Friday, February 15, 2008

Still Reeling

I sit here in Miller library at Colby and try, try really hard, to understand the fact that only two weeks ago I was on the other side of the globe. I sometimes can't grasp it. All the people I met and all of the places I visited, many of which I may never see again, are memories that seem more closely related to fantastical day dreams. Yet when I force myself to dredge something out of my head that feels more solid then the rest, I come up with a few events that were defining elements of my experience in India. The first of these is from our weekend excursion to Gangtok, a grand adventure composed of many smaller escapades. Subash, an ex-boarder from the Ashram who was attending college in Darjeeling, wanted to take myself and Jack to meet his roommate, who was from Gangtok. While the rest of the group took off to visit some temple somewhere, the three of us caught a cab into the center of the city, where we hung around outside of a movie theater waiting for a phone call. After a few minutes, a group of kids passed by, stopped and turned around, talked to Subash and then told us to follow them. So we did, wandering down some back streets and up some old paths in a hillside to an old and apparently abandoned government building. Outside were a number of kids of high school or college age, crouching or sitting around in a vague circle. One of them stood up with a shout and grabbed Subash, hugging him and speaking rapid-fire Nepali. Jack and I were introduced to him as Johnny, Subash's roommate. He was small and thin, but seemed bulky in the American-style "gangsta" clothing he was wearing, and had a number of tattoos and piercings, most notably the tattoo in the space between the thumb and forefinger that most of the kids there seemed to have. He sat us down, offered us cigarettes, and asked us, in broken English, where Jack and I were from. "America," we said, and all of the bystanders exchanged smiles and nods with each other, and Johnny began serving as interpreter for a question and answer session about American life and style. Most of these kids had elements of American style about them, particularly what would be considered "gansta" style, and yet seemed to have no idea about where these things came from, or how they factored into an American existence. Johnny took out his cellphone, which could play MP3 files, and played American songs that would be scoffed at as throw-away pop by most people in the States. They seemed to like it, and even thought it was popular music in America. They asked us about school, race relations within the States, American sexuality, drug use, our friends and family, what we did for fun, what music we listened to, and, what seemed most important, how we liked India and what we thought about the people and the culture. Not only were they very interested in learning about American culture firsthand, it seemed they also wanted our affirmation or approval of the elements of American culture that they had adopted. It was hard to tell them at times that the things they thought of as characteristic of America, and admired a lot, were in fact just the heavily commercialized things that industry decided to export and sell on the international market, and were actually minor cultural aspects in the States. Another thing that comes to my mind when I search for events central to my Indian experience is the evening I and several other Colby students spent talking with Jerome, the history and geography teacher at the Ashram. He invited us to his house for drinks and food, and we sat around discussing aspects of our trip and the experiences we had Ashram. Through his ability to see clearly through many of the veils of Indian society, particularly the ones that affected the Ashram, Jerome helped us to reach a more grounded view of the culture we were grappling with. He talked about the mixed feelings people have for Gandhi (was he really a uniter, if the India he helped construct is now so divided?), about the rumblings of the Gorkhas, about the poverty of his people, about the corruption of ideals at the Ashram, about the effect that our visit has on the students and the community, and about how his own dreams reflect the dreams of other Indians and the community as a whole. After listening to him, trying to understand this culture by way of academic papers and and analyses suddenly seemed less than useless - it was detrimental to the experience. You cannot generalize about a country and people so diverse, with so many different backgrounds and motivations and outlooks. This had been a thought that I had been brewing for a while, and thanks to Jerome it reached fruition. I appreciate the ideas of During and Chakrabarty, and it was good to know more about the life, thoughts, and contributions of Gandhi, but I learned much more about the daunting and magnificent country of India by listening to its people and following them through their world.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Western Education and Subalternity

When I think of the first day and the frantic, frenetic energy that coursed through the campus and classrooms, I felt utterly lost when I stood in front of my first class. What was I supposed to teach them? I lacked a reference point. I did not know their culture, their language, their learning styles, or where they were in their studies. But I needed to teach them something, so I thought back to what I had learned in 6th grade and started writing examples on the board to see if they could follow it. Multiplication they knew by heart. Decimals they finished before I could. Division they chimed in quickly. Long division the room got quieter. Long division with decimals and there was dead silence and blank stares. I now had somewhere to start. I didn’t know how they had been taught before so I taught them the steps the way I had learned them, and we got through a problem together. By then, the class was over, but this would be the way I would teach during my time at the Gandhi Ashram: the western way I knew.

Chakrabarty's article identifies Indians as being subaltern because much of their history has been shaped and evaluated through the lens of western culture. Their measurements of success and failure have not been defined by their own experiences but the experience of western culture. Europe is viewed as the pinnacle of human society and India is constrained in its ability to evaluate itself outside this value structure. While many parts of Indian culture have begun to break free of these constrictions, the system of education is undeniably English. Although the topics have been molded to fit the needs and goals of the educators, the values intrinsic in the institution are undeniably western.

I am proud of how much I was able to teach the students, and how much they were able to learn during the two and a half weeks I spent at the Ashram. However, I still wrestle with whether I helped to lift the children out of their subaltern status or further entrenched them into thinking the only way is the western way.

On the one hand, Gandhi Ashram gives its students the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and pursue their dreams. All the students recognize this and want to succeed, not just for themselves, but for the sake of their families and their communities, whom they hope to help in the future. The more they learn, the better they will perform on exams and the better chance they have of getting a university education. The only other option for these children is to work the fields with their parents and eventually become subsistence farmers with high vulnerability to poor weather and crop failure and little possibility of social mobility.

On the other hand, the Ashram is suppressing the heritage that these children have and implicitly devaluing it in favor of western traditions. The children are taught every subject in English except for Nepali. They learn to play violins, and the pieces they play were written by Europeans for European audiences. Every morning they line up and say the Lords prayer and pray before each meal, in English. Very little of the curriculum seems to have any relation to the students own culture. Because of this absence, western culture is put on the pedestal as being intelligent, public, and rational while the heritage that the children have grown up in is meant to stay at home in the private sphere. It is implicitly made to back seen as backwards, holding them back.

I felt that our program only reinforced this preferentialism. We arrived at the school and were thrust into the classroom without a reference point to their culture or their language, let alone their learning styles or where they were in their studies. As a teacher, I couldn’t appreciate what they had to offer because I didn’t know. I couldn’t try to uplift and bring out the skills and specialties that the possessed because of their subalternity because I had no idea what they were or how to find them. All I could do was teach in the style that I knew with the values I had and do my best to reach the kids. I didn’t know what they needed to learn so I decided based on my own education what I thought was important. I was the embodiment of dominant culture directing the path of marginalized culture, even though there is nothing to say that the path I see for them is the right or best one.

I find myself answering my initial question about my effect on the students of Gandhi Ashram as yes for both sides. These children and their families want them to be at the Ashram so that they can learn and have the opportunity to fulfill any dream they have. In order to do that, they need to master the education system and that system is western in nature, both in structure and in values. Ashram strives to teach them so that they are prepared once they leave to take the next step in their education. The Colby JanPlan program helped and will continue to help with that goal. When I think of all that could be done with these kids, the possibilities are endless. They have a ton potential that could be better captured with a more rigorous and focused curriculums and improved resources. That I think Colby will provide that as the program builds in the coming years. However, I think it must build carefully. I feel that I went into the program completely blind and while it was an eye opening experience, my ignorance prevented me from recognizing the culture I was teaching in until it was pretty much too late. While the children need to better develop their critical thinking and English skills, it must be in a way that includes their own background and culture, not pushes it aside. Only in that way can they truly come to master their subalternity and use it to propel themselves forward.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who Speaks for Yourself

I now understand American society a lot better upon getting away from it. After going to India, I feel that I have arrived at new insights regarding Americans’ struggle for upward mobility and the way this effort differs from the endeavors of those living in third-world countries. I feel that Americans strive upwards and aim to enter the professional middle-class because this ambition is perceived as a necessity. However, for people in third-world countries, it is a want, a desire; it is more personal. And this realization came about in a conversation I had with one of the past boarders of the Gandhi Ashram School, Viraj, who now attends college in Darjeeling and came back to the School for winter vacation.

