tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Tuque in India

Ah, December. A line of no retreat for Winter. A season of snow and slipperiness. A time for Tuques. In Canada, anyway. 

Your humble Tuque Souq blogger left Canada nine months ago for India with a twosome of tuques in tow; since then Tuque No. 2 has enjoyed hibernation in a desk drawer wrapped around a camera lens. 

Tuque No. 1 had the mildew--omnipresent here in the sauna that is the state of Orissa--washed out of it in September to make the journey north to Himalaya in Sikkim, on a trek up to Goecha La, at the base of Khangchendzonga--"Mountain of the Five Fingers of Snow"--the world's third highest peak.

Khangchendzonga: 8600m (28,000ft) friend of the Tuque
Aside from these adventures, the mighty tuque seems to have little utility in India.

But at long last, Winter has arrived in the coastal jungles of Orissa. It's a nose-numbing 21 degrees Celsius (74F) in the frosty moonlight. At night, now, we sleep with only one fan blowing directly on us. In the dry chill of the early morning we must don t-shirts to survive. One of these days we may get desperate enough to wear socks.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland
Indeed, here in this vale of shiveriness, even our friends and neighbours are wary of Winter's unmerciful blitz. A land that previously we considered--back in the days of 44 degrees C--to be infertile ground for anything fleece or woolen, is in fact coming to life with ripe tuques!


Well, at least one!

Monday, November 22, 2010

So You've Decided to Start a Newsletter, eh?

The NGO I volunteer with—PREM—decided it wanted to start a newsletter because, well, NGOs have newsletters, but this one did not.
 

I was put in charge of the newsletter, or more accurately I was given the task of coordinating and guiding an Editing Team in the planning, design and execution of a monthly—er, better make that bi-monthly—newsletter, called PREM E-News.

 
An editing team of three, myself included, was formed. It became clear early on that one member, the self-professed IT Advisor to the Editing Team, wanted his role to be limited to technical things, and so put himself in charge of converting the .doc version of the newsletter into a .pdf approximately every 60 days.

 
Thus the Editing Team became two, me and the person who—rare among the staff here—has little work to do because she has no seniority. In the newsletter, hopefully she'll find her organizational domain.
 
We started with a planning meeting examining several existing newsletters out there in the NGO, for ideas of style and structure. Then we held an editorial meeting about what content we needed for the inaugural issue; basically, what did PREM do in the last two months?

Then we commenced a sort of journalistic training workshop—yep, still just the two of us on the Editing Team—to obtain the content for the newsletter. A lot of people at PREM don’t really know exactly what a lot of other people at PREM do on a daily basis, for reasons that are not terribly relevant right now.

But suffice to say, the E-News Editing Team made the rounds to each program manager, project coordinator and senior staff in the head office to find out what they’ve been doing lately, what activities have been implemented in their milieu, what reports they’ve written for what funding agencies, who did what, when, where, why and definitely how; not to mention show me the photos.

Slowly the newsletter took shape. On the first issue I did just about everything. But as we’ve now rolled out three issues, my partner on the Editing Team gradually has become the reporter, photographer, layout designer, photo editor, and quote-of-the-month go-getter. Whereas I hold only the roles of copy editor, deadline maker (and re-maker), and ghostwriter of the President’s Message.

The newsletter is actually a pretty big success around the office, even if our mailing list is currently only a handful of names long: staff members, funding partners, former volunteers, and my mom (thanks mom!).

For the first time in its 26-year history, PREM has a systematic, textual form of organizational memory. And all it took was a committed team, a journalistic approach, and a guy who makes a .pdf every two months.

Now you can read what all the fuss is about:



(See me on page four)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What PREM Does: Fighting Corruption

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the development work of People's Rural Education Movement (PREM) Orissa, India.


Opportunity Knocks
A Block Development Official (BDO) sits a table in his office in town. On his desk is a handwritten roster of about 1700 names of people in the 250 or so villages in his block who have applied for job cards. Some of the names are fictitious. Others are friends and relatives of the BDO. And still others are real, but they are of people who've no idea what their job card entitles them to, or of people who don't even know they've applied. He writes a receipt for a tent--meant to provide shade for road-construction workers--which he never actually bought. He finishes a report that says 12km of road were completed last month; in fact it was only 2km.*

To his district-level supervisor (whose friends and family are also on the job-card roster) the BDO submits all these documents as records of public works in his jurisdiction, and finally he withdraws the corresponding funds from the government coffers. All in a day's work.

Elsewhere, an Adivasi man is still waiting for his first day of work. But on his job card, which he doesn't yet hold, there is already a fake entry showing 126 days' work. On the report submitted to the state auditor, a figure of INR 5950 (CAD $135) is listed as the wages already paid this man. He has no idea.

National Rural Corruption Guarantee?
All of this is provided for by India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005, a law that provides federally funded employment in local development for all willing workers for a minimum of 100 days per year at a minimum wage of 60 Indian Rupees (INR; equivalent to $1.25 Canadian Dollars (CAD)) per day.

It stipulates employment for all adults in poor districts through job cards which should be granted within 15 days of application; employment within 5km of one's home village; equal wages for men for women, with a minimum of 33% of job cards in any given village reserved for women; benefits such as unemployment insurance and water.**

Even in a country known for socialist rural economic policies over the first few decades of its independence, few stimulus plans ever developed by the government of India have been as progressive as NREGA. And few schemes ever dreamed up by the government of India have made corruption this easy.

