Friday, September 24, 2010

taxi drivers and agricultural pedagogy: my days in punjab

my days in punjab are coming to a close, at least for now. i plan to leave to the northern states of himachel padesh and jammu and kashimir sunday morning. first to the hill station at shimla (the former colonial summer capital) then to manali, and perhaps even ladakh; traversing the grandeur of the western himalayas. before i make that journey, inshallah, i thought i would share with you a more thorough description of daily life thus far.

every morning i wake up, before i put on my makeup, i say a little pra...oh, err, wait. no. let's try this again:

5am: the local gudwara beckons worshipers to prayer. i turn over, hoping for another hour of sleep;
i typically rise between 6 and 7am. i use the washroom. i clean my room. i greet dr kang, who can usually be found practicing yoga or otherwise preparing for the day (tying his turban, reading his hymns, etc). i spend the next two hours leisurely oscillating between reading scripture, catching up on indian news, praying, eating chapati, purifying my water, and trying to communicate with shanty, the house maid: so far we've mastered hand signals, and basic words such as roti (food) and sukrriya (thank-you).

i have come to expect dr kang's emphatic call of "let us move" around 9:30am. we exit to the marble driveway, which may sound more posh and exotic than it is: many of the homes i have visited have marble flooring. some mornings we take the car (a compact suzuki), some mornings a driver picks us up in a government suv, and one morning we took the new hero honda motorcycle: a trip which was less jarring than i had expected, in light of previously mentioned road conditions, and the lack of helmets (sorry dad).

our destination depends on the day. friday, monday, wednesday, and now friday again, we have made the 6 kilometer journey to langroya - a small colony outside of nawanshahr - to what is called a kvk: transliterating hindi to english, a krishi vigyan kendra (farm science centre): the workplace of dr. kang.

there are a multitude of  kvks (571 to be exact) across india. they act as a testing ground/research area for vegetable crops, fruit, and other aspects of farm life, including animal care and domestic duties such as embroidery and child rearing. kvks are composed of a team of specialized scientists - most of whom have completed doctorate level research - and workers who tend to the fields and package the produce. kvks operate under the auspices of the federal government, in conjunction with local universities; in this case the punjab agricultural university at ludihana.

kvk langroya employs a veterinarian, an agronomist, a home scientist (re: domestic duties), a horticulturist, a plant geneticist, a plant pathologist, an entomologist (one who studies insects), and a agricultural engineer. together they attempt to find the most effective  methods of farming (with respects to crop yield and crop health) in punjab. dr kang has been the director of this kvk for 8 years; he oversees the various projects undertaken by the staff and works to ensure coordination between the researchers and local farmers.

i am continually impressed by the work, maybe i could say mission, of the kvk. far from an ivory tower, an academic enclave removed from reality (as some perceive the academy to be), the scientists here humbly strive to better the practices of local farming. arguably the most important facet of doing so is relating to the local farmer. indeed, to quote a punjab agricultural university calendar which hangs in many of the rooms, "[the] farmer is the most important visitor on [the] premises. he is not an interruption on [the] work, he is the purpose of it." most strikingly the staff embody this attitude. they meet regularly with farmers, they host training sessions, and they attempt to foster relationships built on mutual trust and understanding. the calendar continues: "we are not doing a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so." as such, binaries of researcher/researched, educated/ignorant, and town/gown, beautifully blend as knowledge is gathered and disseminated. to reiterate, the kvk works for the betterment of the farmer, not for a short-sighted economic end, nor a ego-based scientific enterprise which attempts to know all. Of course helping the farmer includes advocating for fair wages and promoting practices (through science) which decrease waste and improve yield for cash, but the spirit is of service, not profit or self-aggrandizement. 

in many ways this educational environment serves as a model of what "western" institutions could be. while i am sure there are some that operate similarly (perhaps in an agricultural setting like this), more often than not, i think canadian/american/english based universities have become couched in discourses of vocational opportunity. "what do you want to be?"; "what job will that degree get you?"; and "are we producing economically viable citizens?" have replaced more important questions like "how does your degree affect your job?"; "how does your degree help you be?"; "how can your degree work to support the citizenry?"

as i wander the main hall of the institute, professors welcome me into their offices (which they share with a colleague); they are interested to hear of my life and willing to speak of their own. for those who speak little english, we stick the basics: why am i here? where am i going next? those whose english is more competent, converse on their research and motivation for working with the kvk.

on multiple occasions i have ventured to rural farms and the fields of the kvk, guided by various professors. i have learned about crop varieties and species, breeding techniques, preservation, and soil quality. when the professors are occupied i find myself reading journal articles on indian agriculture and am now adequately versed in the basics of the field (no pun intended).

throughout the day i am served tea, and sometimes cookies, by the young man - essentially a butler - who runs back and forth helping professors with administrative and culinary duties. lunch is spent with dr kang. and my afternoons are ripe with continued learning.