The conversation between Viraj and me took place one night, when I went to visit the room where the male boarders lived. Upon climbing the stairs up to their room, I saw one of the most spectacular views of India. I saw mountain ranges, decorated by the lights that originated from the other residents on the hills of Kalimpong. Standing together at the top of the stairs with the lights of Kalimpong reaching out to us, we began to discuss the divisions within my culture and the corresponding unity within his. Viraj and I first started to chat lightheartedly about how certain situations at Gandhi Ashram (GA) would rarely happen in American schools—like the brotherly and sisterly love that the older kids provide for their younger classmates. From this, we progressed on to question why this is the case. Why is this familial love between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen so rare in American elementary and junior high schools? This may be pessimistic of me, but I cannot imagine a school in America that would operate as efficiently as GA, if grades kindergarten through the eighth grade were all housed in one building. And Viraj interestingly suggested that, “They [students at GA] just want to learn,” and that, “…they lose nothing from it.”

From Viraj’s response, I began to see how all the students at GA were closely connected. They all held common aspirations, which became more apparent when the seventh and eight graders gave their “I Have a Dream” speeches during the closing assembly. Their common aspiration to educate themselves is obvious, but the commonality that truly bonds these students together is their need to improve their socio-economic status. But such efforts are driven by a more personal desire because, as Viraj said, “they lose nothing from it.” Their pressure to become future engineers, professors, or lawyers originates from their individual want to live a good life and to provide for their families. They improve themselves in order to improve their status, but in America, the situation is unfortunately reversed. Americans tend to care about the status and then concern themselves with how to get there. I see this a lot as a senior in college. Many of my friends are distraught over not knowing what they will do after graduation, and I cannot help but wonder why: why are they so hung up on the idea that they need to have plans? They all want to become a member of the professional middle-class without really knowing if this is something they personally want. They are not “speaking” for themselves, which is a problem that Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses in his essay. When detailing the education of women and the portrayal of women in Bengali literature, he exposes how much of this content revolves around a European context, which directly speaks to his thesis on Eurocentrism. Chakrabarty, however, does this not only to expose the way the European sense of modernity or standard is often imposed onto Indian or other cultures in a position of subalternity, but the way this practice happens unknowingly. Therefore, if Indian history is lost through this process of imposition from Europe, then are Americans subjected to the same fate as subaltern cultures?

My answer would be yes, unless Americans learn from the students at GA and start to speak for themselves.

Human Interdependence

Mahatma Gandhi’s theory concerning human nature stresses three essential principles regarding humans. In my time in Kalimpong, I noticed that the second basic truth within this philosophy was both completely accurate and relevant; Gandhi claims that humans are “necessarily interdependent and [form] an organic whole” (Parekh 51). This interconnectivity is firmly based within the family – which is obviously a central component we Colby students noticed immediately upon arrival at the Gandhi Ashram School. Gandhi’s philosophy contends that “individuals [owe] their existence to their parents, [for] without [their] countless sacrifices they would neither survive nor grow into sane human beings. They realized their potential in a stable and peaceful society… they [then go on to become] rational, reflective, and moral beings” (Parekh 51). In other words, familial ties and support are the ultimate source of the sense of humanity I experienced and admired SO MUCH in nearly every student and family I encountered in Kalimpong. In the second week of classes, I was feeling exhausted after a full day of classes, but decided against my best judgment to walk down to Srijana’s house with a handful of other students. We took shortcuts through gardens, dirt paths, neighbor’s backyards, and immediately upon arrival at her house, we were given warm hugs and genuine smiles from at least fifteen complete strangers. After copious amounts of sugary tea and cookies, Srijana and her two sisters had a field day dressing Lane, Cassie and me in traditional saris (and even lipstick for eye shadow) – and then proceeded to match us up with ‘husbands’ for photos (and taught us seductive dance moves to Nepali pop songs for our new matches). Moreover, just witnessing this affectionate family interact made me miss my family at home. They were so affectionate, caring and happy. Three of Srijana’s family members (including both of her parents) are deaf, but I knew by their body language and steady smiles that they were delighted just to have us in their home. They didn’t want us to leave – and I didn’t want to either. On the drive back to school for dinner, all I could think about was how giving and loving her family was – Gandhi would perhaps respond to this with: “Every human being owe[s] his humanity to others… [and that the only thing] that human beings [can] do [is] to ‘recognize the conditions of their existence,’ and continue the ongoing universal system of interdependence by discharging their duties and contributing to collective well-being” (Parekh 52). Srijana’s family typified this notion on my visit, and some of my favorite students truly drove this idea home on the last day of classes. I hate admitting it, but I had favorite students; however, little did I know that they liked me nearly as much as I adored them. I was given a few family photos with personal notes written on the back – messages like: “Please don’t forget me,” and “I liked your funny violin games Emily.” I hadn’t met their families, but I was given such a precious, important piece of what really matters to these children. At the risk of sounding cliché, these students recognized the concrete importance of family, and such a simple gift revealed how deeply woven family really is into many aspects of their lives. I also thought I would include a poem written by Rabindranath Tagore (the same poet that Professor Roy read aloud at the candlelit reading on our last night in Kalimpong & a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913) that I found particularly appropriate and poignant: Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life. This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new. At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable. Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.

You jogging, Miss?

Every morning in Kalimpong (except the days I was sick) I rose early before breakfast and made my way around the hairpin turns jogging to town and back. I enjoyed discovering new Gorkhaland banners painted along the road, observing the locals beginning their daily chores and catching the first glimpse of Kanchenjunga at eighth mile if the fog had lifted. Based on the response I got from the locals the first few mornings I went out I could tell it was a foreign concept seeing someone running for fun to expend extra energy. Many people I passed were already washing clothing, carrying a massive load of firewood on their back, shoveling piles of gravel, boiling drums of oil for road repairs or sometimes just brushing their teeth. In most cases it appeared that they neither possessed the time nor the energy to run twelve kilometers first thing in the morning. Nevertheless, I greeted everyone I passed with a cheerful “good morning” or “namaste” and continued on my way. In the article, “Popular Culture on a Global Scale: A Challenge for Cultural Studies?” the author, Simon During, identifies Arnold Schwarzenegger as a global popular or an element of the media that transcends and is popular in markets spanning cultural boundaries. The article was written ten years ago and is largely outdated considering many of the Gandhi Ashram boarders didn’t recognize the name Schwarzenegger when I asked them. However, the defined cuts and unparalleled mass of his body became popular via the blockbuster sensation Total Recall in the early nineties. According to During, the male built body has an element of appeal on various levels. Schwarzenegger’s figure is in many regards unnatural but suggests the rigorous routine of transforming the body. The male built body reflects a relentless work regimen and that particular aspect is relatable on a private and personal level. It is apparent that the sculpting of the body is not possible without conspicuous leisure time to do so, a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper class, also the same group that is the most consumed by the concept of body image. During argues that the male built body attempts to achieve the classical Greek ideal but interestingly enough, “workouts mime and personalize labor, especially the kind of (Fordist) labor that is exported in the global economy” (818). Therefore it has its roots in the image of a working class laborer such as those found in “subaltern” communities in the hills of West Bengal (even if the Nepali villagers are not exact replicas of Schwarzenegger due to various other factors including heritage, a compromised diet or lack of steroids.) My morning experience in Kalimpong illuminated socioeconomic class differences quite apparently for me. But nothing spoke to me about the receptiveness of the culture like the second morning when I passed an older man lugging pails of water, who gave me the thumbs up and told me I was doing a great job or the random woman who leaned out of a passing taxi our final Friday to ask if that was in fact my final day in Kalimpong. Before the end of our first week the locals were greeting me first with a pleasant “morning” or “hello”. And the best part, of course, was my students. There was nothing like finding Prayash waiting for me at six and half mile to run down to Gandhi Ashram, Subash joining us and dropping his marbles or carrying Anil and Syrup’s bags as we flew down the hill doing airplanes all the way to school. Even the road repairmen operating their steamrollers got amusement out of that sight. As teachers we don’t always realize the immediate impact we’ve had on our students but I did my best this past month to make virtuosic violinists and track stars out of them.

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.

