probably the most boring soul alive. My mother inquired a little more about her and after she heard enough declared very prophetically – ‘She seems to be a good girl. You should be friends with her’. Call it faith in my mother’s instinct, lack of better options at school or destiny, I powered through with Shikha for the next whole month. We  started to talk and it laid the foundation for a pretty solid teenage friendship that went on to survive the trials and tribulations of adulthood. We sat together in school, she stole a 100 pens from me in the two years at school, we studied chemistry together, I went to her house after school, she came over to mine after tuitions, we would go out for movies together and do countless other things together. There are a few decisions in my life that I took with some amount of conviction (that conviction sometimes born out of my subconscious) that I’m very proud of. Powering through to get to know Shikha and investing in her, features somewhere on the top of that list. I’m glad that I took that risk and in return life rewarded me with an extraordinary friend. :)

So ending this post with Mr. Twain’s wise words again;

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

Roger that. :)

Roundness

It’s been about five years since I started the blog and to date, I haven’t been able to write even two lines for the ‘About Me’ page. After about three years of that page just sitting there empty, I deleted it since I had nothing to add. It’s just incredibly hard summarizing yourself in a few lines or maybe I just don’t have the wisdom for it.

Either ways, that’s quite alright. It’s not like people are queuing up to know more about me. But there are two things worth knowing about me and these, I know about myself with certainty.

1. I love potatoes.

2. And I adore chubby kids (and adults too, if they are the cute chubby kind but we’ll get to that later.)

See the connection? I like round things.

I see them and a bio-chemcial reaction in my brain takes my hands right upto their cheeks. It’s science, I can’t fight it. What I can do and always try to do is take their parents permission before pulling their cheeks.

These are mostly pictures from my travels and few from school/family.

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Baby Krishna – Met him on train to Chennai. In that 3.5 hour long journey, he did his best to pull out all hair from his already balding father’s head. Aren’t those the brightest eyes ever?

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Suspicious baby at Vittala Temple, Hampi. :) Stared at us quite sometime with that quizzical look on it’s face.

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Oh this one! Shivu was the child was one of the servers at the Mango Tree restaurant in Hampi. We were just about to leave after having spent almost 4 hours there when we saw this one. We spent another 30 minutes playing with it . Adorable little thing.

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This little girl was crying loudly and her mother was trying to put her to sleep in a swing made out of a saree. The minute she saw a camera she stopped crying. You can still see the big, fat tears around her eyes. :)

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I don’t remember where I clicked this one. I think it was at the Virupaksha Temple. I found it really cute how she clung on to her dad.

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This was at a restaurant in Hospet. This one kept popping up from the table next to us. It was bubbly, happy and cute.

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I love this picture. This was taken in Old Town, Teng Chong. This wasn’t one of the fattest ones there but just the way she’s shyly looking in, makes this picture adorable.

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This one I did pinch. It was a little too boisterous for my taste but it was chubby and cute. Made the cut!

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These two I met at an NGO that works with street children. It was just short of Diwali and just behind them was their ‘killa’ and they were explaining to me how they had built it together. The one in the blue has the most heartwarming beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.

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And of course, there’s this one. Pumpkin! :) Roundness personified. My mom worked with the Turtle Club (the 9 kids in my class who had most trouble reading) everyday for an hour when she stayed me for a few months. She always said that my love for him got in the way of his learning. I could never get through even one scolding completely with Abhay.:)

Lastly, there’s of course the world’s cutest baby – aki momo but his pictures are too personal to be posted here. He’s almost two now. Can’t believe it’s been two years since I saw him.

That's Aki's chubby little hand

That’s Aki’s chubby little hand

Anyway, there was no point really to this but to capture all the roundness that I’ve witnessed in the last 1-2 years. It makes me happy to revisit these pictures every now and then. There’s no surer way to make yourself giddy with happiness than to spend half an hour in an LKG classroom. Try it, works every time for me.

Reflections from China : Teach For All Global Conference 2013

Three months ago, I spent a week in Tengchong County located in the Yunnan province of China. Delegates from 35 countries working for education with the Teach For All network spent a week together sharing success and struggles in the battle against education inequity. I was there representing Teach For India as an alumni and  the teacher training program run by our foundation.  A lot of the partner countries, apparently find it difficult to establish productive and sustainable partnerships with the government to improve the education system, so there was a section in which different countries which had somewhat managed this were asked to present. Our training program has been established on the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model and we’re working very closely with the local government to make this effective and sustainable. Of course, at this point in time we’re very small and barely cover the all the English medium municipal schools within Pune. Nevertheless, it is a model aimed at creating systemic change and the Teach For All wanted us to share this model with the others so I ran, what they call a Xiaozu (meaning small group) session.

