Monthly Archives: August 2012

day 44

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goolam bhai shearing the goat

the ridiculousness that is sabbah, using her amazing camera lense to read the (not so fine) fine print on the poster on the opposite wall

aadil getting totally in to the photography buzz

wanipura’s finest. clockwise from top right: aadil, tawnier, imtiyaz and nasir

the chocolate biscuit contract

aakib outside the grocery store in wanipura

the children of the corn photoshoots continue

amazing fresh and organic (desi) style Mexican burritos

Madhuri and Nashra have been promising the Wanipura kids that they will visit them after school, but everyday either due to the weather, general tiredness or daunted by the distance, they some how end up skipping the trip, much to the kid’s dismay. After a week of excuses and apologies, they finally give in and after school we follow the kids home taking a significantly less treacherous route than the one I was coerced to embark upon on my last trip down.

We get to mehfooz and imtiyaz’s house and are led upstairs into a room with these amazing windows that overlooks the mountain range. Mehfooz plays the perfect host and in between drinks courses, he and the other kids provide sufficient entertainment. At Sabbah’s insistence, Imtiyaz, my chocolate biscuit supplier and I use the time productively to draw up a contract for his supply or rather ‘splie’ of chocolate biscuits. The contract reads:

‘On this day the twenty eighth day in Augaust in the year twenty twelaw ad, I, Imtiyaz Ahmed Dev inter into a binding contract with Safiyyah ma’am regarding the splie of chocolate bisucit. We hear by agry that I will splie bisucits at a one rupee mark up to compensate for dlevery. Safiyyah ma’am will therefore pee 6 rupees for each phacket’.

The contract was ‘singh[ed]’ at the Dev house, Wanipura at 4:31pm by Imtiyaz, our two ‘withnesses’: Madhuri, Nashra and I. We shook hands, got our picture taken as proof and that was that. I must admit that while I am thrilled at my promised splie of chocolate biscuits for the rest of my stay here, I am not so thrilled about ‘pee[ing]’ 6 rupees every time; a rather unfortunate spelling error on imtiyaz’s part.

The thing with life in the village is that with the setting of the sun comes the heightened possibility of leopard attacks and bear encounters and while I have been secretly practicing my dead look in my room every night, a bear is not something I’d want to cross paths with. That means that we generally stay home after the sun sets and alternate between TV viewing, eating and trying to locate workable phone reception spots. Last night dinner was a bit later than usual and in search of a food channel, we came across a Food Safari episode on Mexican cuisine and based on their similarities to desi (indian) food, as decided by Sabbah, it was agreed that we’d attempt a Mexican dinner today and after a process of elimination based on the ingredients available, we settle on burritos.

Sabbah makes up the tortilla mixture (improvised because we are not fortunate enough to have the store bought ‘tortilla mixture’ all the google recipes seem to require); Madhuri does the completely organic salsa, Nashra spends the better part of an hour finely cutting cheese (to meet Sabbah’s standards) before to her horror, realizing the presence of a grater and I attempt rolling round paper thin tortillas. We get a production line going on the dinner table and slot in the salsa, sauce, chicken strips, cheese and fried rice into our burritos before rolling them up and toasting them on the stove. Considering (with the exception of the cheese) that all our ingredients are either from the garden, barn or from somewhere in the village, Mexican night is a resounding success and we spend the rest of the evening eagerly channel searching for more ingredientless cuisines we can attempt.

day 43

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and the unit tests begin

having their mind-blown by the printer

the view from just below badpura. the furthest building on the right is the Haji Mansion. to the left of it is the library, the store and dispensary, mosque and brickyard

the kitchen window at haroon’s house

haroon’s grandmother and the village’s oldest lady

at haroon’s house (left to right): madhuri, sayma, sabbah, haroon’s mum: pervina and his brother: anayaat

Today marks the beginning of test week and the assembly thought for the day: ‘think before you act’ aptly reflects the intended spirit. Tests present the perfect opportunity to split the kids up, something I have wanted to do for a while now, but keep putting off for fear of seeming dragon-like. We do quick reshuffles and I move each desk as far away from the next as I could in the hope that the distance will facilitate a plagiarism free environment.

