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Experiencing India and Volunteering in India: diary of Martin, a volunteer

Martin Kelly went to India with the Experience Rural India Volunteer scheme in 2005. This is an extract from his diary.

Tuesday, February 15th 2005, 7:30 pm
Amarpurkashi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Iím writing this eveningís entry from the terrace above the main entrance courtyard to the campus, where I can see almost all around me across the fields to the dusky horizon in all directions. Itís warm and calm outside. A few farmers are slowly walking their water buffalo back to their homes in the local village. Activity around the college is winding down: dinner finished half an hour ago, the dishes have all been washed up and packed away in their wooden chest and a few of my fellow Volunteers are ambling up and down the terrace, helping their food go down whilst in soft conversation with a couple of the college students who reside here. Iíve settled into a comfortable routine now, after arriving three days ago from Delhi, which was quite a contrast to rural Uttar Pradesh. Itís made for a relatively peaceful and gentle introduction to India and I look forward to revisiting the capital with more experience under my belt in several weeksí time.

my living block

my living block

I woke up this morning at seven oíclock, just managing to remember where I was, and opened the shutters in my room, which is one of several in a block along one side of the college grounds. The college lecturers, who live in the same block as me, were also just waking up and doing a few stretching exercises outside their rooms. I sleepily tried to greet them and received an equally sleepy but welcoming "Namaste" with hands pressed together from each of them.

Pushpa Singh is our supervisor, guide and friend. She lives here and is related to the director, Mukat Singh. Sheís studying English, which she speaks perfectly, and has been teaching us a lot about Indian culture. We began the day with her in one of the classrooms beneath the terrace for our usual thirty minutes of yoga. We left our shoes and sandals outside the room before stepping inside, saying good morning to each other and spreading ourselves out on the rugs on the floor. Pushpa took us through a series of gentle stretches before instructing us to relax and meditate, which Iíd never tried before coming to India. Iíve had trouble concentrating for the past few days, but found some success this morning when I experienced a strange sensation of reliving a past memory in great detail, although Iím not sure that I was supposed to do this!

We took breakfast on the terrace, where we ate hot porridge and fruit with a cup of spicy chai tea. Everyone seemed to have slept well and had worked up a real appetite because we all took second bowls of porridge from the head cook Lalaji, who seemed to find great amusement in finding someone unsuspecting to give the last portion of porridge from his pot!

After eating, I returned to the living block to wash in one the cubicles. I was using hot water from the fire beside the terrace until today, but itís now so warm in the morning that I can wash in the water from the pump outside my living block.

breakfast on the terrace

breakfast on the terrace
I passed my neighbour Prados Patiís room and was invited over for a chat. Prados shares his room with Ajaya Penthoi and both of them are lecturers for the Bachelor of Education course at the college, which is in the block next-door to ours. They come from near Bubaneshwar in the province of Orissa, which is very far away on the southeast coast of the country. Apparently jobs are so highly competed for in India, especially considering the size of the population, that people often have to travel far to find them.

We talked as they made their own breakfast on a gas stove in their room. Prados rolled out floury chapattis while Ajaya cooked lentil dhal in a pressure cooker. Theyíre both incredibly friendly and intelligent people who Iím learning a lot from about Indian social culture and the way people behave here. Ajaya was quite curious about why Iím not married at the age of 22, when itís quite usual for Indian men to be married and perhaps have children. Only one of my friends is married back home and I thought that this might be because of the pressures of work and career on British people these days, but from what Ajaya said, I get the impression that Indian people work just as hard, if not harder. I tried to be honest but careful in our conversation about differences in our cultures because I was worried I might offend him, as he has a strong moral sense and is a devout Hindu, but heís very mature and knowledgeable anyway so there was no unease.