I've never been a speaker, I mean not with an assigned badge atleast :)

I’ve never been a speaker, I mean not with an assigned badge atleast :)

Often with countries like India and China, people tell us and probably we’d like to believe this too that our greatest problem is scale – the sheer number of children that we need to reach out to. But in the little time that I’ve spent in the education sector, I’ve come to realize that our greatest problem is not scale, our greatest problem lies in achieving quality at scale. As a country, we first need to define what excellent education looks like and then replicate that at scale. With Shanghai, China has managed to demonstrate what excellence in education looks like within a city and now it’s matter of time for them to scale this definition of excellence across the country. And that’s what gives me hope for Yunnan and rest of China. It also gives me renewed enthusiasm to strive for excellence and continue our battle against educational inequity back home in India.

One of the most defining moments for me would have to be Andreas Schleicher’s (the man behind OCED’s PISA) talk on how various countries have managed to overhaul their education systems in the past few years. As he spoke of what different countries like China, Germany, Japan and Singapore have done to improve their education systems, it filled me with an overwhelming sense of possibility. I felt positive because each country had made simple yet effective changes in the way they managed their school systems and had achieved excellent results. The solutions seemed less complicated, more approachable and doable. Another thing that stood out for me in his talk was how necessary political will is in impacting systemic changes. Every country that topped the PISA rankings had public sector officials and policy makers who were engaging in a productive national dialogue on education. This reminded me of the critical role that Teach For India’s alumni will play in shaping the educational landscape of the country in a few years to come and the tremendous potential of our alumni movement

Division Head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Division Head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

I also thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Freidman’s talk. His wife’s a public school teacher and his daughter was a TFA alum. That’s how he’s connected to the TFA movement. He had some wonderful insights to offer on how school education is shaping the global economy and what the future holds for us. I’ve never heard someone speak for 75 minutes without losing a beat. He was a delight to hear. We also got to spend sometime with him the next day on the bus while visiting schools in rural China. He wrote this article titled “The Shanghai Secret” in NY Times during the time he spent with us.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/opinion/friedman-the-shanghai-secret.html?_r=0

Tom Friedman

At a school in Tengchong with Wendy and Tom

At a school in Tengchong with Wendy and Tom

Being at the Teach For All Conference in China was a deeply enriching experience for me. It was an inspirational space where people from thirty five different nationalities came together to engage in a discussion on how we can give every child the education he deserves. Being in this space opened up my mind to many different aspects of educational inequity and how far and deep its roots run across the globe. But being there and seeing so many amazing people committed to the cause of educational equity also made my belief so much stronger that we’re on the right path to solve the problem. I could so easily relate to the perspectives and issues on education shared by countries that were so very geographically and culturally different from mine. It reminded me of what Wendy Kopp said the last time she was in India – “If our problems are the same, then it gives me hope that the solutions must be share-able”: I came back home feeling deeply positive about the road ahead and very connected to the vision of what we’re all working towards.

Community Visit - a student's home in the village

Community Visit – a student’s home in the village

When I sat down to capture my thoughts, so many amazing memories came flooding back to me. Being in Tengchong has given me so much joy, energy and enthusiasm to keep the fighting the good fight and tremendous hope that one day we will be successful in ensuring that every child get access to excellent education. It was an incredible experience that sown so many seeds of curiosity and inspiration in my mind for which I’m eternally grateful to Teach For All and Teach For China!

Welcome to Teach For All!

Welcome to Teach For All!

The school we visited!

The classroom we observed.

The classroom we observed.

Practicing copy writing

Practicing copy writing

Community Visit : awe-inspiring hospitatlity

Community Visit : awe-inspiring hospitatlity

Second home we visited

Second home we visited

All this was AFTER a nice hearty lunch!

All this was AFTER a nice hearty lunch!

A bunch of very curious old ladies who were trying to understand what had brought so many foreigners to their little village.

