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Speaker shares her personal impressions of India visit

Nashoba Publishing/John Love
North Middlesex student Janna Schiavo listens to Krishnabai as she shows a slide show of India during her visit last Thursday. Also pictured are Chris Schott, left, and Amanda Dodge.

TOWNSEND — Students in the World Studies class jointly taught by Andrew Wiza and Nancy Patierno got a glimpse of India through the eyes of a visitor who has been there several times and has borrowed from the country’s cultural wisdom to guide her own life.

Krishnabai, a family therapist who lives in Ashby and is not Indian, said the ethnic name she took on in 1980 sprang from meditation.

She described a country with dozens of languages and several religions; an outlawed caste system and English customs dating back to the British occupation period, when railroads were built.

With a third of the land mass of the United States and four times its population, most of India’s people live in the cities, with vast open land beyond. Temperatures often top 100, folks move slowly and jobs are geared to people-power more than machinery, she said.

Krishnabai showed slides — prompts for her vivid verbal sketches — as she noted facts. The Taj Mahal looked majestic, even in a relatively poor photo, but the story was better. The ornate marble monument is an ancient tomb, built by a king for his favorite wife. In another picture, workers replace tiles, pitted by acid rain, at the popular tourist site.

In another picture, cow dung piled high against a building looks like a mountain range. It’s a common practice, she said. Baked by the sun and packed into patties, dung fuels home fires, she said. Now, it’s permeated with toxic plastic litter. That’s new, she said.

She saw many people with physical deformities. Poor medical care or religious taboos or both could be the problem, she said. Her travel group met a sweet-natured man with twisted limbs and a bowed back, she said. A nurse in the group said he could have been cured in an American hospital.

India has universal health care. When a fellow traveler had an itchy, red eye, she was quickly treated in a street clinic. With nary a form, a worker deftly tweezed a tick, for free.

Statues are everywhere. “I found that charming,” she said. Less so the street vendor hawking souvenirs, dressed like a Hindu god. But he told her the strategy works, she said.

New Delhi’s sights, sounds and smells differ dramatically from an American city, she said. Rather than gasping and gaping, her response is “isn’t that interesting!” she said. A travel code she lives by is the old adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” she said.

So, she dodged rickshaws and Brahma cows that wander the crowded streets and park themselves “like cars.”

There were not many women out in the city. “They mostly stay at home,” she said. She saw men of all ages and boys. Many children don’t go to school, she said. Boys learn a trade. Asked about child labor, she said she didn’t visit factories but saw many boys working in their father’s shops. She also saw groups of boys playing games.

An avid people-watcher, she noted men touching in public, as they walked, sat and chatted. In India, unlike in America, such behavior isn’t linked to sexual preference, she said.

As one who favors “immersion” over tourist-mode, Krishnabai advised the students to “tune in and learn” when they visit foreign lands and to willingly suspend disdain.

When she overhead other travelers disparage people or express disgust with primitive living conditions, “it broke my heart,” she said. “That’s cultural superiority and ignorance.” Better to keep an open mind and see with “new eyes,” she said. “If you’ve only been in one environment, that’s your norm,” but it shouldn’t be imposed on others.

Invited by ninth-graders Gwen Morgan and Luka Fishman, Krishnabai met criteria outlined in the student assignment sheet, which, among other items, called for a guest speaker with “first-hand knowledge ” to “discuss issues relevant to world studies.”

The talk tuned into the theme and will spark class discussion, the teachers said.