There is overwhelming evidence of systematic corruption of NREGA in every state of India, but nowhere is this corruption more rampant and--due to its infamous mantle as India's poorest state--more devastating than in Orissa.

Village leaders and middlemen take advantage of illiteracy and desperation among lower-caste and tribal villagers, cooking the books and forging job cards. Workers complete a day of labour building a check dam or a gravel road, and the attendance sheet will say they worked 33 days; 32 days' worth of their wages will go somewhere else. A government auditor doesn't feel like visiting a handful of remote villages; for a bribe he'll accept a BDO's story that all job cards have been properly distributed.

A 2006-07 independent study by the Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) found that of the INR 7.33 billion (CAD $165 million) invested by the federal government in the NREGA scheme in the 6 poorest districts of the state of Orissa, more than INR 5 billion (CAD $112m, or nearly 70% of all funds) were siphoned off in misappropriations and outright peculation by government officials and middlemen.***

 "Activists and NGOs spreading awareness about NREGA among rural poor of the state," noted the CEFS study, "are threatened with dire consequences and many have been terrorised into silence by BDOs and other executing officials. Some local activists who accompanied the CEFS research team during survey in Tentulikhunti block in last week of May are being threatened by the government officials and contractors who have misappropriated NREGA funds."

Putting on a Corruption Clinic
PREM is among the NGOs working to combat corruption, principally by training activists and educating the rural and marginalized public to take action against this scourge.

It's not easy, not in an environment where police, government officials and other elites are hand in glove (and glove in pocket). But recently some extra help arrived.

India has a Right to Information (RTI) Act, coincidentally also passed into law in 2005. The RTI Act guarantees access to any public document within 15 days of request. Muster rolls, job cards, payment schedules and BDO reports, to name just a few related to NREGA, are all public documents accessible under RTI.****

One thing PREM has done is establish a number of regional RTI Clinics, such as the one pictured above in Rayagada district. These essentially are training centres where PREM conducts workshops on how to utilize RTI: how to file a request; how to follow up and gain the documents; where to seek legal and other aid if necessary; how to take collective action against corruption. Clinic facilitators utilize methods like group discussion, role play, lawyer visits and testimonials from victims to help instruct community members.

Even beyond the workshops, these RTI clinics are open all the time as walk-in information booths, staffed by community activits who are trained to help victims of corruption take the necessary action for justice.

To read a case study about how PREM's RTI clinics helped one tribal community bring a huge land scam to the public eye (and put the culprits behind bars), check out the July-August 2010 issue of PREM's E-News.

The photos in this post are from an NREGA-funded road-building project in Gajapati district, Orissa.

* Excerpted from a press release of an NGO in Bihar. A Block is a constituted jurisdiction of governance in India which is comprised of anywhere between 100-250 villages and at least one major town.
** Full text of NREGA 2005 [PDF]
*** The six poorest districts of Orissa are Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Koraput, Nabarangpur and Rayagada. Read more on this study and the impact of NREGA corruption in Orissa.
**** Full text of RTI Act 2005 [PDF]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Quote-Unquote: The Primal Land [Adibhumi] by Pratibha Ray

"Life in the city had taught Somra Sisa a great deal. He had seen leaders arriving to address crowds, their motorcars raising clouds of dust; he had seen the strings of red and blue electric lights, heard the croaking of loudspeakers reciting litanies of false praise, caught the whiff of meat being cooked for celebratory feasts.

"Dhangras and dhangris [young men and women] of the Lower Bonda, Kandha and Paraja tribes were conscripted to dance and sing for the entertainment of the babus [government officials]. Endless discourses on the glories of tribal culture were staged and the ranting of speakers was drowned in the thunder of applause.

"When the meetings ended the adivasi [aboriginal] youths were sent back to their villages with empty bellies. The adivasi was only an item in the list of the disadvantaged: a slogan that could be screeched to bring political glory to the leader."

--From Adibhumi [The Primal Land*], by Oriya novelist, poet, literary critic and social activist, Pratibha Ray. Ms. Ray is an unshakable voice for the rights of Adivasi ('indigenous') peoples of Orissa.

The Primal Land is a novelized ethnography of the Bonda people, a primitive tribe living deep in the forested plateau of remote Malkangiri district on Orissa's southwestern tip, where Ms. Ray did research as an anthropology student in the 1970s.

The story of the Bonda in The Primal Land is told parallel to the sundry government attempts at development and "civilizing" the tribals, which has had both comic and very tragic results. Today, the Bonda number fewer than 5000 and face possible extinction.

[Buy The Primal Land at Amazon]

* The Primal Land, by Pratibha Ray
Translated by Bikram K. Das
Hyderabad: Orient Longman Ltd, 2001
Excerpt from pp. 254-255

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Virgin Mary's Getaway Motorcycle

Now that I have your attention, here are some other sites of Gangtok, hillside capital of the Indian state of Sikkim, our next stop on our holiday up north.






Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Breakfast in Ghorkaland


Greetings from Ghorkaland. Land of the Ghorkas, mountain men and women of the Himalaya, so famed for their ferocity as soldiers that the British military dubbed them a "warrior race" and conscripted as many as possible to fight their battles (even as recently as the Falkland War). Quipped one British field marshal, "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gorkha."

And what does a warrior race eat for breakfast? Not sure; probably something like oats and blood. (Actual Ghorkhas enjoy potatoes, garbanzo curry and dumplings.) 

But what does a visitor to Ghorkaland eat for breakfast, a visitor who's eaten naught but scrawny fish and sickly chicken, when any meat at all, for eight months?

Meat. (That's 3 kinds of pork on the plate above; you know, for those of you who keep score of these things.)

But I digress. Ghorkaland is the semi-autonomous, proudly quasi-independent region of northern West Bengal whose unofficial capital city is the idyllic hillstation of Darjeeling, non-quasi-official global capital of tea, where our holiday began after a 27-hour train ride and a 3-hour 4x4 jeep ride.

The tea was okay, the meat was delicious, and the views at breakfast were divine.




Monday, October 25, 2010

The Inconvenience Caused is Deeply Regretted

Six words. The voice is female, vaguely sympathetic and comforting, a bit like Mary Poppins with an Indian accent; yet also robotic and decidedly curt, as though a light scolding. "The inconvenience caused is deeply regretted." 

At any of India's 3467 official railway stations, dotted along the country's 64,000 kilometres of passenger track, these six prerecorded words comprise the postscript to the inevitable announcement that your train is late.

Having spent the last four weeks travelling in the north of India--Darjeeling area and Sikkim--your humble blogger has been significantly tardy in attending to this blog. It was inevitable. Please accept our vaguely sympathetic, decidedly curt, Mary-Poppins-meets-Indira-Gandhi apology:

The inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.

(Stay tuned: In the coming days, blogs galore about the trip.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Walt Whitman

Afoot and lighthearted,
I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.


--Opening lines of 'Song of the Open Road,' from the epic anthology Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.


(Context: Committed to reciting these lines whenever I take the first step of a new adventure, I found they popped into my head as my partner and I prepare to board a train today for Darjeeling and then on to our Himalaya trekking adventure in Sikkim. Back in a few weeks.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

You say Potato, I say... Banana Pancake


There's more than one way to slice fruit. You could, for example, not slice it at all. Just peel it and wrap a spongey pancake around it, and call it (tada!) banana pancake. I'd argue it more closely resembles a banana burrito, but then, what's a burrito in the land of dosaroti and naan?

Nothing so liberates the heart from homesickness like ordering a dish you know and love, and having it served a little unlike home.

So let's add this banana burrito-pancake to the list of things I'm loving about India.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What PREM Does: Long, Long Distance Education

This is the third in a series of posts about the development work of People's Rural Education Movement (PREM) in Orissa, India.

The majority of the 8 million Adivasi people of Orissa live in remote, inaccessible villages situated deep in the hilly, interior forests, where a lack of communication as well as other basic facilities are stumbling blocks for development.

Government outreach in education and health care is negligible in most of these areas. Not surprisingly, Orissa’s Adivasi people continue to lag behind the rest of India on socio-economic indexes.

30% of Adivasi children will never spend even one day in primary school, and only 1 in 4 will complete the sixth grade. Half of the population is illiterate. School attendance rates and dropout rates among Adivasis in Orissa are among the worst in the country. Teacher absenteeism, government neglect, poor infrastructure, lack of consideration for tribal culture and language, and lack of awareness among Adivasi of their rights, are among the proximate causes of these problems and only exacerbate the desperate condition in which these communities live.

A few years ago, PREM partnered with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to pilot a program to reach Adivasis in some of the most remote parts of Orissa. Through this partnership, PREM helped build Village Resource Centres (VRC) in eight different rural communities, while ISRO outfitted each centre with computer and broadcasting hardware to connect each VRC via satellite to a studio in PREM's headquarters near Berhampur.

Each Monday and Friday from its studio, PREM hosts a two-hour interactive broadcast on a scheduled topic or issue that simultaneously reaches audiences in all eight VRCs. The broadcasts usually feature one of PREM's ongoing initiatives in, e.g., pre-school education, malaria prevention, youth-club development, agro-forestry livelihood, early childhood and maternal care, eco-sanitation, positive discipline, and others.

PREM's role is to help train those community representatives who will in turn be developing these inititatives in the home community. Audiences of village leaders, parents, teachers, and youth ask questions on camera in real time and can also submit queries by email before and after the broadcast.

More often than not, in PREM's studio sits a small panel of experts and program leaders, presenting to the camera and taking questions from the participants at the VRCs. But frequently these twice-weekly broadcasts feature other, livelier acts: Adivasi singers, dancers and stage performers who present the material in a culturally contextualized fashion.

The two Adivasi men in the photo are presenting a song-and-spoken-word routine on the subject of eye care and preventing eye-related diseases. This is going to have the audience on the edge of their seats!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Happy Belated Onam


Onam is the one of the biggest holidays of the year in the Indian state of Kerala, which is absolutely nowhere near where I live. However, it happens that the founder and president of PREM is from Kerala, so a feast-in-exile was arranged to honour him, as honouring the founder and president of PREM is one of the most important functions of PREM!

