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.

flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Forget the pied piper of Hamelin.  Nothing lures a crowd of homeless children faster than an American with an iPhone.

Whenever we walk into town, we pass through a neighborhood of several blocks of improvised dwellings. This is where the poorer people of Visnagar live; the not-quite-homeless. The structures are not really houses, either, just lattices of wooden sticks, with tarps or blankets stretched over them to provide some shade against the sun.  They're at least semi-permanent structures, and families live there year-round.  We see women doing laundry in basins in their yards behind the lashed-stick fences. Despite the poverty, they're all genuinely friendly. The adults smile and wave at us; the kids stare and smile and follow us like puppies. These aren't beggar children living off tourists and wanting Western money. They're just normal kids wanting attention from the only non-Indians they've ever seen; they look at us like movie stars.

Michael takes his iPhone with him, snapping photos of everything and everyone. The kids (and adults) see, and want their pictures taken too.  All the people are delighted to see their picture on an iPhone. The kids run up to us, wanting us to take their picture with them and show it on the digital screen. They're aware the technology exists (cell phones are plentiful), but it's a novelty to pose with a westerner. Apple iPhones are in kind of a gray-market status in this country. Jailbroken phones work for voice (albeit unsupported) with a local Vodafone SIM card, though not the data connection.
Michael with the kids.
The attention is fine, even cute, for the first couple kids. But once the crowd gets to be over a dozen it's unmanageable. The children all followed us as we continued walking through their neighborhood. Even the kids we had photographed didn't stop, they just kept following, and called to their friends to come running out to join them. There must have been fifty or sixty kids, or maybe more. We ended up running out of the block and into town. They didn't follow us across the busy road into Visnagar proper.
Indian mother holding her child
We probably can't post many more of the pictures, since so many people are missing clothing. It's not just the kids. One woman insisted we take her family's picture, and only afterward remembered to pull up her choli. More problematic are the children who run around bottomless or completely without clothes.  And there are lots of those kids.  The ones who do wear clothes might never have seen Americans, or even met anyone who traveled there, but many wear American castoffs from  "Boys and Girls Club of the Monroe Area" or similar giveaway items. It could indicate real abject poverty, since textiles are so inexpensive in India. But it's also possible the kids enjoy wearing shirts with English words on them; certainly most of the college students do. It's probably some of both.  But these kids aren't beggars like Slumdog Millionaire; they're living with their families. They didn't look malnutritioned. And none of these children asked us for money. One kid even bicycled up to us and wanted to give us a rupee coin (we refused). What a change from Delhi!

I don't know how many of these kids are in school.  Friday was a national holiday (Gandhi's birthday), and the schools were closed. India reportedly offers free primary-school education through age 14, though I don't know how widely it's enforced or effective; it is a developing country.  Most of the college's faculty send their upper-middle-class kids to "English medium" private schools.  Whenever we ask the ages of the professors' kids, the answer is always given in their "standard" (grade level), not their age in years. That may also reflect the academics' bias toward schooling.

We didn't know it, but our driver's rental-car business is right downtown. So we ran right by the little shop where our driver, Alkesh, does business. His father was minding the desk, and he sent Alkesh after us. They invited us in and treated us to some cold Thums-Up [sic], a popular cola here.  Alkesh has a little house that belonged to his grandfather. The front room has his black-and-white photo in his policeman's uniform, next to a half-dozen large, elaborate portraits of the goddess Lakshmi. The whole house sits behind a little front office with a rope bed/bench and a desk with a Gujarat map and mileage chart. His whole business office is about half the size of my cubicle at work. 

In addition to Alkesh's father, we met his wife and their children, two seven-year-old twins (a son and daughter).  Alkesh's kids are learning English at school, and they said hello to us. Mostly they were shy and hid behind their mother.
Alkesh's wife, Abiditi, and her children Rasviti and Rasvitya
Alkesh's wife is a mechanical engineer by training and housewife by choice. These days her mechanical devices are limited to her treadle-powered sewing machine (for private use, not like the many men in the tailor shops).  She invited me to try it; they were surprised that I knew how to operate it.  She doesn't know English. She learned ME in the Gujarati language. She chose to stay home and raise the kids and teach them good values. Visnagar is a small town with a very low cost of living, even by Indian standards, and single-income households are the norm here.  I get the impression that dual-income couples are considered one of those things that city people have to do to afford living, but it's strongly preferred to have the wife stay home and raise the kids properly. And here, running a household is a lot like running a full-time business. The wives manage the servants, and do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning for their households, which often are large families spanning multiple generations.

Housing is not very expensive, but that doesn't mean everyone has a proper house.  Some of the college students choose to pay $20 per month and rent a whole house, instead of staying in the college hostels (dormitories). One of the professors, driving us around in our first week, pointed out what he called the slum areas.  Those have enormous trash heaps and big stinky cesspools next to shacks constructed of whatever was handy at the time. It's common there to build a temple in front of the illegal houses that don't meet building codes. The temple blocks people from trying to tear down the building. Apparently there are between ten and twelve thousand homeless people in Visnagar, and hundreds of temples. The town's total population is about 50 or 60 thousand, a small town by Indian standards. That professor is of the opinion that people who want work can find it, and people who are homeless are probably that way by choice. I don't know if our stick-house neighbors are included in the "homeless" figure, but I would expect so. They probably don't consider themselves homeless; they're with their families.

We have seen the truly homeless. There's a family of at least three adults and several kids, who all sleep on the sidewalk right outside the gate to the college. We've stepped over them several times or walked around them when we go walking at nights.  Click to read the rest of this entry; it's disgusting. )

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