Monday, January 24, 2005

Sense and Sensibility

Yesterday I did the tourist things with some friends who were in town for a couple days, Sylvestor and Arturo. Both from Poland originally, they were working in New York until they quit their jobs in December to travel indefinitely: after India, Nepal, Mongolia, and from there...? I was thinking my three months off was a leap. We toured the Mehrangarh Fort, checking out its breathtaking views. It's situated basically in the clouds above Jodhpur, 125 metres up, an impenetrable fortress for 500 years. Steel studs stick out from the enormous entry ways to foil charging elephants, canons line the rim of the terrace. Intricately carved in sandstone, the palace inside the walls in constructed with complicated interlocking courtyards on many levels. On this day it was crowded with Indians visiting on their Sunday holiday (the work day is six days here). It was certainly a different view of the space than I got at dinner there last Friday night (for starters, the rooms weren't spinning). The Prince I met was featured on the audio tour, saying in his posh accent how much the fort's history meant to his "clan." My Polish pals took a million pictures and a few movies--there was amazing sitar music playing throughout--but my camera batteries died, naturally upon entering the fort. Then we shopped Jodhpur's maze of bazaars outside the city walls, browsing through eye-popping displays: heaps of spices, rich textiles, mysterious sweets, colorful bangles, and potent snuff (an ayervedic cure for nausea and colds). We stopped for Rs. 25 (50 cents) glasses of freshly squeezed pomogranate juice by the central clock tower. Arturo bought an orange/banana juice for the ever-present dirt-covered little girls hovering around.

Today I was taken back to the relatively progressive village of Barwala, unexpectedly (my schedule, er, suggested Mondays I would be in Khatawas). Not only are there two students in Class 12 here--the most advanced "class" Veerni's had--but the female literacy rate is a reported 40%. In Kakalev, where Jess and I were teaching Friday, it's said to be 25%, a gross exaggeration according to Veerni sociologist Nishi. He says women who can write their name, and maybe one Hindi phrase ("my name is"), are reported as literate. Barwala Class 12 was held today, as last week, in Goury and Kalpna Lohiya's home, on mats in the courtyard. Most houses are organized in the traditional havelli style around square open courtyards, where they prepare food, with small bedrooms located off this space. The girls were thrilled to see me and much more outgoing than last week. Kalpna, 18, the older but less studious sister, was speaking in sentences; last week she'd barely try, pointing to the beans lying on canvas nearby and stammering, "grow, dal, village." They sped through a Dr. Seuss book I'd brought, reading aloud with expression and emphasizing rhymes. Nice! These sisters are by far the most advanced girls among the four villages I've taught in so far. And we should be able to do a lot in two months since it's basically a bi-weekly tutoring session! But to put this in perspective, Goury speaks about as well as my adopted brother here, Manu Rathore, who is 11.

According to Nishi, the Lohiya family are Vaishayas, members of the business caste. They encourage girls to study because they--the girls' families--get bigger dowries for educated brides. Usually girls' families have to pay the dowries to get them married off. For Rajputs (the Rajasthani sect of the ruling caste, below the Brahmins) like Neeta Rathore, this can mean the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars, to be doled out in the form of a car, TV, computer, and a six thousand dollar wedding, for example.

So this could explain the fact that they both say they plan to go on to college before marrying. I'm not sure where, neither has ever been even to Jodhpur. I asked why and Goury replied that they're too poor to go there. But we toasted to their futures with chai tea and butter biscuits.


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