In a salty nutshell, Onam celebrates the annual return of an ancient, beloved king of Kerala, Mahabali, who retained such favour with the gods during his life that, in his afterlife, he is permitted once a year to visit his people whom he loved and served so well.

It's also a heck of a feast, or sadya, an all-vegetarian affair in which the mighty coconut (its milk, its oil) features in just about every dish, all of which are served on a freshly cut banana leaf. Rice, cabbage, gourd, eggplant, plantain, potato, yogurt and papadam also feature prominently in the meal whose spices are savoury and muted by Indian standards. Dessert is a sweety and milky rice pudding.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ten Things I'm Enjoying about Life in Orissa, India

1. That being chased, charged or nearly head-butted by Colossus the Ox, who rules the muddy lanes of our neighbourhood, is considered a rite of passage for residence and has endeared me to several of my neighbours.

2. That it is perfectly acceptable--or even advisable--to walk into an important meeting barefoot, and further that it's quite all right to take off your shoes, walk around and stretch your toes in the middle of someone's power-point presentation.

3. That in a culture where, in many circles, vegetarians are the majority, a "non-veg" person like myself endures no discrimination.

4. That almost every time I approach the neighbourhood egg shop for my regular half-dozen-bag purchase, the guys have it all ready for me before I enter and playfully call out "six eggs," to which I echo "chuh undah" for my most-used Oriya phrase.

5. That road trips come with elephant warnings.

6. That every month when the cable guy comes to collect the bill of 175 rupees ($3.90), he inquires earnestly if everything is okay with the cable while he has me sign and date three different official forms and waits for my smile of satisfaction before he leaves.

7. That stray dogs (almost) always prefer lounging on random piles of dirt to harassing humans.

8. That after more than six months I can finally ride a motorcycle through a herd of imposing water buffalo without fear of being impaled by their foot-long horns.

9. That the guy who comes into my office everyday to announce that it's time for lunch--which by all evidence is the only English word he knows--does so with an unaffected panache that befits the delicious meal I'm about to eat.

10. That everyday when I walk home from the marketplace, a half dozen 3-5 year-old neighbourhood children run straight at me, laughing, tripping over each other in order to be the one (or two) to hold my hand and walk me to my gate.

And here's one more shot of Colossus the Ox...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What PREM Does: Networking Grassroots People's Movements

This is the second in a series of posts about the development work of People's Rural Education Movement (PREM) Orissa, India.


PREM is what you might call an intermediary non-governmental organization (NGO); it is less a solitary, issue-based organization than a movement that reflects the direction of hundreds of grassroots people's and community-based organizations (CBOs). The basic idea of PREM is that people build up organizations, not the other way around.

At its inception as an advocate for education of the marginalized people of Orissa, PREM didn't just build schools. It began to build up a culture of education and literacy among those--aboriginal peoples (Adivasis), lower castes (Dalits), fisherfolk, rural villagers and farmers--who hadn't been exposed to the possibilities and rights of formal education. And it lobbied those who would deny these rights--inept or corrupt government, the haves of society--to be a part of changing the prevailing social values.

And after twenty-five years of evolution as a movement toward this value-based change, PREM now nourishes hundreds of small, village-level CBOs that, e.g., operate pre-schools, train and support local teachers, provide vocational training, promote new initiatives for curriculum development, and advocate for education among constituent communities of Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalized groups.

Over the years, PREM has expanded beyond education to facilitating projects and raising awareness about issues of health care (general, immunization, HIV/AIDS, malaria, hygiene, etc), water and sanitation, livelihood, governance, child rights and child protection, disaster relief and rights implementation.

Beyond CBO-level support at the local level, PREM has organized state-level and national-level networks so that these disparate CBOs might federate themselves for strength and unity in advocacy for change. The Orissa Adivasi Manch (lit: "forum") and the National Advocacy Council for Development of Indigenous People (NAC-DIP) are state- and national-level, respectively, federations of Adivasi-development CBOs and NGOs that are facilitated by PREM. There are similar federations formed by PREM for Dalits*, for the fisherfolk**, and for women's groups.***

From a wide-angle view, PREM is situated within an immeasurably extensive web of people, organizations, development initiatives and values that--with PREM's core competencies of knowledge and resource sharing, and its capacity to bring people together for change--is continuously building itself into a stronger and stronger alliance for social justice among the Adivasi, Dalit and other marginalized people of Orissa.

--
* The Orissa Dalit Manch is a state-level forum for Dalit issues and organizations. It's national counterpart is the Alliance Network of Dalits (AND).
** The Kalinga Fisher People's Union is a state-wide union of 35,000 local fishermen and women in Orissa. The East Coast Fisher People's Forum (ECFPF) is a network of fisherpeople's unions in various Indian States.
*** In 1992 PREM founded Uktal Mahila Sanchaya Bikash (UMSB), a state-level federation of more than 2200 women's self-help groups (SHGs), most of which are small, village-based micro-credit initiatives including seed and grain banks, local arts and crafts commerce, forest-produce and agriculture collectives, etc. All receive training and other organizational support from PREM. Today UMSB has more than 32,000 women members. UMSB is also part of a national network, INFOS (Indian Network of Federations of Microfinance Self-Help Groups).