The kids do not receive individual question papers and so after a bit of revision time, I have to write the questions up on the board which is a rather nightmareish task because one: I am short and have to stand on the tiny bench to reach the top of the board. Two: chalkboard writing is rather sore after awhile and probably the worst of the lot, three: the kids use it as an opportunity to keep talking in the form of questions which is all good and well except when it happens every 7 seconds. Ultimately that means that instead of catching up on some messaging, as I had intended for the hour of silence, I end up repeating each question on the board 13 times, as and when each child reaches it.

There’s no electricity in the computer room so Sabbah’s class is coming home for their computer period this afternoon where she plans to blow their minds by showing them the printer. They sit on the floor and all stare at the printer in complete mystification. She takes one of their textbooks and dramatically explains each step as she pops it under the lid and presses the photocopy button. There is dead silence, followed by furious nudging and excited giggles when the paper starts emerging from the tray and Iqra concludes the process with loud ‘WOW!’ exclamations when the papers emerge, printed, from within this magic box. She makes a colour print next and I’m almost certain one of these kids are going to drop down dead from all the excitement. She hands the copy to Zeeshan who is missing the said page of his textbook and he carefully holds it and swats anyone who threatens to squash it, for the rest of the lesson.

We make a trip up to Badpura in the afternoon to check on Haroon, who’d gone home early today because he was feeling unwell and Badpura’s height is aptly explained by Haroon’s mum in response to Madhuri’s question of what’s above Badpura: ‘Only God’ she confirms, ‘everything else is below us’. Haroon’s family are great fun and even though the steaming glasses of fresh buffalo milk they offer us, goes against all my dairy beliefs, even I don’t have the heart to turn it down.

On the way back home we see a helicopter somewhere in the distance which is wildly exciting because I’ve not come across a flying piece of machinery in quite some time. In addition to the excitement, Sabbah, quite keen on blowing-minds today, informs me that the journey from Jammu to here takes a mere 20 minutes by helicopter as opposed to the 10-hour car and horse journey we undertake. While the kids are no doubt impressed by the helicopter, as far as being mind-blown is concerned, the printer remains their undisputed winner of the day.

day 42

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caught and crushed! flea no more

picture one: oh hi, let me give you a hand with that. picture two: errr, how much exactly does this weigh? picture three: okay never mind, i guess you should probably take it back. have a nice day

sabbah totally not posing at the watermill

start family (left to right): khaleel uncle, his brother the hobbit, ramzan, shabnum, abbas, muneeza, hamid and sumi

hamid very tired after posing for many camera shots and video recordings

It seems that whether Sraayan Sundays happen or not, sleep-in Sundays are a thing of the past which truthfully breaks my heart a little. Our trip to Sraayan today has been postponed due to terrible weather both down here and up in Sraayan, which is not even visible from my bedroom window this morning due to a great deal of fog. Undeterred by the weather and rather unmotivated to spend the day in bed, like normal people who had one opportunity a week to sleep-in would, Nashra, Sabbah and Madhuri entertain Hashim Deen and Shanawaaz’s urges at badminton games and we (in all fairness I sit on the sidelines taking pictures and killing fleas) spend a good portion of the day hitting the shuttlecock back and forth.

We bask in the afternoon sun for a bit and I attempt, rather unsuccessfully, to carry an insanely heavy bundle of cut grass from one of the ladies who walks by and at around tea time we decide on a ten minute walk to Khaleel Uncle’s house. Only our ten minute walk somehow turns into a 45 minute hike to the watermill which is great except that it’s a 45 minute walk downhill which means terrible things for the return uphill journey. My fitness levels, or rather lack thereof, are truly shameful especially considering Khaleel Uncle (pictured above) looks like we’re on a leisurely Sunday stroll and so I try my best to muffle my telltale deep breaths.

We reach our intended destination much later than anticipated and are served tea on the roof of Khaleel Uncle’s barn. Post my survival of the buffalo milk incident I have decided that while I shall maintain my assault against dairy products and foreign food within the Haji Mansion, I shall adopt a more open and less restricting food policy on visits around the village in the spirit of appreciation. Also, after Avehi’s refusal of tea on our last visit resulted in us being gifted a live chicken, I’ve decided it’s probably safer to consume a few orange cream biscuits and down the tea. Still, we do not leave empty handed and just before sunset make our way back home with a bag full of fresh corn to roast for pre-dinner snacking.

