“you are all Gandhis” (2008)

Pongal festivities were in full swing when I arrived in Madurai in January.  India has thousands of festivals and Pongal is an important one in Tamil Nadu.  It is a harvest festival and I read in the paper that it is similar to the American Thanksgiving because it is a time to give thanks and hope for a bountiful coming year.  Wherever I went in Madurai people would wish me “Happy Pongal!”

Just when I thought India had thrown me for a loop this third time around. . .a stolen necklace in Chennai; a four hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai watching cheesy  Tamil videos from the ’70s played full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way; an Indian cop who tried to take my Swiss Army Knife I always carried when I tried to re-enter the Meenakshi Temple on one side when I was allowed to enter with it on the other side…

…something wondrous happened.  That’s  how it always happens to me in India — my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with an autorickshaw driver for my stay in Madurai and we were driving through the slums along the river.  Somehow I always get drivers who know I am not afraid to go off the beaten path into the places where tourists don’t usually go.

We drove past a small school and I saw children in a doorway dressed in their dance clothes.  The little girls were beautiful and I told the driver to turn around for a quick photo.  Of course as soon as they saw me stop about 10 kids ran outside and surrounded me.  Some of the teachers came out to see what the commotion was.  I saw a stage inside and a woman talking into a microphone.  I apologized to the teachers, I said I did not mean to cause such a ruckus and disturb their show by taking a photo.

A male teacher came up to me and said “no problem, madam” and he invited me in to celebrate Pongal with them.  He said they had planned a special celebration and it would be their honor if I came inside.  I tried to beg off because I knew the commotion my presence would cause and I’m not one to have people fuss over me, but the children grabbed me and the teachers insisted.  I planned to sit in back and watch quietly, but I was led to the stage steps.  I stopped and turned around and there had to be at least 100 kids sitting on the floor, all eyes glued to me, big smiles on their faces.  I was stunned and I kept shaking my head no, but the teachers kept pushing and pulling me until I was given the guest of honor seat, between the principal and the head mistress.  I felt like a rock star.

The teachers asked where I was from and what I did.  They introduced me, telling the children that I had come all the way from America for them, then they asked me to get up and say a few words.  I was still in shock so I mumbled something about “stay in school and get a good education” and that got a huge round of applause.

It is Pongal tradition to boil a pot of rice and when the rice boils over the sides, that signifies a fruitful coming year.  As the Pongal pot of rice was boiling the teachers presented me with a Pongal gift — a towel that they draped over my shoulders.  The price tag was still attached and it said 20 rupees which is about 50 cents, but to me it was priceless.

As the children danced on stage the teachers told me that these were slum children, that the school gets money from the government to educate them.  There are about 600 kids in the school and they are taught English, computers, reading, and math, among other subjects. One of the teachers took my camera and took pictures of the dancers for me.  When he returned my camera I took the perfect Pongal picture — a picture of the pot just as the rice started to boil over.  Serendipity.

Finally, the teachers asked me to say some last words to the children.  By this time it was over an hour later and I was composed enough to say something intelligent.  I spoke and it was translated into Tamil….

I told them that I had read in the paper that morning that Pongal is like the American Thanksgiving and I explained a little about what Thanksgiving meant, about giving thanks, having gratitude.  After wishing them Happy Pongal, I told the children that their teachers teach from their hearts and to never take their education for granted.  I told them that they were the future of India and with their education they could change the world, that they could be anything they wanted to be.  I told them, “you are all Gandhis, never forget that.”

When I finished I saw some of the teachers dabbing their eyes and I thought about how some upper caste Indians would look down on these children and down on me for even being with them.   I thought about how so many people in my white bread suburban community have no idea, or worse, don’t want to know, how the rest of the world lives.   Here I was in a slum school half-way around the world and I felt blessed to be with them.   All things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences.

A teacher then told the children how it was their privilege for the American yoga teacher to visit their school today.  I said, no, it was MY privilege to be treated with such graciousness, a total stranger.  The principal took my hand and said I was a gift from God for them…and that’s when I started to cry.

The principal and I walked off the stage as the Pongal lunch was served to the children.  We went into her office and she asked me to write in their guestbook so I wrote what I said at the end of the program, about changing the world.  I was also given the special Pongal lunch, as was my driver, and the principal told me more about the school.  Before I left I gave her a donation and said she should use it for whatever they needed, food, books, anything.  The principal told me she would make sure that each child got a pen, so I bought about 600 pens that day.  You have to travel in india to know the significance of the question “one pen, madam?”, so when she told me she would buy pens I thought it was a very appropriate purchase.

The principal wrote the address of the school for me and told me I am always welcome to return.  I told her that I had a beautiful time with them and that I would always remember them as long as I live.  I left and got into the rickshaw as children and teachers came out to wave goodbye to me.  The driver started his rickshaw and we left, and when I turned around about a block away they were still waving goodbye.

This is the India that cracks open my heart and makes me count the days until I can run back into her arms and lose myself all over again.