Archive for April, 2009

Sant Kabeer Public School

Monday, April 13th, 2009

One of these causes is the Sant Kabir Public School in Agra. Nahim Ahmed is a barber at the S.K. Hair Sailoon in Agra, not far from the south gate of the Taj. We met during our first attempt at a surgical strike on Agra. I’d been warned: Agra is a tourist shithole. Agra is boring. Agra is a day trip at best. See the Taj and get out! The plan was beautifully choreographed, I thought. Arrive on an evening train, staying over one night, but gaining the advantage of a Taj visit before the tour busses arrive, with plenty of time to see the Fort, take a bus to Fatepur Sikri and back, and poke around Agra before catching the overnight train to Varanasi. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. The comedy of blunders, misunderstandings, hijinx and good-times-rolling hospitality that came next is detailed elsewhere, but in short, our train was cancelled and as one result we made friends with Nahim and his family. Not only did we spend about 52 hours on this day trip, but I bought instruments there and left them behind, so I came back through almost a month later for some more.

At the end, Nahim and his father Salim led me away from the family house about 20 yards down a narrow lane to a little schoolhouse. The lane was so narrow that flattened against the opposite wall, I could still only fit half the sign at a time in the frame of a photo.


Sant Kabeer


Public School

A small school house is inside – loosely termed, as there is no roof over most of the space. One office that doubles as a classroom, and a second classroom flank the short hallway, which leads to an open area partitioned into four more classrooms, three of which share a corrugated tin roof, and the rest is open. In the corner is a closed in pit toilet with a water fawcett on the outside wall. The classrooms are lined with wooden benches and numbered with chalk. The whole place is decorated with evidence of pedagogy- an English alphabet chart, a map of India, boxes of lesson books. In Room 2, twelve sheets of paper with letters written on them spell out “Eskerrik Asko” on the wall.

“Hello in Spanish!” Nahim told me, a greeting taught to the kids by a Spanish visitor. I told him it doesn’t say Hello in Spanish, and we were both quietly confused for a minute (turns out it’s Basque), then we sat on the empty benches and he told me the story of the school while his father brought me report cards to look over from the office.

Nahim dropped out of school in 1994 when his father was sidelined from his music career by diabetes. He gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor to take up a trade as a barber. He was wistfully pleased when I told him about the barber surgeons in western history, and went on to tell me that he wanted to do something to help other poor kids in Agra, so carefully saved his earnings at the barber shop and opened this school.

A kid sister appeared with a tray of chai and Salim sat with a proud formality behind Nahim as his son ran down his plans for the school for me. In the rainy season, the place is too wet to work, and the municipal water is hard (this I can vouch for, it was impossible to lather soap in the shower at my hotel and you come out smelling faintly of matches.) They want to put a proper roof on the place and sink a well for fresher water.
All this wound up into the pitch- anything I might do to help would be most appreciated. How much would a roof and well cost? Nahim calculated quickly in his head, 550,000 rupees, about $11,500. I explained that the best I could do would be try to tell people about the school project and perhaps they’d want to help. Maybe if I got a lot of work when I went home I could donate, but I had my net worth in my pocket.
They were perfectly gracious, but visibly disappointed. So I took pictures and recorded Nahim talking about it- maybe that would help publicize the cause.

In “In Spite of the Gods” Edward Luce talks about the terrible state of public education in India and the practice of establishing private schools among lower income families, especially Muslims, trying to get a leg up in society. Nahim’s venture certainly seems to fit a demographic pattern. Both days I was in Agra happened to be Hindu holidays, and classes had been cancelled, another common occurence in public life, even among non-Hindus. Judges evidently often close court for all religious holidays of all creeds, even optional and marginally observed ones.
So I feel the need to shelve my natural skepticism, one which throws up the image of a communally maintained empty space where anyone with a tourist on the line brings them by for a tour, a cup of chai, and an appeal for money. I told Nahim I’d spread the word, but that I wanted photos of kids in the classrooms, progress reports, that kind of thing.

