Thursday, December 24, 2009

Deck The Halls

I've been back in the US for a week and I am not really sure how to put my amazing journey into writing. I've come to the conclusion that it might not be possible to express in words what this experience truly meant to me; and in this day and age of over-sharing, some things should just be privately treasured rather than openly published.

So, instead of writing some cliched verbiage on my blog about how Shanti Bhavan changed my life, I thought showing, rather than telling, would be apropos. With the help of some of my talented Shanti Bhavan students and under the tutelage of my roommates, Allie and Ashley, who are dance majors; I thought a performance was in order to express at least a small fraction of how I feel and what I learned.

Thank you Shanti Bhavan (and to all of those involved - you know who you are) for all the fun, the smiles and the laughs!!! It means more to me than you will ever know.

Namaste and Merry Christmas!!!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hot Sumathi Soup

I depart Shanti Bhavan in three days and I have such mixed feelings about leaving. I’m excited to see my friends and family over the holidays, but I feel very sad to leave the kids and the volunteers I've become close to. Mary, one of my BFFs, asked me in an email if this experience was life changing, below was my answer. I think it sums it up for now…

Hi M,

It’s kinda hard to see how this experience is affecting me. It probably won’t really hit me until I leave and when I can reflect on it a bit more and let it steep a little longer. There are definitely moments in the day where I feel so touched by the openness and the kindness of a child’s innocence. We could all learn a little from their ability to love unconditionally, to forgive without a grudge, and to forget things that are really meaningless. Somehow their little souls have this process to filter out all the bad and keep in the good. I wish I could be a more like them.

M, I have fallen completely in love with this little 3rd grader, Sumathi. I don’t spend a lot of time with the third graders, usually just art class. But one afternoon, I was so freaking exhausted and frustrated, I sat down at a table with the girls to help them color. In the art room, there aren’t enough chairs for the entire class so I’m usually standing for the whole afternoon screaming over the kids to clean up, to share their art supplies, and to stop picking on each other. That afternoon, I randomly parked my tired butt on Sumathi’s chair taking up ¾ of the chair, she only ¼ (she’s a peanut). With my yellow crayon, I started coloring the sun on Sumathi’s picture. Her big brown eyes completely lit up, and she gave out this giggle that was the cutest, most infectious giggle I’ve ever heard. It was kismet – as if I was suppose to be so spent that I would finally notice her and get to know her. As we colored together, I’m not sure what came over me – might have been one of those times that you feel like giving up and God throws you a bone to keep you going. At the end of the art class, she gave me the picture we worked on together and asked me to keep it forever. I turned to mush… I HEART Sumathi!!!

So since then, Sumathi and I have this special bond and my love for her grows everyday. When she comes into the art room, she always looks for the chair next to me and gets supplies for the both of us to work on our art. I know we’re not supposed to have favorites as teachers, but I can’t help it…I’m so drawn to her! In assembly, I always check to see if she’s in line and closing her eyes during the prayer. At dinner, I make sure that she’s present. In her grammar class, Eva, another volunteer, told me that she signed a worksheet “Sumathi Vivian” as if we’ve become one person. I substituted for a 3rd grade science class for my roommate who wasn’t feeling well and read them a book on the planets and the solar system. I asked them to gather around me so they can see the pictures. Sumathi takes my hand and holds it in her lap – I almost melted and teared up right there. Afterwards, she asked, “Miss Vivian, what’s your favorite planet?” I told her Venus because it starts with a “V” and my first name starts with V and she responded, “Then that’s my favorite planet too!” Ashley, my roommate told her that if she lived on Venus that she’d be “Hot Sumathi Soup” because of the extreme temperatures on the planet. So that’s my temporary nickname for her...Hot Sumathi Soup.

I really wish you could meet her because I know that you’d love her too – she’s the kindest, sweetest, smartest, funniest, and cutest little girl and I just can’t get enough of her! She kinda looks like the little Indian version of my mom (maybe that’s why I’m so attached to her?) I want to pack her up in my suitcase and bring back to Casa Bklyn. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve her devotion and her love, but I treasure it and I feel so lucky to know her. I worry about her so much though. She has the tremendous burden of getting her entire family out of poverty and being born into a world that’s going to be unfair to her because she’s an untouchable. She’ll be judged on her dark skin, her last name, where she is from, what her parents do, and her gender. I wish I could be there to hold her hand when she goes through these tough times, just like she did mine. I am so curious to see how life will unfold for her. Whatever happens, Sumathi has a special place in my heart and when I think back on my time in India and Shanti Bhavan I know my fondest memories will be of her.

