Author Archives: siewfan

8 Children need to live too

After dinner that day, we went to the Mahabohdi stupa and then had some chai. Dick-sir is very much respected in Bodhgaya. He sneaks rupees to the beggars and sends tea to the odd saddhu. The teachers want to know what he said about them. Tailors, shopkeepers, stall holders all straighten and brighten when Dick-sir is around. A few of them have kids who go to the Maitreya School. The proprietor of the internet shop bought me chai when he found out that I was doing some work for the school.  

 

My hindi teachers

My hindi teachers

During one recess, a swamp of rambunctious 10-year-olds taught me to count in what turned out to be very poor Hindi, their faces full of glee and cricket madness. India was playing Pakistan in a 5-match tournament. One of the kids was wearing a school tie. The school tie was a discarded policy, one deemed ridiculous in the Bodhgaya weather. However, some of the kids insist on wearing them. It made them feel grown up and important, said one. The young male teachers, apparently also liked to look dapper every now and then. For reasons unknown, Vivek appeared one day looking very dashing in a blue blazer with shiny gold buttons.

 

 

Kids at the Samanway Ashram OrphanageKids at the Samanway Ashram Orphanage

On Thursday, I went along with the video crew when some of the kids were doing their weekly round at the Gandhi (as in Mahatma) Samanway Ashram orphanage. It was as ridiculous as it was heart-warming – dusty impoverished kids teaching art to dirty, runny-nosed destitute orphans. There was no evidence of shoes or chirping. The smiles are not as spontaneous here. I wondered at the human capacity to accommodate dirt. And suffering. What is the optimal amount of dirt and suffering one can accumulate without succumbing to it? Here in the state of Bihar, despite efforts of various NGOs and temples, the evidence is abject poverty and unemployment, daily black outs, shortage of water, lack of sewage and sanitation. Check out a video of this ashram here Samanvay trailer.

 

 

 

 

Samanway kids thrilled at being filmed

Samanway kids thrilled at being filmed

There aren’t enough orphanages in India. Is it better for the child to be in the street or have a job? A lot of children in India work. Those are the lucky ones. You see them as servers in shops, as apprentices, as stall holders in train stations. If they didn’t work, the rest of their families would starve. I wonder about our first world sensitivities regarding child labour. A western  journalist has written a book “India in Slow Motion”.  Among other things, he investigated the closure of the Kashmiri carpet factories who used child labour. There weren’t any recourse after the kids were put out of work, no school, nor alternative source of income for the families. There’s still a war going on in Kashmir. But western do-gooders patted themselves on the back for having ended child labour. It might have been better to introduce regulation. As a Kashmiri said to me, “children need to live too”. Clearly child labour is not a good thing, but how bad it is depends on what the alternatives are. What does it take to maintain a simple, healthy life with dignity? What does it take to live awake, engaged, at peace? How to have a low environmental footprint, be in control and happy? There is no romance in poverty, despite the books and poetry that have been written about it. How not to be overwhelmed, neither to be indifferent? 

 

Vanshri, the teacher with the golden voice, taught singing. She has a bright smile that faded too quickly and a laugh that lasted too long. A young widow with a small child, life is not so easy. Her face haunts me.

7 Shoes Optional

Holi hangover 

 

Holi hangover

Holi hangover, much to the fraustration of the video crew lasted much longer than Holi, which itself was 4 days of celebrations. The remnant colour refused to come off, especially a particularly virulent shade of pink that seem to adorn a kid in every shot. The crew could use very little of the footage that they shot. I sat in on several classes as an observer, just to get an idea of what the school is about. It was the best time I ever had in school.

The kids come in to school;  many walk 40 minutes or so, unless Dick-sir picks them up as we happen upon them along the way. “Good morning, sir. Good morning, madam,” they chirp.  How many tiny tots can you fit in a Maruti jeep? As I pondered that question, another jeep passed us, bursting at the seams from the inside, and on the roof, chaps were sticking out like pins on a cushion.

 

 

Shoes optional

Shoes optional

When we arrived at school, the kids piled out and chirped, “thank you sir,  thank you madam”. They then run off to ditch their shoes on shelves clearly marked with their class, or they just ditch their shoes. It wasn’t until the 3rd day or so that I noticed there were more kids than there were shoes. I say shoes but really mostly they were rubber or plastic slippers.  

