Category Archives: India

Four birthday girls named Pryanca, picnics and dancing

Chocolates! Why not, it's a birthday party!

Our dance ensemble

I’ve just arrived early this morning, coming back from my sick leave. I’ve brought boxes of special chocolates for each of the four birthday girls, enough for them to share with all the girls in the dormitory.  Taneile has gone to the market to buy ingredients for muti, a special mix of puffed rice, chana chur, curry, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, pickles and boiled potatoes. We make the mudi in a giant size cast iron pot there is enough to feed the entire dorm and then some. After making a mess, chopping, peeling and mixing, we are ready for the picnic. All the birthday girls are wearing their finest , gifts from their parents for this special day.  We eat and eat, everyone laughing, really enjoying our feast.  After finishing and trying to resume order in Taniele’s room, I bring the laptop into the common hall and we dance until we drop!

The 4 Pryancas - birthday girls 🙂

Tara is in charge of doling out our mudi picnic

Although there was a bit of a crush to get to the chocolates, Taniele and I tried to mediate as some of the girls were trying for seconds, even though the less aggressive little ones hadn’t received their treat. Finally everyone was satisfied and happy. Taniele and I retreat to the (sort of ) quiet of my room to settle down for a movie and some chips. I feel like I’m back in college again, pigging out and watching TV while chatting away about each of our lives.  Once again I am grateful for this friendship. We call it a day as tomorrow we must be up very early to dress in our saris for Saraswati Puja.  We have our “dressers” arriving at 7 AM to ensure we are properly attired.

I sleep soundly and wake with anticipation about the pomp and circumstance of this puja.  I feel like a kid again. These children have a way of erasing all time, I am rejuvenated.

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Untapped Genius and a Bora Hanaman

One of the first completed collages

These kids are awesome!

Just give them your time and some paint...magic!

It is Saturday and I am pressed for time. I need to get enough collages finished so they can be framed. I lost a day yesterday as I fell ill and couldn’t get out of bed. Still sick, I went to the art room to teach anyway. Would rather feel miserable but working with the kids than feel miserable in my tiny room.

We started at 8 AM  with 11 of some of the most talented students who have demonstrated an understanding of my technique as well as passion for the work. The room was silent, everyone was in the “zone’ and I put on some Hindi music to keep the pace going. Within 3 hours, 4 of my students had completed an entire collage!  Not once did they ask for help, as I had been concentrating on making rounds to the ones who needed a little push, some guidance, I was shocked when they called me over to show me the completed collages.   As awful as I felt physically, I was euphoric !  Lunch came ad went, no one wanted to leave the art room, so we continue to pull a painting marathon. It wasn’t until the light has gone that we realized we had worked all day without a break, and that we were almost missing dinner. These students stayed to spotlessly clean the room, and we all left together, our passion solidifying our friendship. I felt complete.  There is quite a bit of untapped genius here – these children would be in  elite art schools if they were from any other place in the world. I am determined to keep pushing them, hoping that when I return next year many will have graduated and possibly be on there way to schools for the arts.

The "artist's colony" hangout in the art room

Since the start of the school Olympics, there were cricket matches each day and today was no exception. As I exited the art studio the match was still on  – these passionate students, so sensitive and quiet while working in my art room were intense as cricket players, so serious and competitive. Taniele and I laughed as we both remarked that we could be at any school in America or Australia or anywhere, and the students would not be different; just boys in a major competition, fiercely playing and cheering their favorite teams on.

On my way to my room to pack up for Kolkata – I was going there to rest, see a doctor and take a break, I was urgently called by Taniele and several girls shouting “auntie, monkey on the roof”!  I had no idea what they were talking about, I knew there were jackals, foxes and dogs, but not monkeys hanging out at the school.  I grabbed the camera, flew over to the playing field only to find hundreds of the little ones squealing with delight as they watched a bora hanaman (very large monkey) sitting on the roof, eating a banana, unfazed by the commotion below. He eventually moved to the rooftop overlooking the cricket match and seemed to be watching the game.  As the children persisted to yell at him and laugh, he moved about (I think trying to escape) these “crazy creatures” below- it was to no avail, everywhere he went the children followed. Finally getting annoyed, he took the flowerpots which lined the roof and started hurling them at the children below. With my camera in tow, I tried to shoot a few pictures, only to be abruptly stopped – he hurled one at me, missing me by a few inches. Guess he didn’t like paparazzi – I decided to take refuge and pack my things to leave for Kolkata.