when "5 has gone" (after 5pm) dr kang and i leave for home, always with a fresh basin of buffalo milk and other items his assistants may have purchased at his request. upon arrival dr kang begins preparation for dinner; i have started to help. we peel fresh vegetables for the base of the dish to be served and talk about life. notable is the great respect dr kang has for his associates and the humour he finds in many things: i rarely laugh this much.

at 6pm dr kang leaves to worship at the gudwara and i sit and think or work out. i probably should tend to the latter: we eat a lot here (i average 10 chapati a day and three main course meals, a piece of fruit, and a serving of dairy) and i am rather sedentary.

when dr. kang returns he bathes while i read and then we switch. afterwards we finish dinner preparation and eat (usually by 8:30pm). after we have had our fill it's bed time: 9:30pm, lights out, ready for another day in punjab.

the days when we don't attend the kvk, we spend touring the major attractions of the state. i have seen the capital, various museums, the golden temple, hindu places of worship, various markets in the big cities, and, most poignantly, the indian/pakistani border. (each of these trips deserve a post unto themselves, though due to time constraints will likely not be brought to fruition. if you so desire, i anticipate our conversation upon my return.) as i have written before, dr kang graciously funds these adventures and i have only spent rs600 ($13.33 CDN; to be sure, that's thirteen dollars and thirty three cents) since arrival!

on our trip to amritsar our driver took it upon himself to take my luggage tag, which was a canadian flag with my contact information affixed, and tied it to his rearview mirror. unfortunately, he had to have gone through the contents of my bag to do so; i suppose his intentions were only moderately malicious (or, more positively, he was just a curious fellow with a vexillological fixation) as he left my sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and journal. i didn't have the courage to call him on it. so if you're in the area and you see a canadian flag in a taxi window you know we('ve) share(d) proximity.

admittedly, this post was rather heavy on details, intentionally so. i hope it provides a deeper understanding, or paints a better picture - if you will, of my travels. thanks for taking time to read this.
god bless,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

colonial collapse or my thoughts on culture shock

the headline in wednesday's local paper, the tribune, read of a collapsed pedestrian bridge which injured 23 workers in delhi. the bridge in question connected parking garages to nehru stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 commonwealth games are scheduled to take place. the article used this incident to further explore issues surrounding the games, namely international displeasure with the state of certain venues and athlete's accommodations. foreigners (in this case english, canadian, and scottish delegates) have spoken out, for example, against "filthy and disgusting" toilets, stray dogs, and administrative details. the article reports that "sources said that some of these teams [are] so upset that they are toying with the idea of pulling out of the Games altogether."

reflecting on the article i am frustrated and saddened. i am confused and confuddled (is that a word?). i am a ball of conflicting emotions as this story aptly recapitulates my 140hour relationship with india.

let me explain:

rich, "western", athletes arrive on the scene to partake in an event solely for their benefit, and immediately see fit to dictate their standards. in this self-centered discourse these individuals forget that the realities which so offend them are facets of daily existence here which will not be rectified in a matter of days because they so desire them to be. the pouty "make it better" syndrome seems to deny the complex factors which have brought to fruition the current state of affairs, not least of which is the colonialism of their respective and shared motherland (after all, this is the commonwealth games).

this hits home because i am the foreign athlete. although i am not here to compete (run, jump, swim, etc.) i am here for me - to partake in a new culture and new activities; a medal of my status as a middle class young canadian. and like the athletes in the article, i am continually confronted with wanting to have things my way. while i haven't vocalized my opinions in the way they have, i am mired in an internal battle of judgment and material ethnocentrism; that is, i cannot help but think that canadian/english way of ordering roads, buildings, and so forth, is better than that which presently surrounds me. indeed, this culture shock has, in its most intense moments, led me to think i would be better off at home.

indian streets are filled with garbage. fires burn at random. animals meander highways, whilst rickshaws, transports, cars, bikes, and pedestrians scramble to their destination. road-lines are merely decoration and signs urging obedience to traffic laws are (ostensibly) comedy. people stop and use the washroom where they see fit. questionable construction abounds, with bamboo and twine as scaffolding. the smell of propane, exhaust, and spice cannot be escaped: the air is heavy with pollutants and the sky is visibly hazy, in urban and rural areas alike.

but, thanks be to god, i know that these realities are but apart of what is to exist: so my desire to flee is put at rest, temporarily. i take a moment to remember that relationships, spirituality, and self reflection are not lost admits the noise and haste (and smell). yet, i still find it difficult to see past what i have deemed to be unclean. what i have deemed to be unsafe. what i have deemed to be unsatisfactory. why is it that i am so shocked by india?

i think it has to do with the tangibility (or lack thereof) of my experiences. when my experience is simply physical - that is, experience which engages solely the senses - i am prone to see difference, perceive error, see that which makes my way better. when i experience something behind mere physicality, something more personal, be it interacting with a stranger, enjoying a conversation with dr kang, or observing the interplay between indian communities, i am reminded that despite the otherwise noted difference their is something common at play: namely, the human experience. 