Dick said that most of their families have little access to clean water, which explains the general dustiness of the kids and the dilapidated state of their uniforms. The school gives every kid a meal a day during recess and they suck it all down pretty quickly. A lot of the kids looked underweight to me, the 6 year olds looking more like 3 year olds, the 10 year olds more like 7 year olds. In any case there is a distinct lack of chubby kids here. Still, when these kids play barefoot in the sun squealing and laughing, you couldn’t pity them.

 

Recess time

Recess time

Starting with assembly, the school is the exact opposite of the usual anglicized secular school that I’m used to. We sit in concentric rectangles (if that makes sense), the little ones towards the middle where a space is left for the performance of a play or a song. Everyday an older kid, 14 – 16 years old leads the session. They do motivation or visualization, singing, chanting, and meditation. It was universally acknowledged in class 4 that there was no mindfulness in meditation that post-Holi morning on account of everyone’s mind still on “playing Holi”. 

The school’s concept of universal or integral education is geared towards development of compassion, universal responsibility and wisdom. That means that philosophy, mythology, and the development of the mind (meditation & yoga) in the Indian tradition play an important role, along with the usual academic subjects. Rather than eliminate spirituality from the curriculum, the teachings of all major spiritual traditions practiced in the community are honoured. The methodology involves promoting a “world view” based on familiarity with the nature of the mind and concepts such as interdependence. The first batch of graduates will be taking their national exams this year, and released into society. 16 seems a bit tender to me but these are the lucky ones among their peers.

 

Dancing on Saturday

Dancing on Saturday

On Saturday afternoon, we followed the kids’ music classes. They learn traditional songs, classical Indian dances, the tabla and harmonium. The dance teacher was in his fifties, very much a prima donna, he reminded me of Nathan Lane in “Bird Cage”. He made beautiful movements I didn’t think possible for a man. The little ones were pretty uncoordinated and vexed him greatly. We found it greatly amusing; he finally shut the door on us.

6 Holi, Holi, Holi, Holi

Dick Jeffrey with his holi makeover

Dick Jeffrey with his holi makeover

The next day, Sunday, which was day 2 of Holi, I had breakfast with Dick, and the 2 Australian film makers, Kylie and Mezz. They had come to shoot a documentary about the school and do a pro bono promo video for would-be sponsors. Check out their videos here. Kylie and Mezz had, last night, in their journalistic enthusiasm escaped into the celebrations with their camera. The scuffle I heard was the staff in a failed attempt to secure them.

 

Practical, environmental, space saving idea

Practical, environmental, space saving idea

This was a unique opportunity to see a slice of local culture and peek into the homes and lives of real people, not as tourists, but as guests. In the afternoon, the 4 of us and 2 other volunteers at the school went a-visiting for Holi. At the vilage of Amwan, Dick expertly parked the Maruti jeep at the side of the tiny path. He would qualify as a taxi driver even in Jakarta. We stepped around cow patties and goat droppings. The houses here were of bricks and mud bricks. There were also some mud houses. Dung patties were drying on the external walls. They would just peel off or were scraped off when dry. Rajkishore’s was the first stop. We ascended a dark stairwell on to the first floor. It had several rooms leading off an open courtyard. He is the senior teacher at the Maitreya school, and has the aura of a very decent being. He invited us to a delicious lunch of curry and puri, followed by a special holi dish made up pulse and I think, buttermilk. Subsequently, we saw more of this dish than desired. The family came to annoint our foreheads and feet in a brilliant green.

 

At some point, we visited Soni, a student at the school, a very beautiful girl around 15. She wore a dimpled smile, an apple green dress and her jet black hair in perfect braids. She was very articulate in English and had the sweet, shy manner of a favourite pupil. More green powder on our faces and feet. We sat on a bed in the half covered courtyard. There were 2 other small rooms and an open area that served as bathroom and laundry. I reckon the entire space was about the size of my bedroom in Zurich. They seemed to be humble but dignified people. Both Soni and her sister Khusboo go to the Maitreya school while their brother Arjit does not. There is a policy to take only at most 2 kids from the same family. There are aparently over 600 applications for a kindergarten class of 25. Mind boggling. While Mez is filming, Arjit sulks in the  room with the small tv and a bed. The kids’ father used to own a metal workshop but had to give it up to drive an auto-rickshaw as business was bad. The mom works partime at the school as a craft teacher. There are several village women with tailoring and artisan skills who teach there. We were served simple but lovely food and a very fragrant and immensely sweet chai that the mom was making on the floor in the kitchen corner. The chai, made with tea, boiled milk, butter and a lot of sugar is usually taken in small quantities. It’s beginning to look like there’s a 2-dish minimum, first a sweet and then something spicy. There’s also a tray of little snacks.