Bora Hanaman watching the crowd below

"Hmm.. ready, aim, throw the flowerpots!"

I arrived at the Taj Bengal where I was to stay as Shamlu had other house guests in my room. It was a great move as the manager recognized how sick I was -I had no voice at this point. He alerted the staff to my demise, and everywhere I went someone was standing there with a hot cup of spices, ginger and lemon to drink. They stayed to watch me drink the last drop.  About every 20 minutes the door would buzz and more tea, hot “toddies” (non alcoholic) and salt to gargle with would arrive.  Flowers came as well, with a note telling me to arrange for a eucalyptus steam, sauna, and aryuvedic massage.  I arranged this for Sunday, and not feeling much better forced myself to make the appointments.  I was glad I did. After a few hours of this pampering, my throat started to feel better, and I felt almost human again. Treating myself to a meal at one of the many restaurants at this hotel, I stuffed myself with salad, fruit and PIZZA!  It rivaled any great pizza in New York. Even though I was under the weather I knew I could get very used to this. The shower was the best ever, and the pillow too – small things we take for granted were a delight . I savored every minute.

By Monday morning, the Maitre D knew me well and ordered all the hot drinks for breakfast and insisted I eat an omelette (he didn’t have to force me) and porridge. Water and juice were served at room temperature so as not to hurt my throat. That afternoon, a friend from Kolkata paid a visit to see how I was feeling and he too insisted on feeding me. I was stuffed but still a little sick. The hotel and my friend called the hotel doctor who paid a “room call” complete with blood work and prescriptions which were filled without delay by the staff.  Rick ( my doctor husband) had sent me with a small arsenal of medicines and had started me over the phone with the correct antibiotic.

By Tuesday I felt well enough to return to Udayan. I loaded up on chocolates for the girls in the dorm – it was the birthday of four of them and there was to be a celebration. I also loaded up on oranges, bread and olives, having had my share of rice, rice and rice at the school.

The ride back was early in the morning, so early that I was treated to a remarkable site – goat herders walking their flock in the middle of the main roads in Kolkata-unbelievable!  Here, in this city of great buildings, shops, shacks and hustle and bustle, vying for a piece of the road crammed with all the vehicles and animals and every conceivable being and object was this man, oblivious to the noise and commotion, as his goats walked peacefully to their home, having grazed for the day.  What a country of contrasts.

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Networking, meetings and more paint!

I have spent the weekend at Shamlu’s home, going from one party to another, it’s a whirlwind of socializing and networking.  I admit it is fun dressing up in Shamlu’s gorgeous saris.   I shop the next day for supplies and a few new kameez. Returning “home”, we then meet with the Consulate General from the United States to discuss the possibility of funding the exhibition.  Then I am off to another party – people I have met the night before, and on Sunday, a brunch meeting with a new friend and then, the grand finale of the weekend, an intimate meeting with HH the Dali Lama. I am brave enough to ask a question which he immediately answers. I am in Heaven!  It is finally time to get ready for my return to Udayan. Where has the time gone?

I arrive at Udayan after a full day of errands in Kolkata. First and most important is to register with the Deputy chief of Kolkata police. Thank goodness Shamlu is with me and she and the Deputy are old friends. We have tea and biscuits and then sit down to yet more paperwork. Then we’re off to search for an open photo studio – I must present 4 more passport photos of myself. (I hate this, they are never flattering.)

After this, we are over to the Palladian Lounge for a meeting about the exhibition, The Lounge is our venue. It is large and very beautiful. Invitations, publicity, framing, hanging and timing are discussed and arranged.  There will be a press conference at the school, photographers will shoot and film the work in progress.  This is a big job!  I thought I would peacefully paint and teach the children but there is so much interest and so much need for funding – it has to be a spectacular event.  Then, I am whisked off to collect more painting supplies as the children’s enthusiasm had depleted my stash of paints and paper. We are getting creative, using plastic plates as palettes, plastic bowls (25 rupees each) for water.

