A Belated Pongal Celebration
One of the fun parts of living in Chennai is developing an understanding of the various holidays. Mid-January brings Pongal, the celebration of the sun, a winter harvest festival, and a day of giving thanks for agriculture. There’s some ceremony around the year’s first rice crop, and the first batch of cooked rice is eaten auspiciously from a special Pongal jar. Sugar cane is also important — kids are seen chewing it all day long, and people are carrying long stalks of it on their motor bikes and cars off to different celebrations. Pongal-eve, called Bhogi, also is a special day of clearing out and cleaning. Typically old possessions are burned in order to create space for new acquisitions in the new year. Two indicators of these important days are the thick smoke throughout the city in the morning on Bhogi — a demonstration of how much is being burned before dawn — and the multitude of kollams, or elaborate chalk drawings, that women create outside their door steps the morning of Pongal.
There are a lot of festive holidays in Tamil Nadu, all of which offer just as many opportunities to reflect and start anew. This is my third year and my third Pongal, but it is perhaps the first time I’ve understood why we’ve had the day off school and what’s being observed. I’ve come to enjoy the firecracker-filled days of celebration and observance here (whether canonized or not, firecrackers are definitely a part of every Indian holiday), and feel the natural opportunity to reflect. It’s been quite a year.
Last year on Pongol, Susannah & I hosted our first guests as a couple. We were newly married and excited to welcome visitors together. The year was filled with visitors by family and friends alike. All of our parents, save one (we have seven parents and step-parents between us) came to see us in 2015. It’s wonderful to have guests visit our lives here. I’ve learned that a distinct bond develops between me and those who come to see what our lives in Chennai is all about. Visitors develop a visceral comprehension of life here, and the shared experience is so strong that it continues even when the guests return home. The result is a special kind of richness that I feel between me and those who have experienced my life here. It’s not something I ever could have anticipated before I arrived in India, but it’s something I value most about being here.
This rich connection to family and friends became even more important as the past year was highly challenging. Most recently, the epic rain and flooding of Chennai reached a level of intensity I had not lived through previously. In the end, Susannah and I were fine — the roof of our house leaked in a dozen places and the power was out for several days, but some of our colleagues lost everything they owned, or everything on the first floor of their homes. Some evacuated temporarily until repairs could be made; others can never return to where they called home before the storm. Outside of our school community, the monsoon and the human decisions before, during, and after it were devastating. Hundreds died. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes. Some of the news reports I saw reminded me very acutely of the incompetent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We got lucky by virtue of not living directly in a floodplain, and it’s not like we had that in mind when we were deciding where we might want to live a year ago. We dodged a flood just by dumb luck. I’m grateful for that everyday.
We’ve been unlucky, too — the past year brought to our lives the emotional turmoil of two pregnancies and two miscarriages. I’ve since learned that miscarriage is quite common among couples who want to get pregnant. Fortunately, the friends I have who are part of that club offered counsel and wisdom far beyond my own reasoning just when I needed it most. I also learned that even the most challenging experience a newly-married couple can have was not insurmountable for Susannah & I to cope with — yet more for which to be grateful.
When I look back at my work from the last year — or even the entire time I’ve been here, which is not that much longer — I’m quieted by the number of different things I’ve had the chance to work on. In 2.5 years, the range and depth of initiatives and challenges that have come my way might take a decade or longer to experience in the U.S. My learning curve has been steep — perhaps greater than even the first year of my teaching career — as I’ve tried to keep up with the elusive task of developing new ideas and strategies for teaching such a diverse population of students in a progressive education model. More immediately, I’ve been neck-deep in the question, ‘Why should 8th graders from Korea, Japan, India, and Europe care about American history?’ Some days I have a clear answer; others days I’m much less certain.
Happy Pongal, and, what a year. I’ll worship the sun, as is the custom, for it rises each day over the Bay of Bengal here, offering the nutrients the crops need to thrive. In writing this I recognize that the western calendar has New Year’s as a natural time for reflection. For some reason, I wasn’t ready then. We were traveling then, and perhaps being away from India for that holiday distanced my thinking from my life here. So I’ve taken Pongal’s invitation for reflection, and I’m even grateful for that, too. I’ve accepted a new position at my school that starts in July; part of the deal was I agreed to stay here through 2018. Even though I know we’ll be here another 2.5 years, I’m aware that there will be a time when I don’t live in India any more. It’s strange to think that right now because when you’re in India, it consumes you. It’s hard for me to imagine not living here most of the time. But today, Pongal, has offered me a chance to savor my life here. It’s wonderful. My special Pongal cup is full, not of celebratory rice, but of gratitude.