Soni and neighborhood kids full throttle

Soni and neighborhood kids on the roof

 

As we were about to leave, Soni invited us to the roof to enjoy the view of the hills and trees. Trees are good. Trees are scarce here. The roof was reached by a heavy metalwork ladder perched unsecured in front of the open area. My legs turned to jelly on going up and I wondered how the heck I was going to get down. On the roof, patties of dung and straw lay drying on one side. The wheat and rice are dried on the other side away from the fuel. At a sheltered corner, there sat a stove where the remains of a cooking fire quietly rest. Pretty soon neighbours appeared, and a group of determined looking youngsters jumped over the low dividing wall and came at us full throttle to do the colour thing. 

 

Vanita's backyard

Vanita's pink dogs under the table

 

At the little hamlet where Vanita (another pupil) lives, we were received in the backyard. Vanita’s grandad, a grand gentleman of 92 came and sat with us smiling his almost toothless smile. The family cows grazed nonchalant while 3 very pink dogs jumped in and hung out under the table. A couple of inebriated uncles hugged and seriously smeared us. A cousin turned up the hindi music. The girls in the family all beautifully dressed in white embroidered salwar kameez shuttled in and out with the tea and other goodies. Around us the paddi fields, with the rice calf high shimmered and swished.

 

Neigborhood kids enthusiastic about being photographed

At 7.30pm, we pulled up to Achanna’s house. She had been waiting for us all day. She lives in town in a startlingly blue 3 storey brick building in a typical extended family situation. They owned several businesses, which might explain the relative wealth. Her cousin, who was learning Chinese and more than a little drunk started to practise with me. Finally as we were so full we were about to pop (as my nephews would say), Dick made an executive decision and we started to leave. Achanna and her cousin pressed us to come again the next day as the whole family walked us out to the jeep. The neighbourhood show up for a bit of a close up and the kids ask to be photographed. I have to say I was all ‘holi-ed’ out.

5 Holi, Holi

Mahabodhhi Stupa  Mahabodhhi Stupa

I’ve arrived in Bodhgaya at the start of Holi, the festival of colours. The locals wear new white clothes to be suitably stained. Holi is more ancient than Hinduism, so there are different stories, all rather splotchy in details. Here’s my abridged version: Once upon a time, there was a giant King who wanted to kill his son but failed repeatedly …. his demon sister Holika who was immune to fire took the young prince in her lap to kill him, but it was a sin, she lost her power to him, he survived and she died. So this is a celebration of good over evil, and also of renewal. In the day people annoint each other with colour with good wishes. At night bon fires are lit to celebrate the dealth of demon sister, which appeared to me quite fool hardy, being that there are lots of  flammable material (hay stacks, straw roofs) around the arid landscape with not a cloud in sight. 

Shopping for Holi

Shopping for Holi

I am staying at the Maitreya Project premises. The project’s objective is to build a statue of the buddha Maitreya to last 1000 years in Kushinagar. It will follow environmentally sound principles. Inside the huge statue will be various chapels and auditoriums. In the vacinity there will also be park, a hospital, a school or hopefully several schools. The school that I am visiting and hopefully helping is the pilot school and based in Bodhgaya. It is not a Buddhist school per se. The currilum is organized along the lines of holistic or integral education. Besides achedemic subjects the kids learn how to be a decent human being, and understand the totality of their human experience. The curriculum integrates meditation, yoga, moral philosphy & mythology with conventional subjects.

Please click here to learn more about the Maitreya Project school.

Click here to learn more about the Maitreya Project.

As Dick took me for a whizz around town earlier this afternoon, I got my first look at Bodhgaya, a dusty little village with an abundance of buddhist temples. The livestock and dogs wandered freely, competing for the same space as beggars, vendors, bicycles, rickshaws, pony carts… A thriving market scene in progress in the midst of medieval filth. The air of neglect and decay, the stench of unwashed humanity and clogged drains, the wafting insense.. ahhh…. India!

Neranjara River

Neranjara River

There was the river Neranjara where the ex-ascetic Siddartha/Gautam accepted his first meal of rice pudding and had his first bath. It was described as a beautiful river with shallow parts where  buffaloes crossed. Now here’s what appears to be a landfill, a river of sand, of piles of garbage, of plastic bags, of rummaging pigs, scavenging goats and scratching chickens, except during the monsoons when it turned back into a river and drown a few people….