Loading the car with the supplies, my clothes and chocolates for the children (400 pieces) I am on my way to Udayan.  This taxi driver is OK, but it is still an insane drive. I cannot watch any longer or I will commandeer the car and drive myself. Swerving on a 10 foot wide 2 way road, trying to avoid the trucks, buses, people, bikes, motorcycles (these guys are nuts) taxis, private cars, rickshaws, cows and occasional dog, I decide to take out the computer and write. At least I’ll have some productive time before we crash.

As the taxi drives through the gates, the children are waiting, shouting Auntie, auntie, good evening Auntie. I am home.  The boys take all the packages from me, and I unload while chatting with my very good friend, Taneil. We are compatriots, holding down the fort for the girls. We are interrupted by the girls who have major English exams tomorrow – they want us to tutor them. They speak Hindi and Bengali. I shrug and try to explain, action verbs, “being” verbs as they call it, present and past tense of each of the above. All while miming and pointing to the Hindi and Bengali translation of the English I am teaching. Taneil and I are wiped out after they leave.   We settle down, looking through all the new salwar kameez outfits I have bought to work in and then watch 30 rock. Fun!

Some little friends waiting for me.

The welcome committee, girls in my dorm

I crash and awakened to silence instead of the usual chaos of the morning. I have overslept, having somehow turned off the alarm in the middle of the night!

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The banging of the drum!

The banging of the drum….

I fell asleep quickly and was awakened to the sound of a drum banging loudly at 5 AM  – the children’s alarm clock.  I find out later that it isn’t a drum, rather someone bangs the metal door with a stick.  In the distance the chanting from a nearby mosque sets the tone for the sun rising. I shower in the freezing  air, rather, I splash with the water from a large tap, no shower. I dress quickly, I am late and must put on a  salwar kameez, the traditional dress. As I leave my room, the girls are waiting to help me lock the door and carry my knapsack. It is beautiful outside though rather cold. The little ones are showering in the fresh  air, singing and laughing. They all say good morning Auntie, how are you and rush to shake my hand and hug me – even these little naked ones , still wet with soap.  It’s hard to believe I am here and have to pinch myself. Birds are chirping, there is a litter of puppies milling about, they too greet me with licks.  The grounds are lush with flowers tropical trees and a gorgeous vegetable garden the children of Udayan have cultivated themselves.  I wonder how I will ever leave this place? It is so beautiful and soulful.  These children are  happy just to be alive and so thrilled to have me, they welcome me as if I am a long lost relative. I nearly cry as I hear them singing their morning prayers and ponder why it took me so long to come to this land.

"my" girls, neighbors in the girls dorm

First class begins at 8 AM and I must  hurry to breakfast. The children eat on the floor, using their right hand to scoop the food into their mouths. I take my tea and oatmeal packet and then I’m off to set up the “studio” (a converted music room).

After two hours, speaking no Hindi or Bengali, the children have created 100 papers. Next class begins in 45 minutes and the room, which is in shambles must be cleaned before the next group – boys class IX comes to work.  With the few Bengali words I know I ask them to stop and clean the room. They are very respectful and immediately stop to help. The room is then immaculate.

Class X collage hand-painted papers, first day!

Class 10, first day hand-painted collage papers

By the end of the day – 5 PM I have to hang 300 papers. I am running out of paint and it is only the first day.Class 3 boys busy paintingClass 3 boys busy painting

As I lock up, the sweet voices of 300 children greet me – “good afternoon Auntie”…this goes on until I reach my room – with an entourage of 20 girls and a few little boys, age 3 in step. They wish to come into Auntie’s room to see what it’s like. The girls admire all the clothes and makeup, the boys are eyeing  the cookies someone has placed in the room as a welcome gift. In a few minutes all the cookies are gone. I watch in wonder as their eyes shine with delight. This one cookie has made their day.

