We are staying in Nagarhole National Park part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that covers 5000 square miles across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southwest India. To me it is wonder of human achievement that this park exists in the second most populous country on earth. It is habitat for over 100 different mammals including the majestic Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant and Leopard. It is late in the afternoon and we’re taking a water safari on Kabini Lake. It is calm, quiet and beautiful; the boatman cuts the motor often to stop and listen to the forest. Our guide, a certified parks naturalist, assures us that the animals go into the forest during the hot daytime hours but now that it’s cooler we have a chance to see some when they it come out to the lake to drink. We see hundreds of gentle, sweet-looking spotted deer, several huge gaur, wild pigs, lots of langurs (a large Old World Monkey with a very long tail) capering in the bamboo, a few elephants and a crocodile basking in the late afternoon sun. But wait a minute. Do you hear that? That is an alarm call. The monkeys are warning that danger is near. Now the forest is silent. A tiger peeks out of the bamboo, takes a few steps into the river to drink. Then her eyes meet ours. And she slinks back into the forest. It’s thrilling for me to see a tiger in her natural setting but it is even more exciting to know and understand the natural environment she thrives in so that we can work toward preserving her natural space. We return to our lodge full of awe. The sun is setting. The barista in the reading room overlooking the lake is very happy that we have been able to see a tiger. He shares his enthusiasm for conservation in Nagarhole National Park and makes us an unforgettable cappuccino to celebrate an unforgettable day.
“One is lucky to eat like a Chettinar” Ancient Tamil saying.
I’m lucky. A few weeks ago I received an email from Meenakshi Meyyappan. She wrote, “You probably might remember having stayed at The Bangala in Karaikudi in the Chettinad region of South India. At that time, you mentioned that you would be interested in a cookbook, if ever we did one. The Bangala Table a compilation of The Bangalas’ recipes has now been published.”
I bought the book that day and it is exquisite.
Ross and I arrived late for lunch our first day after a long, bumpy, hot drive through rural Tamil Nadu. Nothing prepared me for the feast of senses I was going to experience.
A calm, refined woman, Umma, greeted us warmly and handed us cool wet towels to freshen our hands and faces, served us tall glasses of lemonade and then invited us to follow her to the lunch area on the porch. They had been waiting for us and our places were ready at a long table set with the traditional fresh banana leaf dishes. A gentle water fountain nearby soothed my road weary head and the sweet scent of jasmine and roses from the garden filled the air. Servers, dressed in soft flowing saris, padded by and serenely spooned, one by one, dollops of the most aromatic and delicately spiced culinary creations I have ever tasted onto my banana leaf–fish curry, chicken Chettinad pepper masala, spinach Masiyal, mixed vegetable Kootu, drumstick sambar, yogurt. Then side dishes arrived. Vegetable fritters, coconut rice, mango. I was in paradise or was it home? It’s true. Home is where the heart is and the Bangala captured my heart.
Later Umma took us for a walk around Chettinad villages. We talked about food and values, culture and art, family and traditions. We visited a home where a Chettinar family wove vibrant checked and striped cotton saris.
Chettinad is known not only for its fine master chefs and cuisine, but also for its architecture. I listened to Umma’s stories about the eclectic historic palace homes we had never seen before that were built by Nattukottai Chettinar families. The palaces, ornately decorated with treasures–teak from Burma, coloured glass from Belgium, ceramics from Europe–reflect an exchange of ideas and merchandise that their trader/financier owners brought home from Burma, Malaysia, Ceylon and other parts of the world.
Now I too have a little piece of Chettinad to savour and treasure. The Bangala Table. Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad. The recipes, the photographs and writing are glorious. Thank you Meenakshi Meyyappan and all of you who worked hard to write this book and share your home with us.
