Monday, June 16, 2008

Indian Pastoral

British readers may remember Transworld Sport, which used to be broadcast every Saturday morning on Channel 4, just before Football Italia. It showed obscure sports from around the world, including Kabbadi, which can loosely be described as a cross between wrestling and British Bulldog.

Wandering through the valleys of lower Himachal Pradesh a couple of weeks ago, my ambition was fulfilled. At the edge of a village, I stumbled upon an elementary school, P.E. class in full effect. At first I was thrown. The game the pink-saried girls were earnestly playing triggered memories of my Transworld Sport days, but I was used to heavy-set turban-wearers, not little pixies. Also, the great gimmick of Kabbadi is that the would-be conqueror has to constantly mutter Kabbadi (‘holding of breath’ in Hindi) as they launch their raid into enemy territory, but here the sound was a monosyllabic ‘mudge’.

Seemingly honoured by my interest, the teachers invited me to pull up a pew, and readily answered my questions. This was Kabbadi, yes, in its purest form, the change of vocabulary explained by locale. We were in Himachal Pradesh, and not in the Punjab, where it originated, hence the change in word. With the confusion cleared up, the boys stepped forward, in sky-blue-shorts and sand-yellow corduroys (no PE kit here), predictably more aggressive in their approach. I sat back and photographed the spectacle to my heart’s content.

The school-bell rang, the class was over. Break-time. I was due to get back to the Tibetan summer camp I was visiting, whose participants must long ago have reached the river for an afternoon of frollicks. As I prepared to set off, though, I felt a firm but gentle palm on my shoulder. “You must come and drink chai with us,” implored one of the teachers. Without waiting for a response, he led me into the school courtyard, where hundreds of children gawked, as if President Musharraf had just walked in.

We took our seats in the corner, the children circling us, transfixed. At this point, I should explain. I was well off the tourist-trail, at a school not used to foreign visitors. “Actually, you are the first,” declared the English teacher, my chief interlocutor. “This is a great day. We shall record it in the school diary.” With that, what I thought would be an informal break-time chin-wag turned into an audience. After being politely questioned on my background, I was interrogated on the UK. “What is its topography?” the teachers asked, peculiarly. Then, we moved onto geopolitical matters, which involved me giving my considered opinion on the future of India and its relationship with the rest of the world.

The school seemed to be a lovely and buzzing-place, with all the sweet, sentimental images (Famous Five, anyone?) that conjures up. It was also – I hope – a little snapshot of the spread of education into rural India. The teachers were humble, but proud of what they saw as their vital role in the development of the nation. “Come to learn, go to serve,” was plastered on the school walls. This sense of mission may be surprising for a democratic country, but – coming from Zion – I suppose I’m used to it. Chai finished, I was granted a few moments with the principal. I thanked him for the welcome, and congratulated him for the atmosphere of the school. He promptly invited me for more chai, but by now I really had to go. Taking my leave, I skipped down the lane towards the river, delighted in having stumbled upon this pastoral scene, with no cause for cynicism in sight.

1 comment:

Hagay Hacohen said...

My Dear Alex,

This has been, by far, one of your finest posts.

Thank you so much for writing it.

Cheers from Zion,