The sun is BIG

My experience at the Ashram was beyond compare. As a senior I have a unique perspective on the potential JanPlan’s can offer and I have found this experience to be the most rewarding January I have experienced through Colby, as well as being one of the most rewarding abroad experiences I have ever had. This program is unique in the Colby curriculum due to its central emphasis on community service abroad. The most important experience we all had was teaching the students of the Ashram, our academic analysis or cultural immersion was secondary to the education of the students. That is why this analysis comes as an afterthought to the core of our course, but it is through the academic articles that we discussed that an alternative perspective of our experience can be offered. Since I feel the JanPlan should focus on the education of the students I will treat the following as a guide for the most effective teaching of the Ashram students. Prior to our departure we prepared a number of lesson plans with no specific description of what to expect from the students. We requested their textbooks, or even a curriculum their teachers wanted us to focus on, but none came. In the material’s absence I resorted to my memory of early science and math classes. Unfortunately a 7th grade class here and students in class 7 in India are not equivalents; the language barrier is significant. This trend runs through every class and I found myself teaching similar material to students in class 5 and class 8. The similarities between these two classes are a product of their rout memorization of the material rather than their understanding of the concepts. The multiplication tables are memorized, but the significance of multiplication, and its use as an accelerated form of addition is non-existent. Class 5 spent the majority of their time learning addition and subtraction of fractions, but it was clear that they did not even have a firm grasp of multiplication. Class 8 spent a majority of time learning multiplication of decimals, and the inexperience with multiplication persisted. Within both of these classes mistakes arose due to simple disorganization and rushed mistakes that I could only attribute to the students attempts to please the teacher and to be the first one to finish the assigned problem. Even if the student wrote every variable of an equation at the top of a sheet of paper and assigned every variable in problem appropriately they would not be able to get the right answer because they would omit essential pieces such as the entire denominator. These mistakes were due to their method of learning; memorization and regurgitation did not allow them to develop their own understanding of the concepts, and it in fact hindered their ability to understand new concepts that did not conform to their previously experienced material. This trend continued with the students that I tutored. The Oxford published ICSE books encouraged the memorization of bold terms rather than an understanding of the concepts, and the emphasis the national exams placed on this material was so great that even when I could positively identify mistakes in the university published material my student, Neema, insisted on reviewing the books definition rather than the correct one. I feel this, and the system of regurgitation is the most important thing for me to address in the context of the academic works that supplemented our time in India. The European published textbook, and the American students arrive at the Ashram and do not encourage the subalternaties of the students, but perpetuate the Eurocentrism that has so severely damaged India. The need to memorize and recite exactly what is taught is an attempt to improve their position in the world, to continue into university and beyond, but they are never learning the material they are just good at describing it. I think that this opinion is a product of the material that I taught. Math and science are not disciplines that encourage a variety of answers, it supports a multitude of paths to the correct answer, but there is always one. These are not supported by Chakrabarty or Gandhi since there is no other answer for what 2*2 is, there is not a subaltern perspective here, but there may be a subaltern method of reaching the answer. Unfortunately the students are not offered a freedom to experience or develop their own methods, they are taught that there is a single method and they must follow it. This is why I feel the music curriculum of the Ashram to be essential, and a continuing experience with math and science to be a future source of creative expression. There must be a freedom to develop one’s own path to knowledge, they must be able to figure out the best way that they understand the concepts, and instead of being told how to get to the answer they should discover a unique way they can get there. Music is easily understood as a creative endeavor that gives the students freedom of expression, but science and math is rarely viewed as creative. I feel that we illustrated how this is not true with our fun solar system song, but these subjects will never develop the conceptual or creative aspects of the students’ brains unless they are given continued freedom to explore the intricacies of numbers and scientific observation. These is not possible through the recite and repeat method employed at the Ashram, but would correspond directly with Chakrabarty’s praise for the knowledge stored in the well of the subaltern groups.

The Influence of US

It all started with the first trip to 3rd mile. Shrijana, Bipana, Sasha and I had just left the Ashram and were beginning the 35 minute walk down the steep paved road that winds in and out of the breathtaking hills that Kalimpong sits atop. There we were, hand in hand, talking about life in US, life in Kalimpong, teenage fashion, how and why I have locs, and of course the never ending subject of boys. We passed men and women working on damaged roads that suffered from constant erosion and small kiosks run by tiny Indian women who hesitated to smile but eventually returned the friendly gesture. Everything around us—the hilly expanse, the distant fog, the clean mountain air combined with burning shrubbery—was entirely unfamiliar. That is, everything I was looking at was entirely unfamiliar. I paid little to no attention to the jeeps, homes, English billboards, men in suits, and all the other obvious signs of a growing Western influence on this remote community. And then I did. It was startling to realize that the indispensable automobile and the business suit come from none other than Western society and there I was, moments before, staring at the trees and the mountain scenery. How could I have been so blind? Western culture was all around us. In fact, to these people, we were Western culture. The ways we spoke, walked, smiled, dressed, and ate were all Western in nature.

I expected the people in Kalimpong to be surprised and generally interested in locs, but I could never have imagined them to take to them like they did. It was like flies to a flame. Little children especially couldn’t help themselves from grabbing my hair and asking me how locs were formed. The older children automatically assumed I played soccer and many of the younger ones were convinced that I played for a national team. And who can blame them? Their appetite for understanding of life in the United States is satisfied with television channels like MTV, USA, Spike TV, HBO, TNT and many more. They are fed a Hollywood version of life in the States and that is exactly what they come to see it as.

On this same long walk down to 3rd mile, I remember asking the girls why there was so much fuss about Avril Lavigne, the Canadian-born punk-pop musician. They looked at me like I had two heads. Through our talking I discovered that to Shrijana and Asha (Bipana isn’t a fan…thank goodness), Avril represents what a lot of what it meant for them to be an American girl. They view Avril as a girl who knows what she wants and goes for it. Whether she’s in a music video rebelling against the authorities or telling a boy that she should be his girlfriend, Avril represents independence and the freedom of choice—principles that supported the foundation of the United States.

After hearing them explain this in far fewer words, and arguing with them about whether or not Avril Lavigne is fashionable, the conversation inevitably shifted back to boys and my attention to our surroundings. I took in everything I could and yet I knew, even then, this trip was flying by. It wouldn’t be long before we returned to the US and all this would slowly fade from experience into a kind of dream. I thought about the girls and what they must be feeling. Kalimpong is the only home they’ve ever known.

It wasn’t until my return trip home that I thought about the dinner awaiting me when I returned to the Ashram. It was then, in the van on the way up the mountain, that I knew Kalimpong would not be the only home they would ever know. The more those girls discover, the bigger their world becomes.

Lucky Lips, Oh Yea!

Indian Classical Music entered my life just over a year ago and ever since, I could not wait to set foot in India and learn much more about the people, the music and the culture. Overwhelmed with excitement to go to such an exotic and foreign country, I knew I was embarking upon a journey of a lifetime. Little could have prepared me, however, for what was in store. The ride from Bagdogra to Kalimpong, although one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, was not at all what I had expected. Our trusty driver played terrible European pop as we drove past billboards worshiping Avril Lavigne along with various other western pop-stars. The first few days, I could not help but take note of how prevalent western influence was on Nepali culture. From Akon playing in taxis to a jeep full of teenagers rocking out to Ricky Martin, from the majority of the people dressed in western clothes to the pizza restaurants in Kalimpong, I was disheartened. Could Chakrabarty’s philosophy of Western ideals and standards being imposed and embraced by Nepali culture really stand true? Did the people of Kalimpong truly aspire to be Western, were they really loosing their ancient history and with it, identity? As the month continued and as my relationships with a few of the students intensified, my experiences were contradictary to the arguments proposed by Chakrabarty. All of the students were eager to invite me into their lives and proud to share their culture with me. They proudly opened their hearts and their homes to me and taught me invaluable lessons about patience, hard-work, and determination.

My afternoons were spent teaching and learning various dances. In the beginning, the only CD we had was Nepali folk CD. Every single student knew the dance to one of the songs and they attempted to teach it to me. As they laughed aloud at my two left feet, I could see how excited they were to share their culture with me yet they really wanted to choreograph a dance in which I would actually be capable of doing. Whenever, I tried to teach them a dance to a western artist (namely Shikira), they would roll with it for a few minutes then beg me to turn on their Nepali CD. They loved their music and their way of expressing themselves through dance and suggested that I pick up a few different CD's the next time I went to the market. The CD’s they were asking for were not traditional folk songs, but the a version of the Remix discussed by Paul Greene. The music that they were asking for, was in fact western influenced yet maintained a unique Nepali rhythm and style. This music, as Greene alludes, not only characterizes musical preferences but more importantly it symbolizes an imagined contemporary Nepali society, and not a Westernized-Nepali society. For the final performance the girls chose to choreograph a dance to the popular tune, Lucky Lips, which encompassed many of the aspects of the music Paul Green discusses. Lucky Lips, for me, was a cultural experience that resulted in a long-lasting memory. Times will change and with it preferences, but that does not mean that all of Nepali culture is being lost in this rapidly globalizing world. This new mix of music is not attempting to create a Western society in Nepal but is a result of a more contemporary and adapting Nepali culture.