Other questions come up as well. Though I’m a product of private education myself, as an adult I feel like I’d rather see efforts go to improving the public system, but in India things are very different, so different in fact that it didn’t really even hit me that this was a private school. In the same way that the homey, congenial conditions in the Ahmed family living room- which has two large looms and eight or ten happy young girls weaving and knotting carpet all day – this didn’t fit my picture of a child labor sweatshop. There’s an obvious difference between that and sewing soles on Nike sneakers. These are people doing what they can to get what they need, so I’m not sure I could say anything against it. Still, I’d like to know that the sister who brought the chai in might stand a chance at taking classes between her carpet weaving sessions.

I’m trying to help Nahim set up a blog so he can post photos and updates; anyone interested in more info or possibly helping this school can contact me here for updates.


The Touch

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

AKA the pitch. That commercial moment that taints even the most congenial, hospitable interactions in India (There are of course many refreshing exceptions: Madan). At best confusing, and at worst, disillusioning and frustrating, it doesn’t take Amartya Sen to know where it’s coming from- hardly anybody you meet as a tourist has any money to speak of, and you show up, with your scraped together savings, your chance bargain ticket, your tight budget, clutching that LP guide with the budget accommodations bookmarked and ‘maybe?’ pencilled beside some of the midrange ones-you should have bought that here, you know- you could have had it for about a third of the price at most. You are no bare-footed, blond-dreadlocked amateur mendicant but you’re not rich either, but of course here you are. The bare-footed, blond-dreadlocked amateur mendicant is as likely as not killing 3-6 mos. backpacking while waiting for a trust-fund to mature, but never mind that for now.

Here you have money- in fact, you appear to shit the stuff. Almost literally. You will unquestioningly hand over 42 Rs for a roll of toilet paper. 42Rs. will buy even the greenest tourist ten samosas on the street. So it comes as no surprise that in addition to inflated asking prices and constant hawking, you are met with a sea of open hands hoping for a piece of the action, such as it is. It saddened me to see a toddler in Varanasi on the Ghats practicing perhaps his first word with me: “Bakshish?”

All this though comes as no surprise. Just as the “friends” tourists make are loosely defined- your new friend, who merely happens to live in this direction and is making conversation while escorting you to the fort/temple/museum/park/monument, suddenly remembering his uncle’s shop which is coincidentally on the way. But what of the real friends you make? After playing music with someone, sharing food with their family, absorbing costs, giving gifts and even patronizing their family’s or friend’s businesses, there is an inevitable moment where things get quiet and a strangely formal air arises. Extraneous characters disappear and your friend’s posture changes, adopting a stiffness you have not seen before, as the touch begins. The laundry list of ailments, misfortunes and needed renovations comes out, and though you have gotten the point across that renting freelancers have little extra to spend, you are asked for money. No love lost is if you can’t help out, there is still an unblemished hospitality (though I experienced some ugly moments with more passing casual meetings), but you come away a bit confused, and so do they.

One friend was visibly offended when he told me “No problem, I don’t care about money. You are my brother,” and I thanked him then made the stupid blunder of trying to explain that I had heard the exact words as an opening line from hawkers on the street. That this friend called me the day after I arrived home to ask if I had any money I might send yet did not disillusion me, it only made me think about the general subject more.

Apart from feeling a bit strapped by the trip itself a few things happened to tighten the wad while I was there. First, plunged into the local economy, it’s easy to forget that this meal or that hotel room only costs a buck or two. There’s also an egotistical competitive impulse that kicks in- bargaining not out of need or of perceived value, but simply to avoid being the rube. More broadly though, I slowly became aware that I could liqudate all my possessions, and those of every person I know, and still not make a dent in the overall economic picture in India. Maybe not an argument against the idea, but until my ship comes in it’s all I got. In any case, it came up a fair amount so I feel some responsibility weave into the blithe strands of exotic experience.