Photo: Ceremonial planting of a tree at a meeting of various tribal organizations and CBOs with PREM.

Monday, August 9, 2010

What PREM Does: Child Based Community Development

This is the first in a series of posts about the development work of People's Rural Education Movement (PREM) in Orissa, India.


The Adivasis are the aboriginal people of India. There are more than 8 million in the state of Orissa alone, in 62 distinct tribes each with their own language and culture. The characteristics which unite them are unfortunately the least impressive. They live mostly in remote villages, deep in the forests and high in the hilltops, where most government services, such as education, do not reach.

Since 1975, the state government of Orissa has established hundreds of what it calles Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres in rural, Adivasi-dominant areas of the state. These centres are supposed to be a kind of multi-purpose daycare for young children (aged 3-5), providing Early Childhood Education (i.e., pre-school), health care and immunization, playground facilities, and nutrition (i.e. a free lunch). Each centre should have a staff of one teacher and one supervisor, be open for at least 4 hours per day, 6 days per week, and be centrally located and well-known in the local area.

Unfortunately, surveys conducted over the years by PREM and other non-governmental organizations have found that these ICDS centres are operating far, far below acceptable standards. Just some of the problems associated with ICDS centres in Orissa include that:
  • Most ICDS centres are located on the outskirts of villages or between villages, requiring foot travel by the young children as much as one kilometre each way;
  • Most ICDS centres are built in relatively large hub villages, around which are clusters of smaller hamlets whose children are not able to access the centres due to distance;
  • Teacher absenteeism (and associated corruption, such as teachers paying bribes to supervisors) is prevalent if not widespread;
  • Many ICDS centres are open only a few hours per week, usually long enough for the teacher to show up, serve lunch, and go home (i.e., there is no actual pre-school at all);
  • The vast majority of ICDS teachers and supervisors are not from the local community, meaning they likely do not speak the local tribal language and have difficulty communicating with children, parents and community leaders;
  • Child abuse in the form of neglect and corporal punishment is reported.
Furthermore, NGO studies have shown that Adivasi children perform better in primary school if they begin pre-school in their mother tongue (i.e. tribal language) and are gradually transitioned to Oriya, the language of instruction they will encounter in primary school. High dropout rates and low performance by Adivasi children in primary school are attributed, in part, to lack of mother-tongue introduction to education in pre-school, and to non-attendance of pre-school. (70% of all Adivasi children will drop out of primary school within one year, due to language barriers, inaccessibility, migration, and lack of priority placed on education by the child's family/community.)

Urged by Adivasi community and people's organizations who are frustrated at the inefficacy of government development, PREM in 2007 launched its CBCD project which has, at present, constructed or renovated more than 350 new community centres in rural Adivasi villages and hamlets. PREM provides training, helps develop Adivasi-focused curricula and materials, and pays initial salary to the staff of two facilitators per centre while initiating a fund for the community members to pay the costs in the long-term. The facilitators are without exception young women from the same tribal community if not the same village. The pre-school education in the CBCD centres is conducted in three languages: Oriya, English and the mother tongue (i.e. tribal language) of the children.

Concurrently, PREM organizes workshops and seminars in the communities for parents and local leaders on child rights, education policy, child-centred health care from pre-natal through adolescense, forming village education committees and parent-teacher committees, and monitoring the implementation and quality of educational provisions.

PREM also lobbies state education officials to take its CBCD project as a model for future ICDS, arranging exposure visits and encouraging local communities to advocate for the program's continued implementation.

Though a relatively young project, it has already yielded positive results. CBCD centres are open an average of four times more per month than ICDS centres. Children who transition from CBCD centres to primary school have a lower dropout rate than children who previously attended ICDS centres or no pre-school at all.

Most importantly, the entire concept of the CBCD centres is constructed from the bottom up, with the participation of village leaders, parents and even children's clubs in every stage from building construction to teacher training to monitoring. As a result, the process is less likely to fail the needs of the children, because the entire community has taken ownership of the program to educate young tribal children.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Ahmed Ali

"In spite of griefs and sorrows a man gets used to life, for its flaws must always go on. Soon Mir Nihal resumed his normal life and became reconciled to his fate. There is no doubt that he did not go to work, nor did he fly his pigeons now. They were all of the past and were left behind. The road of life grew dim in the hazy distance, but he got ready to continue the journey all alone...

"For if it were not for Hope, men would commit suicide by the scores, and the world would remain a barren desert in which no oasis exists. On this tortuous road of life, man goes on hoping that the next turn of the road will bring him in sight of the goal. But when he takes the turn and still there is no sign of the promised land he still says that at the next turn he will come to it. Thus from turn to turn he goes on hoping, believing in the will-o'-the-wisp that is Hope. And Mir Nihal went on believing in disbelief. Days and weeks passed, as the years had flown before; and life held sway as of yore, over the empires of the world."

--Ahmed Ali, from the novel Twilight in Delhi, first and last paragraphs of Book 2, Chapter 5, pp 120 and 125.