Ok, I will stop rambling about Hot Sumathi Soup now….obviously I could go on…


Friday, December 4, 2009


Over the weekend, I traveled with three other volunteers for a quick weekend in Pondicherry, a French colony until 1954. On our way there, we stopped the ashram of Guru Ramana Maharishi and the Arunachala Temple, one of the largest temples in South India. Both located in Tiruvannamalai. At the temple, we all got blessed by an elephant! However, we also got a flat tire about 10 minutes later…hmmm! What was suppose to be a 5-6 hour drive became an 8-9 hour journey :(

On Saturday, we went to Auroville, a spiritual town just several kilometers north of Pondicherry. The town was designed to run on Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of divine consciousness, unending education, and constant progress. 2,000 people from all over the world come to live here and at the center of the city is the Matrimadir, a 30m high globe that claims to have the largest meditation room in the world with crystals that reflects the sun’s rays creating a concentrated light for enhanced meditation. Unfortunately, you have to have reservations well in advance or be an Aurovillian to get in. The concept of Auroville is one of an ideal utopia and it attracts ethereal hippie folks looking for inner peace.

Pondicherry itself is quite charming and you can see only a few remnants of the French – some of the architecture, the street names, and a few restaurants. There isn’t much to do, but I think that’s the point.

Some pics of our trip:

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving!!!! I hope the day brings everyone at home good food and fun times! The picture above is of a girl carrying wood on a farm close to Shanti Bhavan. I just thought it was a cool picture of everyday life in rural India.

The volunteers are going into Whitefield (a suburb of Bangalore) this evening for a restaurant Thanksgiving, complete with turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie! We’ve talking about this dinner for weeks as I think we’re all a little bummed that we can’t be with our family and friends having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and watching football. We’ve even dragged the Euros to join us in our American gluttony.

Being in India this Thanksgiving reminds me how thankful I am for what I have. Of course, I am most grateful for my family and friends who I love dearly. My absence from them makes me appreciate them more than I already do. Knowing that I’m amongst many children whose parents cannot take care of them or do not want them makes me indebted to my parents for their doting affection, devotion, and hard work in raising me and my siblings. Thanks Mom and Dad – I love you more than words can express!!

There are so many small things I have taken for granted like consistent electricity on demand, widely available access to the internet, toilet paper, washer/dryer, well-made coffee, cold milk, microwave, reliable public transportation, convenience, choice, and freedom. I am thankful for my time in India and at Shanti Bhavan for giving me a new appreciation for what I have and for reminding me how good I have it.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Children's Day

We celebrated Children’s Day on the 14th to commemorate Nehru’s birthday. It’s customary on this day for teachers and volunteers at the school to put together skits, dances and songs. True to tradition, we decorated the school, performed a modified version of Peter Pan (I played Wendy) and did a group dance to Jai Ho. In addition, the female volunteers did a dance to a popular Tamil song called Allegra. It was 2 weeks of agonizing rehearsals but we pulled off a great show! The kids were clapping and singing along which made us feel much better about making complete fools of ourselves. As a treat to the kids and ourselves, the volunteers pitched in and bought the kids ice cream for afternoon snack. Yum!

SB Children watching our performances

Me as Wendy - I'm trying to find Peter's shadow under Arun Kumar.

Min Ho, Erin, and Peter before the show

Mrs. Law (the principal) as Hook and Miss Beena (the vice principal) as Smee

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chennai: A taste of the good life

Over the weekend, my roommates (Allie and Ashley) and I went to Chennai (aka Madras) for a long weekend to visit with one of my family friends, Prabhakar, and his family. The drive took about 5 hours and even though it poured the entire weekend we managed to have a brilliant time. The route to Chennai was dotted with temples, smaller towns, farms, and rocky mountains. The roads were nicely paved, but unlike the US, there aren’t rest areas and conveniences along the highways. With that, you see a lot of men just using the bathroom along the side of the highway. I’m not sure what women do – I suppose they just hold it. One thing that is pretty striking about India is that the culture definitely favors men. I find it surprising given that they have had female leaders in the past and also how progressive India is. In speaking with some of the girls that I teach, some parents are quite vocal to their own daughters about their disappointment and resentment in having a girl. It breaks my heart to think that some of my students start their lives feeling unwanted and unlucky. I think it’s a hard cultural idea for me to grasp since without girls, there wouldn’t be boys!

Prabhakar was the most gracious host. First and foremost, he shared his LIFE with us. That is, the cereal Life which he brought back from a recent trip to Malaysia. It was such a wonderful treat to have cold milk and cereal for breakfast! He also took us to the British East India factory and fort, a crocodile farm, some really cool handicraft shops, a traditional south Indian dinner at the Taj, sari shopping (yes, I bought one so my Indian friends need to have some Indian events I can wear it to when I get home), and to the movies to see the latest Tamil film, Aadhavan.

The movie was a fun experience. The process of going to the movies is quite different. You call for tickets and then someone delivers them to your door. When you get to the cinema, you sit in your assignment seats in a massive theatre. Because Indian movies are so long they have an intermission, but like US theatres, they have buckets of popcorn, soft drinks, and ice cream. Though I don’t understand Tamil, the movie seemed to follow the traditional Indian formula – a couple of fight scenes, dances, and handsome boy falls in love with beautiful girl and tries to win her over plot. The tunes were quite catchy, and the audience was singing along. I have to admit I fell asleep because it was so long.

A huge thanks to Prabhakar for hosting us over the weekend and showing us such warm Indian hospitality! You can check out his blog here.

Some pics:

Chennai after the heavy rain