Have you ever struggled with maintaining your mother tongue in a country where it is not spoken? I’ve been told that when I was young, I spoke Tamil fluently (all the slang too!) But since moving to New Zealand it slowly seemed to trickle away. This past month was the ultimate test though. Our latest travels took us down South and our journey began in Pollachi, a beautiful town comprised primarily of coconut and wind farms. Everywhere you looked you’d see thousands and thousands of coconut trees set against a backdrop of wind turbines. And of course, the people of Pollachi only seem to speak Tamil.
We spent our time with an organisation called Essmart, who provide villagers in super rural areas with access to life improving technology (that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to). Imagine remote villages with no access to power at all – and a salesman rocking up in his motorbike to provide them with solar powered lights! Stoked!! That salesman is our friend Sastha. It’s one thing to develop awesome technology, but equally important to ensure we can actually access and use it. Sastha’s role in this felt so simple, yet so important. Aside from asking Sastha what he does every night at the river (meant his home) and asking really excitedly multiple times when we would see plants (meant the dam), we somehow managed to connect with a mix of Tamil-English-body language. Definitely celebrating the power of language in fostering human connection and motivated to improve my Tamil and Hindi.
From Pollachi we moved up to Coimbatore where we spent time with the Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development. We had a blast with our new friend Baby. She’s one of the most joyful people I’ve met. So much love emanated from her, and like just about every Indian I have encountered, she loves to feed you excessively (no one in this country seems to understand the words “I’m full” or “that’s enough”)! Baby’s livelihood comes from upcycling old, unused sarees into quilts, which she then sells. Got me thinking about all the clothes (and stuff) I have sitting around unused that could be put to better use. The improving Tamil also helped forged a beautiful bond with our new sister.
After farewelling Baby, we moved Northward again, this time to Bangalore. Our days were spent in one of the (11,000) schools, where Akshaya Patra run their Mid-Day Meals Programme, providing free lunches for students. It was so refreshing to run around non-stop for hours and hours with the kids. Just a constant celebration to be in their company and I thoroughly enjoyed their boundless energy and sense of freedom and fun. I taught them ‘Simon Says’ ‘Atama, Labako’ and ‘Sa-ma-li-ya’ but the most fun was learning their favourite game ‘Lagori’ (imagine ten pin bowling, dodgeball and building blocks combined into one slightly violent and highly competitive game). As always, kids are curious things and we had all kinds of interesting conversations. “Didi, which school do you go to? What, you have finished school?! And college too?! Didi, if you have finished college, why aren’t you married?”
We returned to Pune to catch the end of Ganesh Chaturthi (a massive celebration to mark Lord Ganesh, the elephant faced lord’s birthday). This was nothing like any Indian festival I have ever experienced. Think about the biggest crowds you have experienced, maybe post a massive sports game or at New Years. Except imagine the crowds comprising of people in marching bands that are playing music at full blast. Picture huge Ganesh statues being carried around, some as tall as multi-storey buildings! Never-ending crowds chanting ‘Ganapathi Bappa Moorya!’ Fireworks being set off constantly, huge feasts and impromptu dance parties on the streets.
It was incredible to see the city come together with such unity. The festival ends with thousands of Ganesh statues being immersed in lakes. Some new more environmentally friendly statues are even made of fish food! (What a thought, thousands of fish eating away at a submerged Ganesh statue!) I just love that every month has at least one big festival and people’s lives are constantly injected with celebration. Reminded of a quote I read once from Khurshed Batliwala: ‘until further notice, celebrate everything!’