(Context: My current leisure reading. And because, as the doldrums of monsoon season set in, one finds a melancholy comfort in the desperation of characters like poor Mir Nihal in Ahmed Ali's classic tale of interwar Delhi. On a related note, the so-called doldrums of monsoon season are exacerbated if not principally caused by this blogger's lack of a laptop computer, whose adapter short-circuited three weeks ago and has not yet been replaced; in case any reader wondered where I am.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Oriya Literature in Translation

I was introduced to Oriya literature by chance and by suffering. In a Khan Market bookshop in Delhi, I decided to spend a whopping 800 rupees on the Orissa edition of The Beautiful India reference book series.

There is a different edition for each Indian state, approximately 350 pages, written in imperfect Indian English (albeit scholarly Indian English) in the style of a mid-twentieth century social science Ph.D. dissertation. In other words, it is the kind of book that would cure insomnia in a sloth; a very, very dry reading on the history, economy, language, culture, politics, demographics, industry, art and architecture of the state. But one of the few gems was the section on Oriya literature—specifically the names and themes and significance of prominent writers, novelists and poets—that set me off on the path of local literary adventure.

Within the otherwise drab pages of that textbook I discovered the name of Umesh Chandra Sarakar, whose 1888 story Padmamali is considered the first-ever novel written in Oriya. Fakir Mohan Senapti (1843-1918) is called the father of modern Oriya prose. In the late 19th century a literary movement called Satyabadi came along, known for its Oriyan nationalistic spirit. There were satirists and romantic poets and fiercely politicized short story writers. The famous brothers Mohanty, Gopinath and Kanhu Charan, wrote now-classic stories on themes of social consciousness and cultural battles with modernity during the post-partition era of early Indian nationhood.

I desperately wanted to read these works to understand the place where I’d be spending a year or more of my life.

By further chance, I stumbled upon a glorious website called Grassroots Books India, billed as the largest website of Oriya literature in translation (though it could equally call itself the only website of Oriya literature in translation). Here to my delight I found Padmamali and many of the works of Senapti and the Mohantys and other important Oriya writers, available in English translation, for download in PDF format—absolutely FREE!

Grassroots Books, a non-profit, aims to “open doors to India’s best writing — selected and translated by a distinguished group of writers and translators — by publishing and promoting these works on the web. We also serve as an advocacy organization for literature in translation, producing events that feature the work of Oriya writers and connecting these writers to the world at large.”

NB: Fellow Orissa-based VSO volunteer Sheila Ash has written a very informative introduction to and review of some Indian and Oriya lit on her blog, Ashramblings.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Indian Waggle


It is somewhere between startling and disconcerting. When, at the initial passing of a thought beyond your lips--as soon as your utterance becomes an utterance--your interlocutor begins to shake his head at you, smiling. You have just begun to speak, and already you feel wrong: wrong place, wrong person, wrong thought?

Maybe disorienting is the better word for it. It is probably the single most jarring accoutrement of Indian culture, coming as it does between interpersonal connection.

I'm talking about the waggle. The Indian Waggle: The ubiquitous cranial (or as much cervical) gesture of assent, comprehension (feigned or real), acquiescence, politeness, and (rarely) finality.

More commonly referred to as the Indian nod, bob, bobble, wobble, or wiggle, I nevertheless prefer the term waggle, and not just because of the generous dictionary definitions:

waggle verb 1 /wag uhl/ a to wobble or shake, especially while in motion. b to move up and down or from side to side in a short, rapid manner. c to wobble and shake the head and move it up and down and side to side all at the same time in order to confuse the hell out of your interlocutor. noun 1 /wag uhl/ a the aforementioned confusing-as-hell head motion.

Where I am accustomed to a forward head-nod, a "yeah," an "uh-huh," an "mmm-hmmm," even an "okee-dokee," here in India I get the Waggle. You understand my words?; You agree with me?; You like what I'm saying?; You want me to keep talking; You think I'm the greatest thing since paneer pakora?... Then, why don't you waggle your head while I'm talking?!

How about I lose my train of thought completely as I am mesmerized by your waggle?!

All kidding aside, the Waggle is not only surprisingly endearing--insofar as it is usually accompanied by a smile--but also dynamic and (I might as well admit) infectious.

The mechanics of the Waggle may seem daunting to the first-timer. Most of the effort is in the neck, while the head is the resulting focal point of the action. Try to imagine your head bobbing smoothly from side to side, and making a three-dimensional figure-eight motion (think hard) while your shoulders remain perfectly still. Keep your eyes fixed on their subject and slowly stretch a smile across your cheeks. There, you've just lassoed the theory of the Waggle.

And though I'm far from a seasoned practitioner of the art of the Waggle, I now find its waggliness creeping into my subconscious: If I see a waggle, I waggle. Sure, it starts as a comfortable nod (as a lifetime nodder, transitioning to the waggle is a bit like trying to defeat the proverbial chewing-gum/walking routine). Then gradually it morphs--sometimes awkwardly and with a bit of strain--into the common waggle. Lately I find I can waggle without a conscious cue. I am a waggler. But don't try this at home.

--
NB: Regarding the photograph, I asked the man if I could take a snapshot of his shop. He waggled. The boy asked if he could be in the photo. I waggled.

Monday, June 14, 2010

India Book Review: Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga

Duly celebrated young Indian author Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker Prize and shot the young man to stardom. I've still not read that book. It is sitting on my virtual bookshelf, which is to say that it is stored on my partner's Kindle that I haven't yet deigned to use, which means it stands a tiny chance of achieving the paradigmatic distinction of being the first electronic book I ever read.

