Nrog Me Kab Me Noog Quaj: A Reflection Living in India (Part I)
***First published in Asian Wisconzine, January 2008 Issue.
My mother used to tell me stories about her days out in the field in the hot sun, tending her family's crops. She used to tell me how she would rather be out with her parents working in the field, instead of remaining in the house. She told me about planting, harvesting, watering and fertilizing crops with a cow’s help. She told me about her days with her friends on their way to fetch water or wood for the fire, and the interested young men that would come their way to talk to them. She told me about her nights with insects chirping which eased her worries. Henceforth, the cries of the insects served as a sense of security and friendship for her when she was out working in the fields of Laos. In the morning, the musical birds served as her alarm clock. She would get up and start her day making rice for the family and preparing to go do her daily chores.
This past summer, I began to tell her stories from a faraway place. A place that my dad first introduced me to when I was young, with a character called Sunita in the movie “Yeh Vaada Raha” with Rishi Kapoor. I saw the beauty of this place through my dear friends. I saw its kind hospitality through my bharatanatyam dance teacher, Ms. Aruna Rajogopal of Spandhan School of Dance. At last, this summer, I finally got to see this faraway place with my own eyes. I began to tell my mother stories of my days in Bangalore, Karnataka, India at the Bapagrama Educational Center. Being there made me think of her in many different ways. I told her stories that helped me realize how she lived her life when she was my age. I told her stories that brought me back to her teachings while raising my siblings and me in the United States, a country she did not grow up in.
As I stepped foot off the airplane and walked into the Bangalore airport, I was greeted with a mass of people waiting for their arrivals. I was asked at least five times if I needed a taxi while looking for my friends; Chandni and Raja, who were designated to pick me up. The ride to my final destination took an hour. I was so tired that I knocked out for most of the ride. During my waking moments, I remember jerking and cringing as we made our way while Raja giggled away. The roads were very bumpy and people did not drive in their own lanes. When we reached our final destination (Bapagrama Center), lunch was ready and water for bathing was boiled. I was finally “home” after a long plane ride from Chicago, Illinois. The Bapagrama School is located in Bangalore, India. This school is co-educational, secular and anti-caste. Its philosophy emphasizes a world outlook, intellectual curiosity and commitment to work.
"A place that my dad first introduced me to when I was young, with a character called Sunita in the movie “Yeh Vaada Raha” with Rishi Kapoor."
Every morning, I would wake up to the gentle breeze blowing my hair as I made my way down the stairs in my flip flops with a bucket of personal washing items. On my way, I would stop to make way for the dogs and other animals that came to visit the school. For those who know me very well, I am not fond of animals. However, I managed very well. My adventures had just started. I worked with a group of 9th graders to make a self-picture storybook. With this book, my friend, Chandni and I engaged the students to write about their thoughts on their school motto and thoughts on Gandhi, who was instrumental in having their school built. My professor, Dr. Janaki Natarajan, took over the school after her mother — the person behind the school’s construction — passed away. In each of the students, I saw my own brothers and sisters. I saw my father and mother as well. I saw my Even Start preschool students at the Northport Community Center (Madison, Wisconsin) who were very eager to learn. In Laos, my father walked a long distance just to attend the closest school in his village, very similar to my students; whereas my mother did not get to go to school at all. She was the oldest daughter, so she took care of her younger siblings and became their mother after my grandmother died. At Bapagrama, I learned that girls' receiving an education is not common. Many only reach the high school level.
"In each of the students, I saw my own brothers and sisters.
I saw my father and mother as well."
Sister Ruth, a retired nurse who comes weekly to the Bapagrama Health Clinic to serve the village, uses ayurvedic medicine and no injections to treat her patients. This brought me back to my Hmong community. They did not have doctors available in Laos. They resorted to a shaman to come and heal the ill or use herbs to treat wounds. This was very similar to the Bapagrama Health Clinic. My mother used to go to the woods to cut trees for medicinal purposes. I always wondered why my mother and grandmother did not take any medicine prescribed by doctors which were presumed safe. Nonetheless, getting to know Sister Ruth has shifted my views about herbal treatments because of her ayurvedic medicine.
"My mother once used to chant "nrog me kab me noog quaj, nrog me kab me noog da dej, me kab me noog ua kuv luag thiaj tsis kho siab.” "
In my household of four sisters, two brothers and my parents, my father was the domineering person who had the final say in everything. Being the oldest, my parents were very strict on me in terms of traveling, taking part in extra-curricular activities after school, even going away to college. My father was most concerned about the distances I traveled, but he managed very well as time went by. When I was leaving for India, it was my father who wished me the best of luck and was very content that I am furthering my studies in India. The Hmong culture is a male-dominated culture, very similar to the Indian culture. But to see my professor, a woman, as the head of a school which is predominantly male, was a powerful inspiration for me. She reminds me of my mother in many different ways. While the world is run by men, women are often the brains behind what is needed to get done.
My mother used to chant "nrog me kab me noog quaj, nrog me kab me noog da dej, me kab me noog ua kuv luag thiaj tsis kho siab.” (Weeping with the insects, the birds, showering with the insects and birds, the insects and birds soothes the loneliness away.) At Bapagrama, I now understand the meaning of my mother's words. At night, I fall asleep to the weeping of crickets. I shower with bugs outside the bathhouse and sometimes on the walls. At last, I listen to the cries of insects and birds to ease my loneliness away, but I missed my family and friends back in the United States very much.
Note: I spent eight months interning in India. Bapagrama Educational Center in Bangalore, India was my first stop. Bapagrama Educational Center is a Bangalore school serving the marginalized communities in nearby villages with a tradition of social service and community organizing since 1949. It is directed by Dr. Janaki Natarajan, one of my professors of SIT Graduate Institute where I was a graduate student.