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A gamosa for the people of Assam

24 July 2013

On one of our extracurricular activities, we are walking through Charaideo, where the kings of Ahom were buried vertically in mounds called maidans. We encounter a group of a about a half-dozen older boys, chattering away, listening to music on their cell phones, sprinting up and down the maidans. We cross paths a couple of times, we and they giving a cordial but nervous nod toward each other. As we are sitting on a bench in the shade of a tall tree, a couple of the boys get the nerve to come over. They find out we are from America, and we find out they are in Class XI (and probably skipping school). They ask if they can take pictures with us, and we say yes, so several group shots are snapped on various cell phones. In Assamese, they ask our hosts if we would stay there for a few minutes while they run home and get something. Five minutes later, they return with a couple of white cotton cloths embroidered with red designs, folded over a few times to about the width of a hand towel, but much longer. Two boys ceremoniously drape the cloths around our necks while the others snap away on their phones. It is our first gamosa.


A gamosa is a great symbol for the Assamese. It is used practically as a hand towel, waist cloth, or a head scarf for a Bihu dancer, while it is also used spiritually as a tablecloth for an altar. I’m not sure when and how the gamosa came to be, but I can tell you there is a great tradition of weaving in Assam, both of silk and cotton. At one time, I am told, nearly every Assamese household had a loom. Somehow, perhaps because of its beautiful simplicity and nearly universal utility, the red and white gamosa became an integral part of Assamese culture.


We spend a few evenings at a tutoring center. These seem to be all over India as parents and children feel the pressure to earn high test scores and to seize the opportunity provided by learning English. There, children are encouraged to be creative as they learn to converse, read, and write English. One boy, an eighth-grader named Pranjap, had written me a letter, telling me he liked Michael Jackson, so I got him a Thriller CD.

They ask us questions like “Do you have pets?” I tell them about the cat I used to have, Wingnut, through my transformation from a single graduate student to a married teacher with kids. Wingnut died five years ago. Pranjap writes an essay titled, “Andrew sir’s cat,” describing Wingnut and hoping “ma’am” (i.e., my wife) gets me a new one.

The students range from Class II to XII. A smiling, expressive 10-year old named Gayatri tells us her hobbies are “speaking English and studying,” and she hopes to be a fashion designer when she grows up. She is wearing a white dress with flowers embroidered on it, and we tell her it’s beautiful.

At our final meeting, I don’t get a gamosa: Gayatri gives me a bundle of red and black cloth. “My mother weaved this for you, sir,” she says.

I notice the bundle is not one folded up cloth, but two. Gayatri tells me, “One is for a shirt, and one is for pants.” It’s not a gamosa, but it’s just as good.


In Assam, it is traditional to give your guest a gamosa as a sign of great respect. Their eyes shine with great pride when they put gamosas around our necks, as if to say, “This is what we make. This is who we are. Take it. Now we mean something.”


My second and third gamosas come at the end of visits to local families related to our cultural host, Deepali. I have described the food we ate already in an earlier post. One family’s matriarch is referred to by Deepali as “sister-in-law #8.” The father passed when the children were still in school, but the mother held the family together, and now the sons run about seven wine shops and have families of their own. They take us proudly through the spacious backyard to show us the source of much of the lunch we ate. The grandchildren, especially the pre-teen and teenaged ones, ask us about American music and take a lot of photos on their phones, which they promise to upload to their Facebook pages. The second family’s home is located on the Meleng Tea Estate; it’s one of three two-bedroom homes the company provides for its managers. We tour the factory, have lunch, visit the tea fields, drive out to the forest where gibbons are said to swing from tree to tree and never come to ground level for anything (we don’t see any though). On the way back, we stop in a poor area with people who have relocated from the recent floods and watch women work on their looms. When we return to the house, the kids are back from school. We show them pictures on Laura’s iPad, and they show us pictures on their laptop. Again, a variety of group shots are taken to be posted on Facebook, and we leave, mopping our sweating, smiling faces with our new gamosas.


In India, they say, “The guest is god.” This line from one of the Upanishads has been co-opted by the Ministry of Tourism to encourage foreign tourism, a small but growing industry. About 4 million tourists come to India each year from overseas, not a significant number in a country of 1.2 billion. More tourism would definitely provide a boost to the economy, but sometimes I worry that with too many visitors the people would give the whole country away.


When we visit historical sites, we wind up being as much of an attraction as the ruins. Families insist on taking photos of us—that’s photos, plural, as in “Okay, now you take one with me” and “Now one with just the kids.” This even happens while we’re at Kaziranga National Park and a herd of wild elephants lumber past the observation deck. Apparently we give the place some global village cool.

The most extreme example of this comes at a namghar about an hour’s drive outside of Jorhat. We ask the priests if it’s okay to take pictures inside, and they not only encourage it, but the younger ones also take out their cell phones and begin snapping away at us. Multiple group shots are arranged, and the phones are passed around with Laura’s iPad to ensure each owner both takes and appears in the desired shots.

