flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)


Five million people named Patel came together for a six-day festival at the nearby temple and town of Unjha. We joined them in celebrating Patel progress and culture.

Every few decades, the Patidar caste has a huge gathering. The last one was in 1976. Patels are historically businessmen and farmers. In Gujarat, well over half the population are members of the various Patel sub-castes. The festival helps raise money for various educational foundations. But mainly, it's about religion and Patel pride.

Seven of us--Hiren and Chandrika and their kids--piled into Alkesh's car and braved the crazy traffic around the fair. Dozens of jam-packed buses zoomed around us, shuttling people back and forth from the surrunding towns. Many additional people rode on the roofs of the buses, holding on and cheering. The festival-goers needed all the transportation they could get; most people here don't have private cars. Those people who are lucky enough to own their own vehicles usually have motorcycles instead. The parking lots were filled with motorbikes as far as we could see; Michael said the number of motorcycles was more than the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in North Dakota. Alkesh parked in one of the relatively few automobile lots and we joined the throngs of people.
Photo of a huge motorcycle parking lot, lit up with carnival lights

The sheer numbers were daunting, but the festival had good logistical management. Barriers herded people into queues, with artfully decorated solid walls to stop people ducking under. Brightly colored cloth covered the ground everywhere, keeping the dust down. For once, manure was not a problem; guards and fences kept the cows out of the main areas. Litter control was rather lacking, however.  We shuffled our way through mini-snowdrifts of discarded plastic cups around the overflowing dust-bins.

Superficially, the festival is similar to a big state fair. There's a combination of amusement-park rides and educational exhibitions. There's also a lot of shopping; all the various industries are represented. Everyone who is anyone is there. So Toyota and Tata motors showed off their gleaming new cars. Energy companies displayed new CFL light-bulbs. We even saw a vendor selling cotton candy (pure-veg, of course).  I wanted to see the agricultural exhibits, but it was late and most of the exhibits had closed. One of the few open booths was sponsoring a campaign against the worldwide eating of beef. They tried to single us out and ask us to sign a petition. We declined.

Unlike US fairs, this festival had a very strong underlying religious aspect. The temple at the center of the fair is a major part of the devotions. Chandrika, Hiren's wife, had joined the tens of thousands who walked 25 kilometers to the temple at Unjha, leaving at moonrise and arriving in the early morning.

Painting of Krishna coming down from heaven to the farmers below

A series of life-size dioramas and paintings showed how Patels had progressed through the centuries, from small farming villages to modern times. Mixing history with religion, many scenes showed scenes from the Mahabharata and (I think) how Lord Krishna had ridden down from heaven on an elephant and blessed the Patel clan. With the gods' help, the farmers evolved, using better technology, and Patels moved into other industries. The last panel featured the modern, global Patel businessman, standing by the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower to symbolize the worldwide Indian disapora.
 
Several old pictures, showing an elderly woman in tribal dress, and village life

Our favorite part was a display of old black-and-white photographs. They showed historic Gujarati life in villages, with traditional farming methods and ethnic costumes. We couldn't read the dates, but it was nice to see those windows into Gujarat's past. That was a very small part of the festival. The recurring theme showed the past as an afterthought, to contrast with how far they've come and how modern they are now. America is such a young country; we have so little history when compared to India. It's great that Indians are proud of their progress, but they have such a rich heritage, too.
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
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.

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