Birthdays, banks, and buses.

Let’s pretend I published this “on time,” last Saturday, instead of now when I’ve already left Meghalaya. If anyone comes to this blog in the future, the specific dates will be less meaningful.

Nangroi and I, and by extension Dee and the UUPCC back in the States, have had a bit of a circus out here regarding the kids’ birthdays. What would seem a simple manner back home is actually quite complicated here, in our villages and more generally in India.

Last week, Nangroi finally received documents from Wahmawlein and Mawlat which are the closest we’ll get to birth certificates: school records and church records. Because our kids were born in their parents’ home in rural areas, they don’t have birth certificates. In retrospect, it was perfectly ridiculous for us to expect such a thing.

As I’ve written, Marshall’s guardian claimed that he was 4, leading to much worry about how malnourished he must be. Two weeks ago, I asked the kids (via Birialna) if they knew their own birthdays. All of the older kids knew theirs (Pynkhraw 15, Badashisha 13, Phlinsimai 13 on her birthday this past Saturday, Blestar 11), and two of them knew the birthdays of the younger kids (Badashisha’s younger brother Batkupar is 9 and Blestar’s cousin-brother Minit is 6). Rilum knew Krom’s (8), as she’s been his foster mother for almost the entirety of his life. However, this leaves us with ten children who don’t know their own birthday.

This is the necessary background for my surprise when Nangroi showed me all the school records (for Pynkhraw, Phlinsimai, and Blestar) and church records (for Bankhrawbok and Marshall).

First, it seems in the villages that people know only vaguely when they were born. For example, Badashisha’s birthday is in February, near the start of the school year. So (if she actually didn’t know her birthday, which she does), she would know she’d completed another year just by seeing when the schools opened again. If her parents were still living, this is likely how they would keep track of Badashisha’s age. The proper date is not important.

Second, Marshall is only two-and-a-half. That would explain why he looks like he’s two-and-a-half. Phew! A relief, to be sure, but also strange for me that Marshall’s guardian could have gotten his age wrong by two years. Nangroi reminded me that his guardian is illiterate and, as just stated, age is usually just determined by the passing of seasons, not days. If you’re not paying attention, it’s probably easy to lose track of a year.

Third, the school records are hilariously inaccurate. Blestar’s age and birthday were correct, but Phlinsimai and Pynkhraw’s were very, very much not. These records reduced Phlinsimai’s age to 10 and Pynkhraw’s to 11.

Here’s a photo of Pynkhraw I sent back to the States for his sponsors:

Pynkhraw Is Not 11

Eleven years old? Really? Really?

As it turns out, in India, many higher education institutions and governments have maximum age limits. As in, if you’re over the age of 30, you can’t apply for a government job. (That isn’t the exact age, but it’s something like that.) So, if a primary (elementary) school principal sees kids like Pynkhraw and Phlinsimai, who are a couple of years over what they should be for their grade, the principal just changes their birthdates. Because birth certificates aren’t particularly common, this age change in school records (the only official documentation a person might have) is surprisingly common. Actually, in talking about this issue with other Indian friends here, I’ve found a number of them have had their ages reduced. Many more of our children may have their ages reduced once they graduate primary school; because many of the orphans didn’t go to school regularly before coming to the Children’s Village, we have a bunch of kids who are 8-10 years old and are only in preschool.

Nangroi and I made the executive decision to keep on the UUPCC records the correct age of the children, though all other official documentation in India will give their school record birthdays (whatever they turn out to be). We’ll also inform the UUPCC (and the sponsors) when a child’s age has been reduced, just as an FYI.

*       *       *

One of my tasks before I left was to cash the remaining construction-money traveler’s checks at the bank. Because I was planning to be in Shillong for five days the weekend before my last weekend in Meghalaya, this seemed like an easy task.

Oh no! Not easy at all!

On Friday, it was Good Friday, and thus all banks were closed. Okay, fine. I had four more days, right?

Saturday, the bank is only open for about 4 hours – it’s supposed to be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but that’s on Indian Standard (or, as we say, “Stretchable”) Time – and during that time, I had Last Meetings. First was the final Orphanage Management Committee meeting. Our biggest discussions were trying to finalize the staff contracts so they could be submitted for Khasi translation, and outlining what tasks should be carried out over the course of the next year. The latter list included things like acquiring more church birth records, investigating more thoroughly how we can get a proper asphalt road put in as the orphanage’s driveway, and finding our third caretaker.