The priests accompany us around the inside of the namghar, and our host, Rathindra, takes a photo of me holding sticks over the ceremonial drum while the priests look on grinning. One of the priests, an older man with a full head of close cropped gray hair, speaks fluent English. “We are so, so happy you have come from so far to visit us,” he says, “God bless you.” Laura tells him she will show her photos of the namghar to people in America, and his eyes well up. “God bless you,” is all he can say.

Before we can leave, a young priest insists on taking a picture of us all, visitors and holy men, on the portico of the namghar. As we walk down the steps, another priest runs up to us from behind and gives us a plastic bag filled with bananas, apple slices, and strips of fresh coconut. We thank him and wave up to the young priest standing on the portico, taking a video of us on his phone.


In his notebook, Pranjab had written a short paragraph on how he felt about being visited by teachers from the U. S. He wrote that he was very excited and that “it would be like seeing God.” Sitting next to him as I read that, I turn to him and say, “Son, the reality can only disappoint you now.” Two days later I give him the Michael Jackson CD, and then wonder if he has something at home to play it on. I don’t feel very godlike, but he doesn’t look disappointed.


It rains in the morning of our last day at Kendriya Vidyalaya Air Force Station Jorhat, so there can be no morning assembly where gifts can be traded and words said in front of the whole staff and student body. It is just as well because Class XI and XII have mandated exams to take, and no one wants to cut into their test time.

The previous day we were entertained by some talented kids in the activity room. Some little Class II and III students with horse masks and cloth tails danced like horses playing with each other.


A girl a little bit older in full make-up and regalia performed a dance in praise of Vishnu, and we admired her skill and expressiveness.


Two boys sang with the percussion trio of the morning assembly, with Western drum kit and Indian tabla. Then a group of six girls in matching costumes danced the Bihu, the folk dance of Assam done especially at harvest time. When they were done, we were invited to try the dance ourselves. I tried to copy the girls’ moves, but for the most part I just made a fool of myself, which made everyone smile even more, including me. Sneha, from Class X, sang “My Heart Will Go On,” and we were given artificial bouquets from the contest students had on Saturday.


While the plus-two students take their exams, I get a chance to observe some Class VIII and Class X rooms. (The upper two grades are often called “plus 2” because not all students pass their Class X CCEs and go on to Class XI.) I’m sure the teachers I saw were not chosen at random, but I still marvel at their ability to engage and connect with 40 to 50 students crammed into an unlit room, with the windows and door open to allow some little breeze in to cool everyone off slightly. One of the classes has been newly equipped with a smart board, but because the electricity has gone out today and the generator isn’t working, I don’t get to observe how it’s used.

We go out for some errands and don’t get back until the last period. (Not going into details here, but do NOT bother to bring travelers checks to Jorhat.) There is a staff meeting after school where we get, no, not a gamosa, but a stylish metal container. We give out our T-shirts and remaining items to the principal and to select students. The staff ask us questions, and many of them center around how to handle the huge workload they have: six classes of 40-50 students means grading 240-300 pieces of student work each time. We offer suggestions, but I feel a bit sheepish because I’ve never been in their situation. One teacher asks us what’s the most important thing that could be improved about Indian education, and I say jocoseriously, “Electricity.” I tell them I think the interpersonal aspects of good education are all there: teachers who know their topics and care about their students, and students who want to learn and will give attention to their teachers in order to do so. As in the United States, sometimes the system gets in the way more than it helps.

Mr. Purty, the school principal, finishes the meeting with his remarks, noting that we had a chance to spend several hours conversing in the past week and a half, and we found a lot of similarities between the Indian and U. S. systems: overburdened staff, excessive focus on exam results, issues relating to poverty and broken homes, and yet a belief that a school can be the best opportunity for a child to find and reach his/her potential. He says that hosting two teachers from the U. S. has given staff and students an opportunity to interact with a culture they wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to.

When the meeting breaks up, many teachers shake our hands and take pictures with us before taking their leave. Then it’s the students’ turn. Sneha’s older sister, Sunidhi, looks like she’s about to cry, and I say, “Don’t cry! Now you’re going to make me cry!” It doesn’t work, and the tears start as soon as Sneha holds up her camera.


I could not and would not relate all of the experiences we have had in Assam here. You’ve read enough already for a blog post, and what I’ve written is filtered through the murky lenses of my interpretation and the purpose of this website, to provide a resource for global education. I will think of more things to tell you about Assam as I look through the photographs, and I will post whenever those memories come to mind. For now, I wait with hope and anxiety for the creature comforts, bustle, and unaffability of the big city, Delhi, and the tumult of the tourist attraction at the Taj Mahal. Assam, I wish I had a gamosa as long as the Brahmaputra to give to you. Dhonyobaad.



From → India travel log

One Comment
  1. Julia Perlowski permalink

    Now, I’M CRYING!!!

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