I did manage a day of sight seeing and a small hike around Tengchong. I never made it to the hot springs that Tengchong is so famous for because I was running short of time. If I didn’t have to come back for our mid-year teacher training program, I would have loved to spend another week and visit the Great Wall. It was a day’s travel from where I was staying. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there and more so because of all the tiny, cute Chinese kids. My God, they’re adorable. It took me all my will power (as much as I could summon) to not pinch them on the school visits.

Maybe a photo diary in the next post!

Ms. Koovagam 2012

A couple of years ago, I was walking with someone on the street when we saw a couple eunuchs create a scene near a shop. The shopkeeper didn’t want to pay them and the conversation went from heated to physical assault. The eunuchs were beaten up and thrown out of the shop, into the streets by a few goons. My friend looked at them, sighed and said – ‘Why live a life like this? Humiliating themselves, being ridiculed every day like this on the streets!’ I didn’t have an answer at that point in time. Many years later, I found the answer many years later in a beautiful quote by David Foster Wallace about suicide,

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” 

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It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” 

We look at their lives with disdain. From where we’re looking, it looks wretched and humiliating. If they have chosen this terror – to live their lives begging every day and selling their bodies to earn a living, just imagine what a horror the other choice must be. The only other path available is being unwanted by your family, being cursed every day for being who you are and rejected by the people who gave birth to you. Maybe being rejected by total strangers, abused by random shopkeepers and being used for sex in exchange for money is a better life that what lies at the other end. Maybe it’s better than being rejected and humiliated by your own family. We’re just not in a position to see it or understand this choice.

See, it feels weird to me and you. Marrying a stone idol in a temple and celebrate being his bride for a day. But that’s one of the pressing issues that Koovagam made me think about, a lot – the human need to belong. Marriage is somewhat a social construct, isn’t it? I mean, when true love and affection between two people meets the’ need to belong’, then that’s great. It leads your happily ever after stories. But what if there’s no love or affection, and the ‘need to belong’ becomes a social pressure. A mere item on the societal checklist? To my mind, Koovagam exemplifies this social pressure and just how far it can go. People completely unwanted by their families and with little or no hope of finding stable partnerships, seek this sense of belonging even if it’s just for a day. Even if it means marrying a stone idol. But for that one day, they are someone’s wife and as painful as it maybe, they are his widows for life.

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Anyway, Ms. Koovagam – the annual beauty pageant, was scheduled to happen on the day we arrived at Vilupuram. We had managed to get in touch with a very well reputed gentleman who was widely respected in the small town of Vilupuram through some extended family contacts. He had acquired VIP passes for us to witness the beauty pageant live.  He drove us to the venue and very politely excused himself by saying that he had a reputation to maintain and could not afford to be seen in this neighborhood. This gentleman was a nice person but somehow he just couldn’t wrap his head around our reasons for being here. Two well-educated, seemingly straight girls – here to witness a eunuch festival? To satisfy his curiosity, we let him know that we are here for a research project and we wish to interview a couple of transgender people. He sort of bought his explanation but then being an elderly gentleman, he also took it upon himself to ensure that we got the right people to interview. So because him, we did actually get to speak to a couple of eunuchs and it was a great experience. One of them was actually from Pune and was a delight to speak to.

We sat in a small hall, filled with about 200 odd chairs and waited for the pageant to begin. The pageant kicked off with a talent show (mostly dancing) and then we had the contestants walk the ramp dressed in blingy finery.  Actually every single eunuch in that room was shining in their best possible outfit. Most of them had engineered their own outfits but some of the more well off ones, were wearing designer sarees and lehengas. After about 7 PM, the hall was packed to capacity and some very drunken men were swaying wildly to the dance numbers. We thought that this was a good time for us to make an exit and we did. I felt completely safe in that little hall, probably a lot more safer than I feel on Pune roads these days.

Enjoying from the sidelines

All dressed up and nowhere to go.

All dressed up and nowhere to go.

A eunuch from Hyderabad dancing to "Kajara re"

A eunuch from Hyderabad dancing to “Kajara re”

This graceful dancer has won a scholarship to study and learn Bharatnatyam in Chennai.

This graceful dancer has won a scholarship to study and learn Bharatnatyam in Chennai.

The most visibly buoyant and boisterous of all present there - a beautiful capture!

The most visibly buoyant and boisterous of all present there – a beautiful capture!

One of the people we interviewed - such a graceful dancer and polite conversationalist.

One of the people we interviewed – such a graceful dancer and polite conversationalist.