Who Speaks for “Teatime’s” Past?

Okay, all joking aside and all comical references to the Chakrabarty article forgotten, it is important to consider that when we sat down to drink tea morning, afternoon, and night while in Kalimpong, we were all thinking to ourselves, ‘Jolly good chap, looks like a fine day for a cup o’ tea, eh?’ (or at least I was).  It just seems so… British.  But it’s not.  Tea came around long before the East India Company brought it to Britain.  Throughout my time in India there were these kind of customs that I saw as being clearly British and other things that were a perfect representation of traditional Indian culture.  The best way I can describe this is in a story about one day I spent in Kalimpong.  It’s a story that shows how Indian history has not been lost, but instead mixed with British culture.

The best experiences I had while at the Gandhi Ashram were those when I got the opportunity to go home with the students.  It let me not only see the culture, but experience it.  One day I was playing basketball with a bunch of the kids when Sanjeeb, a class four boy who I’d been playing with all afternoon asked me to go home with him after school.  I agreed, and when the bell rang at 3:30 that afternoon he came and found me.  We walked down the road to 5th mile and off on a path that took us through the villages scattered through the hills.  Along the way he would point at certain things: a rock, a tree, a bridge, water, and tell me the Nepali equivalent.  In some sort of odd interpretation I’d say it back to him, he would correct me, and somehow I eventually managed to piece together the syllables.  As we walked along the stone path, it eventually turned into a footpath through the trees in time coming to a large open area of terraced rice patties.  Sanjeeb pointed towards a house in the distance and told me it was his grandmother’s.  We made our way farther down the path and eventually came to a rice patty that was a bit larger than the rest.  A group of eight or so boys were playing cricket.  Sanjeeb told me they were his cousins, so we climbed up to the small field and watched for a while.  Eventually, Sanjeeb’s older cousin invited me to play.  With some hesitancy, having never played cricket before, I stepped up to the bowler position.  We played for an hour or so, until the ball got lost down the hill or across the stream.  With his cousins, Sanjeeb brought me to his grandmother’s house, slightly farther down the hill on a path that ran along the edges of the fields.  There I was given tea and fresh bananas while I tried to talk to the family using my nine year-old friend as a translator.  They would laugh at my bollixed attempts at speaking Nepali, but would always try to understand.    After tea, we continued even farther down the path, again with Sanjeeb’s older cousins.  Finally, we got to his house, a small stucco building with low ceilings behind a series of fields.  I quickly his family before his cousins took me to a building near by where I went inside and sat down on a wooden stool.  A woman in the back of the small room was kneeling over a fire oven.  It was hard tell what she was doing as she poured boiling water into a pot and kneaded the contents with her hands.  Eventually, I realized the pot was filled with millet and she was making millet wine.  She poured a few glasses and gave them to us.  Here I sat in a room with Sanjeeb’s non-English speaking cousins with a glass of millet wine in front of me.  As we’ve always said: ‘When in India….’ It quickly became dark and Sanjeeb and his cousins led me back along the path to the Gandhi Ashram.  The afternoon had been an incredible experience.

I bring up this story in such great detail because each part seems to show something about the Indian culture and British influence. With this said, I should also take into account the fact that the culture of the Kalimpong area is dominantly Nepali, not Indian.  Even still, they have traditions and customs that speak for themselves.  In his essay, Chakrabarty says that history has been written by Eurocentrist writers and philosophers using western ideals and western culture as a basis with which to compare the lifestyles and cultures of non-western societies.  His idea may be correct, but does not account for the fact that India’s culture has become a mixture of both traditional and western beliefs and ideals. Chakrabarty might say that Indian and Nepali culture have been lost in history and predominated by English culture and Bourgeoisie.  The reality, however, is that the cultures, just like languages and ethnicities, have intermingled to form one that has not lost native influence, but does represent some level of English impact.  In my afternoon with Sanjeeb and his family, playing cricket and our conversations in English were the only things that were ‘western.’  The genuine hospitality, the conversations we had in Nepali, the buildings, the fields, the lifestyles, the clothing, and the millet wine were all very traditional.  The people of Kalimpong were more welcoming, friendly, and kind than any I’ve ever met.  There is something to be said for that and the fact that their hospitality is something that hasn’t been lost in history.  They have kept their religion, their language, and lifestyles; things Chakrabarty might say have gotten lost in the eyes of history.

Chakrabarty’s point, however, of history’s Eurocentrist misrepresentation of past is certainly exhibited in the afternoon tea I had at Sanjeeb’s grandmother’s house. For whatever reason, tea is viewed predominantly as a British convention.  Chakrabarty might argue that history has written the story of the East India Company to be the beginning of the popularization of tea.  For this reason, we tend to see ‘teatime’ as a British conception.  However, well before the East India Company started importing tea to Britain, the people of India were growing and drinking tea.  The ‘history’ of tea originates long before the British arrived in India, but that part of history has been lost in some way.  As Chakrabarty points out in his article, western history predominates the writings of historians and thus written history has created tea and teatime to be a custom popularized by the western world during the 17th century. 

There’s a lot more to Chakrabarty’s point than tea, but I think this is a nice representation of the concept.  The way people perceive history is a direct result of how historians and philosophers choose to write it.  But there are things that can’t be written in history.  The colorful kurtas, saris, and sarongs, the rice patties and farms, the millet wine, the Nepali language, the hospitality; these are the customs and traditions, the lifestyles that show India’s history, even if it’s not been written down in books.  In response to Chakrabarty’s question: These are the things that speak for the silenced voices of Indian pasts.  These are the things that truly show the history of the place we called home for the month of January.

Making the link

I was nervous on the first night after the assembly. It was our time to officially begin mingling with the boarders, and other faculty of the Gandhi Ashram. I was not sure what I could possible talk about with the students, as I felt our life experiences would not be comparable. After I made it through the basic name exchange, questions about age and academic areas of interest, I was worried I would not have anything else to speak about. I then asked what seemed like the next logical question to any adolescent or young adult who was looking for conversation, “What type of music do you like?” I was relieved when he mentioned the names of Green Day, Linkin Park and Akon because I had often listened to them back in the United States. I would have never guessed that this simple question would spark the beginning of many conversations with the boarders and the link that often tied our experiences together. As Simon During explains, the global popular comes into being when a particular product or star is able to hit in multiple markets (810). Although During exemplifies Arnold Schwarzenegger as the global popular, I would argue that there are many other celebrities (both music and film) that have also achieved this level of fame and popularity in multiple markets. I believe this global popular is what helped bridge the gap between the Gandhi Ashram boarders and myself anytime we discussed Western music. I only knew music that had come from the United States, by way of Hollywood, which is a key ingredient of becoming distinguished as a representation a global popular. However, I do not think that the global popular is the only reason why we bonded over Western music. While I feel the global popular did play a part our bonding over Green Day, it is the case that English music is the only type of music we had in common. My mission when going to the Gandhi Ashram was to teach English to the students. Teaching English does not only happen in the classroom, however, it also happens (and I believe most effectively happens) when practicing speaking English in everyday conversation. It was stressed to all of the students that they should speak English at all times when within the Gandhi Ashram gates. Why was it so important for a school, like Gandhi Ashram, to teach English to its students? According to Chakrabarty, Indian history is viewed through the lens of the European experience. For India, the legacy that England left on the country is played out in a multitude of institutions, especially the education system. It is vital that English is taught because it allows a student to have a fair shot in the global world, that is increasingly being influenced by the Western world (not just Europe). Since we cannot seemingly change the way that the Western world is influencing the global society, we teach our children how to survive in the within it. However, it is easy to forget that English is not their first language. This becomes important when we ask our children to explain their history, their emotions or even simple concepts. Often times I knew they felt more comfortable talking, and explaining in Nepali, but it could not be acceptable because I had to enforce English. However, if they did not know the words, they had no choice but to be silent. I congratulated and praised the students who were the most articulate in their speaking and writing. I played into the Eurocentric legacy because while I was telling them to speak in English and praising them for their efforts, I was implicitly telling them “the better you get at English, the better you can be.” Although this was not my intention, and I am sure that it is not the intention of many teachers at schools like the Gandhi Ashram, the message is still there. Now that I reflect on this experience, the relationships I formed with many of my students and the boarders was twofold: at the same time we could bond and feel united through the lyrics of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, there is a fundamental barrier that I may not ever be able to pass.