day 41

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chocolate biscuits from imtiyaz, a pear from humeera and a walnut from rubina: profitable teacher days

the kids refuse to learn the new song madhuri ma’am is trying to teach them unless she sings their favorite song first

hashim deen, totally scaring off the dog with his marijuana branch

and then we milked the buffalo: Shamma Aunty trying to show me the rotate and pull technique (i think)

as mortifying as this picture is, i hope it serves to dispel any doubts anyone may have of my commitment to ‘when is breswana, do as the breswanians do’

Goolam Rasool, the storekeeper near our house stocks a varieties of marie, orange cream, elachi (cardamom) and even glucose biscuits but no chocolate ones, which truth be told, is what I’d really like. After my encounter with mint flavoured chips, I know better then to question the presence of cardamom in biscuits but seriously, how do you stock cardamom biscuits over chocolate ones?! Anyway I commissioned a few kids from school who live in surrounding villages to check their stores for supplies and today Imtiyaz arrived at school with a with a huge victorious grin on his face and handed me a packet of chocolate biscuits. To say that it made my day would be understatement of the year and as if chocolate biscuit supplier findings weren’t enough, lunchtime rolled around and I got handed a pear from Humeera and walnut from Rubina. So, all things considered, today turned out to be an amazingly profitable teacher day and if things continue this way, I would most definitely consider a fulltime switch to the profession.

This evening just before 6, Nashrah, Madhuri and I trooped up to Shamma Aunty’s house where Madhuri, enchanted by her trip yesterday, has made buffalo milking appointment. Before the milking commences, Shamma Aunty invites us in for some curd, tea and biscuits (orange flavoured) and Madhuri uses the time to practice her Kashmiri while I get the translations from Nashrah every so often. Its not that I have any aversion to learning Kashmiri, it’s just that I think it’s only fair that I allow them a language to gossip about me in, if they so wished, and so I have decided to stick to my (currently shamefully stagnant) Urdu learning.

I doubt whether milking a buffalo is really a big deal at all, but receiving milk in cartons for the last twenty-odd years of my life has ensured that the closet I’ve come to the source, are the pictures of perfectly patterned black and white cows on the carton’s cover and so the real thing is truly quite fascinating. They bring up the calf from the barn and allow it to suckle on the mother for a little while in order to get the milk flowing before they begin milking the buffalo. Shamma Aunty brings out a stool and a big silver jug and motions to Madhuri, our elected expert, to take up her milking position on the stool and I’m starting to realise that there are huge disparities between situations you think are cool in your head and situations that actually are. In my head, living on a farm, waking at the crack of dawn, shoveling cow dung, milking buffalos and churning my own butter is totally the life I’d want to lead but standing a few feet away from this humungous buffalo, fending off flies, navigating through muddy dung and thinking about the actual udders I have to pull at, has turned a perceived utopic situation into a daunting reality.

Madhuri finishes her milking bit and Shamma Aunty gestures to me and I edge toward the buffalo and perch cautiously beside her on the stool. She shows me some rotation milking technique and several tries later, I have concluded that milking is one of those processes that are easier said than done. Many milk less moments later, I finally manage to get some milk to squirt out and Shamma Aunty gives me a pat on the shoulder in a sort of encouraging you-suck-but-nevermind way and weirdness aside, the whole things really becomes quite an enjoyable experience and with each udder pull, my farm dreams totally begin to reappear in my mind as a viable life plan.

Unwilling to further embarrass myself, I get off the stool a little while later only to be called back by Shamma Aunty who wants me to try some fresh buffalo milk. Considering my firm belief that cows (and ONLY cows) were made for milk and strong preference toward processed and preserved dairy products, it took every bone in my body to turn around and go back to where she was seated. She signaled me to bend down and twisted one of the udders in my direction. Of course she meant straight from the udders. I mean really, what was I expecting? A cup and some accompanying chocolate milo?

day 40

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asima devouring her packet of mint flavored chips. sigh

yaseen, imtiyaz, ramzan, mehfooz and umber, tired of learning mamma mia, give us a kashmiri dance demonstration

panchayat sessions from my spot in the gallery

mind-blown at the Nutella and bread discovery

Usually Fridays are activity day at school and the kids get to wear normal clothes and they don’t bring their bags. Today however, because unit tests are starting next week, we are temporarily canceling activity day and using the day to revise instead. The kids, as expected, are not very thrilled and trying to gain and maintain their attention for longer than 4 minutes at a time is proving to be an actual nightmare. To make matters worse, Mehfooz has been gifted a watch as an Eid present, which initially was great for me because I don’t have a watch and my phone is almost always dead or dying. Unfortunately however, the kids soon realise the worth of Mehfooz’s watch and now every few minutes someone screams across the class or head-butts Mehfooz to get his attention before enquiring about the time. Once he responds, there is deceptive silence for exactly 3 seconds while they calculate the time left to break and then shattering the silence, announce it loudly to the class. After two days of continuous time updates, I am encouraging Mehfooz to keep unnecessarily pressing the buttons on his watch and showing me the light in the hopes that the battery will die a premature death and time ignorance will reign over class three once again. Evil? Maybe a little. Necessary? Undoubtedly.