The winners announced in the next day's newspaper

The winners announced in the next day’s newspaper

There were a couple of reporters covering the festival in the year we visited. One of them was Michael Edison Hayden from NY Times. He wrote a bunch of interesting articles covering the festival;

1. Koovagam, India’s Largest Transgender Festival, Opens

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/01/indias-largest-transgender-festival-opens-in-koovagam/

2. Tears and Broken Glass as India’s Largest Transgender Festival Closes

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/tears-and-broken-glass-as-indias-largest-transgender-festival-closes/?_r=0

The Widows of Aravan

Imagine a life where;

You walk into a room and people look away.

You try speaking to them, yelling at them, crying in front of them but no matter what you do, you can’t get a single reaction out of them.

People snigger behind your back, abuse you from far away, look at you with contempt or worst of all, treat your existence with complete indifference.

You either get stared at like a zoo animal or looked through like you’re invisible.

May 1996 : I remember my first encounter with them. I was very scared though I couldn’t explain why but I just was. I followed suit and did what all the other adults in our train compartment did as soon as they entered. I stared  out of the window determined not to look back, no matter how much clapping or singing happened right behind my back. After a while, then they went away. Everybody readjusted, stole a glance into the passage to see how far along they’d gone and then scanned the faces of the others around them. All members of that booth satisfied that they’d averted a great danger and their collective ignoring had saved them from trouble.

That’s my first memory of seeing eunuchs up close. I was about ten years old at that time and I remember feeling bad about how I treated them. But I didn’t understand them, they were different and my social conditioning hadn’t taught me to how or what to categorize them as. I’m guessing this very lack of understanding was the root of my discomfort. This feeling of discomfort continued well in to my adult life and even spotting them a few hundred meters away made me uneasy.

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Feb 2012 : It was a month before the fellowship got over. Anushri and I were in the thick of the planning the musical, course completion, revisions and three thousand other things. It was a typical day and we were just wrapping up the extra classes around 3 PM. Our conversations strayed course as usual and she asked me out of the blue – ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to go to this eunuch festival in Tamil Nadu that happens once a year. Would you like to go?’.  Without even blinking I said, ‘Sure, let’s go!’.  And our entire 21 day trip was planned around this two line conversation and of course, the Koovagam Festival. We started with Hampi covered Pattadakal, Aihole, Badami in Karnataka, then travelled to Koovagam, Tamil Nadu and finally finished this trip in Pondicherry. This super low-budget trip was planned and booked for and all we had on us for this 21 day trip was one backpack.

This extract from the Huffington Post succinctly summarizes the mythological significance of the Koovagam Festival;

“Every year in the month of Chaitra, thousands of hijras, eunuchs and cross-dressers from all over India and neighboring countries flock to the southern Indian village of Koovagam, for Hindu festival celebrating transgender people.  This festival at Koothandavar Temple is held in honor of the Hindu deity Aravan (also known as Iravan), who is believed to be the patron god of transgender communities. According to a Hindu legend, Aravan, the son of the Pandava Arjun, sacrificed himself to ensure the victory of the Pandava brothers against the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. Before he sacrificed himself, Aravan wished to marry a woman and spend the night with her. (Since they couldn’t find a girl at such a short notice who was willing to marry Aravan and become his widow the very next day, Krishna stepped in. ) In order to fulfill Aravan’s request, Lord Krishna transformed himself into the form of an attractive woman, Mohini. After Aravan sacrificed himself the next day, Mohini grieved like a widow, breaking her bangles and beating her chest.

The transgender devotees come each year to reenact the story of Aravan. In a symbolic ritual, the participants take on the role of Mohini and are married to Aravan by the temple priest. The next day they mourn Aravan’s death by participating in ritualistic dances and breaking their bangles.”

A photo diary of my visit to Koovagam which is located about 25 kilometres away from the small district town of Villupuram where we were staying;

Taali - South Indian mangalsutra

Taali – South Indian mangalsutra

All things auspicious : Haldi - Kumkum , garlands, coconuts and jasmine flowers.

All things auspicious : Haldi – Kumkum , garlands, coconuts and jasmine flowers.

The mighty Aravan

The mighty Aravan

The deity in the temple

The deity in the temple

Queuing up to get married to the deity

Queuing up to get married to the deity

The priest marrying a Hijra to the idol of Aravan.

The priest marrying a Hijra to the idol of Aravan.

Bridal adornments!

Bridal adornments!

Just Married!

Just Married!

Celebrations all around!

Celebrations all around!

