Hannah in Bodh Gaya: Getting out of the monastery

    On Tuesday afternoon, we could either take a nap or go to the Pragnya School, a K-10 NGO school in the village. I said that I wouldn’t go and got into bed, only to realize that I was not really committed to napping. My roommate Christina said that she would go but decided that she was too tired. We sat indecisively on the daybed outside our room, and Jesse said, “Come on, we’re going!” and I said “ugh” and we left.

    Outside the Vihar gates, eight of us piled into a single autorickshaw. As soon as the rickshaw got going, I was glad that we hadn’t stayed in. The driver saw that we were having fun and put on some Indian pop. We grinned and jerked our heads to the music and felt the breeze coming in through the bars that held the ceiling to the floor. Music isn’t allowed in the Vihar, although we can hear it from the pujas outside all the time (and we’re allowed iPods). Still, we could never listen together like we could in the rickshaw.

    When we arrived, we were surprised to find an assembly waiting for us. Girls with plaits in their hair and uniforms filled rows of benches facing a concrete stage with staircases set in three corners, in very Indian style. There were boys in the audience, too, but fewer of them. Sister Shoba, who wore a conservative pink sari and a large crucifix, showed us to a group of folding chairs in the shade.

    The first dance was for the Goddess Dergah, which surprised me because of Sister Shoba’s crucifix. There were many dances. The small girls did a dance for the sun god with a lot of dainty marching and raised arms. Their movements were sweet and easy, even when they moved out of step. The boys did wild acrobatic dances which the girls’ clothing and cultural boundaries would not have allowed. In one dance five boys wore camoflage hats to show that they were soldiers in Pakistan. They died dramatically, doing backlfips and jerking along the ground. When they came back to life, one boy bent over backwards and kissed the ground between his feet. In the dance for the goddess Dergah, a teenage boy danced alone wearing only low-rise jeans and a white kerchief around his waist. He danced with two real torches, twisting his body and tracing his torso with the flames. I was a little envious of all the dancing. In America, you don’t learn to move that way. I also felt that it had been too long since I’d danced because dancing isn’t allowed at the Vihar.

    When all the organized dancing was over, one girl got up and danced by herself, then the boys got up and danced and tried to take us with them. At first we hesitated. Robert had told us that once some American girls had started dancing in the street during Dergah Puja, and a crowd of five hundred men gathered within five minutes. But we were within the school walls, and that girl had been dancing alone earlier. Someone said, “Come on! If we all do it, it won’t be that bad!” We danced on the stage in the hot sun.

    The boys had moves, and we tried to copy them, bouncing our knees, raising our arms and spreading our fingers. I tried to bend back and touch the ground like one of the boys did, but I tripped up, and one boy said “Is good! You try, you try!” Every time we tried to leave the stage, they said “five more minutes!” until finally Sister Shoba lead us back to the chairs. She looked a little embarrassed for us. “If you had not stopped them, it would have gone on all evening,” she said.

    She told us that all the performance had been planned for us that day. I wondered what they’d have looked like if they’d had time to practice.

    Sister Shoba and the teachers answered our questions about the school and showed us around. The school was founded in 1991 and now has five hundred students. A group of mediation teacher at the Thai temple had wanted to start a school, and they asked our abbot, the abbot of the Burmese Vihar, to run it because he has helped build and run so many monasteries. Most of the students are younger because a lot of them drop out early for marriage or other reasons. All the students attend for free, but admission is somewhat competitive. The poorest students are given preference, but some higher-caste students are accepted so that the classes can mix. Once the students are in school, the teachers to their best to keep caste hidden. All the students wear uniforms, but on the first day many come very dirty. When that happens, all the dirty students are forcefully sent home to take a bath. “Very soon they begin to come very smartly on their own,” Sister Shoba said. The school tries to teach religious acceptance as well. The students say all the different prayers: Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist. Of the 500 students, most are Hindu or Muslim. The are five Christians and no Buddhists. Sister Shoba told us that she was Catholic.

    “‘Tis a very rare thing, for a Catholic nun to run a school like this,” she said.

    Inside the school, we saw tiny classrooms painted blue. We saw the three or four computers that all the students use to learn. The ceiling fans had “World Peace” written in Hindi on each blade. From the upper stories and the roof, we got a good view of nearby rice fields and the Chinese and Tibetan temples.

    Sister Shoba said that the school’s main problems are financial. Someone asked if they got money from the government.

    “No. And we wouldn’t want because then we have to follow government rules.”

    “Bad rules?”

    “‘Tis better not to have,” she said.

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