After dinner, a vegetarian dish with rice and curry, I wander back to my room and visit with Taneil, my Australian neighbor. We are chatting only to find about 50 girls waiting outside the door, asking to come in.  The big question is “Auntie having computer music?  Movies?”  Yes, I do have music and movies so I let the children pick the songs they would like to hear. And then something magical happens – they are dancing and I am entranced. They have such grace and they are laughing, which is music to my ears. The girls ask me to dance and we fall over in stitches after I try to do the “duck walk” . Dance class is officially finished in auntie’s room.  We pile onto beds, floor and chairs and spend the rest of the night talking and eating even more cookies. I make a mental note to bring more from Calcutta.

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Auntie Stacey and 300 curious faces

Udayan girl's dormitory, my new home.the sweet faces of Udayan....My bedroom , mosquito net and all.

My bedroom , mosquito net and all.

I arrive at Udayan with much fanfare , everyone is waiting as the Taxi honks to announce my arrival.  I am so tired I could drop at any moment.I am looking forward to sleeping under the mosquito net, a new adventure.  The girl’s dorm is boisterous – more than a college dorm I would think.  My room is rustic as I had expected, but it is still more than these children will have in their lifetime.  The girls are singing and dancing, playing in my room.  But I am called into the main hall, the children and staff have a surprise waiting: a ceremony to welcome me with groups of children performing  – singing, dancing, even an amazing yoga demonstration. Then I am presented with a garland. I must go up to say thank you (Namaskar) and then begin to hand out 400 toys I have brought with me for all the children.  They are overjoyed.

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Saris, parties and a big black dog…

Saris, saris everywhere!

Wearing a sari, dressed up for a party!

I could get used to wearing these......

How to choose just one?

It is 3:30 in the morning and I am finally off to sleep. I awoke to the riotous sound of  birds squawking , monkeys laughing hysterically and a growling tiger — celebrating dawn’s arrival. Looking up at the high ceiling fans and Kantha tapestries hanging all about the room, I realize I’m not in Kansas anymore; I crossed over the rainbow.

Shamlu and her quiet staff are waiting for breakfast  and tea. It is a gastronomic feast  and I am famished. Mangos, omelet and Indian toast and jam await, yum.  Next order of business is finding several saris and blouses to wear to lunches and dinners. We play Indian Barbie doll, I try on about 10 saris, each one more beautiful than the last. Many have been made by Shamlu and her team of rural women weaving the tradition Kantha embroidery . I choose all of them!  Then Shamlu and I are off to her club, one of the oldest golf and cricket clubs in India. We are table hopping as Shamlu seems to know all of Kolkata, if not all of India. We sit at a table with many of her friends and I am eating all that is offered, it is delicious.  We leave around 3 PM and then off to dress for a party she is giving in my honor to introduce me to her friends.  As they arrive I am taken by their dress, each woman is wearing the most beautiful saris and salwar kameez. I too am wearing a sari that Shamlu has chosen and wrapped around me; I doubt I could do it myself but will have to learn.  The staff has quietly prepared a feast of all Indian snacks which are delectable. They keep offering me everything, some things I choose not to ask about and just pop it into my mouth. I know I have eaten foods that I would never have chosen had I been in the states – and yet everything is amazing. I am stuffed.  I meet a young Italian film producer and we chat for the night, I know she and I will become friends.

Later, Bobo, the Lab, comes bounding in to find me and play. I am charged with training him during my stay  – he is just 1 year old and has limitless energy.  As I say goodnight and dress for bed, I hear the bedroom door bang open and, thinking it is an intruder, I head for the bathroom and close the door – it is to no avail, the door bashes open and I am pushed to the floor – Bobo again; he wants to play and it’s now 1 AM!  The staff comes running in to “help” me and I am laughing with Bobo sitting on top of me. They shuttle him out of the room, he is looking forlorn and is whimpering. I promise that I will play with him the next day and finally go to sleep.

b

Shamlu modeling before the dinner party

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The Journey Begins…

It is January 1, 2010 and I start the new decade with a “leap of faith”, boarding a plane to India, leaving my husband and three children for two months.  I am lucky to be bumped to first class on the first leg of the trip and am able to relax, study my Bengali and fall asleep.

