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Jan 2023 Update: Sundays at PAF

After a tumultuous couple of years for us like so many, I'm glad to say that right now things seem to have stabilized. We are getting by and maintaining our essential programs. We were able to restart the school and hostel over the last year. Many thanks to everyone who has supported and encouraged us. I am not Bengali and I don't live here full time; but I'll try and share with you what I can understand so everyone has an idea of how things are going. For now, I'll just share with you my update from this morning. I hope you enjoy! -Erica

Medical Center

Today there were 41-45 patients at the medical center. They are currently using a building on the community center side of the property for this weekly offering.

Joba is the Dr.’s assistant; she has been doing this job for some years now. The doctor was running late today so Joba had to patiently fend off the people coming up to her. They know her by name and would walk up to explain what they wanted, at which point she says she isn’t the doctor so she can’t do anything, and suggests they go and have a seat, he is coming.

Eventually I asked Joba if she could call the doctor, as 45 minutes had passed and many people were waiting. People were talking about the cold journey there but it’s some reprieve to think that of all places, PAF is probably a lovely place to be stuck waiting. They can sit beside the wall out of the wind and soak in the sun and stay warm. Some were even sitting back inside the flower garden which looked like a little oasis.

Then it came out that Joba had forgotten her phone! So I called Shanta to tell her the doctor is late, asking if she could call him. Not two minutes later Shanta walked through the gate. Clearly she had planned to come and check on everyone, since she lives 15-20 minutes away by scooter in Purulia town and couldn’t have materialized so quickly- but I prefer to imagine her magical qualities having been summoned, as it seems almost as likely.

At this point Shanta brought the news that the doctor was just passing through Nairodi, the village next to Dabar across the stream. When he finally arrived he rode his motorcycle straight through the gate and came to a stop beside the building. As he dismounted, he knocked over a bucket of water, providing some comedy to all but especially to me as I chuckled at the irony that the doctor had “kicked the bucket” upon his eventual arrival.

The doctor lives 3 km away. I met him today for the first time but we will go to his house next week to get to know him better. I asked to take a photo to share with this update and they thought they should have a patient in the photo (I agreed), so Tinku’s mother sat down. I thought she was posing, which was unusual for her as she normally watches jokes instead of partaking in them. I mentioned maybe it should be a real patient, so a young healthy looking girl took her place but they didn’t proceed with any medical evaluation. I took my photo and as I walked out, Ma took her seat again and the doctor started to take her blood pressure! I guess she really was there to see the doctor after all.

Shanta, always popular, was soon surrounded by 6 to 10 ladies, each holding out a slip of paper with their name and number. I was amused by how easily she was seemingly making friends, but learned she was registering 12 new patients with the center. While 41 people came today, they now serve 112 people in total, some from villages far away – I know most of the nearby villages and did not recognize some of the names, but established with them that it was far from here.

Dance Class

I got to know some of the current school students earlier this week at their annual Sports Day competition, and was pleased to see their familiar faces at this morning’s dance class.

Today they started class by practicing two dances they had already learned. They picked up steam with the second one because they really like the song. It is a remix of a folk song and because of their affinity to it they have been practicing it at home.

After practicing, they learned the steps to a new dance. Their teacher has a lot of energy when demonstrating the new moves. She clearly loves her art and it rubs off on her students. They practiced the new moves 5 or 6 times while I was sitting with them, improving each time and memorizing the words to the song as well as the steps.

I haphazardly joined them for one of the practices (upon request), hiding myself in the back of the room so as to make less of a fool of myself. They enjoyed having me try it with them. The girls love this class and are often singing along to the songs they know, encouraging each other throughout the morning.

I learned that here “folk dance” is different from the traditional dances like Nachni – these in turn are called “original” dances. That is a new term differential for me in Indian English.

Speaking of English, I usually recognize a few Bengali words or at least body language in the context to know something about what is going on around me – but when someone told me we should walk across the road from the school to the community center area, she used the word “side” and when she saw me respond distinctly to it, she asked if I knew Hindi. I explained that actually that word is also English! They learn so many languages in India that sometimes they blend together and it’s hard to really know where it came from.

The dance class took place in one of the classrooms at the school. Overall, the building looks in good condition, besides some paint flaking off towards the bottom of the wall. The floor must have been cold for their bare feet, but they didn’t let it bother them. They were pleased to be practicing together in preparation for their dance competition next week.

Missing from these Sundays

Previously Chhau Dance was practiced on Sundays by the hostel boys. The epic drum and “nay”, traditional flute, would sound across the village in the morning as the musicians warmed up. Interested villagers would come running, followed by me and Robert. The old dog Bolu (he has since died, but his sweet face is well remembered) would trot away against the flow of traffic, the volume a bit too high for his one ear.

The boys would practice their flips and choreography. The most talented ones got to wear big masks and played an important role in the mythical story their dance portrayed. Prodip, Badal, Debasis and Doctor always had fantastic posture in their dancing: Shoulders back, arms out to the side at right angles, taking big low steps - just as strong in the portrayal as their teachers. Porimal could jump so high I think he must have been made of a rubber band, or maybe in a past life he was a frog. The younger boys would all get a chance to run out and do a few tricks they had practiced to the energetic beat of the drum, so everyone was included and got to walk away feeling proud.

These days only two of the old hostel boys are here – Prodip and Badal. They haven’t gotten to do Chhau dance in a long time now, but it’s in their blood – both of their fathers are Chhau dancers. Doctor has graduated from the hostel and is now in his first year of higher studies, a big accomplishment! He also works at the school so he is still here every day and an important part of PAF.

We don’t have the money to continue Chhau Dance classes right now, but I hope if we can find local support – and if the younger boys are interested to learn – then it could come back one day. It would be best while Prodip, Badal, and Doctor are still around to lead the charge and help teach the younger boys. Surely it was also welcomed income for the musicians and teachers.

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