Walks and Talks

As we walked home that afternoon, conversation bounced back and forth between love for math, the future, and excerpts of Akon. Josana invited me to her home that day, because, and I quote, she thought I was a “brilliant mathematician.” This outrageous overstatement may have been her motive, but I think I learned a great deal more from her that day than any of the math I rattled off in class.  In addition to singing Akon for her family, Josana and I took a long walk through her village. Along the way, I asked the eighth grader her thoughts on the recent “I Have a Dream” unit that she was learning in English class. She explained her speech to me. I was very impressed by her aspirations to study as much as she could so that she could be as smart as her father. She admired his discipline and love for learning. She added at the end of the conversation, however, that she and her family hate Gandhi. She seemed almost ashamed to tell me. I remember learning about Gandhi when I was in eighth grade. We read about his life, watched the long, long video outlining his autobiography, and were inspired by his discipline and passion for his cause. His innovative methods seemed so effective and ideal. It was hard to believe that anyone could not believe in him and be inspired by his non-violent ways. After spending time in India and hearing Josana’s side of the story, I gained a whole new perspective on his life. In Josana’s eyes and the eyes of her family, Gandhi allowed Britain to strip India of all its wealth. His lack of violent tactics was inefficient and useless according to them.

Although he doesn’t quite fit the role of a muscled-male body, I think that Gandhi is a good example of what During would call a global popular, an internationally known political star. At least in the United States and probably in Europe one would be hard-pressed to find a person over the age of twelve who had not heard of Gandhi before. His radical practices and devotion to his cause and religious views are things that students learn about in history classes around the world. It is interesting, though, that a global icon that we have learned about since the eighth grade has another history that we don’t learn about in our books. As Chakrabarty highlights in his article, the histories that we learn are not India’s own history, but it’s history seen through a European lens. A person who we saw as idealistic and powerful is not so to others across the globe. Additionally, we can see, as Chakrabarty would argue, that British rule has truly shaped India’s history and more importantly, the sentiments that its people feel toward the shape of their present, past and future lives. British influences and Gandhi’s intervention caused unease in at least part of the Indian population about their place in society. I could sense Josana’s family’s bitterness towards Britain and Gandhi for shaping their history in this way, as this family and many other families in the village blame Gandhi and Britain for India’s current economy and their social standing. Despite his efforts to appeal to the masses, Gandhi obviously missed some of the crowd.

The conversation quickly moved on to boys and national anthem. After a delicious home cooked meal, I walked back to the Gandhi Ashram with a new perspective on Indian history and on the reality of the lives of the students we were living among for the month of January. 

The Mural Room

As the coordinator of the infamous mural, many of my interactions with the students and teachers at the Gandhi Ashram took place in this mural room, as I like to call it. Even though the mural was intended to be a way in which students would remember their times and experiences with Colby students, the exercise of sketching and trying to express what the Gandhi Ashram and Kalimpong meant to them gave insight into what makes India distinct and separate from the Europeanism that has greatly influenced its history.

The vision for this mural was for the wall to be split up into boxes and for each class to have the ability to paint any images that relate to their school, their experiences at the winter camp, or their surroundings. The first two students, one boy and one girl, from class four were able to sketch and to paint a scene of Kalimpong together that developed into this playful mingling of color and shape that still is one of my favorite boxes of the mural. This box set the tone for the rest of the creation: the boarders developed a bold graphic image of integrating colors and textures, class seven students created their own unique symbols and imagery, and Jerome, the art teacher at the school, produced a wonderfully detailed collection of Buddhist symbols that brought all of the colors of the mural together in a simple yet sophisticated grid pattern.

Looking back at the final creation, there is something unique and almost indescribable among all of the different boxes and ages of Gandhi Ashram students and teachers that I was not expecting. This “thing” is not a result of Europeanism or westernization, but is the distinct identity of the Indians of this hill region. Even though there was an attempt to paint a symbol of Nirvana (the band), which consisted of a yellow smiley face with a bullet hole in the center of his forehead, the imagery of the mural is derived from the students and teachers’ private lives, a term that Chakrabarty coined to describe the part of the Indian self that has not been expressed in literature or corrupted by British colonial rule.

The current historical narrative places Indians in a subaltern position in which their history and identity has been dominated and overrun by westernization, but the expression captured in this mural project illustrates the existence and the depth of a distinct Indian identity; this observation suggests that a larger, independent narrative exists outside of the structure that Europeanism has created. An Indian history can exist outside of the western narrative; when given the opportunity to express themselves and their thoughts without any restrictions, students and teachers produced a magnificent work of art in which they were the creator and the subject of their own box and their own identity.

6th Mile and the Global Beckham Connection

We were all gathered around the TV set, myself, Rich, Liza, Neema and his family, watching the latest soccer highlights. The atmosphere in Neema’s sister’s home wasn’t all that different from any informal social gathering back here; we had food, drinks, were talking with the TV on, having a good time in general. The setting, though, betrayed the fact that we were certainly far from home; the walls were made of mud and plaster, the room was not much bigger than a closet. Rich’s head came uncomfortably close to the ceiling and the couch, while functional, was not exactly comfortable. On the walls hung a collection of items, a clock, a portrait of Jesus, a poster of a famous Indian actress as well as one of David Beckham. It would be easy to write a paper just on these objects and their significance. We had chai tea and biscuits, a typical example of the hospitality we were always offered. While the people around Kalimpong were poor, they always offered their best to guests, were polite and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. I found that remarkable, a characteristic that seems beyond the capacity of our own society. We continued to Neema’s home, also small but as with most homes in the area, it was respectable, well-kempt, and had a simple beauty about it. As usual, it was painted a tropical blue and was surrounded by flowers which bloom even in the middle of winter. The inside was clean, comfortable and warm, but as compared to our own standards, sparse. Yet again, on the wall, David Beckham emerged in the form of a collage carefully put together by Neema, the highlight of the room if not the house. Football. Manchester United. David Beckham. The situation very much echoed a National Geographic I had brought along with me which highlighted soccer (football)’s global reach and popularity; I gave Neema the magazine, perhaps the start of a new collage. Today, I think it would be hard to find a celebrity more recognizable and worldwide than Beckham. As the embodiment in many respects of the global sport of soccer, it’s not hard to understand why. Just as During explained that Schwarzenegger’s global popularity was the result of Hollywood’s dominance and action movies’ universal appeal, Beckham’s fame has spread on the heals of the phenomenal growth of the game of soccer itself. Likewise, Manchester United was a popular team among the Ashram boarders; games between Egypt and Cameroon bring the same excitement for them as games between the Red Sox and Yankees do at Colby. David Beckham, Manchester United, and soccer itself exemplify globalization, allowing people of uncommon backgrounds around the world to participate and enjoy a universal sport. While European in origin, I don’t believe the growth in soccer comes at the cost of local culture and practices; rather, soccer at least adds to and is shaped by that culture to the point that today, soccer cannot be claimed by any one culture but is instead shared equally. On the way back from Neema’s house, we once again passed by the soccer field where he regularly plays. To have a soccer field on the side of a mountain presents unique challenges; this field was terraced just like the rice paddies in the surrounding farms, small with steep sides. A runaway ball would certainly fly down the mountainside, presenting an interesting obstacle to play. Other Kalimpong touches were visible; the goals were made of bamboo and prayer flags stood on either end. While still soccer, it was certainly a game played much differently than how I’ve played it here at home, a way that is uniquely Kalimpong. It was dark but we could still see the banner hanging over a road under construction, a project sponsored by one of the Gorkha parties. Earlier Neema had shown me his kukri, a traditional Gorkha knife and a symbol of the Gorkhaland movement. I wondered what his thoughts on the subject were, and I was surprised by the complexity of the situation. As a Sherpa, a clan sometimes the object of discrimination by the Gorkha population, he said that he and his family felt threatened by the movement which, after all, is in many ways a movement intended to promote the goals of a specific ethnic group. Sherpa, Rai, Lepcha, Gorkha, Nepali, Bengali; all groups vying to maintain, protect or extend their identity in the region, a dilemma certainly explored in Chakrabarty’s article. What is this concept of Gorkhaland? Who are the Gorkhas, where do they come from, do they have a history? How at all can this fit into a larger Indian identity? In many ways, Kalimpong felt separated from the rest of India, even from the rest of West Bengal, as if it were in fact another country. The people look different, speak Nepali, and have a totally different culture. Instead of Indian flags waving in the streets fly those of the Gorkhaland Parties; it would be hard to try to construct a larger Indian identity from such patchwork of peoples. Equally difficult, though, is to try to merge all these identities into a single Gorkha one. While the Gorkhaland movement presents a legitimate argument against the ineffective governing abilities of the far removed Kolcutta based government, I never really felt as though either of the Gorkhaland parties presented a realistic alternative or had any concrete plans; the potential racial divisions being drawn made me even more wary. I can only hope the violence and turmoil of the 1980’s movement doesn’t repeat. I sat in the pizza place in town one day with Harsh, the result of us both having a craving for the fatty, cheesy, doughy delight, something outside of the routine white-brown-green-yellow diet. In many ways, the restaurant resembled a pizza place back in the US; cheap tables equipped with parmesan cheese, high school kids hanging out after school, Journey playing in the background. The pizza was good, but different from the pizza back in the US, certainly adapted to the available ingredients and tastes of the people in Kalimpong. In no way did I feel the impending conquest of Westernization or Globalization as some fear; the restaurant was more of a curiosity as Pad Thai is in Waterville, not the start of a subversive shift to pizzas, burgers, and fries and even less the wider acceptance of a single global culture. While the presence of globalization and western culture could be easily found in Kalimpong, from cell phones, Cokes, KitKat bars, knock-off, cheaply made Yankees merchandise to second hand clothing, it never amounts to a real transformation in culture. These things are popular not so much because the people of Kalimpong prefer a western identity to their own, but more because they serve a purpose or fulfill a want; cell phones aid communication, KitKats taste good, and Western style clothing, be it new or second hand, is cheaper and more accessible than traditional clothing. Overall, it felt as though all these influences were simply mixed into the local culture, changing it to some degree, but often for the better. In the end, regardless of what happens in the world of Beckham, Metallica, Schwarzenegger or Kelly Clarkson, the world of Kalimpong – Gompu’s, millet wine, momo’s, kukris, and the “.com” healer – will largely remain as it is, at least for now.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Misunderstanding the musical language

