Circles and circularity

Mandala

 

Mandala (Sanskrit for ‘circle’) is an Indian spiritual sign, symbolising the never-ending cycles of the cosmos.
As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the end.
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Today I went and watched a Hindi movie, Tamasha, with my mentor and her friend. The same friend who accompanied us to Manji The Mountain Man, all those months ago. I was excited to be able to understand a little bit more this time!
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Several other aspects of my life are starting to come full circle here; I am throwing away more than I buy, I am being recognised in my same old local haunts as opposed to visiting new places. A new teacher has started teaching Class 2, and now I can tell her the ways of the school.

 

Some things have not come full circle. The expectations I had before coming to India were not met by the reality of life here. That is not to say that I was disappointed in everything, just that my time here has ended up treading a different path to what I had envisaged. There are the silly little things that I didn’t think about, like the fact that there are still mosquitoes in December, or the fact that it actually does get really cold here.

 

Then there are the bigger things, I haven’t really made as big of an impact on the school as I’d hoped, for various reasons I haven’t started a new after-school club, or organised a big event, or even a themed lesson-day. Does this mean failure? Not necessarily, just success in areas that I didn’t know existed, and strength drawn from a part of myself that I was unfamiliar with until now.

 

Even this blog is not what it ought to have been. Packed in my folder, alongside insurance documents and flight details, were academic resources, fresh from the Bodelian library, that I intended to comment on; photocopies of Indian architectural wonders, articles on Indian democracy from The Oxford Historian (Issue XII if anyone’s interested…) and even some notes I made from a talk I attended by the director of the contentious short film India’s Daughter – Leslee Unwin (the talk was organised by the University of Oxford’s India Society and took place on the 02.05.15 at St. Catherine’s College).

 

Yet the road less trodden proved more interesting, and commenting on the things that I have observed here, as they happened, has proven more interesting than any abstract, scholarly insight.
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As a cinema attendant showed customers to their seat in the darkened screen today, I thought about what a great metaphor that was for my time in India. Trying to navigate a huge and complex space, whilst at times feeling completely in the dark, and at other moments, as though a torch was being shone from somewhere, lighting the way.

 

After all, as all circles illustrate, what is an ending but a new beginning…

Meera naam – What’s in a name?

Indian Dream

 

Meera naam nikita hai

(मेरा नाम निकिता है)

It’s a simple enough start to any conversation, a polite way of introducing yourself. Had the above quote been said by an Indian woman, there would probably be little surprise, with Nikita being a relatively common name in India.

For that reason, when I say the aforementioned words, the reactions are more mixed. Is this blue-eyed, golden haired foreigner joking? Has she adopted an “Indian” name, because her own European name is too difficult for Indian people to pronounce? My friend at the hostel, Kyra, has found this issue particularly tiring, as her name is normally said like the name “Keira” or “Kira”, but here people always default to “Kie-rah”. The only way she has been able to get round this is by explaining that the correct pronunciation of her name is very similar to the Hindi word for cucumber – “kheera”. Cue a lot of laughter, as she not only attends Hospitality college here, but her surname, “Fikke”, bears resemblance to the Hindi word for “tasteless”, not a fantastic combination.

In that sense then I have been far luckier, more people here can spell my name correctly than in Britain (where extra hs, and es, or even the occasional additional k are added) and everyone can pronounce it. Kyra and I often laugh when we introduce ourselves to Indian people, as we pre-empt their reaction to each of our names.

The reaction of most Indian people to my name is the incredulous outburst “but that’s a Hindi name?”. They then usually insist on finding out how I got my name (especially important I guess because in traditional Indian culture, all names have literal meanings, and even the first letter of a child’s name might be deduced from the astrological calculations of a priest). My appearance normally rules out the idea of Indian heritage or ancestry, and people are quite disappointed by the reply “my parents just liked the name”. Names are virtually sacred here, so the idea that I might have just been given a name with a “nice sound” (or, in reality, from the 1993 French Film of the Year La Femme Nikita) seems unbelievable to a lot of people here. However, it does get people talking to me!

Our names inevitably change our travelling experience. Whether our name means something ridiculous in another culture, or is unheard of, or actually belongs to a culture that you are immediately judged to not be a part of. I haven’t bothered mentioning to people here that actually, Nikita is also a Russian boys’ name, and my name is also well known in eastern Europe – though as a masculine name.

Names are a crucial part of unlocking meaning in another culture. They represent not just changing tastes and fashions, but a lot about the more ancient heritage of a country. For example, when I tell people that my father’s name is “Paul”, those that have been given an education by Christian schools here respond “St. Paul!”. People then link the name with the Bible, and presume that my family must be quite religious, and that people in the UK are deliberately named for Biblical characters. Likewise, learning the meaning behind the Hindi names of my students has taught me a lot about Hinduism – “Manav”, named for the creator of the world, “Parvati” – one of the trinity of Hindu goddesses, alongside Lakshmi and Saraswati. Of course names can also be adopted for each gender, so “Lakshay” is a male derivative of Lakshmi.

For my own part, I like the fact that my name excites discussion wherever I am, in the UK it is seen as unusual, in eastern Europe it seems misplaced (as a female name) and in India it is a mystery – how did a European with seemingly no links to India end up with this name? Is it a sign of India’s increasing cultural capital in the world? Is it a colonial hang-over, another one of the things that the British stole from India? Regardless, it helps my own introduction to do exactly what any introduction should do – start a whole new conversation with a stranger.