India Part 5: Values, Beauty, and Theft

Things have been quite hectic for me on camp recently. And much of it has to do with different people’s moral perceptions. I as a Muslim, follow – as best as I can – a specific detailed moral code. Non-Muslims on camp (absolutely everyone else) also have their own moral awareness and principles. Sometimes, our moral opinions see eye to eye, and sometimes there are differences to various degrees. We would all think favorably of someone who gave gifts in charity, for example; or think badly of someone who stole a mobile phone. In terms of differences there are also many. Intimate relations before marriage is a big one. For Muslims its not cool, for those with more secular values it is, and is largely celebrated. The extent of freedom of speech, or freedom to offend is another example. But these don’t represent the biggest gap between Muslim values and general secular ones. No. The biggest difference between the Muslim view on some moral matter relating to the day-to-day, and the corresponding secular view has got to be on the issue of backbiting – to talk negatively about someone behind their back. It’s analogous to eating your dead brother’s flesh in the Qur’an and is said to be “worse than adultery” by the Prophet. In the secular world – it is like discussing the whether. It’s hardly even seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Now of course, not everyone thinks it’s OK, and there are many people of all backgrounds who look down on it, but generally speaking, pointing out someone’s faults, or making an unflattering comment about them when they’re not around is a branch of standard conversation. And this little camp here, is proof and testimony to this. Indeed, I was a victim of slander. It was spread around camp that I was trying to seduce different girls, and so instead of only getting annoyed at it, I confronted every individual who I was meant to have ‘sleezed’ over face to face. They didn’t know what I was talking about. It turns out there was a main individual who was a major source of discrediting me – the same girl that doubted my sincerity before. Thankfully, I forced out the truth by voicing the rumor myself to virtually everyone on camp just to expose how ridiculous it was. Everyone then turned to question her, which suffocated her and made her feel guilty. We now actually have a good relationship.

My views on the irrelevance of teaching English to these village kids has changed somewhat. I’ve now come to see that education – irrespective of the subject matter – gives a lot more to these kids than academic content. It gives character and discipline. When I look at some of the uneducated girls or boys in the village there’s something incredibly ‘scatty’ about them. Like, really uncontrolled and all over the place. I’d do a good impression but can’t show you now. But when some of the educated boys come through in their little school uniforms (blue shirts, khaki coloured trousers and bare feet) there’s something so dignified about them. It’s like education has taught them self-control, patience and respect. This realization has helped me teach with more zeal. Teaching has been good and Amida has been making steady progress. I felt like I reached a landmark a few weeks back when, in one of her reading sessions, I wrote a longer word for her to read. She stared at it for a little while and uttered in and Indian accent.. “ye… yesterday?” I was so happy. Especially considering that she couldn’t read the word “am” when we started. Her pronunciation was great too. We’re now going through kids books picking up new vocabulary along the way. It’s been beneficial for me also in the sense that everything she is learning in English, I am memorizing in Hindi, so that I can test her on it. It’s going to be a real shame that it will all end when I come back to England in a couple of weeks. Amida is incredibly graceful about her disability. The other day she was building a house for her brother beside her own. She would move on one arm and one leg back and forth across the sand picking up sand stones, and pile them up to construct walls of a new house – or at least the beginning of it. I felt that I wanted a home there too. She wears a purple Indian style dress now.

