Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Singing in a Sari

In the odd half hour between finishing lunch and beginning the afternoon session with the kids one afternoon I decided to quickly check my email in the computer room. It had been almost two weeks and having some time, I thought I could get in a minute at the computer. As soon as I opened the door the room became crowded with kids who watched anxiously as I signed onto gmail, and they immediately began reading my emails aloud. I quickly sent off a message to my mom that I was alive but couldn’t write much more because there were a whole bunch of kids reading over my shoulder. In the midst of all this, one of my second graders, Prashansa, came in to invite me to her house that afternoon. Although I had other obligations that day, I agreed to go the next week. The following Tuesday, Prashansa and a few of her friends spent the entire afternoon with me anxiously awaiting the arrival of 3:30 when we could leave school and head for Prashansa’s house at 3rd mile. Walking out of the school and down alongside the gate, Ali and I trekked home with Prashansa, Anusa, and Subarna, and a flood of other kids who peeled off from the group as we passed their houses. We were chatting with the girls, as much as we could considering their second grade level of English. They were teaching us some Nepali and we were singing songs, some that they had learned in school and a couple Hindi and Nepali songs that I knew pieces of. Anusa loved to sing “Mayalou Le” with me because this was a Nepali song that I knew a little bit of. She was thrilled to discover that also knew part of "Hari Krishna," a Hindi song, and asked me to sing it repeatedly. Trying to keep my balance as we traversed rocky, uneven trails and crossed streams all the while moving steeply downhill and with each of my hands tied to a second grade girl holding tightly onto it, I was more than a little preoccupied so I was happy to sing it each time she asked. It wasn’t until we had been walking for almost 20 or so minutes that I realized Anusa would ask me to sing every time we passed someone along the way. She was content to merely talk with me as we were walking but as soon as we saw someone out in the fields or on the road, she would get me to start singing these songs. I began to understand that she was, in a sense, showing me off, her new, white friend who, by singing in Nepali or Hindi, demonstrated knowledge of these little glimmers of Anusa’s Indian culture. It was amusing for people along the way to see me, a white, American girl singing a Nepali song. The attraction only got better after stopping at Prashansa’s house where I was dressed in a Sari and paraded even further down the road, singing a few lines in Hindi or Nepali each time we passed anyone along the way. The sight of me was absurd. Here I was, a white girl with brown curly hair wearing a bright orange sari over my tee shirt and with my jeans sticking out at the bottom singing in my broken Nepali and being laughed at by everyone along the way as we walked along the side of the road. Although it became uncomfortable for me being shown off in this way, I couldn’t blame these girls for their excitement that I was outwardly embracing aspects of their culture. Chakrabarty, in his article, argues that Indian history “is in a position of subalternity” (1) and is constantly viewed through a Western lens. As a result of colonization he says that Indian history and culture has come to be defined by Western influences. Although there were numerous hints of Western culture apparent throughout Kalimpong and evident in the children we worked with--their clothing, their love for Akon and Avril, their English language skills--this experience with Anusa completely contradicted Chakrabarty’s ideas. Anusa, a small Indian girl, could not be happier that her older, American friend was embracing aspects of her Indian culture. She was so amused by it, in fact, that she wanted to show this off to everyone we passed. Surely I was a sight to see. Why would an American girl be dressed in a sari and singing Nepali songs? It almost seemed as if everyone laughing was doing so in disbelief. Contrary to Chakrabarty’s views, I, a Westerner was taking part in a unique aspect of Eastern culture. Throughout my time in Kalimpong, a most incredible and rewarding experience, I came to adore the people there and everything that I learned of their culture. To me, it was a joy to embrace their unique Indian culture and take part in a cultural exchange in which I was continually fascinated not only by some Western influence I observed but more often by numerous aspects of Indian culture that to me seemed uninfluenced by the West.

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