However, my actual non-virtual bookshelf is blessedly still full of actual non-virtual books, one of which is Adiga's second book published (but first written), Between the Assassinations, a collection of short tales ("a novel of stories") set in a fictional town of Kittur on the southwest Indian coast during the seemingly arbitrary but nevertheless poetically named era in India's history between the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the assassination of her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Arbitrary, because the stories follow no discernible chronological order, nor are they pegged to any specific date during that seven-year span, nor do they at any point reference either of the two assassinations as events significant to the narrative. Should any of these facts put you off reading the book, you'll be the sorer for it.

What Adiga writes in these character-driven stories of daily life in all corners, sectors, classes, religions and ages of Indian society tucked just beneath the innocent surface of fictional Kittur, is a tale of a transcendant, modern India, where the barriers, both physical and culturally imagined, between all corners, sectors, classes, religions and ages of Indian society are being torn down by the thrust of modernity, which as a character itself takes the thematic forms of, for example, a globalized economy, linguistic convergence and domination, identity politics of sub-national groups, and the better-informed but ceaselessly futile revolt of the have-nots against the haves--all of which characterize India's coming of new age in the late 1980s.

And, as the prose comprises the earliest, rawest writings of a young, talented author, Adiga's style is wonderfully sardonic, purposeful, and not at all off-key when it hits the occasional epiphanous note.

You should read this book.

Between the Assassinations
By Aravind Adiga
Free Press, 2009
339 pages

Saturday, June 12, 2010

After the Catch

The seaside town of Gopalpur is--as regular followers of this blog will guess--becoming a regular weekend getaway for us. Morning walks on the beach have an innate, therapeutic value not easy to define but not difficult to imagine. On a recent excursion, our morning walk took us past a fisherfolk village, not long after the men had returned from the sea with the day's catch for the market, where boats dried on the sand, crows and dogs picked over scraps, and the men and women set about repairing vessels and nets and gear in the perpetual cycle of life by the sea.

{Click here to see the full gallery of 17 photos}

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quote-Unquote: Why India is terrible at Football

"Why is India such a non-entity in international football? Because, whether or not we acknowledge our inadequacies, the predominant mindset of this nation almost ensures that we are unlikely to be successful at [an] elite professional level in any sport that demands strenuous physical activity--this contention being corroborated by the fact that among the top five medal winners in the Beijing Olympics, there is not a single cricket-playing country."
--Columnist Siddhartha Mishra, writing in the June 6 edition of The New Sunday Express.

(Context: The 2010 FIFA World Cup is two days away. Mr. Mishra--who also argued that India is a non-factor in the soccer world due to underfunded local programs, overfed bureaucrats of the All India Football Federation, low wages for referees and players resulting in unspecified corruption, and lack of vision in creating a national program--is understandably downtrodden (as a patriot and a football fan in India) but hardly fair: If India is looking for youth with the physical stamina to endure a simple ninety-minute football match, come on down to hot, humid Orissa and check out the kids running around chasing balls in the dirt in my neighbourhood. Also, what kind of logic is the Beijing Olympic reference? Trinidad & Tobago were a no-show in Beijing. They play cricket with the formidable West Indies federation. And we saw wee T&T at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Barefoot Guide to Indian Football, aka Soccer

In 1950 the newly independent country of India was invited to take part in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The organizers of the tournament in Brazil wanted an Asian representative for the football (aka soccer) showcase, which was being held for the first time in twelve years due to some war.

The qualifying teams of Asia--Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines--all decided against attending, citing the expense of travelling halfway around the world and the uncertain security and venue arrangements in Brazil. So FIFA president Jules Rimet called upon India to represent its continent.

There was only one catch: You have to wear shoes. India declined.

Who needs shoes? India played football at the 1948 London Olympic Games and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics barefoot. (Okay, they didn't win a single game; there is also a popular story that in Helsinki several Indian players got frostbite during a 10-1 loss to Yugoslavia.)

However, India won the gold medal in football at the 1951 Asian Games barefoot. Mohammed Salim, the first Indian ever to play club football in Europe (for Celtic of the Scottish League, in a brief stint in 1936 before he got homesick and returned to India), played barefoot all his life. Many legends of Indian football, few as they are, got their starts in barefoot leagues.

(India finally put on shoes for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. It advanced to the bronze-medal match, falling to Bulgaria 3-0. Alright, perhaps shoes are a good thing.)

Nevertheless, since it embraced playing in shoes, the Indian national football team has never qualified for the World Cup.

In 2010 World Cup qualifying in Asia, India was ousted in the preliminary knockout round by Lebanon, a team so mighty that after beating India it proceeded to lose all six of its group-stage games against Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Singapore (also not appearing in the World Cup this year) by the combined score of 14-3.

In the pre-tournament FIFA World Rankings, you'll find India sliding in at No. 132 out of 207 countries, one spot behind Swaziland (but also 32 spots ahead of rival Pakistan).

So as the World Cup gets underway next weekend, we'll not be seeing any of India. I've yet to discern if India will even be watching. After all, there might be a cricket match on somewhere.