Strolls around the village have generally done me good. One day, when Amida was visited by some of the village women for chit chat – rendering my teaching services on hold – I walked to the out skirts of the village and followed a small path into the unmanned natural distance. The area around the village in which we teach is much more vegetated than the camp area. There are trees, bushes and hills, though it is still generally dry. Terrain consisted of uneven rocks, and dry grassy patches which all reflected the intense heat of sunlight. I walked continuously in an unknown direction for a good 30mins till I came across a flock of 150 sheep and goats being led by an 18 year old shepherd named Kareem. I asked if I could join him, and talked with him in what little Hindi I knew. He explained that he would walk with the animals from sunrise to sunset everyday. There was endless, untouched natural existence in every direction as all 152 of us made our way up an inclining hill, which elegantly revealed a picturesque lake in the distance. I stood in the shade of a tree close-by as the animals drank and ate around the lake for a good 20 minutes before being taken to their next destination. I stayed behind alone. The lake water was clear – possibly the first clear water I had seen in India. I prayed the noon prayer, dabbled in the lake, and laid in the sun alone till a next flock of goats and sheep came with their shepherd. Time to go. I tried to head back in the direction that I had come with the shepherd but failed miserably. I really wasn’t around when God was blessing people with a sense of direction. Again, nothing and no one was around and the flocks were way out of site. Just when my steps in any direction were becoming arbitrarily chosen, I heard my name being shouted by some of the street kids from the village. They had come far out to harvest grains for their livestock and were heading back in with their hands full of a certain green plant. I helped them carry their load and was escorted back just in time for the bus’ arrival to take us back to camp.

In other news, my phone was stolen within camp grounds. My £450 Nokia N900 super computer phone – jacked. I was seriously pissed off. It had diaries I had kept, all my images and videos of India, which I was looking forward to show everyone, my poetry, thoughts etc. I would care a lot less if I’d lost or broken it, but just the idea of someone’s hands snatching it from a table in the canteen while it was charging is just low. I felt like I never wanted to own anything valuable ever again. A lot of people tried to help me though. I made friends with a guy here called Aziz who was introduced to me through a local tok tok driver, Musa. The latter saw me as a practicing Muslim and therefore wanted to introduce me to another practicing Muslim, Aziz – his friend. I met Aziz in a mosque here and was invited to his humble abode one day where I met his little son. Aziz is of average height, slim build and probably in his mid-late 20’s. He has a very confident way about him. As he sat me down for something to drink, he went off to change out of his traditional Indian clothing for work. All the houses I’ve visited here are incredibly simple: stone walls, dusty bed, old pots, pans and occasionally an old dusty TV. He came back shortly afterwards dressed as a Police Man. He had been working in the Police for 8 years. This explained his confidence. On one occasion, he took me to an Islamic shrine on the back of his bike and didn’t seem happy with what was going on there. There were Hindu men and women on site who were taking photos in holiday snap-shot fashion. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but he sounded unhappy and everyone in the shrine went quiet. He was in plain clothes at the time but spoke with authority in a way that made everyone make way for him. He later explained that he was telling them not to treat this place like a picnic spot. When Aziz heard about my phone being stolen on camp, he wanted to do everything in his power to get it back for me. One of his ideas was odd, to say the least. It was communicated through him and the Head Executive on camp: “They read Qur’an, and then thief will appear in nail”, Aziz pointed to his thumb nail. “…But only a child can see it.” I looked at Aziz, who waited for a response from me, then at the Head Executive on camp who was looking at me, nodding his head as if it was a solution that I should have thought of myself. I was obviously quite surprised. I know we believe as Muslims that the Qur’an has medicinal ‘powers’, but this sounds a bit too surreal. Even so, I accepted the offer. The process apparently had to be done by someone who had memorized the entire Qur’an. The only problem was that this person was out of town at the time.