So, as the geek I am I must admit that one of the things I found most interesting, from a cultural anthropological view, about our stay with the Gandhi Ashram kids was the way in which the songs that were introduced to me as great examples of great Nepali/Gorkha culture sounded a lot like western pop music. I remember thinking to myself, before I was inserted on a plane with a funny guy, bowing with a turban on the door, how excited I was to go to this far-away land and to experience their music. As a music major at Colby I have a quite keen interest in music history and theory and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to go and get a first hand impression on how "music" works in the foothills of the himalayas - moreover, in a school that provides all its students with a violin and a crash-course in western classical tradition. I have not been completely oblivious to the fact that in this region there exists a variety of western pop influences on "music"; the Global Popular is after all global by definition, I knew that Michael Learns To Rock are undeniable stars in the region, and through Greene's article I furthered my understanding of how an array of musical genres get a second life when introduced into Nepali culture. However, I still maintained a somewhat romantic idea of how the folk songs would be of another musical world. I thought that there would be a division between the western influences and the traditional music. In my head the western influences had surely permeated the culture, meaning to me that there would be a lot of new and old western pop music around and that the kids would likely put on Akon when the lights got dimmed Saturday night, but this influence would somehow stay distinct from the traditional musical culture. In other words, the western influence would unfold, and be explored and manipulated as Greene explains, side by side with the Nepali musical tradition and only crossover at a more abstract level. Therefore I imagined that when I was going to be exposed to great examples of Nepali/Gorkha songs, the musical language would be distinct from the western language. In my romantic ideal of "cultural purity and pride" I imagined that the peoples of the region would reject, more or less consciously, the western musical language when singing songs about the pride of their culture. But no... The first day we got to the Gandhi Ashram School we were put in the assembly hall, nicely seated in front of the stage and given a show by the border students. I must admit that I was so tired and spaced out and overwhelmed and mentally exhausted that I don't remember most of what happened on the stage that night. There was a dance and I remember that I was really impressed by the lack of shyness and "teenage-I-don't-want-to-do-that"-syndrome in the kids. They were proudly presenting themselves and who they were, culturally, on stage in front of 30 foreign, older, scary, people. And then there was the song Kha Timbro Mayalou Lei. One guitar and a group of adolescent boys, beautifully harmonizing and heartfeltly singing about a lost love in Nepali. But the sound, the musical language, sounded strangely western to me. Later I asked one of the students to show me another Nepali song, and though I don't remember the lyrics for this one it was the same - western musical language. And this went on and on. Every time I asked them to play a song for me that was a great example of Nepali/Gorkha culture they would play these songs that had beautiful nepali lyrics and to some extent non-western vocal phrasings, but they would all surprise me with their overwhelmingly western harmonic foundation. By western harmonic foundation and western musical language I mean the very basic ideas of western classical tradition from which we get the ideas of tonic and dominant, chords and the way they are used to communicate and direct action in the songs. However, just like I am quite sure of the fact that these kids do not really understand where this culture of wearing big t-shirts and flat baseball caps comes from and what this style of presenting oneself represents to people from the US, I am also sure that I do not really understand where the way in which the western musical language has been transformed to mean and represent something entirely different in the Gorkhaland context. And my romanticized ideal of how this "exotic and pure" culture should identify itself through its music was terribly wrong and left me embarrassed. But it was a very important lesson for me in understanding Chakrabarty's subalterns and understanding that things such as a musical language can gain new value and meaning as it crosses cultural borders.

Hot Nepali Pop

One night, after our nightly routine of doing dishes, some girls (who will remain anonymous for confidentiality) and I went down to the music hall to listen to some “Hot Nepali Pop” CDs we had bought earlier in the afternoon. The boarders came along to inform us what was actually “hot” and what we had simply been conned into purchasing. However, after a couple minutes of listening to terribly recorded and bootlegged Nepali tunes, the boarders broke off into their own Nepali singing and dance routine. Impressed by their performance but in no way willing to let them steal the show, the girls and I quickly gathered our forces and countered their act with a stunning show of Spice Girls’s classic, “Stop.” All of a sudden we found ourselves in a sort of sing-off/dance-off, where the boys would start singing a Nepali classic and we would try to overpower them with an American one. Being a Colby student, I of course pointed out the symbolism in our activity- we were having a cultural face-off. It didn’t take us long to realize that they knew many more songs and dances than we did, and sang them with more fervor and passion. When they saw us huddling in a desperate attempt to come up with another song we all knew the lyrics to, they just began to sing louder and dance in a circle around us. As you can imagine, we were surrounded and had no choice but to surrender. I remember one girl looking at me and saying, “Wow, their culture just owned our culture.” But wait, their culture is the one that Chakrabarty claims bases itself on Western standards and ideals. Weren’t we the West in this situation? Didn’t they just blow us away by being non- Western? Certainly this couldn’t be what Chakrabarty was referring to when he claims in his Subaltern Studies that India is a “historic failure of a nation to come to its own” (5)! If this cultural showcase, which literally “owned” our Western customs, is the result of a “historic failure,” then I’m not sure where that puts the US. And that night of rich cultural exhibition wasn’t just an outlier in a mainly subdued and ambiguous society- it happened again a couple nights later at a bonfire attended by both Colby students and Gandhi boarders. The boarders once again dominated the entertainment (other than Menya jumping over the fire, clearly), while our one attempt to start, “Girls just want to have fun,” was terribly unsuccessful. No, these kids weren’t trying to imitate our culture at all; they were caught up in the music, the dance, and the traditions of their own culture. My campfires at home are usually relaxing moments of quiet singing, reflection and marshmallow roasting, while here I was amidst a rowdy group of Indian teenagers clapping my hands, singing to the point of losing my voice and skipping. At a time when they could have easily joined us in an acoustic ballad of “Stairway to Heaven,” the boarders took pride in their independence from the West and embraced the cultural glue that holds Kalimpong together. So what’s the difference between globalization and Westernization? I don’t think that by wearing a Yankees sweatshirt a boy is giving up his Indian culture, and I don’t think that by listening to Avril Lavigne an Indian girl is losing her identity. I think that with the Internet, TV and overall better networking around the world today, there just happen to be more external similarities between cultures that are internally very different. That boy will still go home (where three generations probably live together) and take off his shoes before entering the door, and that girl will still know every move in traditional Nepali dance by the time she’s ten. The similarities we saw between our culture and the Nepali culture aren’t a result of British Imperialism; they are inevitable consequences of globalization. That girl isn’t listening to Western music because she thinks its superior to Nepali music; she’s listening to it because it’s now available to her (not to mention Avril Lavigne has really catchy tunes).