Prados making chapattis

Prados making chapattis

The children who study here at the Polytechnic usually begin to arrive at about ten oíclock in the morning and gather together in the grounds before starting class. Iíve seen several of them staring at me the past couple of mornings and it made me feel a little odd to begin with, but a fellow Volunteer and I made the effort to smile and say hello today, which was warmly met with bigger smiles and more enthusiastic hellos. Iím definitely learning that my behaviour affects my travel experiences. I want to give a good impression of myself and of British people.

I spent this morning at the primary school trying to teach English to six and seven year olds. It was my first time as a teacher, so my mind was filled with fears of misbehaving children. Pushpa gave us a tour of the seven or so classrooms that are set around a central playground. The rooms were all full so three classes were being held in the playground, the children squatting in neat rows facing the blackboard. What I found so surprising was the attention that the children were giving to their teacher: none of the children appeared distracted, excitable or disruptive. All of them sat quietly without fidgeting and wrote up in their books without fuss what the teacher was saying.

Penny (a fellow Volunteer) and I were given charge of a class of eight or nine five- and six-year olds for about half an hour. Penny is a primary school teacher at home in the U.K. and has brought some simple teaching aids with her. One of these consists of several sets of letters of the English alphabet that have been colourfully printed and laminated. Penny instructed the students to arrange the letters in the correct order by showing them the first few letters and then offering them the chance to try for themselves. It seemed to be a hit, as the children made a real effort to complete the task. Penny and I moved around to observe and assist, listening to the enthusiastic mix of Hindi and English. I was still a bit nervous, but the children were so delightful and respectful that it turned out to be a really enjoyable experience. A few of the children were quite nervous and shy themselves at having strangers teach them, so when we return tomorrow Iíll try to be less nervous and keep the shy ones involved as much as the others if I can.

teaching English at the primary school

teaching English at the primary school

Our time here isnít controlled strictly: in between the organised activities weíre given time and space to just experience the way of life. For me, itís a good balance: Iím being exposed to new things and meeting new people and then Iím able to just sit in the campus grounds or on the terrace and have a conversation with a student or my fellow Volunteers.

Iíve become good friends with two brothers who share the room next to mine. Theyíre called Montoo and Bitto Sharma and have come from just outside of Delhi to study here. Theyíre both very friendly people and have made me feel very welcome here. Today, Montoo and I talked about life in each otherís hometowns and each otherís family and friends, and then we got onto films and music, just like most young people I suppose. He showed me the magazine pictures on the walls of his room of "Big B", one of Indiaís most famous Bollywood stars, and tuned in his radio to a local channel, translating a few lines of the latest hits for me. Indian boys are quite unselfconscious about singing and Montoo has a pretty good voice as well. Bitto and Karan, one of Montooís friends, joined us later. They sang a little as well and then they combed my hair for me from my unkempt scruff into the smarter, side-parting Indian style. Theyíre very close friends and Iím completely overjoyed to have been welcomed into their group so warmly.

Montoo and Bittoo with Ajaya

Montoo and Bittoo with Ajaya

Back on the terrace, the other Volunteers and I shared our experiences from the morningís teaching. Nobody had had a bad time, but one of us has a name that apparently sounds very similar to the Hindi word for "your", which makes it a little odd for the Indians to call her name! I wonder what my name means, if anything.

For lunch, we each have a thali, which consists of rice ("chawal"), lentil dhal, vegetables ("sabjee"), chapattis, a little crushed coriander ("chutney") and some raw red onions and white radishes. I find it absolutely delicious and Iíve actually never felt so healthy. All of our meals are filling, balanced and made from fresh ingredients that probably come from the fields around the village, or at most from the neighbouring few villages. Iíve found that I need a little extra salt in my thali though; it can get very hot here, but itís a dry heat, so I donít seem to notice how much fluid Iím losing.

Warren and Dave eating lunchtime thalis

Warren and Dave eating lunchtime thalis
After lunch, we all piled into the APK jeep for a trip to Bilari, the closest town to Amarpurkashi. Traffic on Indian roads is quite scary and noisy at first, because all forms of transport duck and weave between each other; huge buses and trucks laden with sugar cane, multiple motorcycles and carts pulled by buffalo and enormous horned bulls. Drivers use their horns a bit differently here; they beep continuously to warn someone that theyíre overtaking, instead of to complain about othersí driving.

