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Today I visited the Patel family and their children's school. Chandrika, professor Hiren Patel's wife, invited me to come spend the afternoon with her. They have a seven-year-old son named Arditya and a four-year-old daughter called Aditi. Chandrika is a stay-at-home mom, the norm in Visnagar where the low cost of living allows a comfortable middle-class lifestyle on a professor's salary.

The Patels' children are very bright and amazingly well behaved. Remember, these children came with us on an eight-hour road-trip each way, and never complained; no tantrums, no fussing, and no fighting with each other for the whole weekend. This behavior continued at their home. They momentarily disagreed with each other about a toy but immediately resolved it by themselves and continued playing happily in seconds. As I told Chandrika, when I have my own children someday, I would feel very blessed if my future kids are as good as hers.

We talked about life in the US and India. Chandrika and Hiren lived in Alabama for two years in the early 2000s while he worked in an engineering job there. She was a little nostalgic for the US, and shopping at Wal-Mart and the dollar store and supermarket. She still remembers many of the prices! She explained a few of the differences in India, like how a milkman delivers fresh milk to her home every morning, and she shops for vegetables in the evenings for dinner. She showed me her foodstuffs and spices, and I recognized almost all of them by name except for “elaichi” (cardamom). She also made some delicious “chai” tea, boiling milk and water and sugar with grated ginger and spices and loose tea leaves, strained out at the very end. Her kitchen is currently improvised, with a stove set up in a small side bedroom. Half of their house is being renovated for when Hiren's parents move in next month.

We talked a little bit about our families. Chandrika grew up in Visnagar and her parents and siblings still live nearby. Hiren's parents currently live about 5 kilometers away; Chandrika and her family will visit and stay with them for the Diwali holidays. I told her about my parents and my sister and my husband's parents, and how we wished they all lived closer to us in the US so we could see them more often. Most people (at least in Gujarat) choose to stay near their relatives. Furthermore, the custom in India is for parents to move in with their son's family when they retire.

Chandrika showed me photo albums with their wedding pictures and their children's baby pictures. Hindu weddings are very elaborate, festive, major life-cycle events. All the family members have some part in the ceremony, and there are many special customs: to name a few, all kinds of ritual greetings, painting the bride's hands with beautiful henna designs, a lively negotiation for gifts when the bridegroom goes to formally enter the bride's parents house, lighting fires together for a blessing, chanting songs and prayers, the couple feeding each other sweets, etc. Everyone we visit proudly shows us their wedding album and family photographs; it's often the first thing people do when we visit someone's house. I regret that I did not take any of my own wedding pictures with me to India; it would be nice to reciprocate.

Both children go to the same “English medium” primary school, where the lessons are taught in English instead of Gujarati. Like almost all middle-class families here, the Patels pay tuition for a private school (called a “public school” here, in the British terminology). The Patels consider the ultra-low-cost government schools to have insufficient facilities and provide an inferior education. Their children's school is located very close to their neighborhood, well within walking distance, but across a busy highway. Chandrika walks her children to and from school for safety. The children's school schedule is a half-day each, Monday through Saturday. Her four-year-old daughter goes to kindergarten-like classes in the mornings, and her seven-year-old son attends “first standard” (first grade) in the afternoon. They each eat lunch at home.

Chandrika and I visited the children's school to pick up Arditya. We dashed across the road and then dodged the cows and other traffic on the sidewalk and shoulder. Chandrika introduced me to the school's principal, who invited me to walk around and see the school. I also met Arditya's teacher, a woman about our age. The classrooms are very similar to US schools, with chalkboards and colorful posters on the walls and little student desks. The school building is different though; like many Indian institutional buildings, it has open-air stairwells and hallways with roofs but no walls.

Chandrika and I stood by the school's principal in the hallway and waited for her son. The principal is a kind-looking lady, not much older than us, and she is well-liked by her students. Dozens of children ran up to her as they streamed past, briefly touching at her feet before dashing outside. Touching feet is an Indian gesture of respect for elders, and also a wish for the older person's blessings and good fortune to be shared with the younger person (like having their good luck rub off on them). There were hundreds of children in smart red uniforms, spilling past us and outside into the playground and plaza. This was the last day of school before the holiday break for Diwali, so the students were very excited and eager to go on vacation. We finally found Arditya and carefully walked back to the house.

The Patel children are exceptionally bright. Arditya is the top-ranked student in his grade level. His four-year-old sister, Aditi, can already say and write the entire English alphabet despite speaking only Gujarati at home. Professor Hiren credits his children's success entirely to Chandrika's influence; he proudly praises her parenting skills and intelligence. Chandrika went to college and has a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering, so she's a good match for Hiren and, in his opinion, the best possible mother for his children. Hiren says having one good, literate mother is like giving them a hundred teachers. When I see the success of Chandrika's children, I have to agree.

flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
If you don't like crowds, don't go to a major Hindu temple on a festival night of the full moon.

Per our driver's suggestion, we squeezed in Ambaji temple on the way back from Mount Abu. Many shops line the roads around Ambaji temple. The shops sell everything a pilgrim needs to make an offering, including cocumb (sp?), huge piles of the red powder used to mark the heads of religious pilgrims. Our driver bought incense and a coconut.

Ambaji's large temple attracts many Hindu pilgrims to its gold-topped turrets. This was a festival - Sunday night, the night of the full moon after the Navaratri festival. There were long lines of people waiting, winding around like the queues for an amusement park but much more tightly packed. We went through security (metal detectors and armed guards).  The guard took Alkesh's incense away; I'm not sure if it's contraband or if it would be offered later.  We left our phones and camera in the car (photography is prohibited there).

Imagine a crowd packed more tightly than a Metro train at rush hour, but with the chaos of a mosh pit and the zeal of a Pentecostal church. We were caught in the thick of it. The drums were beating and the Hindu pilgrims were in high religious fervor. We were buffeted forward and almost lifted off our feet in the waves of swaying people pushing forward and pressing behind and all around us. The crowd ebbed and flowed in time to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. Every so often, the loudspeaker blared chants that were suddenly answered with loud shouts from all the people surrounding us.  Some people near the sides prostrated themselves; most were just standing and slowly moving forward in the crowd, getting as close as they could to see the place where the idol would sit, if there were an idol there. (It's a kind of decorated alcove; the lack of an idol there has religious significance.)  After maybe a half-hour, we somehow were pushed toward the side and out of the surge. We made it out to the cool night air and just breathed.

The beggar-children outside the Ambaji temple spotted us. Visnagar kids may follow us around, but the Ambaji kids were much more aggressive. They physically tapped and poked at us to get our attention. They followed us to our car and tapped on the windows all around us. Our driver actually slapped one child on the cheek when the boy would not let him get to his car.  The driver then somehow maneuvered it away.

We had dinner at a Gujarati dining hall. The waiters must not see Westerners often. They gathered around our table, refilling our dishes, constantly dishing out food so it was hard to actually eat.  The mutter paneer was done a different way than I make it; theirs had a thin rather than a thick creamy sauce, but I liked it.  I also liked the palak (sauteed spinach).

We would've appreciated Ambaji more if we had not gone on a festival day.

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