We land in Frankfurt and I have a 6 hour layover and take up my husband’s advice to shower in the lounge, so I start out to find the Lufthansa lounge and I remember my friends warning that this airport is confusing and huge. No problem I think, I can do this!  But it does take me 3 trips around the terminal and about an hour of my free time. I also go through security 4 times but finally arrive at the lounge. There I do take that shower and emerge refreshed and ready for the last part of the journey.   Boarding the plane I am once again put into first class (I can get used to this) and fall asleep for the entire flight.  We land, my luggage is waiting for me – hurray! – and I walk out to find a smiling face holding a card with my name on it;  he is the driver who will take me to Shamlu Dudeja’s house   It is 2 AM.

This time my car ride is eventful. Cars, rickshaws, pedestrians, cows, dogs, bikes and trucks all competing for the same 12 feet of roadway. There is no rhymn or reason – one way streets become two way streets without warning, no dividing line in the middle of the road, everyone is swerving to avoid (or not) the sudden oncoming traffic and even at this time of night everyone is honking with or without reason. Traffic lights are ignored as are any road signs, it seems anything goes.  I am jet lagged and realize there is nothing I can do so I laugh the whole way to my destination.

Arriving at Shamlu’s home, I am greeted with open arms, tea and biscuits and lots of huge licks from her Black Lab, Bobo.   Shamlu and I spend a few hours talking well into the morning, then turn in for the remainder of the night. Tomorrow will be a big day and I can’t wait.

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How it all began….a tale of three continents…

New York, the Statue of Liberty and my home town

It started in Greece, I had been a chaperone for a group of American high school students traveling throughout the Greek Islands and Athens. Now, our cruise was ending, it was our last meal on the ship and we were seated with a group of people from India. Two of the kids were with us, very articulate and funny kids, and it wasn’t long before our table of very diverse folks were laughing and exchanging emails. I was especially taken with Shamlu, a dynamo of a woman, who was brilliant, interesting and witty. We laughed and talked the night away, promising to email each other after returning to our respective countries.

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece......where we met

We corresponded -emails flying at a rapid rate as we realized that we had much in common, from our own life stories and our committment to global community service.
I googled Shamlu and the organizations she chaired. Needless to say, about 40 pages later, I was extremely impressed with the work she was doing to rehabilitate and educate woman and children in Calcutta and asked her what I could do from the US to help her endeavors.
She had googled me, and without missing a beat she invited me to come to India to teach art and my technique of painting and collage at Udayan, a boarding school for children who’s parents were leprosy sufferers. Shamlu didn’t say “come anytime”, she said please come in January and I said YES.

That was in April. I went happily along to the library and bookstores to research my upcoming journey. It seemed everywhere I went people were offering new insight and recommendations for literature, guide books, friends to look up when in Kolkata and more. Sitting in the bookstore one evening I discovered that Frommer’s India devoted a whole page to Mrs. Shamlu Dudeja – page 568 under Shop ’till You Drop. One of her many accomplishments has been the revival of the art of Kantha embroidery working with a team of rural women, and her shop was listed as one “not to be missed”. Wow.

Summer came and went while Shamlu and I planned what direction our partnership would take, the art supplies needed, and my application for a visa. What had been planned as a 3 or 4 week jaunt would become a 7 week stay – teaching the 300 children at the school, then mounting an exhibit of their work. Excitement was building, I had no fear of leaving my teenagers, or my country for such a long stay. Riding high on anticipation of going to India, a place that had always been a source of fascination and mystery to me I never stopped to really THINK about what I had committed to do.

After a visit to the doctor for a few (so I thought) vaccinations, reality hit. Aching arms and a roomful of supplies like impregnated mosquito nets, transformers, surge protectors, malaria pills and snakebite kits shocked me into the NOW of it all. I was really leaving. And, I was leaving very soon – to work with a wonderful woman who I had met just once.
What had started as a nice dinner in Greece had turned into a Life adventure in India.

The Indian Flag

The flag of my upcoming "home".

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