So I continued to be pissed off because of my phone. JJ lightened the situation for me along with Josh, another male volunteer and 3rd of 4 members of our musical group, The Desert Boys. Josh is a good looking, fair skinned, dark haired, music graduate. He plays a variety of instruments very well and has a great sense on humor. I recall him saying on one of our musical/chill-out sessions together that “everything in life is a distraction, from alcohol to orgasms.” He followed it up with saying that he didn’t know what he was being distracted from, but that’s how he feels. I felt no impulse to give him my opinion on this matter and appreciated the point for what it was. So anyway, on the black day that my phone got stolen, JJ and Josh spent about 2 hours deciding and debating over which fictional detectives they would be since they would carry out their own ‘investigation’. They settled on a couple of characters from the US drama, “The Wire”. They then went around camp in the dark shining their torches on the most unthinkable ‘suspects’, blinding them and mockingly interrogated them in a way that really lightened up my mood. JJ would occasionally shine his torch on his own face from below claiming, “Don’t worry, we’re on the case” before disappearing into the darkness. Oddly enough, an actual ‘lead’ was drawn from this comedy sketch which pointed to the Night Watchman’s son: a thirteen year old scruffy-looking farm-boy who wanders in and off camp ground who was seen once with an ipod which he in no way could afford. Aziz wanted to search the entire camp – staff and volunteers individually, but I thought that would be too much. He came in and questioned some staff anyway in plain clothes. Still annoyed at my phone being stolen, I looked at all the staff on camp with suspicion and hardly wanted to say hi to any of them. The next day at school, I wasn’t in the mood to teach. I asked my supervisor if I could leave and go for a walk around the village for a while. On my return from my walk, my attention was caught by a large goat laid down on its side making repetitive screaming noises. It looked like it was in pain. As I circled around it, I noticed what I can only describe as a small bubble coming out from its rear end. I re-assessed the size of its stomach and came to the logical conclusion that it was hungry.. oops, no.. pregnant! The goat was in so much pain that it was rubbing and hitting the side of its head against the sand and stones beneath it. Slowly, and little by little, a see-through jelly bubble was being forced out with a moving creature inside. I’d never seen anything like it. Some street children thought it was funny to try and prod what was coming out with sticks, but I scared them off. Then an old Indian woman in an old dusty purple gown came over, lent down by the goat and delivered the baby with help from one of those street kids. The boy tossed the wet, feeble, mucus-covered lamb in front of the head of its mother as she commenced to constantly and compassionately lick the sticky wet substances off her newborn. The love from mother to child was so strong, necessary, and instinctive, that it made me think of the innate creature-love that our mothers must have for us underneath all the attributes that make us human beings. At this point I realized that all my anger and sadness about my phone was killed at the sight of this birth and the love that followed. It was a lesson much appreciated and well timed.

India has traditional values when it comes to women. This is good in many respects but unfortunately has a negative consequence also. Current Muslim countries are guilty of the same thing. Basically, instead of traditional values on women bringing about noble, dignified, respectable men, it produces pervy natives who think every Westerner is willing to have sex with them. It is so annoying. You’d be sitting in an internet cafe, and the conversation with the dude who runs it would go something like this: (Indian accent) “Ooh so you wolunteer, huh?”, “Yes”. “How many people you are?” “About 48 of us.” By this time I’m wondering if he’ll allow me to add on the internet-time that he’s about to take up with this conversation at the end of my timed-session. He’d continue with great subtlety: “Many girrls in your camp?” At this point my face drops in a sigh as his would brighten with a smile. Then at some point they would use the term “jiggy jiggy” which sounds ridiculous enough when its not said in an Indian accent, and I would want to leave. Why do traditional values on women breed perverts in the modern world? Possibly because the teaching of such values are incomplete in that women are taught to be ‘women’ in a certain way, but men are not taught to be men in any way. Instead they are left morally unchecked with little respect for the opposite sex. It seems to be a general problem in many poor, conservative countries.

