I shouldn’t have said I wanted my breakfast at 7.30am. I thought I’d be up, I really did! But I also thought they’d have breakfast ready an hour later, like with dinner the previous night. But at 7.30am, they knocked on the door. I roused myself, and eventually ate at 8, but everything was still much too spicy for my taste, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t eat much.
Having spent the morning wrestling with a dictionary and failed translations, I decided I would really have to get a tutor, especially since Chiraddikulam has no Mr Farhan and I was also sans Kamal. I was relieved when I was told a translator had been located, though!
She turned up at lunchtime, and I liked her immediately. I hurriedly finished up lunch (which had no spice since I’d asked for less spice), wondering whether leaving at 12.30 was too early for a 3pm workshop – but we always seemed to go late to Chiraddikulam on previous CI visits, so I thought I shouldn’t take a chance.
Just as I was packing the last of my things to take with me, who should call but Mr Kanapathy! He was in the hotel, just downstairs! I ran down to greet him, and it really was like seeing an old friend. Not only had he been told to rest because his foot (on which he’d had an operation the previous year) was playing up, but apparently he had really high pressure as well. He confided in me that he used to be a very heavy smoker, which may have contributed, and he was trying to smoke less – but clearly he was finding that rather difficult, from the wry expression on his face! He offered to come translate, and even though I wanted to say YES PLEASE it felt really unfair to do that. I assured him that I would be fine with the lady they’d found.
After picking up more milk at Cargills, I set about explaining what my programme would entail. Maheshwari seemed to be completely on board, but I’m learning this lesson very very slowly: people in this area will never tell you something is inconvenient, or they can’t do something, or they don’t understand, or to repeat something, or anything that they think is troublesome to me. Which means I constantly need to check and re-check whether things are making sense, or if they will really work out as people assure me they will, because as I found out during the workshop, I’d confused her more than anything else!
I sensed that our driver, Nanthar, expected Chiraddikulam to be just around the corner all the time, even though I’d explained it was two hours away – it felt a little awkward, and I was relieved as we drew closer. Upon arrival, however, I had more challenges – Nanthar just disclosed he hadn’t had lunch, but the army didn’t seem forthcoming on helping Nanthar out with food options. He had to make do with a packet of biscuits while I died of embarrassment. Also, the children hadn’t yet arrived…so the overseeing army unit suggested we sit in the Officer’s Mess. I had no idea how Maheshwari would feel about this, but how can you say no to the army?
So we sat awkwardly on two plastic chairs (Nanthar decided to stay in the van) and drank a curious orange drink, while one of the officers casually let me know that Major Edirisinghe hadn’t actually passed on my message about coming, and that this was the first he had heard of it. Wonderful. I was beginning to realise how lucky I was that my first workshop had gone so smoothly. Meanwhile, Maheshwari started cheerfully telling me about her life, and I died of embarrassment all over again.
She started off with a quick grin, “How old do you think I am?” And then, before I could answer, she poured out a quick summary of her life. Meet Maheshwari:
She casually disclosed that she was my age, but already had two sons, one four and a half the other six and a half. No, make that seven. Today was his birthday. TODAY. (Well done, Nushelle.) She’d asked her mother to buy him a small cake. He wanted to take toffees for all his friends in school. She told me quite proudly that she gave her children all she could within her capacity. They were really boisterous children, though, and she felt that when they were older she’d have to board them at school. She was also looking after her sister’s son, who was ten, because her sister and husband died in the war. Her mother had just had an operation for something I didn’t understand. They’d pawned her gold jewellery to pay for it. Her husband had left her four years ago. He went abroad and never came back. He was Sinhalese. She’d met him in Kandy. She’d grown up in Vavuniya but moved to Kandy when her father died (her mother was living in Kandy), and she was brought up by her uncle. She’d attended school until the 7th grade, and I’m assuming she met her future husband a little after that. He was in the catering business, and together they’d run a small “hotel” (small roadside restaurant), selling short-eats like patties and cutlets, and koththu. Apparently he was a good cook. Now she works in the bakery that supplies Thai Hotel with the strawberry jam buns I’d eaten before for breakfast. She earns about Rs. 15,000 (~$100) a month. The last bus back to her village was at 6.30pm (I didn’t think we’d be back home before 8pm) and if she missed it, Nanthar would drop her home.
