Archive for February, 2010


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

My grandmother had a musical gold cigarette lighter that played, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” The song is by The Platters.  Apparently, when your heart is aflame, smoke gets in your eyes.  Well, in the ASA, many of our hearts are aflame, but that is not what is causing our eyes to tear–it is the smoke that comes from a wood fire in an unventilated kitchen at the government pre-school center.   As a former respiratory therapist, I couldn’t help wonder the state of the kids’ lungs.  The cook herself would be in bad shape too. It has been estimated that most women who have to use wood fires to cook will have chronic respiratory problems by their early thirties.  Normally in their homes, there is no ventilation.

Ironically, this pre-school center has been blessed by a charity that supplies not only the Montessori toys but pays a Montessori teacher’s salary.  Also, this school had a new building with floor tiles that reminded me of Delft tiles in Holland.

How did we end up at this anganwadi?  My partner, Prema, came with me to our anganwadi.  She spent time with the teachers as I played with the kids.  I did my impersonation of Julie Andrews in the “Sound of Music,” and taught the kids “Doe, Ray, Me.”  Remember that Indian music does not necessarily have the Western seven notes.  I sang it over and over and over again.  Unlike when I sing with adults, no one told me nicely to be quiet.  The kids couldn’t get enough.  I had brought a portable stereo connected to my mp3 player so I could play the song.  It sounded loud enough in my house, but in the cacophony in the anganwadi, Julie Andrews’ voice was lost.

My singing wasn’t the best, but it gave the teachers a break in order that Prema could find out what was on their minds.  They wanted to see this Montessori anganwadi down the road which was supposed to be so much better than theirs.  But fortunately, our teachers have access to gas cylinders for their kitchen.  Their cook doesn’t need to collect wood for the children’s lunch.

See the Deccan Herald’s article.


Blue Cross Sings the Blues


I love dogs, and here in India, there are many dogs to love. I have a dog of my own, but we also look after a few dogs in our neighborhood. One was called Prince. He is the alpha-male. He has two wives that he guards carefully. From my count, he has sired about 40-50 pups. Since he is a black lab, the pups are beautiful. Because I would feed the mum, the pups grew healthy and many were adopted. But the monsoon pups were not strong. Even with nursing care, they died. So I had enough. Prince’s fathering days would have to come to an end. I needed to call Blue Cross.

I called Blue Cross two years ago after visiting them and making myself known. They called me and let me know when they were coming. I helped them find 10 dogs. One of the guys, Johnson, was very quick. In a few days they called me to tell me that they were bringing the dogs back. All had survived. I had little meals for them all. Today, they are happy beach dogs.

However when I called this time, the guy could only catch Prince. I didn’t hear any for ten days. So after having some friends help me who speak Tamil, we found that Prince was still at the Blue Cross and that I would have to take a rickshaw and pick him up at Velichery.

The Blue Cross kennels were not in the same shape as they had been two years ago. You could tell that the staff was overwhelmed and burnt out. I could understand. It was very sad to be there. I will spare you the graphic details.

They took me to Prince. He was half his size and the great alpha male was trembling like a frightened puppy. Even though he had never had a leash on him, he let me put it on. He knew me and was glad to see me. He got shots for distemper and parvo.

I had to put him on a rickshaw–another scary experience for him. But thank God Prince has a gentle temperament. He loved being petted. Sometimes I would have to pull on the collar. Eventually he calmed down.

After a half an hour, we approached our section of the city, but we were still a few kilometers from home, but he knew. He was so excited. When we got to the end of our street, I paid off the auto rickshaw driver who was so happy to see that Prince did well. We walked down the street. Immediately he marked his territory for a long time. At least he hadn’t been thirsty.

As we got to my house, I was surprised. His two wives were literally waiting for him with one of his daughters. There was crying and running around in circles then group hugs. Such joy!

I immediately went upstairs and got a nutritious meal–manitakali, raw eggs, curd and a little ghee as a treat. He needed to eat well now so he didn’t get sick and could heal.

The normally taciturn watchman actually smiled when he saw Prince. I explained to him that he had to look out for Prince as other dogs would sense his weakness and try to attack him.

Later on, I saw Prince resting in a enclosed vacant lot with his harem.

Mission Accomplished.


Fisher-Price isn’t for the Fishermen’s children

Apparently, an anganwadi is a Hindi word for enclosed courtyard.  It sounds like a wonderful, safe place for children to play.  It would allow their mothers to work.

When the upper middle-class in India think of pre-school, they are like their neighbors in the West who think of many brightly-colored plastic Fisher-Price toys.  Children love to play games that imitate the grown-ups around them.  These were things that I was thinking of while taking a long walk on the beach.  Before I knew it, I was at the neighborhood koopum, or fishing village.  Because I was brought up in the sterile suburbs of Maryland, even after being in India for ten years, a koopum is still Disneyland for me.  The fishermen were repairing their nets; due to the bright sunlight, the nets clouded around them like fog.  They could be New York designers fashioning the latest gowns for the Oscars, but they weren’t.  Did Fisher-Price have any toys that emulated the work of a real fisherman–the fathers of many of the children that I would see later in the day?

There is still a cool breeze in South Chennai, so I walked to the anganwadi.  When you walk, only then do you see the real India.  There was a side-street that sold the fish baskets, ropes, and other equipment.  All was tactile and interesting–perfect for children who should develop.  These were real Tamil items that represent this culture.
Too many anganwadis have too few toys.  If they do get donations of toys–the teachers are almost afraid to use them–they are kept as valuable wedding presents.   But if they can’t get blocks, why not clean coconut shells as one local friend suggested?  And what about sand?

If you are from South India, what did you do when you were so very little and your mother was cooking or cleaning?  Let me know so we can keep the tradition going.  Perhaps you too played with priceless toys.