Gujarat, a northwestern state bordering Pakistan, is a delightful place, replete with a fabled history that has produced some of the greatest figures of Indian history, crowned of course by the father of the nation, the Gujarati native Mahatma Gandhi. It is a diverse state, with one of India’s largest Muslim populations, and its inhabitants hold the reputation, developed over many centuries of commercial success, of being India’s hardest working, business-savvy community. A trip to a Gujarati market is to enter a space no less intense, loud, and hectic than the trading floor of the New York stock exchange, with the exception that the haggling in the bazaar is defter and more manic than the selling of stocks. Whereas the stock market closes with a definite ring of the closing bell at 4 o’clock, the verbal acrobatics that constitute bartering in the Mandvi Bazaar only begin in earnest after 5 o’clock in the evening, as Muslims return from evening prayer, government workers close their binders, and housewives bustle out to do their shopping in the early shade of evening. The streets are as crowded as a high school corridor between periods. Forcing their way through the teeming crowds with some highly imaginative and highly irritating horn tooting, motor bikes and even the intrepid rickshaw driver maneuver their way through the bazaar. The sheer energy of the street is matched only by the inescapable presence of the late summer heat, which at present is measured to the tune of 44 degrees Celsius, or roughly 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
But first some background. Since Friday past, I have been on a field visit to Gujarat with some of the Lend-A-Hand staff where we are conducting an instructor training session. Lend-A-Hand is undergoing an expansion into Gujarat where they are going to be running IBT programs for the first time. As such, this is the first instructor training session in Gujarat, a big milestone for the organization as it seeks to expand outside Maharashtra to more Indian states, thus creating a truly national mission for Lend-A-Hand. The training session takes place at a local vocational school, the Industrial Training Institute of Mandvi-Kutch, so that Lend-A-Hand trainers can use the tech workshops at the institute. The trainees themselves have come from all over Gujarat, many coming long distances, with one girl, Darshna, planning to commute two hours each way until we offered to let her stay with us for the week.
Mandvi itself is an extremely old port city that once was a flourishing trade center along the East-Africa/ Persian Gulf routes to India. Its trade was eventually superseded by other trading communities, but it still retains much of the old architecture and remains a famous center for ship-building. If you walk along the boardwalk outside of the old city gates, you can see half a dozen wooden ships under construction in the low sea water, looking almost like wrecks of centuries past. Fortunately, their skeletal figures are being built up by hand rather than broken down by decay. The bazaar located within the ruins of the old city walls is, as I have noted above, a wonder unto itself. Within its walls lies a plethora of shops. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer abundance of color, regardless of shop, whether it be a rainbow of cloths, spices, or baked goods. Kutch is famous for its handicrafts and still maintains the remnants of a once vast textile industry. Its linens are covered in traditional gujarati designs and the fabric is spectacularly light, some of it made of gauzy chiffon, the rest of exquisite cotton into which is woven finely detailed flower designs.
Back at the institute, the training has been truly eye-opening. I can only speak for myself, but I believe that America has spoiled me by ensuring that I have not had to do much work with my hands. The skill sets required by rural India are on an entirely different level from the one I know back home. During summers past, I have worked at my father’s construction site and so I know some aspects of the trade. America expects of us to be able to use a screwdriver, install a light bulb, operate a hand drill, and be able to hammer in a nail. India demands knowledge of electrical wiring installation (red wire, blue wire, red wire, blue wire), soldering, metal cutting, soil preparation, plant grafting, and a hell of a lot more. I’ve been going from practical to practical, photographing and recording each one for future analysis by the home office of Lend-A-Hand so it can evaluate how best to conduct future trainings. I tried my hand at a number of these practicals and have found them to be incredibly cool but rather out of my home knowledge. Learning how to graft a plant so as to get a new one is an awesome process, requiring the stem to be stripped from the plant’s wood so that a soil mixture can be planted in a bag around the exposed stem, the eventual hope being that a new plant will take root. Operating hand saws and wood sanders as well as wiring together an entire circuit board is extremely impressive to watch and the trainees undertake the task at hand effortlessly. It makes me very self-conscious and a little envious; I think that America, or at least my experience of it, has completely deprived our students of a basic, vocational training that really should be as integral a part of our education system as writing and math.
The heat is truly hellish and serves as a stark reminder about just how privileged we are to expect air conditioning back home. 110 degrees is no joke as I quickly learned, as I undertook the duty of filling the water containers during the day. The sun is like a malevolent Mona Lisa, everywhere you look, no matter where you try and hide, it is still there, glaring down at you, though unlike the Mona Lisa, it has no bemused smile, just pure malevolence. Despite the heat, we still eat a delicious lunch of roti, dal, and spiced potatoes that make my nose run, but it is nevertheless delicious. It has actually been rather hard for me to learn to eat with my hands and to accept that aside from taping hand sanitizer to my body, I will have to eat with hands that have not touched soap for some time. Washing hands and eating with cutlery has in a way become such a reflex that it is almost like having to be retaught basic motor skills from when I was a toddler. Still I manage. My boss, Chikita, was much amused by how I ate my lunch, first filling my bowl with dal (a saucy substance with vegetables) and then dumping rice into the bowl, then emptying the soaked rice onto my plate where I wrap it in a roti and eat. Chikita looked at me and said, “You’re so American, you’ve just made a burrito.” And so I had, I realized as I looked down at my plate. Still, it tastes better to my mind so I think I’ll keep at it, food is food after all, no matter how you eat it.
In the evening, we return to the guest house where we are staying. It’s part of the local university and is surrounded by some really beautiful gardens. However, the building, being made of concrete, traps the heat inside like a Venus Fly Plant, refusing to let it out and ensuring that the hellish weather continues indoors. Thus, each night, we make our escape to the roof to sleep, under a brilliantly lit, starry sky. It’s really very refreshing and the evening breeze does a lot to cool us down. The best part in my mind is waking up in the morning to a brilliant sky-scape, with a red-orange sun rising in the distance among an otherwise light grey sky, with complete, undisturbed silence surrounding the guest house that stands in the middle of the gardens. It is a beautiful image. I sincerely hope that there will be many more to come.