We soldier on with work for the first two periods but give up by the next two and spend the better part of what is left the day training the Breswana Glee Club. Sabbah and Madhuri have decided that the kids singing an Abba song, complete with actions, could be hilariously epic and so we spend the rest of the morning (granted I just sit and watch) teaching them the chorus of Mamma Mia along with very lyric-literal actions.

After school we spend some time eavesdropping on the panchayat gathering happening outside my window. Panchayat refers to the most local form of governance they have here. Sabbah’s dad, Saleem Uncle, is the Sarpanch (head of the village) for this district and he along with an assistant sarpanch, two men and two ladies from surrounding villages, make up the panchayat. Basically the panchayat serves as a very localized form of governance that gives the Sarpanch and members of the panchayat the authority to deal with local issues and hand down punishments without having to transfer the case to the courts (which, understandably so, is a very inefficient and ineffective process). The panchayat generally gather on Friday afternoons to discuss any cases that have been brought to them although more pressing cases are discussed as and when needed. Most times it’s regular stuff like land and wage disputes but today’s one seems a bit more dramatic and involves some sly out of marriage relations. Obviously I don’t understand much but Sabbah’s running commentary together with our prime gallery seats makes for good afternoon entertainment.

Yesterday, eager for some chips, I stopped at Goolam Rasool’s store and picked up the only packet of chips he had available. The packet was green and so I didn’t bother reading the flavour, under the false assumption that green chip packets universally represent cheddar, chives, spring onion or the like. Sadly it seems India does not subscribe to universal norms and the green packet of chips turned out to be fudina (mint) flavoured. While I strongly believe that mint is an amazing enhancement to many things including tea, lemonade, ice cream and chocolate; packet chips, rather unfortunately, does not, in any universe, make the list. Luckily for me, in light of my bread and green Lays fascination from breakfast in Doda the other day, Saleem Uncle has brought up a few loaves of bread and packets of Lays and so I’ve been having a field day making chip sandwiches. The sandwich highlight of the day however came with the discovery of a bottle of Nutella in the storeroom and it took all of five seconds from realization to consumption by Madhuri, Nashrah and Sabbah who were in complete Nutella sandwich heaven. Obviously I think the idea of chocolate on bread, like mint in chips, is a completely ludicrous one and so I enjoy the Nutella the proper way: by the spoonful.

day 39

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dead silence as they discover madhuri ma’am’s musical talents

so thrilled with his new school shoes, hashim deen has stuck the sticker from the shoe box on his clothes and is parading around quite proudly

soaking up the amazing afternoon sun (actually not really, i think we were all in the shade, but anyway)

hashim deen (and joe) very thrilled that they had found cricket company in nashrah and sabbah

painted above one of the classroom doors at the government school. first to fifth grades all happen in one classroom

if five grades in one classroom wasn’t sad enough, the inside the classroom does little to inspire much hope

true HPS elitists, sabbah and nashrah greatly amused by what they teach at the government school

Madhuri, the new volunteer, arrived today just as we were sitting down for lunch. Originally from Bangalore, she has been studying in the States for the last few years and has recently completed her Masters in Creative Writing. Despite her long journey up the mountain today and her encounter with crazy Indian cab driving the day before, she was very excited to come back to school with us after lunch and so we trot off to school and Sabbah introduces her to the kids. We go around the classroom and the kids do some basic introductions while we simultaneously point out early warnings (admittedly unfair) of the mischievous and hyperactive kids. Madhuri introduces herself and as soon as they hear she’s from Bangalore their first questions are ‘do you know azon and felix sir’? She responds that she does not and appearing visibly dejected for a while, they recover in time to run through the entire volunteer list in the hopes that she knows someone.