I also had a meeting with the Executive Board (Derrick, Helpme, Pearl Green, and Darihun) during which we all enthusiastically agreed that communication between the UUNEI and UUA (and associated groups) must improve. I told them I’d work from my side to encourage people to start supporting proper UUNEI staff instead of focusing all donations on social projects. Because, really, how can we run all of these Unitarians schools and such when the UUNEI has, literally, only two part-time paid staff members? How can the leaders in the UUNEI answer e-mails and phone calls from abroad when they don’t have internet or cell phone service in their villages, nor is the UUNEI their main career? The ministers (of whom the UUNEI has way too few) aren’t even paid for their work.

Anyway, so, no bank Saturday, and no bank Sunday, because it’s always closed Sunday. (And it was Easter. Happy belated, by the way🙂 )

Monday was a big Khasi festival, so the bank was closed again. In addition to it being a festival, some local political(/separatist?) group put up a “ban” from morning until 6 p.m. because they were angry Sonia Gandhi (Congress Party leader) was visiting Shillong. This basically means that if your business opens or if you’re on the road, someone might throw rocks at you. No one told me about the ban, so I went down to Police Bazar to pick up my latest salwar suit, only to find no one out and nothing open. Great. As I had been barred from attending any Republic Day events because of a “ban,” I decided I was tired of such foolishness and called Banjop to take me around to the various events of the day.

This was a vastly better option that sitting scared at Bari’s house all day. First, I got to see Sonia, who is an interesting lady to me as she is Italian and married into the Nehru political dynasty, and now is in charge of one of India’s strongest political parties. In fact, it was Sonia deciding to take up the position (after her husband and mother-in-law had been politically assassinated) that seems to have revived the Congress Party’s power. She flew in by helicopter, wore a very nice traditional Khasi dress, was requested by all the local speakers to build an airport in Shillong (which I think is a fabulous idea), spoke of Congress’s (and her family’s) particular support of Meghalaya, and then flew out again directly thereafter on way to another northeast state. Second, I got to go to the big Khasi Festival (Shad Mynsium Basuk, which translates as the Happy Soul Dance), which is even bigger than the Nongkrem Dance. It was most neat.

By this time, I’m starting to worry whether I will make it to the bank. But, I assumed that Tuesday, which was in no way a holiday, it would be open.

The bank was closed Tuesday for no reason. Thanks, banks. I did pick up my (totally awesomely plaid) salwar and run into “my” trio of street kids, who know me as the Two Biscuit Lady. Because I was likely never to see them again, I bought them each a bag of Rum Pum, trying to explain I was going to America which is why I was breaking my own two-biscuits-per-kid-bas rule. It was nice seeing them. I was tired of being in Shillong, and thus went back to Kharang that afternoon instead of staying Wednesday.

Thursday was election day in Meghalaya, so everything was closed and most public transportation was being coopted for transport to polling stations. No point in even trying.

Then, I missed the two buses to Shillong on Friday because apparently the bus time shifts with the changing length of the day. No one mentioned this to me. Sigh.

I finally got to the bank on Saturday, my second-to-last day in Meghalaya. Hoorah! Task complete! I also bought a cake for Phlinsimai’s birthday, which was a very nice day in general because Kong Cream visited and brought a ton of donated clothes, much of which was sized perfectly for girls Phlinsimai and Badashisha’s size.

Ah, misadventures, how many of you I have had over the past 8 months! I hope all these misses also illustrate how difficult it is to get around and get things done over in Shillong. This is why folks, like those on the Executive Board, have so much trouble keeping in touch. Sometimes, some group puts up a “ban” and everything’s closed, or everything’s closed because of some holiday or another, or you miss the bus, and that’s that. It can be tough out here.

~ by cmskhublei on April 22, 2009.

One Response to “Birthdays, banks, and buses.”

  1. between the birthday confusion and the travails at getting to the bank, your anecdotes help explain why communicating with our Khasi partners is NOT straightforward. Add that some of the folks we are communicating with have limited English, and the English they speak is Indian English, well… we must proceed with patience, trust, and love.

    Thank you so much for your blog. It (and Sharmila’s) has provded a wonderful picture of everyday Khasi village life. I hope that other North Americans will be able to live in the Khasi Hills for some months and continue to help us learn about our Khasi partners.

    Happy journey!

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