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In and around the Retreat

INDIA | Sunday, 7 August 2016 | Views [386]

Post henna

Post henna

On the days we don't go out, we spend time with the children, teaching a little as well as playing. There is always something going on. The builders have finished the fourth classroom and the toilets are almost complete, amongst several other projects in progress. It's quite an education to watch work in progress here. Rudimentary scaffolding is constructed from wooden poles tied with rope, dishes of sand are carried by the women labourers on their head. It's all pretty basic but steady work certainly gets the job done.

One afternoon was spent hair-plaiting, while learning about each other's different customs and traditions. A jar which contains oil and some long thin while strands, known as vetti root (vetiver), is produced and applied to the hair before plaiting. It is mainly used for medicinal purposes for treating fever, internal parasites and poisonous stings. In this case it simply stops the oil sticking to the hair. It is also a great opportunity to learn some of the Tamil language, much to the amusement of everyone within earshot. I have a list of about twenty useful words which, importantly, are not to difficult to say. The word 'wanakam' (my phonetic version) is a greeting which instigates an immediately positive response from most people. It is a simple greeting which seems to imply that you are speaking to someone as an equal, on a respectful level. The initial look of surprise is invariably followed by a broad grin, and the greeting returned, with hands held together in a prayer-like position and a nod of the head. Nandree is thank you, while nandrew is good - simple words, but ones which go a long way! We now find adults address us as 'auntie', rather than 'mam' - the children, who grow ever more mischievous as we become familiar faces, continue to chant 'mam' in unison.

Another time we try henna hand painting. The mixture of pulverised leaves makes a thick green paste and dries a startling orange, rather than the reddish/brown mixture which comes in a cone to enable decorative designs. The only means of application is a small stick or fingers. I opt for the stick and am not too unhappy with the results. I am surprised to learn that henna has several medicinal uses including reducing heat in the body rather than being purely for decoration purposes.

The cows graze the grass in the centre of the compound. As I have come expect, this serves more than one purpose. Firstly the cows are getting fed, but also keeping the grass shorter reduces the likelihood of snakes. After hearing that a rather large venomous one was seen on the compound periphery a couple of days ago, this seems like a great idea. The two young calves are being held on their tethers and learning to respond to being guided. In the kitchen a large vat of milk collected and boiled this morning is used for cooking, tea and coffee. There is enough for everyone, and whatever there is, is shared around. Even the building crew do not have to bring lunch with them as they are fed here.

On the first and second day of every month, elderly people from the local area with no relatives to care for them come here and are given rice, dhall (lentils), cooking oil and curry powder that will last them for 10-14 days. This new initiative goes some way to give them a means to support their incredibly thin frames. I find the whole thing incredibly moving, not just the sharing of the food, but the gesture of care for those who are no longer able to care for themselves. There is no financial support given to The Ashok Tree foundation to provide this and everything they offer here is all funded by donations and fund raising initiatives, see http://www.ashoktree.com. The school provides completely free education, including uniform and stationery, the clinic treats and monitors the children's health and that of the local community, there is a new project in progress which will provide housing for some of the homeless and of course there is all the local employment that this small community has created. The kindness and generosity is undeniably genuine and the people here reflect this.

Its time I gave you a brief introduction to some of the people who have made us so welcome here. They have gone far beyond their remit of simply looking after us and are already beginning to feel more like friends. It's great to have so many sources of information. Pankaj has been left in charge on site while Laxman is away and has tirelessly kept us entertained with great stories, patiently trying to answer our endless questions as best he can. He's originally from the North, so on cultural matters will often consult with Govondan. If it's information on medicinal uses of plants or religious matters then Govondan is likely to have an explanation, although his tendency to mix English and Tamil in the same sentence can mean the answer isn't entirely clear. We have renamed Vijaya 'master chef', much to her delight, and is responsible for consistently cooking up wonderful healthy food. She has also shown her artistic talent seemingly effortlessly creating the rangolI artwork. Indira has an infectious giggle and is the nurse in charge of the clinic, as well as helping Maheswari with massages. In her free time, she is enjoying the colouring books and felt pens that Veronica brought. Malar keeps our rooms clean and has taken to bringing us strings of flowers for our hair that she has deftly woven. As the evening approaches the beautiful scent of jasmine is released every time we move our heads, I think this scent will always remind me of a happy time spent here. Priya recently started in the office and has given us more local cultural insights than any tourist book ever could have done. We have enjoyed long conversations and been grateful for all her translation which has helped include all the ladies in conversation. There are, of course, many others but suffice to say that every single person has made us feel incredibly welcome and their kindness renews ones faith in humankind.

Tags: ashok tree, beauty, charity, friends, henna, kindness, tamil, teaching

 

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