I’m learning a lot about myself out here. One of the most solid traits that I seem to be known for, is being dangerous/adventurous. It seems like a new trait, but I guess in London, there’s no real need for the trait to ever surface because everything is so ‘civil’ and controlled. I’m also picking up a few new skills. One being learning to play the guitar. We have so much free time here and two guitars kick about the boys room so it made sense. I’ve learnt to play my two favorite songs of all time: ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead and ‘Drugs Don’t Work’ by The Verve, and have not really felt inspired to learn anything else. They’re both quite depressing, which possibly reflects something about me. I’ve also learnt how to ride a motorbike. (This is omitted from Mum’s email- so do not tell her). I took out a scooter first, then a crappy kick-start bike with gears, and now I ride the best electric-start bike on rent. As the Bike Rent Man offered me his best bike he laid down a helmet for the first time and offered me to take it. In my head there was a toss between ‘safety’ or ‘fun’. I chose the latter, but I am careful. Have I mentioned the cows that are EVERYWHERE in India? Like literally in the markets on the roads, pavements – its like they own the place and life just goes on around them. It seems like some kind of Cow Paradise here. I wonder if the cows over the border in Pakistan have heard and are trying to make a break for it. I’ve also revisited that wind turbine on a few occasions and have scaled its height and even stood on its head. It is amazing. I lay down on its small platform and saw so many constantly moving stars in the sky and thought I was tripping out. It’s the only place out here where you are not bothered by people, flies or mosquitoes since none of them will travel that high.

Anyway, sorry for the delay, will try and update again sooner.

India Part 3: Teaching and Camp Life

So day 1 with teaching started and I was quite clueless as to how to go about it. I began to question the founding intentions of Platform2: Why, for example, are we being made to teach these village kids English – that is, their ABC’s, when in all liklihood, they will work manual jobs in and around the village all their lives, and die – in and around the village – having no contact with tourists or ever need such language skills. “But if you get just one kid educated enough to move to Jaipur (the big city), and they work there, then they’ve made it, and you’ve made a difference.” These justifications from my fellow volunteers seemed quite naive and superficial. However, I wasn’t going to try and ideologically uproot this vast humanitarian project within which I am quite insignificant.

I figured that I would use my Muslim identity for teaching purposes – afterall, this is why they singled me out for the Muslim village. In particular, I was thinking of the wash for prayer since some kids are quite dirty. It’s common for the young ones especially to be half naked (this might be a potty training technique?); snot is usually encrusted on their faces on which flies settle without protest from their hosts. I still, for the life of me, can’t understand how the kids don’t seem to realise that three flies are crawling all around their eyelids. The older girls (8-10) dress very colourfully and are always enthusiastic to see us. Amida, the day care centre’s teacher who moves around on her arms due to her disability, is always dressed in a bright yellow modest Indian style dress with plaited hair. She’s 25 but looks 35 and is very thin. On my first day I performed the afternoon prayer and some boys – who should have been at the school – where quite eager to join . A couple of the girls did too. We all went outside in the dry sun and I called for some water to be fetched from the well (haha, I never thought I would ever say that). All 15 kids or so gathered around in their colourful dresses to watch me teach one of the boys how to do the wash for prayer. It seemed they had only seen their fathers and uncles do it but had never done it themselves. I went through the process with about 3 or 4 of the schoolboys. Some of the girls learnt it and poured water for themselves separately. We all then went back into the empty (but again, colourful) room where we prayed. This was a nice experience though it was a one off since the boys went back to school for the remainder of the week and the girls seemed too shy to do it on their own.

In terms of teaching English, I decided to take a little initiative and offer to teach Amida, the day care centre’s teacher, one on one, while my teaching buddies, Chloe and Amy teach and play with the kids. I just figure that Amida would learn faster and if I could spend everyday teaching her English, she could at least continue to teach the kids after we’re gone. She just about knows her ABC so it’s pretty much starting from scratch.

So we teach in the morning and do practical work in the afternoon. Our recent practical work consisted of going into a dirty well and emptying it. This literally meant climbing down inside a rectangular room underground, repeatedly filling up buckets of water and sending them up by rope. Only 3 of us went into the well, myself and two other girls. It was dark so we couldn’t see much if we weren’t standing beneath the well’s trap door above. The water was about calf-height and filthy. Our Indian supervisor had climbed down as well and shone a torch light against the back wall of the well to reveal at least 500 frogs on a dry inclined part of the floor that wasn’t immersed in water. It looked like something out of the Old Testament. We had to clear them out too. We literally picked them up with our bare hands, and threw about 30-50 of them into a bucket at a time. There was plenty of screaming and shouting, me included.