Luckily, or unlikely for her, they learn that she can sing and there’s no turning back from there. They do a live performance of their viral online smash hit and she offers to sing for them after they’re done. They are, as usual, making a raucous noise when she starts singing but within 4 seconds, there is pindrop silence in the class. Actual deafening silence. Amjed and Ajaz are literally sitting with their jaws dropped and Muneeeza scurries across the classroom to be closer to the singing sensation. At one point, Madhuri tries to get some crowd participation by making them clap and join in the chorus, but those who do are quickly shushed angrily by the rest of the class and within a few seconds, all twenty of them resort back to jaw dropped silence. I’m not sure that Madhuri is goiong to be too thrilled at being used as our secret noise combatting weapon but I am, in all honesty, overjoyed.

We take a trip down to the government school in the afternoon. The government school offers grades 1 to 10 and has roughly 200 kids. There are four teachers in total and the same number of classrooms with each classroom being allocated to several grades. We peak through the windows and find classrooms jam-packed with desks and building materials and I, in all honesty, doubt these classrooms have been used very much, if at all. With 200 kids and four teaches, as can be expected, not much teaching happens and as a result many kids don’t frequent school very often. Amjed, aged twelve, is registered in class seven at the government school but attends class four classes at our school the whole year around, returning to the government school only to take the end of year examinations which serves as a very telling sign of the level of education they offer.

Sure, it’s great having big government schools with spacious classrooms, minimal fees and amazing equipment, but as Sabbah points out, there’s really little point to any school without teachers. Building schools all over the country may do great things for national government and education stats but realistically that’s about the extent of the purpose many of them serve. Realizing that teachers, and not buildings, are what strengthen education is really not rocket science and therefore one would think that it would be simple logic to understand that an adequate supply of good teachers, even if you have to conduct lessons under the trees, allows you to do what is most important: educate.

day 38

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Saleem Uncle’s house in Doda that they have now converted into a guest house

Just in front of the guest house, a huge cricket ground

Lattah, ever ready to pose for photos

The only picture i managed to get of Bhag Singh, the driver, who keeps evading my camera

hahaha, lunch!

Nazir totally rocking the cowboy look

never stop posing. Nazir and Randy, the horse, at the halfway point

Shaban, completely at peace with life on the edge of the mountain

I wake up in Doda to butter toast on pure white bread prepared by Ayaz (Nazir’s brother) for breakfast. It may sound average to you or maybe even incite recalls of prison menus but (especially) after 37 breadless days, butter toast honestly becomes one of life’s simplest indulgences and after mock protests at not being able to finish all he has made for me, I polish off all four slices :/

Just after three, Lattah and I leave Doda for Premnagar, where we will meet Sabbah and Nashrah (Sabbah’s cousin who is coming up to the village for a few days). Bhag Singh, the driver, stops at a restaurant to get us some lunch to eat on the way up. I have been having boneless cubed chicken dreams for the last month and since we’re going to be eating this along the way somewhere, I deduce that it has to be something easy to eat and so I have high hopes for a tandoori chicken wrap filled with crunchy lettuce and plenty ketchup and chilli sauce. He emerges from the restaurant with three small packets and I rate that the chances of tandoori chicken wraps are now pretty high.

We get to Premnagar, meet up with Sabbah and Nashrah, watch the horses being loaded, cross the drawbridge, walk through the alleys and then down the monstrous stair hill to where we meet the horses. We’re going to have lunch before we begin the trip up and Sabbah passes me a foil plate and super excited about the tandoori chicken wrap that awaits me, I make my way to the rock that is serving as our makeshift table and Lattah opens the packets. First packet: rice. Second packet: chicken curry. Third packet: more rice. Tandoori dreams dashed, Sabbah pours some rice and curry on to my plate, I pick out one or two insects, find a rock to perch on and gobble down lunch. In all honesty, it’s quite nice. I mean hey, it’s no chicken wrap, but still, not bad at all.

We begin our 3-hour journey up the mountain a little while later and beside my horse almost killing us both on one of the inclines she misjudged, the trip up is truly amazing. We make it back to the village just as the sun is setting and if I hadn’t yet realised how blessed I was to be living here; I do now. I grab my backpack and pick-n-choose purchases and head up the stairs of the Haji Mansion to my room, very keen for the next two months and (considering I’ve been fasting since I got here a month ago) I must admit insane keenness for the promise of lunch at lunchtime.