Our driver took us along the streets of Bilari, steadily drawing closer to the centre, where it seemed the streets got narrower and narrower. We jumped out and entered a shop filled from floor to ceiling with rolls of fabric of all colours. Three turbaned Sikh men were sitting cross-legged on a low platform that took up most of the shop floor, and we all sat on a bench along one side facing them. Carefully and with expert eyes, the shopkeepers selected different fabrics from the shelves to display for us, waiting for our opinions. The youngest of the three men moved up and down a steep ladder at the back of the shop to bring down even more fabrics from the attic. We held up each colour to ourselves and imagined what the big rectangular sheets would look like once theyíd been fashioned into actual garments.

Saying goodbye, we left on foot to find the tailorís shop in another part of town. Shop fronts lined both sides of most streets and goods hung from them or were placed neatly in glass cabinets in tidy arrangements. We passed jewellery shops filled with bangles and necklaces, hardware stores filled with buckets and cooking pots and little snack stalls that sold a large range of special Indian sweets. I bought some washing powder and a comb upon the earlier advice of Montoo!

The tailorís shop was set on two levels, with three or four boys on the upper level working busily on foot-driven sewing machines. The tailor himself sat behind a desk by the door on the lower level and greeted us as we entered. He moved our fabric around, examined it, folded it, held it up to us and drew lines on it with a small chalk marker, while Pushpa translated everything into English. Slowly it dawned on me that my white, sky blue and light brown fabric was going to be made into the smart long shirt and trousers ("kurta pyjama") that Iíve been seeing some men wearing around the area. Itís going to be delivered back to Amarpurkashi tomorrow - Iím going to look like an Indian!

shopping for material for clothes

shopping for material for clothes

It seems that Volunteers are quite a familiar sight to some of the people in Bilari: one or two people called "Amarpurkashi!" and "Mukat Singh!" in a friendly way to us while we were walking around town, and I was really surprised on the day we arrived when an old man who sat by us on the train asked if we knew Mukat Singh, and if so could we please tell him that his old friend from school says hello!

Back in Amarpurkashi, I took a quick look around the village market with Ajaya and Prados, who were out to stock up on food. The market takes up most of the small field just outside the campus, and you can watch everything happening from the balcony behind the room on the terrace. Each stall was essentially a large pile of very tasty looking fruit or vegetables on a tarpaulin, with a seller sitting beside a set of scales and weights. As Ajaya and Prados bartered for their goods, I asked them about the items I didnít know or hadnít seen before. I feel so ignorant, having lived on boxed supermarket produce for so long.

There was also a little Ferris wheel that the children loved and a man crushing sugar cane in a device mounted on a blue cart to sell as fresh drinks. As evening arrived, we wrapped up in long sleeves and trousers to avoid the bite of the mosquitoes on the terrace. For the past few nights, weíve been sitting with Mukat (or "Babaji" - "sir") and his wife Jyoti in their room to have a discussion with them just before dinner. Tonight a few of the Volunteers wanted to know about the Indian caste system, which seems to concern social standing and what sort of work people do. The highest caste contains priests and the lowest caste contains people who clean dirty places, as far as I can remember. There is a man here whoís a member of the lowest class and his job is basically cleaning and keeping the grounds tidy, but heís also a pupil at the college. Heís a friendly guy and also knows Montoo and Bitto, so Iíve been talking to him as well and honestly canít say that I would be able to deduce his caste if I hadnít been told. Heís treated just as well as everyone else is.

Lalaji and his nephew Sunil provided us with yet another delicious thali and a few of the college lecturers also took their evening meal with us. They eat with their fingers instead of cutlery, mixing the dry rice with wet dhal to scoop it up and deposit it neatly into their mouths. Iím going to give it a try tomorrow, whether Iím wearing a white shirt or not!