The Hands that Help

On this January’s stay in Kalimpong, I got to know some of the boarders at the Gandhi Ashram really well. You’d find all they were all pretty genuine people just chewing the fat with them for a while. After one the first few days of school I was sitting on the ledge out in front of the meal room, still a little exhausted from a full day of singing the moose song with class two, competitively playing four-square, and teaching Beatles song after song on guitar, you know, pretty rough stuff. So there I was, still trying to fathom that these hills around me, which seemed to cup and fold the light so elegantly over the endless rice paddies and orange trees, with the random toots of the colorful goods carriers whipping around like insects busy at work off on another hill, were actually as real as the familiar warmth of the sun I had not felt in months. So at peace and at ease I was that I probably wouldn’t have moved all afternoon had Karendra not approached me and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk. I was pretty faded by that point but figured a walk wouldn’t do any harm. Off we went, through the big intimidating blue gate, and we began to walk down the road. We were going to a village called Boshir (I’m not sure how to spell it) where he was born and raised and every relative and everyone he ever knew in his whole life was from. There’s nothing like walking down from 6th mile after school and seeing the hustle and the bustle of a place that is so seemingly imperturbable. We passed men huddled together around fires heating enormous drums of dark, bubbling nigrescent oil, their steam powered road machines noisily at work. We passed house after house, vivaciously colored some blue or green hue, with the older men out front on their haunches smoking and dogs running back and forth as I gave my best attempt to greet them all in Nepali. All the while I’m trying to avoid getting hit by any of the jeeps carrying as many people inside and outside as they possibly can, while the jeeps themselves are trying to avoid each other as they play chicken around blind turns that drop off into cliffs of certain demise. Karendra and I finally get off the road and begin walking through the forest. I began to ask him about all the Ghorkaland signs and flags that seemed to decorate the road and every back alley wall in town. Thinking about Pankaj Mishra’s article Exit Wounds, I wondered how Karendra identified himself as an Indian. I know we can all talk about how India is such a culturally diverse place but does that have any real meaning except just talking about it? As he was telling me about the different political parties, the Ghorka people, and their dream for their own state, some children of the Gandhi Ashram began to walk along side us on their way home. They were pretty little, too shy to talk, but content enough to have our company as we walked along to the village. I wondered too about their future. These children are given so much more opportunity than their parents were. How would they shape the land they were from? The Kalimpong/Darjeeling area is a prime example of the heedlessness the British government took in the formation of states after independence. Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is twelve hours from Kalimpong. It is too far a distance physically and in the conscious of those to the south. Sadly, I would only come to realize the situation had much more complex ethnic implications and that in reality, in a country of 1 billion people it is very difficult to make your voice heard or garner any importance. But that would be in weeks to come. At the moment, I was crossing over bamboo bridges and walking through race paddies. Karendra was going from house to house asking if they had drink while I stood out in front with old women washing clothes giving me apprehensive glances and chickens that ran freely across my feet. I went in to a sparsely decorated room, with a small TV in the corner playing Nepali pop videos, except for one cabinet which featured some sort of Christian shrine. The raw wood floor was worn down, the room was dimly lit, and as Karendra went out to get something, I found myself drinking distilled millet grain moonshine with some older gentlemen who had no idea what I was saying, watching a beautiful Nepali woman on the television. If only I could have talked to them as well! I had so many questions by that point, but at last I had experienced just the tip of the Indian cultural iceberg. The Ghorka story is just a miniscule part of the Indian identity, yet even that story would become much more complicated. Another day Karendra and I went to the home of Jerome, the teacher of class five. He rented a couple rooms in a large house with his wife (who was also a teacher) and his small 9 month old child named Garrett (named after a Nepali singer). He began to tell how he and his wife both work very hard, sometimes he can’t afford to put food on the table, or he can’t afford medicine for his wife when she is sick, but as a family they get along and he can at least find peace in God. The Gandhi Ashram did not provide contracts for its teacher; hence he did not have job security. But Jerome managed to pray everyday, even if that meant missing church on Sunday to care for his family, and found solace in teaching and drawing, as well as providing a paternal role for the older boarders, especially Karendra. Jerome began telling me about the ethnic makeup of the Ghorka people. I had previously thought that the term was just reserved for the Nepali people who inhabited the area. But in reality, they consisted of several Nepali tribes, which are still very much part of the social structure and hierarchy in Nepal. In fact, Jerome was part of the Tamang tribe whereas Karendra’s family was Nepali royalty, his grandfather a famous Nepali poet. In Kalimpong they were equals, but in Nepal it was quite a different story. However, if either of them went to the South, they would be ridiculed or looked down upon for the way they looked. It was becoming more apparent to me that Gandhi’s dream of unified India was much more difficult and complex than the British partitioning of India seem to reflect. But hold on, things got more complicated.

I went to Chogin’s house with Gordon and Rich one day, and we talked a lot about the Lepcha culture. I learned Lepcha was not the same as Ghorka, in fact, they were the first aboriginals (before Jerome’s tribe and others) to inhabit the area. So it leaves one to wonder, with this mix of religion, language, tribal ethnicity, and competing political parties, how the Kalimpongese coexist so well. One thing that somehow was failed to be mentioned to us was the uprising that occurred between such political parties and cultural contexts in 1986, in which 1,000 people were killed. One of Jerome’s friends back then was particularly connected with one party until one day he was chased down by a mob of a different party’s persuasion through a field of rice paddies. He managed to get away, but not before they chopped off both of his arms. The situation is much more peaceful these days, and from the people I spoke with it seems like the people of Kalimpong are much more unified in their effort for Ghorkaland. However, they also will never forget what happened twenty two years ago, as no one wants something like that to ever reoccur.

So I found myself talking to the hotel staff in Delhi at a questionable hour about the American political process, the American dream, about my ancestors who were immigrants, and they loved it so much they ate it all up. Then I brought up Ghorkaland. There I was trying to defend Ghorkaland to a bunch of guys who never mind the fact they thought the Ghorkas were a bunch of lazy hicks, but were trying to explain to me Aryan races in India and who at the table was superior over who. When I told them “race didn’t exist in America”, they lost it. I got up, raised my fist, let out a defiant “Ghorkaland!”, and marched right out of there. I wasn’t going to let them talk like that about some of the most caring and hardworking people I have ever met. I’m sure that’s how the rest of India thought about it. “Who gives a damn about those hilly’s? I sure as hell don’t” was the impression I mostly got. Their whole situation seemed helpless to me. This feeling was only reinforced one afternoon as I sat atop a grassy hill overlooking the busy streets of Gangtok that seemed to disappear effortlessly into the mountain fog. Around me were Karendra and Subash, both boarders at the school, Johnny (Subash’s roommate who lived in Gangtok), and all of Johnny’s friends who were circled around in the familiar squat position. As we watched the sun slip behind another hill far off in the distance, Johnny’s gang of characters (oh man, were they characters, and most likely a gang too) began describing a little bit of their lives in Gangtok. For example, all eighteen of them lost their virginity to the same prostitute when they were fourteen, or the week before they took a little too much amphetamines and just got a little too rowdy at the club when Johnny happened to get into to a fight with twenty other guys. In the background, on one of those mobiles everyone seems to have was playing a certain Bon Jovi song with the lyrics:

It's my life

It's now or never

I ain't gonna live forever

I just want to live while I'm alive

It's my life

There it was: their doctrine of life. Who was going look after them if no one else would? That’s why places like the Gandhi Ashram need to exist. Someday these children will heal the wounds of partition. Maybe it begins with Ghorkaland, but I hope it begins somewhere in the hearts of the students we were so blessed to have taught.

