Thursday, March 17, 2011

stuffing envelopes, a science experiment, and semantics

This post was written on March 14. 

Even though I still don't really have a fixed schedule, I've started showing up in the library (a room in the main office with--you guessed it--books, but more popularly, several different newspapers of the day) each morning after breakfast to read the newspaper and see what happens from there. I figure I'm bound to find more action there than in my room.

While that doesn't always prove true, today, it did. I was in the right place at the right time. The wardens were given the mundane task of stuffing envelopes with fundraising letters to be sent out. There were hundreds of letters; hundreds of envelopes. Seeing an opportunity to be useful, I quickly offered to help. The five of us sat around the table, folding letters and stuffing envelopes, for about two hours. That might sound miserable, but I was just thankful for something to do. 

Right about when I wasn't sure if I could fold another letter, one of the wardens, Jijo, announced that we were going to make sopa podi (soap powder). Not sure if I was fully understanding (soo many questions that had to go unanswered: Did I hear you correctly? Soap powder? What are we going to do with it? ...And how, exactly, does one 'make' soap powder?), I did the only thing one can do in such language-restricted situations and went with it. I knew I would find out what was going on eventually.

I followed the wardens and a few other people who had been recruited to help into a small building I hadn't seen before. And I watched as industrial-sized barrels of assorted liquids and chemicals were pulled out and measured into different drums for mixing. Several wooden paddles were handed out; I was given one and instructed to mix.

I observed with increasing interest as one dry substance was added to my tub, followed by another liquid, almost gelatin-like chemical. As I stirred, the mixture started to billow and balloon, increasing in volume, and giving off physical heat. Then, the tumultuous-ness of the concoction subsiding, it started to become recognizable.

I had heard correctly--we were making soap powder! (AKA laundry detergent).

Ignorant of the chemistry involved in the process, I marveled at the now-recognizable powder that had materialized before me. We poured in on a flat surface, used a rolling pin to crush clumps, and added fragrance and little colored beads. It looked like laundry smelled like laundry was laundry detergent!

After about an hour we had produced several large barrels of it. I'm pretty sure I inhaled enough toxic fumes in the process to last me a while, but it was still a neat thing to do. I don't know what will become of the laundry detergent--perhaps it will be distributed to the residents of the old age home? Perhaps it will be sold?--but I'm sure the answer will make itself known eventually.

Following that little science experiment I helped serve lunch, as usual. Then, I went to Mandiram's nursing school, where I taught English to the first year nursing students. I went to their class last week, too, and it has so far been really enjoyable. Their English is much more advanced than any other class I have ever taught (really just due to their age/education level--they're all about 20 and their nursing courses are in English). The fact that they have mastered English so well is fantastic, of course, but it also leaves me wondering, 'well geez, what am I gonna teach them??'

As my hour with them came to a close, I asked if they had any questions about today's material. There were whispers as they consulted with one another, and I could tell that they were trying to goad one girl into asking me a question. I had a feeling it would have nothing to do with English; in fact, I knew what it would be before the words even came out of her mouth: Do you have a lover?

You heard (or read, rather) right: Lover. Go ahead, laugh. In the US, we refer to someone with whom we have a romantic relationship as a boyfriend or girlfriend. In India, there is no concept of 'dating' as we know it, but the term that is used if one is in one such relationship is 'lover.' Here, if you say 'girlfriend' or 'boyfriend,' people will think you are talking about a friend who is a girl, or a friend who is a boy. Having girlfriends or boyfriends of the opposite sex can be scandalous in itself, but the really scandalous thing is to have a lover. This is a society, after all, where marriages are arranged and the 'personals' section of the newspaper is filled with people looking for brides/grooms. (I'm not saying anything negative about arranged marriages, by the way--there are actually a lot of positives to the practice; I'll have to blog about that another time).

It always makes me laugh when someone asks me if I have a lover, because I try to imagine that language being used in the US. Picture yourself asking your friend, in all seriousness: Do you have a lover? ...I'm sure you find it equally absurd. For us, the word 'lover' sounds extremely melodramatic, and is not something we would ever say. However it's the word that is used here, and, as fellow females close in age, I figured the nursing students would ask me eventually.

"No, I don't" I replied. "Do YOU?"

 Shy peals of laughter erupted. And so class ended on a giggly note. I smiled to myself all the way back to the office. 

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." -Victor Borge

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