Located about a kilometer away from the Temple

Located about a kilometer away from the Temple

Becoming a widow by breaking the bangles..

Becoming a widow by breaking the bangles..

Bridal adornments from day before fallen to pieces..

Bridal adornments from day before fallen to pieces..

From the first time that this issue caught my attention, I’ve grappled with many questions about the transgender community and especially over the past three years, my interest in the subject has become, let’s say, less superficial. This issue is intertwined with two other subjects that both greatly disturb and intrigue me – homosexuality and sex trade. My readings in the last few years on commercial sex workers have given me some insights into the lives of hijras. My work also gave me an opportunity to visit a red light area last year and interact with about forty commercial sex workers in Ahmednagar. (That interaction probably calls for a post by itself) I also had the chance to visit an organization that works specifically on health care issues of the MSM community (gays and eunuch prostitutes). There is so much to know, understand and to repair.

In the Mughal era, eunuchs were frequently employed in palaces by emperors as servants for female royalty, as guards of the royal harem, and as sexual mates for the upper classes. Some of them attained high-status positions in society.  But today they earn their living by either selling their bodies, or selling blessings for newborns/newly-weds and through aggressive begging in public parks and trains. The reason for this drastic downfall in their status was the British empire’s entry into India. Section 377, was introduced by Lord Macaulay in 1860 and it punished “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with either imprisonment of ten years or life and fine. When the Britishers came to India, they had the same trouble as I did when I first saw eunuchs. They didn’t know what bucket to categorize eunuchs under. There’s Male and there’s Female – those are the two categorizes of gender that they understood and  didn’t know what to do with this “other” category. Since they couldn’t categorize them, they dumped all the eunuchs far far away from their places of employment and business. Hence, depriving them of all legitimate and dignified means of earning. They were stripped of key positions in the society and thrown away into obscurity.

That trend continues even today, eunuchs live in this country without the status of being citizens. In fact, barring Tamil Nadu no other state even counted them in the census until recently. So these Indians live and walk through the country as nameless identities, abandoned by their own government. There is very little or no medical help available to them. Since they aren’t even technically citizens in most states, you can do just about anything to them and get away with it because there are no judiciary rights protecting them and almost no lawyers who are willing to represent them.   So just about anyone can run over them, rape them, abuse them, steal from them and they have NO ONE protecting them. And there are more than 1.5 million in eunuchs in India today. Still wondering why they appear to be  so aggressive and mean? The only way you can  protect yourself when no one else will, is to grow nails and fangs and if possible, a poisonous tail too. At least then, people will fear you and keep out of your way.

The 15 day festival at Koovagam is one of its kind and the largest gathering of the transgender community in South East Asia. Hijras from all over the country and some from outside the country too, travel to this festival. They get married to Aravan on Day 1, become his widows the next day and then make merry, dress up and participate in the much looked forward to beauty pageant, Ms. Koovagam. This festival is also a space for organizing legal seminars, health and HIV related workshops to educate the transgender community.

2013 hasn’t been a great year as such for me, but I’ve had some very powerful experiences this year and I’m still processing them in my head. Koovagam was already on that list from 2012 on wards. I’m still ruminating over these experiences. I don’t have any concrete takeaways yet but I do have questions and thoughts, lots of them. On some days, I feel my head is going explode with all threads running inside. But 2013 and a very lovely human being have taught me, that having lots of  questions and confusion is a great thing. It’s natural and tells you that you’re on the path. Well, then good for me!

So I’ve put down a lot of information in this post, but to really reflect on my Koovagam experiences will take me much longer. In a way, I’m glad that I don’t have quick to offer opinions on this. I hope to remained entangled for life, in the pursuit of answers to my questions from Koovagam.

Oh and yes, Happy New Year everyone! Hope 2014 is kind, forgiving and generous towards you.