--
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/roosfotos/91313109/

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Children of the Hills and the English Conversation Club

"We come from the hills, sir." This is how the children explain it to me; how they name their place, as though a simple tilt of my head up from the horizon will answer everything I need to know about them.

Perhaps it does. These children I visit everyday are adivasi--'tribals' in the local English vernacular--aboriginal inhabitants of India. And yes, they live in the hills, in the forests, in tiny village clusters and hamlets. Unassimilated, passed by, on the margins... these are the hills.

They are my children, or so it is said in the parlance of the office. ("Mister-richard, you go to see your children now?") Each afternoon at half past four, I sit with thirty-four adivasi teenagers and facilitate an English conversation class--or club, as I prefer to call it.

It is summer vacation, and the children of the hilly villages have just completed the tenth grade. They spend the school year here, in special hostels, in Mandiapalli village just outside of Berhampur in the Indian state of Orissa. In fact, they've spent most of their lives here. Their villages are less than 100km away but take at least a day to get to, by bus and then by foot, up into the hills. There are no schools there, certainly not English-medium schools. They spend ten months in school, go home for two weeks, and then come back for summer courses, such as Mister-richard's (impromptu) English Conversation Club, where we hang out and tell jokes, swap fable for local fable, and compare and contrast Canada with India on any number of topics.

About ten years ago, the organization I work with here, PREM, helped establish a model school to give adivasi children the opportunities that few of their community ever have. These fifteen-year-olds were among the inaugural class. Their illiterate parents back in the hills had the courage and foresight to sign them up when PREM visited to explain about the school. It probably wasn't easy; a lot of tribal children go to work at young ages in the family business--usually millet cultivation combined with forest-produce gathering and some handicrafts or trades--especially if their fathers are away in other parts of India as migrant labourers. Child marriage is still common, which precludes long-term education.

Today these children read, write and speak Hindi, English and Oriya, in addition to their tribal languages. They have algebra and chemistry and computer science and just what you'd expect a teenager to have in school. After classes they cook and eat with each other, maintain the hostel together, go hiking and play cricket and fly kites. They are thirty-four among three million adivasi children in Orissa alone, and they know this. They are carefree when they should be, but also driven; in class I can hear it and feel it in what we talk about. These children know what opportunity is, and what it isn't. They also speak the language of rights, of values, of justice, and of hope: university, autonomy, community, development, progress, future...

I can't have these conversations with just anyone here. Like all teachers, I am the lucky one.

Last Friday, the students were on pins and needles (an expression Mister-richard taught them). They awaited the results of the annual year-end school examinations, their final cumulative grade point for the year. In the second-floor common room of the hostel, home to the English Conversation Club, no one could concentrate on the activities or games or jokes (in fact, more than a few skipped out on the meeting altogether). To the relief of all, the hostel ward finally got the email in the late afternoon and posted the list on the tackboard outside the kitchen.

Two of my students scored over 90%, apparently a ludicrously high score around here. One of them, a girl called S., feted her success by offering sweets to her classmates, as is the tradition here. (When it's your special day, you provide the treats, not the other way around.)

The other, a short, brick-built lad called J., took the news in typical teenage stride: with a shrug of the shoulders and a cock of the head, which absolutely could not conceal his smile and beaming pride. Some of the other children queued up for the hostel phone to call their families. But J.'s family will have to wait a while to hear the news of his success. In his village in the hills, just over the horizon, there are no phone lines and no mobile phone services.

The hills may not seem so far, but J. and his classmates have come a very long way. I hope their future is as bright as their faces.

--
NB: The children in the photograph are not my English students but others I've visited. I haven't brought my camera to class yet. This photograph was taken with the children's expressed consent.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

India Blog Roundup

Enough about me, for once! There are approximately sixty VSO volunteer workers here in various parts of India, and among them are a few savvy bloggers. So I present the first in a series of India Blog Roundups, a sampling of other good stories from the lives of vols in India.

Our dear friend Isabel, a Briton living in a small village in Rajasthan, writes in her Indian Bells blog about the newsworthy yet chronically underreported issue of child marriage in India. Also she posts a recipe for mango curry, not to be missed, and a day-in-the-life-of enduring India's heat.

Our buddy Paul, an Aussie with an Enfield, and who lives in Orissa's capital Bhubaneswar, blogs about the Red Ribbon Express, a roving HIV/AIDS-awareness train on a year-plus journey around India. He also writes about his twin loves, lassi and Varanasi.

Gina and Corey, a fun couple of Americans who co-author Sustainable Dignity, blog from the western Orissa town of Koraput about booze in India, with which I have familiarity. And believe it or not a County Fair came to their little hamlet, complete with ferris wheel and the Joker!

Susie, who lives in the tiny village of Bhawanipatna in western Orissa, writes about India's 2011 census, perhaps the largest human project in history. Take some time, too, to visit the photo galleries on her site; gal's been to a few places!

And Sheila, also in Orissa and blogging at Ashramblings, has a great piece on food, including the jahni, a courgette-like veggie that looked tasty enough when we saw it at the market, but which disagrees (let's say nicely) with the mouth!

Last but not least, my partner Ashley has started a blog, Strange News from another Star, where she writes about extraordinary traffic behavior in our town of Berhampur, and also about encounters with caste.