Community and the Subaltern

During our second week at 6th Mile, one of the boarders, James, invited me to go to his house in a nearby village. Now, I assumed that the term village was being used loosely, and that he was simply referring to a small cluster of houses alongside the same road that brings you to the Gandhi Ashram. As you all must know, I was quite wrong. As we trekked through the woods, I realized that we were actually walking along a road that was in the middle of being constructed. James tapped my shoulder (I had not glanced up in a while, for fear I might trip and tumble down the mountain) and pointed out some of the men and women working on the construction of the road. “That is my uncle, this one is my aunt,” it seemed that James was related in some way or another to the entire crew. He then informed me that each laborer receives 60 rupees a day for their backbreaking work. I was stunned. How was it possible to sustain oneself, let alone a family on such a wage? James, still smiling, simply dragged me along to the next precarious bamboo bridge so that we would make it back to school before sundown. My time with James made me think a lot about Chakrabarty’s article. What does it mean to belong to the subaltern? If a social group is completely ignored by greater society, what are the methods it must employ in order to cope with their neglect? One strategy quickly became obvious to me—the communities to which our students belonged were cohesive units. More specifically, they were kinship-based villages where nearly every member could be traced as a relative to someone else. What a wonderful way to empower a social group! Because the villages operated, in many ways, independent of the mainstream economy of the area, it had to find its own ways to ensure that every individual has a role. As a result, the outsider notices a certain form of communalism in the villages. If houses concentrate on the production of a certain crop, they can produce more. So, houses specialize, and when the time comes to enjoy the products of their labors, they share between households. I saw this as a way that communities can take what Chakrabarty shed such a negative light on and transform it into a way to create solidarity within a community. If the villagers in the area were discouraged about their exclusion from Indian history and society, it didn’t show on their faces. What did show was that the Nepali villagers were empowered—their identities strengthened—by their need to work together to self-sustain in the face of social, political and economic neglect. Humor also played a role in providing our students with motivation and excitement. I found that some students even joked about things that made me extremely uncomfortable—perhaps in doing so, it made them feel more at ease with difficult issues. One example of this is when two second grade girls came up to me and started inspecting my hands. After a good look, they turned to me and yelled, “You clean, me dirty!” Now, I don’t really know the way race is perceived in the Himalayas, but I felt like I was entering dangerous waters. I told them that I didn’t think they were right, that I thought that all of our hands were probably pretty dirty. But did I miss the point in trying to correct them? They hadn’t even asked me a question. Chakrabarty might say that their rather blunt comment was simply a strategy that they used to devalue the prejudiced views of the elite class. Perhaps he is correct. Or, maybe they were just having fun.

A Mixing of Culture

We who grew up with the Internet as a source of entertainment and communication barely acknowledge its outstanding achievements. If, by chance we do, it is only with an air of indifference. Yet, placed in the context of a small room designated the computer room at the Gandhi Ashram School, it becomes a completely different story. If any person were to walk into that room at any given moment during the afternoon they would witness a dozen or so kids glued to laptop screens. Some played an arcade game called Demos Arising, while others scenically flashed from yahoo email inboxes to the Windows media player application, which blasted out the sounds of 50 cent, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, Enrique Inglesias and Shakira. What appeared most striking about this scene was all the kids’ energy was directly focused on westernized creations, even though they were located in a small region on the other side of the world. It is truly amazing to travel half way across the globe to hear and see images we commonly associate with here back in the States. The increasing access to the Internet is only speeding up the process on both sides. Some argue that this is an onslaught of western cultural imperialism; whish is single handedly stripping away the small but equally as diverse local cultures. Or as Chakrabarty would argue, make the study of their culture all the more difficult. Others would argue that, in fact, it is allowing those with the ability, motivation and more importantly the resources to broadcast their images and culture. I, myself, fall into the latter group. The Internet as a tool has given people around the world the ability and the means to communicate with any one else willing to listen. What is most important, while the barriers to entry are still relatively high they are systematically being broken down. When I say barriers to entry, I am referring to the cost of connecting to the Internet and/or buying a computer. While Colby donated the computers, among them was a new breed, which cost only $400. What is even more impressive was that the Internet connection at the school was through a cheap mobile phone with a Bluetooth adapter. Moreover, it appeared that every boarder and teacher had an email address. Even though restricted by a lack of computer availability and Internet access, each one still had an email address. This circumstance only proves that advances in technology are allowing those with lesser means to achieve just as much. I am sure, if given the chance to study and observe, Chakrabarty and Durning would have a field day. The situation, not only, exemplifies the perceived Eurocentric lens of history preached by Chakrabarty but also applies During’s example of what he considers the global popular. His examples include the popular names listed previously. Chakrabarty’s point can be applied even further to encompass the entire school, which is: 1) run by a Jesuit priest and 2) firmly structures its teaching schedules in a British fashion. If the study of subaltern cultures is truly structured under the umbrella of westernization, the Gandhi Ashram School is no doubt a scene of its practice. Yet, the cultural mix went both ways. The boarders played western music, and the Colby students played Nepali music. As if looking into a reflective mirror, we both enjoyed the other’s sounds but knew very little of its cultural context. It is only in the ideals of the Gandhi tradition that this transmission can be fully understood. It is when all doors and windows are open that we accept the breeze of different cultures and identities. As with the Internet, the Gandhi Ashram, true to its name embodies this.

Gandhi and Gorkhaland

Not unlike the realization that we all had that the Nepali pop article was dead on when we learned our first night in Kalimpong that popular “sentimental music” included bands like Metallica, I was surprised how many Arnold Schwarzenegger movies I caught without meaning to. Although we didn’t reach a unanimous decision about whether or not During’s formulaic approach to creating a global popular was valid or not, seeing Commando at the border station between West Bengal and Sikkim was again writing on the wall that the articles were leading us in the right direction. It’s not that I didn't like Metallica or Schwarzenegger movies at one point in my life and it’s not like I don’t like them now—I was just surprised to see them so far away from home. In the context of the other readings that we did, they both seem very contrary to traditional Indian ideals, most specifically Gandhi’s. Gandhi’s satyagrahas, the nonviolent protests that we read so much about, don’t fit with Arnie’s muscled body, nor do they fit with our understanding of the emotions reflected in all of the noise of Metallica’s music. I really see a contradiction of the two, and it made me wonder what triggered such a radical take-off for the ever-evolving Indian culture. And while many of the Ashram students weren’t familiar with who Arnold Schwarzenegger was, arguably his film career is a little dated at this point, it was clear that they did know Akon, Eminem and G-Unit, who clearly have not taken Gandhi’s passivity into their own lives. Arguably, popular music isn’t just about the lyrics, violent or otherwise, but it’s certainly a big part of the equation. I don’t know exactly what sort of music Gandhi would condone for modern day society, but rap music likely isn’t it. Similarly, he probably wouldn’t be a big fan of violent action blockbusters, yet they seem to be the archetype of During’s explanation of a global popular, with or without Arnie in the lead role. The most applicable parallel I saw to this was the whole Gorkhaland snafu as it is playing out now and as it played out in the past. From what I got talking to Ashram students and staff, Kalimpong and other northern towns want to split off from West Bengal because of the way their tax dollars seem to be benefitting the southern parts of the state, most specifically Calcutta, instead of their own infrastructure. The political movement in the eighties that they described to me gave way to extreme and horrific violence, much like the penultimate scene of a Schwarzenegger movie. Countless innocent civilians were killed for the cause, but no new state appeared, only a new party that twenty years later is again stirring up a potential schism. Now it seems that the same thing could happen again with a new party, along with the existing one, trying to guide the people, albeit by different means, toward a better tomorrow. We saw the flags and the graffiti and experienced the strike, and in talking to students and staff, it sounds like everyone is hopeful that this time the negotiations will happen in a more Gandhi-way, non-violently through diplomacy. But there were almost unanimous predictions that like in the past, violence will become a prominent part of what is to come. It’s an unfortunate reality, especially considering the respect that Gandhi receives in his country as a freedom fighter focused on participating only in non-violent forms of protest. But it makes me wonder if perhaps the violence often glorified in the global popular, be it music or film, is an example all too often followed. Schwarzenegger movies, like Commando and Total Recall were in their heyday at the time of the last revolution, but perhaps because they are not today, negotiations could go more smoothly. However in seeing that music has replaced film in some respects, perhaps this won’t be the case at all considering the connotation of much of popular Western music’s lyrics. Reflecting on it now, it was uncanny to see how often the examples offered in the articles were reflected in what we saw during our month in Kalimpong. Like another guide book to supplement the ones that some of us brought, they paved the way for just a little more understanding of Indian culture as it evolves away from much of what we considered it would be. I just hope that our Western influence, whatever it may ultimately be, doesn’t get in the way of a peaceful split for the Gorkhaland supporters.