Camp life takes up 70% of our waking time. A lot of time wasted in my opinion. I’ve grown quite popular throughout the camp as I continue to be as helpful as I can. Some of the girls have called me “Jesus” or “a shepherd” because I always have a group of people around me. But it’s true. If I sit somewhere, a group forms quite rapidly. (This is ironic because I’m probably the only person who wants to be alone.) My slightly antagonising strong Christian friend has been quoted to have said “Why does Zee get so much respect, he’s not even speaking the truth”. Not sure what to say about that.

Having a “bedtime” at 11pm is proving quite good for me. I’m beginning to think that one of the keys to organising your life is organising your sleep. I wake up everyday at 6am without fail for morning prayer. At this time everyone is asleep so I head on out into the dry outskirts of the camp to pray. Every other morning after prayer I go for a run around the camp with a tall, slim blonde girl called Megan. She has claimed that she likes the way I think and is one of few girls here who does not seem to engage in gossip. I’m still big in the music scene and have somehow found myself as singer in the camps only band, “The Desert Boys” (I didn’t come up with the name). It consists of myself, JJ who plays guitar, and two other male guitarists/musicains. We’re all from London.

One of the 11 males here is a 20 year old boy from Bernley named Carl who has a shaved head and an athletic build. He has a few tattoos of his local football team around his body and has a thick ‘northen’ accent. He loves Eminem and sport. When he is with some of the other lads, things can begin to get incredibly immature. Half of the boys are quite into alcohol and women. I remember making a statement in the boys room at the very beginning that I didn’t want any alcohol in the room (this is a camp rule anyway). JJ was the only one who backed me on this as he doesn’t drink either. The other evening on a weekend, Carl had come up to me and pulled me aside with a very hesitant expression on his face. His tone was a little uncertain. As he took a second or two to find his words, I couldn’t help but think he was about to ask if it was OK if he and some of the lads could have a few drinks in the room for the night. His actual words were something like this: “I was wondering if I could come watch to do your prayer tonight, I’d really like to see what you do.” I felt like the world had turned upside down. I would have put money on him being the last to show any interest in this (at least 3 others have asked me the same thing). And so, I took him out to the outskirts of the camp at night and talked him though the prayer and Isamic ethics. I tried to sum it up for him: “Prefer others over yourself… So if you want something like water or whatever, and someone else does too, you give it to them first.” He liked the idea. The next day as we got off the bus with our provided lunch boxes, one girl cried out that she forgot hers. Without hesitation, Carl handed over his lunch box to her and kept his head down. I really respected him for this. He’s since been very quick to give up his seat on the daily bus to our placements from camp too. On being asked who his favourite person on camp was, despite us not hanging out that much, he said it was me.

With the girls things are becoming more complicated. “He makes me feel special, but then I know he makes all the other girls feel special so, I don’t know”. I’ve heard such quotes about me on a few occasions. One Catholic Scottish girl came up to me and apologized. I asked her what for, and she said “I thought you were the most insincere person ever, I just thought no one could be that nice.” Unfortunately I have been told that this girl still thinks I’m insincere, but I’m not sure what I can do about that. I’m told, however, that other girls strongly defend me. I had thought that going down the overtly Muslim route (Muslims hat, beard, public prayer) would avert sexual attraction. It doesn’t. My biggest guard is never going to hotels at the weekend with all the others. I am the only one who consistently stays on camp over the weekends since they always come back with stories about who has done what with who. This kind of talk makes up a big portion of general talk on camp.

I still can’t express enough thanks for JJ being here. With him I can be myself and make as many conceptual comments as I want. He does this too. With most of the others, if my conceptual comments aren’t about relationships, there’s not much interest. I kinda feel like I walk around camp enshrouded with veils that are quite suffocating. Being able to take them off now and then makes a big difference.

Till next time, all the best.