A noted politician whose dream was to eradicate poverty and advance the economic development of India founded Benares Hindu University (BHU) in 1917. I can sense excitement at the grand entrance to the campus university that has an international reputation for excellence and is home to twenty thousand students. Bicycles, scooters and motorbikes are clustered outside ornate gates and inside crowds of students stroll along pedestrian-only streets. Some groups are all-girls wearing striking salwar kameez or saris, some are all-boys in jeans and colourful t-shirts, and a few students are in pairs. They’re all carrying books and have their eyes glued to i-pads, i-pods and cell phones, tweeting, texting and whatever while talking to the others in their group at the same time. This is a busy place. (It’s curious. In this ancient City of Light and Temples I feel like the ancient one on the BHU campus. I’m just carrying an old bag and, oh dear, I’m wearing a boring blouse and tatty trousers.)
On the main square is one of nine Hindu temples on campus, New Vishwanath, with a huge sculpture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and nature. I love the story of Saraswati and the Saraswati mantra, a Hindu holy song that says, “Remove my mental inertia.” The buzz of hope all around is energizing and I see a glimmer of possibility that this generation of students will be able to tackle the environmental issues.
Later our van steels down a small lane that looks impossible to drive. We squeeze by a few water buffalo, dodge scooters and the ever-present garbage (although in this part of town it’s neatly piled at what looks to be a strategic point for pick up.) I’m surprised. “Streets are clean enough in this part of town” I note. “So there’s hope. An auspicious sign.”
Our driver jumps out of the van runs, down the alley and speaks with a pedestrian before beckoning us to follow him by foot. This time I don’t even have to watch where I step. A painted wooden sign, “World Literacy Canada,” hangs on a picturesque white heritage building at the confluence of the River Ganges and the River Assi. Through the windows I can see the Ganges but the Assi alongside it is dry, a victim of a changing environment.
“Welcome to World Literacy. Welcome to Varanasi,” a hearty voice calls out. “Come in, come we’re expecting you.”
A vivacious young Canadian volunteer bounds toward us and we shake hands before she leads us through an atrium brightly painted with children’s drawings and stories in Hindi script. I like this place already. Stacks of tin trunks line the wall. “Those boxes you’re looking at are filled with special books for our mobile libraries,” our volunteer tells us in a proud voice. “We send them out to communities when they request them.”
Around the atrium are small classrooms bursting with cheerful four and five year old children drawing, reading out loud, and singing. One group sings a special song they have learned for us–the ABC’s in English. Painted on the wall outside their classroom I read the words of one of the most enlightened politicians of all time. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Ghandi.”
My eyes are tearing now. This is the place I needed to see. It radiates energy and hope.
The mood of optimism carries on in a lively meeting we have with four local staff persons, three volunteers who are graduates of the World Literacy functional literacy program and three other volunteers, Canahttps://nancymhayes.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/img_2880.jpgdian students on an exchange program. We talk about new initiatives and plans for the future. We visit workshops training women to be more self-sufficient. One group of women is learning to sew and market their work, and another is learning the work of beauticians.
“Literacy is more than reading and writing,” the director says with excitement as he walks us around rooms filled with sun, laughter and women chatting over the whir of sewing machines. “You can see what’s happening here. Learning to read gives women belief in the process of learning. It helps them believe in themselves, that they can make changes in their own lives and the lives of others.” He pauses before he adds emphatically. “These women send their children to school now. Before they didn’t understand why they should. Now they know. They’re confident and proud.” Then he pauses. “Even their husbands are proud now. When we first started the program here the men objected. They thought women should stay home even though their children didn’t have enough to eat. Now that their wives can bring home money they see the whole family is better off.”
The World Literacy programs in Varanasi are so successful that they are on the cusp of being self-sustaining. Other communities are asking for programs so plans are being made to move the classrooms and workshops to another area.
In Varanasi, the City of Light, City of Temples and City of Learning, statistics may tell me one story but the story of thriving self-confidence and enthusiasm is more exciting. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next twenty years.
Please share your experiences with education programs, and in particular literacy programs … we learn from each other.