Archive for the 'anganwadi' Category


Reality is Over-Rated

I had a great partner, Prema, but she is busy moving to another city and has other commitments. My maid, Rukmani, has been with me for almost ten years. If any Indian knows me, she does. She can speak enough English for me to understand what’s going on. She also knows what I want to know and how I like things done.

I’ve been going to this anganwadi since last November. This was the first time that the helper didn’t turn up. We turned up to see the two teachers preparing lunch. One was cutting onions on the floor, and another one was going through the lentils to get out all the little stones. The kids were playing with the lentils.

We got the kids to get the mats and toys in the backroom and we set up for fun. In the back room, I found little frying pans that I had bought and forgot about. They are not toys here in Tamil Nadu; wives use them to cook their spices for the meal.

Well, these frying pans were a real hit. We pretended that the plastic rings that they use to make their pyramids on a stick could be seen as vadas. A vada is a spicy donut that Tamils have for breakfast. These kids loved pretending. I can’t tell you how many vadas I was served! These tiny Tamil men shamed their fathers as they produced some nice cooking.

Last week we boiled blocks on the cooker which happened to look a lot like styrofoam packing if you didn’t know better, but we did. How did I convince them that this square piece of styrofoam was a stove? Well I burnt my finger on it and cried out in pain and licked it to cool it off. That’s all it took to transport us into a kitchen.

Today, I have never seen so many kids so active but not noisy. They were serving each other–a new way for them to interact with each other. Everyone ate blue and green and yellow and pink vadas, even the teachers who were preparing the lunch.

And yes, the teachers cooked and the cook was a teacher. Go figure.


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.


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.


Marcel Marceau at the Anganwadi Daycare Center

I went to the anganwadi alone on Thursday. That meant my communication with the teachers would be limited to my elementary Tamil. It is a double anganwadi which means there are two teachers. These teachers are incredible. I couldn’t do what they do. They are my heroes.

As I approached the door, I heard unusual disruption. There was an inordinate amount of crying and screaming. It made me think of the song, “Mama Said There’d be Days Like This, My Mama Said.” So I knew I needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. I entered singing the time-honoured song, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  I wish I could sing it as well as this Indian lady. We kept singing it until most of the angry feelings had left.

Then I did what I haven’t done for many years: mime. When my husband and I were living in Paris, we got to see Marcel Marceau perform. He did David and Goliath, the Mask–which I modified for training exercises, and Adam and Eve. He was so incredibly inspiring. My husband and I actually dating while doing street theatre and mime. We used Marceau’s mime, “Adam and Eve.” (I wish I was as talented as this lady.) I can still do a pretty good snake with my arm. But one mime really struck me that he did–the box mime–it’s a mime where the victim finds himself caught in an invisible box. He bangs his fists furiously, trying to get out.

My husband and I did mime in various countries in Europe. In fact, I got my job working for Air France as a Concorde ground agent doing mime during the interview. In France, when we would put the white face on and start performing, hauty-looking people would suddenly change into impressionable children. You don’t know the French until you perform mime on the streets of Paris in front of the Sacre-Coeur. On the other hand, when we did mime at Colchester Castle Park, it went over like a lead balloon, and we became very self-conscious.  I think it may have had something to do with our next-door neighbour recognizing us and just saying, “Oh, hello.” and kept on walking.

In Italy, everyone already does mime when they talk, so it is one of the best places to do mime. One of the most rewarding places was in Helsinki, Finland. Finnish people the opposite of Italians–they aren’t what you’d call demonstrative. But when we did mime, crowds would come and we felt they were totally withus. In India, we don’t need make-up. We have white faces.

So years and continents later, here I was in a government pre-school with 40 unhappy kids and two tired teachers. So I started doing the mime. It is safe to say that these kids probably have never seen mime. It is sort of an abstract art. You have to concentrate to get it. I was taking a chance. The Twinkle warm-up was good, but would I lose my audience by trying something too high-brow.

These kids got it! They laughted at all the right places. Finally I motioned to one bright little girl to turn the “knob” on the other side of my “door.” She set me free!

Yes, these kids are always setting me free from the banalities of adulthood.  With them, you fly faster and higher than with the Concorde.

P.S.  I got to meet Marcel Marceau.  He was a passenger on the Concorde.  I must admit, I had fun giving him his boarding pass in a Marcel Marceau fashion.  He was very kind about my performance but did not insist I quit my day job.


Casa dei Bambini in Chennai — Thanks to Maria Montessori

It was  Pongal last week  in Chennai. It is a time when Tamils celebrate the harvest–perhaps sort of like our Thanksgiving in America. Early in the morning, the housewives can leave behind their endless drudgery and become creative. Each becomes an artist, using the street right outside her door as her canvas. The woman bends from her waist down to the ground, pouring a special chalk like icing in a funnel onto the street. Some made dots in a geometric pattern to guide them in their designs. These amazing works of art called kolams last only hours. Soon they will be trampled or blown away.
So much of what we do in life is eventually trampled or blown away. But one creative work that we can do has lasting results. Maria Montessori found such a creative outlet–and it is this outlet that has become my medium.

I like to think that Italians think differently than the rest of the Western World. They can be creative and technical at the same time. They have always thought “outside the box.” They were never in the box and would see it as a coffin that would entomb their ideas. Maria was the first physician of Italy, but being a woman, she had that nurturing side. She saw the beautiful canvases of young minds.
On Tuesday, Prema and I went to our own Casa dei Bambini, not unlike the one Maria started in the slums of Roma. We had given them blocks and puzzles last week and were wondering how they were getting on. By the way, it is no good seeing the second video to understand the progress of the kids. You’d have to see the first one that I have uploaded about Lakshipuram that I made three years to really see the state of the children. Imagine giving a toy to a little child, and he just sits there and doesn’t play with it. You literally have to teach him to play. And where we are located is not the real slums, the real ghettos of Madras.
Well anyway, on Tuesday, we saw magic happen. We saw that the children’s little minds were more than canvases but gardens. We actually saw a few seedlings popping out from the soil where we had planted seeds. We are not the gardeners–Sarguna and Saraswati are–the teachers there. In spite of very low pay and no honor for what they do, they smile and care about the children. We have seen other teachers who are bitter, listless as the children, and short-tempered–yes, you know what that means. So these teachers are special. They were happy when we first came, but when they realized that we were coming regularly, they have a new glow in their eyes. We try to spend as much time with them as we do with the bambini.

Thank God Prema, my partner, speaks fluent Tamil and is so gentle and kind. She found out that one of the little girl’s mom died last week. The little girl was found wondering in the streets and fainted. She went for a cat scan at the hospital. Her older sister needs school fees now. Such are the unfinished stories that Prema hears. The 40 children stand for 40 families that we many never see but we can access through their most valuable resource–the next gen.

At this Pongal time, I thank God that I have access to be able to go to this pre-school center. I need it as much as any of the kids. It’s like writing a symphony, sculpting, researching. So many ideas come to mind when playing with these children, so thirsty to learn–their hands so eager to connect and form.
For many, the children at the government pre-school (anganwadi) are the trash of society. No one wants to marry an anganwadi teacher. In contrast to their lives, I’ve taught seminars for the software engineers–the IT elite–the best and the brightest. They swagger in class, talking into their cell phones with the pretentiousness of a maharajah. I’m thinking the next time I do a seminar for them, I have an idea for a team-building exercise–I will bring the straw mats we use in the anganwadis, have them all sit down in groups, pour the blocks out on each mat, and instruct each group to construct an anganwadi center.