The sun has now set and the rosy sky isnít quite enough for me to keep writing by. Iíll find my torch and water bottle and head for bed now. More adventures tomorrow.

Amarpurkashi village market

Amarpurkashi village market

Friday, March 25th 2005, 10:45pm
Amarpurkashi, Uttar Pradesh, India

I have returned to Amarpurkashi. It has been three weeks since I left on the train for Amritsar in Punjab province with four of my fellow Volunteers, but it feels like a lot longer. I guess it depends on how you spend your time and what you do with it. We visited some really interesting and contrasting places on the northern plain and in the foothills of the Himalayas, where everything I learnt at APK came in handy. The one thing that sticks in my mind is the cup of tea that two bank clerks gave us, which they brought for us after weíd said thank-you in Hindi. Not really impressive at all, but it must have made their day that two foreigners had learnt a little bit of their language. It makes me think of past holidays when Iíve made no effort at all and wondered why people havenít been so helpful!

Amritsar streets at night

Amritsar streets at night

The train journey from Rishikesh went well and we arrived at Raja Ka Sahaspur earlier this evening without incident. I thought that the train might go straight through the station, which seemed to be no more than a field just outside a small village, but Indian Railways was as well-organised as ever and I neednít have worried at all. A quick barter in the twilight then found us on our way to Bilari town by rickshaw.

Moving gently along the streets behind our driver, I thought that I could feel the excitement growing in anticipation of the festival of Holi the following day. Local people crossed the street in front of us and were silhouetted by vehicle headlights in the fog that had crept in. I could hear conversations in Hindi from several directions at once, but they all sounded calm and peaceful, even purposeful, if my instinct is anything to go by. With a bright moon sliding in and out of cloud high above us, everything felt unusually energised.

The bus on the main road in Bilari was crammed with people, so when we asked for Amarpurkashi the driver directed us to a jeep waiting behind the bus. Another surprise on an odd evening, but the short trip to the project was fine.

Amritsar streets by day

Amritsar streets by day

Walking up the main path to the college, I was sure that the "namaste" we received in the darkness was from the same young boy who greeted us on our first day here last month. On top of that, when we walked through the gates and upstairs to the terrace, our friend Pushpa took one look at us and broke into giggles behind her hands as if weíd been away for years.

It feels good to be back. The old faces are still here and smiled their familiar smiles at us. I feel like an old hand. If I spoke more Hindi, Iíd be asking everyone around about their families or the cricket, whether I knew them or not!

I ate some dinner by lamplight and reminisced about Lalajiís cooking (while eating more of it) with some of the other Volunteers whoíve also returned for Holi. Some are from the group before mine and have travelled a lot more extensively around the country since leaving APK themselves, so Iíve a few questions to ask them tomorrow about which places to aim for, as well as finding a home with one of them for the novel that has denied me much sleep over the past few nights.

The fog must have lifted over dinner, as the sky is now clear and the moon has turned the leaves silver in the trees in the college courtyard. Thereís a slight breeze, but the heat of the Indian spring has begun to arrive and Iím not uncomfortable. Everything today has felt memorable - nothing hectic or crazy has happened, but it all seemed to happen in a daydream.

Saturday, 26th March 2005, 2:30pm
Amarpurkashi

This morning was an early one: I was woken at 4:30am to attend a ceremony that involved people moving clockwise around a bonfire in the village, next-door to the project. I wasnít tired for long though, as I was invited into the group and quickly found myself greeting people with "Ram, Ram", which is a special hello for Holi. People also touched each other three times on opposite shoulders. Through talking to a few of the college students, Iíve learnt that the fire represents the burning of Holika, the daughter of the king of demons in traditional Hinduism, who was later killed by Lord Vishnu.