Happy Ugadi!

happy ugadi

My first memory of Ugaadi (pronounced as Ooh-gaa-dee), the Kannada new year dates back to 1992. I was in first grade. My mum and I were living with my maternal grandparents in Bangalore from 1992-94, when my father was posted to Siachen Glacier (Siachen is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalaya, just north-east of the point where the Line of Control between India and Pakistan ends). It was difficult station for families to stay because of rough weather and of course uncertain living conditions. So my parents thought it would be best if I continued the early years of my education undisturbed here in Bangalore. So anyway, Ugaadi was here and the house was bustling with activity. It used to be a full house back then, my maternal uncles, aunties, cousins and grandparents. I loved being in that house, with so many people around, there was no chance for a  dull moment ever.  As I woke up on that school holiday, I knew my grandmother would be cooking up a feast. But that was not the only thing I super excited about. I had been informed by my grandfather, that on Ugaadi, it is customary for everyone to buy a pair of new clothes. Now ever since my grandfather had given me this important piece of information, I had taken it upon myself to coordinate the logistical details of the affair i.e. bug my mom until whatever it takes for her to tell me when we can make a visit to the “the place”. It’s funny because I wasn’t even that into clothes as a child, but probably because it was my first Ugaadi celebration at Bangalore, I was excited about the traditions that came along. Coming back to “the place”, this is where I bought almost all my clothes in the two year stay at Bangalore – Bharath Garments on Chord Road. Anyway, the time came and we made the much anticipated visit to this little shop on WCR. My parents have, for as long as I can remember, encouraged me to make my decisions. So even in Bharath Garments, my mom asked me to pick whatever I thought was appropriate and I did pick. Point to be noted, I was six years old and my understanding of clothes came primarily from Duck Tales and Tom & Jerry.  Another thing to know about my parents is that they let me roll with my choices; whether good or bad. :) Now, I sometimes wonder if “letting me roll”, when I had no clue where I was rolling to,  was a good thing to do. :) 

Having seen some 10 odd frocks,  after careful consideration,  I finally picked the one that I liked. I was very excited walking all the way back and when we got home the whole family was there, sipping their evening filter coffee. After multiple requests (read: asked once by my grandmother), I quickly rushed in to change into my new dress so that I could parade around in it. When I opened the door and walked into the living room wearing my brand new dress, I still remember the look on everyone’s face. It was a combination of utter shock and a desperate attempt to suppress laughter. Eventually, they all did burst into laughter after Ramesh Mama called it the “Ramzan Special”. Especially my cousin, Varun (who was just a year older to me) rolled on the floor and laughed as loudly as he could.  I was so crushed for a couple of minutes out there. You know, how it can be for a 6 year old. Of course, in my case I was too much of a proud peacock to show that I was actually that crushed. Both my sets of grandparents belong to orthodox South Indian Brahmin families, so I guess they associated wearing anything out and out shiny to Muslim weddings or celebrations. I wonder why though, because the shine on some Kanjeevaram sarees and gold ornaments that women wear at South Indian weddings also very much holds the potential to permanently blind people. Anyway, so everybody in my family was totally amused, it just didn’t make sense to them as to why anyone would willingly pick out such a horrifying dress and that too in the presence of an adult. Though they really tried being nice about it but all that initial laughter had pretty much conveyed their true opinion about my selection. I can’t remember my Mom’s reaction after everyone saw the dress, I do remember her laughing on the “Ramzan Special” joke but that’s that. :)  It really was a little offbeat; a shiny bright blue colored short sleeveless frock with gold colored dots accompanied by a golden jacket. Yes, GOLDEN! It was like a female Shehenshah outfit. Okay, I know that sounds like a disaster, maybe it was but that was my choice for the year 1992. I wore it happily to a lot of places. Even today in my family, to my utter despair, the ‘Ramzan Special’ joke is quite popular.

That was my earliest memory of Ugaadi.

The Hindu calendar begins with the month of Chaitra (March–April) and Ugadi marks the first day of the New Year.  To Kannadigas, the eating of a specific mixture of tastes i.e. Bevu-Bella (Neem and Jaggery) on Ugaadi Day symbolizes the fact that life is a mixture of different experiences  - bitter and sweet, which should be accepted with equanimity through the year.

Yesterday, 11 April, was Gudi Padhwa and Ugaadi. It was the first time in many years I was very aware of the onset of Ugaadi. I spent the first half an hour speaking to few of my most favorite people in the world and wishing them. After which I made myself a big cup of ginger tea and kande pohe and lazily read the paper. Then I cleaned the whole house, so that was a good start. Also, the Gods i.e. little idols in my Puja Ghar have been neglected for too long, they got a nice spa treatment yesterday (much needed). Oh and yes, I tied up torans of little neem branches to the main door too. Rest of day, I threw myself back in quilling from which I had taken a temporary break. And while quilling I watched reruns of an all-time favorite sitcom. Anyway, I managed to complete a monogram and four cards. [Note to self, try something other than flowers next time]. I had the perfect take away from my favorite joint in KP, so lunch was taken care of.