What a lot of things people don’t tell me! She was missing her son’s birthday, I was inconveniencing both her and Nanthar. Argh. It was now almost 3.30pm, and as we played with a tiny black puppy (naaikutti in Tamil!) that quite suddenly appeared on the scene, I decided this was all a little overwhelming. It was hot, the children were being told to run over for the workshop NOW (which meant they probably wouldn’t have eaten lunch), it was Maheshwari’s son’s birthday, she was going to miss her bus home, and Nanthar was eating Lemon Puff for lunch. All in all, I thought it would be best to have a truncated version of the workshops.
They’d gotten together 10 children, some still in their school uniforms, at the community centre, and I sighed. This going-through-the-army was difficult. My messages weren’t that important to them, and requests got lost in translation (I discovered that the motley crew of children they’d assembled ranged from eight to fourteen, not the twelve 9-11 year olds I’d asked for.)
The workshop was a little crazy. Maheshwari had gotten all my games mixed up in her head (I’d given her an information overload when outlining my workshop schedule, apparently!) so I had to explain again. They did the keep-the-ball-in-the-air game beautifully once, but as soon as my camera appeared the children fell apart. They couldn’t yell out all kinds of feelings the way the Kakkaiyankulam kids did – I had to resort to saying, “What do you feel like when you mother hits you? When you get a nice present? When you do well in school?” I made the mistake of asking more complex questions, after I thought they’d got the hang of it: “What do you feel like when you father gets you a new shirt and you don’t like the colour?” They looked blank, and I knew I’d put my foot in it. These children don’t have the luxury of disliking the colour of a new shirt, and I felt awful all over again.
I asked them to write their essay at home, since it was almost time to go (Maheshwari thought they were too young to write about a time they felt happy/sad/frightened, and I was thunderstruck. I still have to wrap my head around the complete disparity of our education). So I asked them to write about their birthday. They also have no pencils – how do they survive in school? So I gave them all pencils, and I’ll just hope they bring them back next week!
I then distributed chocolate milk (I made the mistake of expecting them to take one each from the bag – apparently I’m supposed to hand them out) and the biscuits (I made the mistake of not distributing these either – some children grabbed eight biscuits while the last three little girls got one each. I then made the mistake of berating the little boy with two fistfuls of biscuits – Maheshwari said, “Pau ne? Let him take them!” And when I said, “No, but those little girls after him will have nothing!” she didn’t seem to understand, and I think, for the first time, I was really concerned. Fairness is not a huge deal, it seems – you grab what you can, and if the person after you has nothing, well, tough luck. Perhaps fairness is a luxury? If you know that if you aren’t opportunistic now, you won’t get anything later, then maybe fairness feels a little dumb. I don’t know. All I do know, though, is that these kids are not yet ready for “Take a biscuit and pass the packet down, please”, just yet. I still have so much to figure out.
With all this Cultural Immersion, I was exhausted when we wrapped up at 5pm. Writing this now, in the comfort of my house, I can feel grateful – not only for my easy, pampered life, but also for the way I was helped by so many people who were inconvenienced by my well-meaning but poorly-thought-out project. At that point, though, I just felt gauche, naïve, awkward, embarrassed, ashamed, and definitely a foreigner. Well, the project was well-received in Kakkaiyankulam; I’ll just have to see who comes back next week in Chiraddikulam.
After a puri/potato dinner, I fell asleep and dreamed of all kinds of ridiculous things I can’t remember, before waking up blearily at 4.30am the next day to travel home. Here is part of my morning reading – not really encouraging when I plan to be in V-town every week! Eek. Slept almost all the way home, naturally, but woke up in time to see the end of Tangled, which was showing on the ExpoRail TV, and inexplicably, the French version of Up! Everything was muted, but it’s funny how you can still tell what’s going on. And sometimes gather snatches of conversation from the way animated characters’ mouths move! That IS some talent.
Also , check out some delightfully creative Engrish I discovered at the Fort railway station, no less.