(as a side note: i know that separating physical/personal is a fallacy as physical realities both perpetuate, create, and expose personal realities; likewise, personal realities both perpetuate, create, and expose material realities. it is this incredible symbiosis which leads me to reflection on how and why things are the way they are here - and if i am to be fair, in turn how and why things are the way they are at home. i am particularly interested in how religious belief/spiritual manifestations rear themselves in this interplay).

moreover, a healthy dose of critical thought puts into perspective that things aren't as different as they seem on the physical plane. we still use brick and mortar, we still consume food, dispose of waste, drive cars, go to work, etc. it's just done in a less than familiar way. this awareness, coupled with the beauty of the human experience, does not always take away my culture shock, but it slows me; ' reminds me that my response should not be to boycott the games, as it were; but rather i should revel in the way in which a new place, new people, can bring me to reflect and appreciate the complexity which is life. i pray that this lesson will remind me that of the selfishness which thinks that i, by myself, can ever comprehend this great theater and my role therein.

i am deeply thankful for the opportunities i have had thus far. i have already learned so much and have been enriched thoroughly by what i have seen, what i have explored in conversation, and what i have been modeled by the overly hospitable indian people. i hope to post about these adventures, as they have been plentiful even in 6 days, but for now i leave you with my ramblings above, as i attempt to process what this journey is all about.

godspeed to new perspectives,

Sunday, September 19, 2010

live from's monday morning!

hello folks!
i have arrived, safe and mostly sound, and i must admit, it feels oddly comfortable to sit down to the keyboard: this is my longest computer-fast in many years and my first connection to most of you (actually, all of you except shaminder) since arrival.

the coles notes version:
the last five days have been a whirlwind of travel. from toronto to delhi -on time and in style (complete with tasty matar panar on the plane); from delhi to nawanshahr -in one of the most overwhelming, yet surprisingly relaxing drives of my life; nawanshahr to a small indian village somewhere two hours away (more to come on this); small indian village to, first, ludhiana, an incredibly busy and populated city center: the largest in punjab, and back; then from the village to chandigarh, the capital; returning last night to nawanshahr.

the mentioned village is home to the lineage of shaminderjot singh and his father dr bs kang; where the formers parents and siblings still reside with their progeny. this is rural india at its finest. fresh dairy products daily from the buffalo whom share the confines of the complex; tasty indian food made by the women in the traditional, partly underground kitchen, and hospitality out of the ying-yang. in fact, i have been so welcomed that i need a break. the service i have received is nothing short of amazing. from being given one of the best beds in the house, to constant attention (and translation) care of shaminder's cousin (a nice young man who wants to come to canada), and having all expenses paid for, at all times. i look forward to finding some nice pottery or a rug to buy for them in thanks.

there is so much to be said that i need not begin now. this is a post to let you know im here and in very good hands. i hope to write someday soon on the amazing juxtaposition of this country; of its sites and sounds...and smells. of the ways in which i am reflecting on culture and the ways in which i have been growing. but to keep this brief, i will post on these reflections over the next few weeks. stay tuned. until next time.

lots of love, now and always.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

twenty four hours

well folks, welcome to my blog!
i didn't intend to create an account (for numerous reasons including, but not limited to: my past failures with blogs - i think i've had at least two; my past dismissal of other's blogs - even close friends whom i care much about: forgive me; and finally, my lack of commitment) but here it is! thanks to those of you who encouraged me to do this. i hope to update it from time to time as i traverse india and nepal.

this is slated to be my first "beyond-north america" journey.

by twelve noon tomorrow i should be on route from kingston to pearson international airport in toronto. my flight leaves at five forty five pm. i fly first to new jersey; i can already picture the new york city skyline in the east as the sunsets in the west: beautiful in my mind's eye. after a forty five minute lay over (quick eh? i hope my bag gets out in time) i take off once more - this time direct to delhi. we travel for fourteen and a half hours and land twenty three and a half hours after we took off; due to time zones of course.

from delhi international i will be escorted by car in the care of dr. b.s. kang, father of my dear friend shaminder, to punjab - noted by some as the punjab (i think that's a colonial hangover. not unlike the sudan)
this trip, lasting approximately 8 hours, will, in the words of shaminder, "scare me to death". hopefully not.

once grounded, after almost two days of travel, i have only a broad outline: a week or two in punjab, a week crossing india headed east, a few weeks in nepal, then back to punjab to meet shaminder in november so we can explore the sights of india together for a month. may god bless my journey. i hope to relax; take a needed vaction; and learn how to appreciate life again without constantly deconstructing every single action and thought. i am very grateful for this opportunity and would like to acknowledge those fine folks who have helped me in my preparation. your support means a great deal and i couldn't have done it without you.

here's to the interconnection of life; new experiences; and a beautiful world, filled with beautiful people, brimming with potential to love fully. may we all learn something new from this. may god be glorified; and may i learn more fully what i mean by that. that's all for now, by grace alone,