IMAG1152

Finally in the evening, I did something that has for years now, scared the daylights out of me.

I danced.

and that too in front of people.

:)

You know, how on the dance floor people sometimes don’t know what to do with their hands? It’s exactly like that for me except that I don’t know what to do with my whole body. I wouldn’t say I danced like no one’s watching  but I did have to shed a lot of inhibitions to dance the way I did. Actually to be precise, I think I danced like Abhay. Abhay was the cutest little thing in my grade 2 class. He didn’t know a jack about dancing, he could barely ever follow or remember the steps nor was he every in sync but he smiled and laughed through the dance sequence. Through his struggle to keep up, he laughed a lot at himself, which our dance instructor found adorable.  He used to have so much fun at something he totally sucked at. Though I have none of Abahy’s cuteness and I’m compeltely aware of how much I suck at this, I still had brilliant time dancing! I barely managed to keep up the rhythm or the steps but it was the most fun I have ever had in an hour and a half. :) Physically exhausting but totally worth the sweat!

So that’s how I brought in my new year with a little bit of dust and bitterness, lots of quilling, cleaning, talking and dancing! Not too bad a mix, is it? :)

recalling charlie, revisiting nostalgia…

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

Can’t believe it’s been a whole year since the musical! Would want to raise a glass to all the wonderful people who made ‘Project To Infinity and Beyond’ come alive, to my amazing co-fellow and above all to those eighty little kids who worked tirelessly to put up this spectacular show. :)

10 things to know about Teach For India before you apply!

The application deadlines for this year are done, follow the website to apply for the 2014 fellowship. There are 3-4 deadlines each year starting October, I suppose. Teach For India currently operates in government and private schools in these five cities : Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad.

Now let’s get started. Here are a couple of things you should know before you apply.

1. The selection process is almost 2-3 months long – involving an online application with recommendations, a phone interview, a full day interview with a teaching sample, group discussion and personal interview.

2. The program is highly selective. Approximately 7% of the total number of applicants each year make it to the fellowship program.

3. There is a highly rigorous 5 week residential training Institute starting in May before you enter your classrooms in June. These 5 weeks give you all the basic skills to start teaching and handling a classroom full of children. Along the next two years of your fellowship, you will be continuously trained on different pedagogical  skills that will help you become a more effective teacher.

4. You will be assigned to a program manager who will observe your class every few weeks and give you feedback on what you’re doing right and what you can do better. Your Manager will suggest appropriate trainings for you, help you with acquiring teaching aids, materials and ensure that you are well-supported through these two years of teaching.

5. You will be placed in a collaborative of 15-18 fellows led by your Program Managers. This group will meet once every few weeks to discuss best practices in the classrooms, challenges and more importantly their solutions.

6. You will get a monthly stipend plus a housing allowance that will help you sustain yourself. Along with this you are entitled to be reimbursed a small amount every month towards your photocopying and teaching aids (charts, sketch pens etc) expenses.

[Side note : As a rule of thumb, you will be spending at least 50 % more over and above the the allocated reimbursement amount. So each month, you will have to manage your life on a tightly controlled budget, its not hard after you get the hang of it.]

7. You will be a class teacher of a class for two whole years. This is not a volunteer service and it’s not part-time.

8. Everyday, this job/fellowship will consume more of your time, energy and mind space than any corporate job could hope to. [6 hours in school, 1 hour of after school extra classes (optional), 2 hours grading papers/notebooks, another 1-2 hours for planning next day's lessons, another 2 hours for making the teaching aids, activity tools, next 6 hours in your dreams planning out scenarios of what would happen the next day in class]

And lastly my two cents and these two I feel are most crucial;

9. You will be praised/admired/complimented by many around you

..for having made that transition to the social sector. For having quit a decent job to become a teacher in a under-resourced school.

Don’t take it seriously. Ever.

because it starts to interfere with your work and your understanding of yourself.  The idea of service needs to be demystified. You were doing a job back then and you are going to be doing a job now. Only that this job, is closer to your heart, it’s something you chose and wanted to do. It’s about your choice and it’s that simple. Don’t ever let people push you into believing that you’re extraordinary. Thank them and be grateful for their kind words, use this a fuel to drive you on those days when you hit rock bottom (and trust me there will be many such days)

10. You will be mocked at as a “resume builder” by many around you.

Don’t take this seriously either.