As the sun rose, my friend Amit from the college asked me into his home with two other Volunteers to take tea with his family on their terrace. We knelt around a small fire and sipped the hot tea as the sky turned from dark blue to rosy pink. Amitís parents were dressed smartly in sari and shirt and tie, while I wore the pair of bright, rather un-Indian checkered trousers I bought just for the occasion at a market in Rishikesh a few days ago. I felt really honoured to be invited into the familyís home and celebrate their beliefs with them, even though Iím from a culture so different and so far away. I shake my head now in disbelief at how generous they were.

Upon returning to the project, I saw most of the locals who I know gathered on the terrace outside Babajiís room. Everyone was talking excitedly, especially while it was still early in the morning. The sound of musical instruments approached and grew louder until three men with drums climbed the stairs and began playing for us outside Lalajiís kitchen. Two girls from the college picked up the rhythm and danced to the bhangra beat.

Dancers on the terrace

Dancers on the terrace

After a short while, Baba ji emerged from his rooms with a smile and a shout and a big patch of blue across his shirt. This was the sign for everyone to start getting everyone else completely drenched by throwing coloured water, squirting it with water pistols, and (if you've had quite enough of it) then by emptying a whole bucket over someone.

Of course, I was that someone a fair few times, and so were all of the other Volunteers. We werenít let off just because weíre from out of town. I had my face smeared with purple and green by my friends at the college and did what I could to return the favour. It was over pretty quickly, leaving great dark puddles all over the ground. The Volunteers and I stood around, all feeling a little amazed at how we looked. I found my friends Ajaya and Prados, the college lecturers, and saw that theyíd got involved just as much as the most excitable young children!

My t-shirt began the day about as white as Iíve been able to keep it on the road, but itíll be staying here when I leave, perhaps for the next Volunteer who stays for Holi.

how most of us looked after Holi

how most of us looked after Holi

Just as everyone had dried out, the college boys took me off into the village to see how things had gone on there. As we walked along the lanes, children ambushed us from the roofs of their houses. Our response could only leave splashes of colour pitifully short of the top of the walls, so we retreated around the next corner to the sound of high-pitched, victorious laughter.

Sunil, Lalajiís nephew and assistant in the kitchen, found us and asked us into his home in the village, where his family sat around talking together in the yard while his sister ground herbs for cooking later.

In the next house lived my friend Karan and his family, who kindly gave each of us small "gujeeya" pastries, which are filled with semolina and raisins and made specially for Holi. Their curved shape reminds me of Cornish pasties.

Holi - Amit, Ajay and Prados

Amit, Ajay and Prados

Karan spread yoghurt inside steaming hot chapattis to cool them down, and laughed when I remarked that he was the only one whoíd cleaned himself up so far. Clearly heíd been up for a lot longer than I had getting covered in paint. Karan led us up a flight of stairs in the yard to an upper room that gave us a view of the surrounding houses and the children still chasing each other along the lanes. He played with a few switches on the wall for a moment and brought to life an old arcade video games machine, so we played against each other for a while. I was hit by the strange feeling of how small the world can be, as I stood around the screen with my friends from near and far.

Iím pretty comfortable in my chair on the terrace right now, as I write in the heat of the afternoon. I scrubbed myself earlier and oiled my hair as the Indians do, but I still have a huge patch of pink around my mouth that makes me look like a clown. The place is almost deserted, as I suppose everyoneís relaxing in their rooms after this morningís celebrations. Lalaji is sat at the other side of the table from me and has just closed his kitchen logbook and folded his arms to take a nap. A couple of monkeys are gingerly peeking out from a tree overlooking the terrace, but even they seem a bit too tired to charge around looking for food.

Amit asked me earlier if Iíd like to return to his house again later to watch "Dhoom", which is a recent hit film here. Iíve been hearing the soundtrack everywhere for weeks and even a few of the Volunteers have learnt the chorus from the college students. Itíll be good to finally see it so I can get on with trying to push the catchy tune out of head! Until then, maybe Iíll just close my eyes too.



(Photos by M Kelly and T Evans Braun 2005)

Holi dancers in the afternoon

Holi dancers in the afternoon