Ratanpura’s school is pink and you have to take off your shoes before entering the classroom. Shy at first, the kids just watch us line up by the blackboard, a bunch of twenty something from all over the world. I watch them watch us. The classroom is silent.
They sit on the floor and have their books open on some sort of brown pillow. Most of them live in the village. Some of them have to walk six kilometers every day just to reach the school. The classroom is packed.
They have blue shirts and curious eyes. We have cameras and a ukulele.
The IIRM professor who accompanied us introduces us one by one. Honestly, I’m impressed. He met us just yesterday and yet he manages to get our names right. It took me more time to be able to put a name on each face… and there’s more than a fifty year gap between my age and the professor.
“These kids do not have the same age, they’re supposed to be in different classrooms. But the headmaster gathered them here so you get to better interact with them”, explains the professor.
We ask them about what they study. Math. Sciences. Sanskrit. Hindi.
They ask us about our schools. More room. Less students.
The professor translates.
We pass some basic school suppliances around, making sure each kid got one of each. Then mango-flavored candy is passed around. I manage not to step on their feet and I’m grateful that my natural clumsiness didn’t kick in.
We leave the classroom but we do not leave the school. We gather around Evvie who had her ukulele with her. “Evvie, you should play!” She’s shy, she needs a little bit of convincing but she ends up playing “Riptide” really well. She bravely walks back into the classroom, ukulele in hands. I follow her with the other interns at first and as she starts playing, I realize that I would rather be on the other side of the classroom. I get settled between the kids. She’s singing “Riptide”. I start slowly clapping because that’s the Lebanese thing to do. The kids join me.
Then the tables turn. The kids start singing. I do not understand what they’re chanting but I have a good heart squeeze feeling.
That was beautiful.
“Is that a tractor with a sound system?”
Only in India would you find such a random thing. We were waiting beside the bus when a tractor playing (Indian) upbeat music stops nearby. This was a verv Bollywood moment as the team of students that accompanied us from IIRM automatically formed a circle and started dancing, occasionally dragging one of the foreigners (us, fortunately not me since I was busy filming). The guy on the tractor has a very neutral facial expression as if this is something that happens every day.
Why would a tractor have a sound system?
In India, the correct way to formulate that question is: why would a tractor not have a sound system.
In India, everything’s possible, as the locals remind us from time to time, especially during bargains. That particular evening, a bargain turned into an auction as three tuk-tuk encircled us as their drivers were trying to give us a ride to the pink city. We only needed two.
“Okay guys”, I said, “we have three tuk-tuks, we only need two. Who gives me a hundred rupees?”
They all do.
“Who gives me eighty?”
One of them hesitates. We go for the other ones.
Pink city is pink. Not the same pink as the Ratanpura school’s but it’s easy on the eyes. We decide to explore the maze of markets. We follow each other, making a way in narrow streets shared by audacious motorcyclists, inviting salesmen, colorful fabric, more or less suspicious looking food and the occasional cat.
We’re shopping for good bargain deals and more often that not, it works. Somewhere along the way, I randomly pick a shop and I go in with Indian Ali. I know what I want but I needed to take care of some formalities.
“Where you from”, asked the owner.
“Oh, tu parles francais?”
Indian Ali spends the next ten minutes checking his phone as I close the deal in french. I end up getting what I wanted à un prix qui vous laissera bouche bée. We join the others and watch Nick try Indian blue shirts.
We take two tuk-tuks back home. One for the girls, one for the guys. Our drivers race against each other in the crowded hectic streets of Jaipur but arrive to Babylon together.
Later that night, we all go up on the roof again. And there’s a minute where no one says a word. Lia and Batoul are DJing: Pink Floyd and company. I lay back. It must be around 1:00 AM. There’s a lonely bark every now and then, or the sound of a tuk-tuk rushing by. I’ve been here for over than week and half. I learned how to bargain, how to cross the streets without worrying about the tuk-tuks, bikes, cars and cows, how to be ok with spicy food.
The sky goes white for a second. There are a couple of rain drops here and there.
The thunder storm has finally begun.
We all watch it for a couple of minutes. I’m about to wish upon thunder – even though I’m not sure if that’s protocol when someone calls my name.
“Mom, aren’t you going back inside with us?”
I get up and run down the stairs with the Babylonians.
I don’t need a wish. I’m with family.