We sat down at a tea stall amidst a mesmerizing flurry of flies. 2 friendly dogs came to put their heads on Dick’s lap and lick my ankles. Everyone seemed to know Dick, it was namaskar all around. I’d taken a few photos and noticed the dust on my camera, even under the LCD. I worried about my lens. Looking through the camera, I watched one guy and his motorbike, recently drenched in navy blue paint, looking upset. There were some yelling and much waving of arms. The conflict appeared to be amicably resolved. It was Holi after all. 

Thai chanting at the Mahaboddhi stupa

Thai chanting at the Mahaboddhi stupa

After dinner: It is the night of the full moon, always auspicious in the eastern calender. At the Mahabodhi stupa, the Thai buddhist pilgrims were out in force. Thai chanting is very beautiful. The stupa was built and wrecked a few times in it’s long history. It’s a site of pilgrimage for buddhists and hindus both. The stupa sits infront of and dwarfs the decendent of the legendary pipal tree under which the buddha attained enlightenment. Between the tree and the stupa is a structure called the diamond throne. It supposedly marks the site of the aforementioned enlightenment. The place has a special energy as holy places of most religions do. But, for me personally, it would have been better without all the other construction around the tree. I wonder what the buddha would say about the diamond throne. I suppose people need to venerate their heros and gods, regardless. 

 

That night, Holi night, far from being a silent night, a huge rukus was heard passing by the Maitreya Project compound where I was staying. Fireworks were being set off, perhaps shots were being fired as well. People were twirling balls of rags soaked in kerosene, drinking, visiting different bonfires. It sounded like a bit of a riot to me. I figured with the gurkha guards in place, there was no danger of any trouble. But Bihar State is not the safest in the land. It is reputed to have a weak government and a strong mafia. I was alarmed to hear a scuffle, some shouting and running feet. I looked out to see 2 members of staff racing toward the gate. After listening for a while I drifted off to sleep. The rukus had gone on all night.

4 On Board the Poorva Express

5 March 10.00 pm
The train spent it’s time equally between moving and non-moving. 4 hours into the journey, we are already 2 hours behind. Arjit, a nice young man whose berth is above mine tells me. He hopes to get into NTU, the technical university in Singapore, and eventually end up in the aerospace industry. He’s interesting and well-read, and does not seem like a homicidal maniac. I hope we had not been keeping the other passengers up. The thali dinner arrives after Arjit disembarks. A new passenger for the upstairs berth, a middle aged woman has arrived to plonk herself down at the other end of my berth. She stared at me and I blinked at her. After a couple moments of confusion, all on my part, I decided to let it go, and settled into my thali.

6 March, 6.30 am
After an uneventful night, the lady finally left me to my own devices, I wake to the train stopping at what later turned out to be Varanasi (the previous Benares which was previous to being Benares, Varanasi). The station platform at 6.30 in the morning was drab, teeming as usual. Actually it was more like a war zone– you know when the camera pans across the faces of a sea of refugees? Or is it the annual convention of the rag and bone industry? Jokes aside, I fear I feel ill equipped to step onto this platform come next Friday night. Leaving Varanasi station, the train slithers its way slowly through a decayed ghost town and over the river Ganges. There with its face to the rising sun, the oldest city in India appear to be crumbling slowly back into the river.

Streaky Window View 6 March
Mud bricks drying in the sun. Kilns issuing smoke. Padi fields.
Small hamlet with their livestock. Straw roofs superimposed on crumbling brick walls. Here a
mud hut, there a straw hut, men squatting in the fields mooning the train. A family bathing at the water pump.

More crumbling villages. Faces and clothes smeared with colour, some people evidently got a head start on the Holi festival. Cows lying on their bellies chewing the proverbial cud. Ancient buildings, leaning, crumbling. The train passing the station of Kudra by. Cows grazing on the other track. A train passes us on that track heading for the cows.

Kumehu, another non-stop. No more mooners, the mooning time of the morning seems to be over. The train attendant comes to tell me “next stop Gaya, near about 1 hour”, with a little jiggle of the head and index finger pointing. A flock of sheep newly sheared, a river of sand, fluttering saris crossing it. A crippled man with diminutive legs sweep down the aisle with a coconut broom. He doubles back to beg.

2 stops and “near about 2 hours later” the Indian gentleman in the next compartment announced the station of Gaya. After a whiz around the station dodging beggars and taxi-wallahs, I find the main entrance and there was Dick Jeffrey, the director of the Maitreya School for Universal Education, my host in the realm of the historical Buddha, Bodhgaya.