People will try to examine your motives for wanting to this. Many a armchair philosophers will criticize TFI’s model, your abilities to contribute, you ulterior motives behind wanting to do this and the effectiveness of the organization. Listen to what they say, offer opinions if helpful but mostly stay calm. Don’t ever defend it. Because only you know what you’re trying to do everyday with those 35 kids in your classroom and only you would know the challenges that you go through every single day with their parents, the school and your kids.

And whatever be your purpose of joining TFI, nothing can take away the hard work you put into that classroom for two years. Always remember that. It is appreciation worthy that, if at all you chose you build your resume, you did in the hardest possible way. You did it right instead of getting some mock community service experience with an NGO by volunteering once a month or worse not doing anything at all. And don’t worry too much because the harshest and the most severe criticism often comes from people who’ve never ever set foot into an under-resourced classroom like yours.

Keep your head down and keep going. You’re in there for the children and that’s all that matters.

Wish you all the best if you choose to do this! I can safely say that these two years have been the most purposeful and memorable two years of my life. If you have any queries, feel free to write in and I’ll try my best to answer them!

For details, log on to the website http://www.teachforindia.org/

Twin-Trek : Jivdhan-Naneghat Fort

Two weeks ago, I went for an overnight trek with a professional trekking group. This trek reminded me every step of way that I was in very poor shape physically. :( I was so unequipped and unfit both to start trekking as it had been a whole year since I’d even seen a fort (Sinhgad on Dad’s birthday doesn’t really count). The last trek I did was Tikona with Anand in Feb 2012.  Anyway, We took off from Pune at midnight on 2nd Feb, reached the base village – Ghatghar at about 3 AM. After sleeping (in the bus) for a couple of hours, we started climbing at 6 AM and finished the trek at 2 PM. It was long, tiring but so very rejuvenating!

At 6 AM - starting from the base village

At 6 AM – starting from the base village

Jivdhan (or Jeevdhan) is a fort situated in Junnar taluka of Pune. The fort, which rises 1145 meters above sea level, is located in the Sahyadri mountain range.

Forts originated during the Satvaahan era. Every entry point on the forts built by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj has a ‘Kalas’ and Lord Ganesh carved on it. The nearby Naneghat (Toll collection booth) was used for commercial purposes by traders to help in efficient movements of goods. As this was an important pass joining the seas to the mainland, it was heavily guarded from enemies. The Jivdhan fort stood as an important guard to protect the interests of various kingdoms. The route from Jivdhan to Naneghat has an open field of 2–3 km, which gives a clear view of any enemy approaching.

A Quarter of the climb done!

A Quarter of the climb done!

This trek had many a small rock climbing patches [like the one below] that required some strategy and a lot of limb strength. The Britishers had captured this fort in 1818 and in the process, destroyed all approach routes and stairs.  And because of the lack of stairs, Jivdhan is said to be a high difficulty grade trek that requires climbing equipment in quite a few patches.

Pic courtesy : http://deepabhi.tripod.com

A challenging climbing patch :    Pic courtesy : http://deepabhi.tripod.com

Nanacha Angtha at Naneghat

Nanacha Angtha at Naneghat

A fix for the broken soul..err sole!

A fix for the broken soul..err sole!

Taking a break, getting my internet to work at  3754 ft

Taking a break, trying in vain to get my internet working at 3754 ft.

Vanderlingi Pinnacle

Vanderlingi Pinnacle

Naneghat Pass

Naneghat Pass

Cave Inscriptions at Naneghat

Cave Inscriptions at Naneghat

The inscriptions in the caves indicate that they are the work of Satavahana rulers who came into prominence after the fall of the Mauryan Empire. It is believed that a powerful woman ruler Naganika, the wife of Satakarni (180–170 BCE) of the Satavahana family commissioned the cave, the statues and the inscriptions. Inscriptions in the cave mention her and her family members. Though the statues adorning the sides of the rectangular cave are now gone, the inscriptions still record some of the achievements of the dynasty. The Naneghat records have proved very important in establishing the history of the region. he mention of Samakarsana and Vasudeva indicate the prevalence of Bhagavata form of Hinduism in the Satavahan dynasty.

Reaching Naneghat after climbing Jivdhan!

Reaching Naneghat after climbing Jivdhan!

A final shot of Jivdhan from Naneghat!

A final shot of Jivdhan from Naneghat!