With its buffalo and white oxen glowing in the night, I know I have landed “off the grid” in a surreal place far removed from anywhere. More than the concrete floor that is our living quarters, it is the all-pervasive largeness of these animals that fills my entire being with a fearsome sense of awe, making me momentarily forget what I am doing here.
“You wanted to see one of Amma’s 101 adopted villages,” an inner voice reminds. “You’re here to test out those posters, songs, and lesson plans you created for Amrita Serve.”
But the fundamental reason for my visit, I knew, was to experience for myself one of Amma’s projects in India. In the US, I had seen videos that had deeply moved me. Now I wanted a first hand experience.
So here I was in Nani Borvai, Gujarat.
A Thirsty Crow
Faced with twenty children aged 4 – 14 is like entering an unexplored land filled with murky waters. There on the hard concrete patio of one family’s house, I teach the language of basic activities such as standing, jumping, spinning around, and walking. This active learning style feeds right into learning the song, ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,’ through physical movements.
Put your hands on your head.
Put your hands on your shoulders.
Put your hands on your knees.
Amazingly enough, after these ‘fun’ learning activities, the children enthusiastically settle into yoga instruction with Sandhya, my Indian teaching partner, who also tells a story:
A thirsty crow could only find water in the bottom of a tall vase. Since his head did not fit into the vase, he had to find a way to get the water. He thought and thought. Suddenly, he had an idea. He began dropping pebbles, one by one, into the water. The water rose. Soon it was high enough for the crow to drink.
This fable teaches the value of finding creative solutions to problems. More than any generation before, village children face a rapidly modernising India that is bringing the material, high-tech world right to their doorstep. In concern for these children, Amma wants to raise the level and quality of education while also instilling spiritual and cultural values. Each of our classes therefore contains a combination of English instruction, yoga practice, meditation, cultural videos such as the story of Hanuman, and animated videos such as ‘The Lion King’ where the characters use their creativity and intelligence to solve critical problems.
Late in the afternoon I have another opportunity to teach English. Since most village parents are unable to help their children with their homework, an after school teacher paid for by the MA MATH arrives at the front patio at 5:00 pm. By this time in the afternoon, however, the children easily fall into a giggly, rambunctious state. The moment their teacher leaves, they break into giggles of enthusiasm.
“Younger brother!” a girl suggests enthusiastically, recalling the ‘Family Tree’ lesson from the previous day.
“Mother, father!” another chimes in.
The poster chart is easily attached to the plastic chair with clothespins. “Grandmother, Grandfather,” one boy chants, pointing to the figure of the elderly couple.
Our poster session cannot hold their attention for long, though, as the squirrelly energy demands a more active approach.
“Song!” a girl says.
“Knees and Toes!” another bursts out.
We parade through the village–hands on knees and hands on toes–singing ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,’ until one by one, they return to their own houses for dinner.
Tasting the Earth
Curious about what women at the village do all day, I decide to follow Mina, our wonderful cook and neighbour, out into the field. That morning, I discover a new way to understand the relationship between the villagers and the land. It’s an ongoing conversation between the people and the earth, one that has not been cut off by fast food restaurants or modern technology. It can be observed in the egrets, who stay alongside the women and men in the field, unafraid because they exist as part of the same landscape.
Mina and another woman clear a 10 by 10 foot area with their scythes, making piles of the tall grasses under the already fierce heat. Though they usher me to a shady area, I insist on doing my part and gather the piles into two bigger heaps.
The two women converse with each other as they work. I hear the easy camaraderie against a symphony of sounds—the breeze as it combs the field, the gentle padding of egret feet alongside the bare feet of the women, a cow bellowing in the distance.
An inexplicable, physical longing stirs deep within me. What is it? I ask myself. Do I long to be in this life? “You wouldn’t last 5 minutes!” my greater logic counsels, which proves to be true when an hour later, I insist on ‘trying out’ one of the now enormous bundles.
Getting a bundle onto your head requires the help of another woman, but this does not deter me. For several days now I have watched in awe the village women balancing bundles and urns upon their heads with great poise. Walking with only one hand supporting the bundle, their faces remain serene, as if this were nothing more than an afternoon stroll.
It is only when Mina releases her hold on the bundle and the weight is firmly centred on my head that I realise the absurdity of this act. The pressure on my spine is intense enough that I see the possibility of real injury.
“Off! Off!” I yell.
On my last day, I am ‘captured’ by 5 or 6 children while walking through the field. One last time, we run and skip singing the ‘Colours’ song they have learned by heart.
The Colour of a Rose
The colour of the sky
The earth beneath my feet
Twirling and jumping, they point to the grass, the sky, and the red in a flower before collapsing into a heap of giggles. Then they are up again performing the yoga they learned, proud of all the words, songs, asanas and chants they now know.
Perhaps in their natural take to music and movement, they embody the spirit of Gujarat, an artistic, musical culture where they especially tell the story of Sri Krishna playing the flute while the gopis dance the Rasalila.
Our focus today should neither be on dependence nor on non-dependence but on interdependence. This is because the human race, the animal and plant kingdoms and the whole universe are all interdependent.
– Amma – Harmony Through Diversity and Dialogue, Shanghai, China, Nov 2012
Beige skin, impossibly long-horned, the oxen are the magnificence of a bygone era. But for their long, floppy-looking ears, you might think them quite stern. But those ears unfolding just below the horns belie a gentle nature.
With its close ties to nature, pumped-in water, and children running through fields of green and edible plants, the village exhibits a way of life far removed from the modern world of cars, airplanes, office jobs, and increasingly material lives.
Living here this week, I have come to feel that the village may play a key role in the survival and well-being of our very complex world. I believe it is crucial that the village maintain its own unique character and autonomy as it intersects with the modern world.