CIYO 2013

So, I didn't exactly post all the time from India as I had planned. We only had internet some of the time, my bluetooth keyboard ran out of batteries, and, well, I didn't feel like it. So here's a few things, although by no means an exhaustive discussion, of the NYOC's time in India. The Good

Last Saturday, the Canada-India youth orchestra played in Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore, the culmination of a week of rehearsals. The first item on the program was the Bach Double violin concerto with the solos played by Mark Fewer, the Canadian violin faculty, and Ashley Rego, a student from the Indian National Youth Orchestra who also taught and mentored many of the other students in the orchestra from his hometown, Goa. The second item was the Pulcinella Suite, performed by the Canadian contingent. The third was a piece basis heavily on improvisation on traditional Indian tunes and songs written by some of the Indian students, with several soloists from the orchestra as well as a fantastic tabla player as a soloist. Finally, we played Dvorak's New World Symphony. Chowdiah Memorial was perhaps one of the most interesting spaces I've ever played in, if not the most acoustically luxurious; it is shaped like a six-string violin, with the main hall residing in the body of the instrument, the fingerboard stretching above as an entrance, and even a scaled-up replica of Carnatic violinist Tirumakudalu Chowdiah's bow. You can even see this from satellite pictures by searching for the hall on Google Maps!

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Alain Trudel, jamming with a musical guest who came to our rehearsal space

I was lucky to have two roommates for the trip in the club where we stayed: a flutist from my school from the Canadian orchestra, and a violinist from Pune from the Indian orchestra. I feel incredibly fortunate in this regard as my room was one of the very few rooms which had both Canadian and Indian students, as many of the Indian students weren't staying at the club with the Canadians. There were very few Indian wind players, and even many of the Canadian string players to whom I spoke said that they wished there had been more opportunities for connection between the two sides of the orchestra, so my roommate was the one Indian student with whom I was really able to forge a lasting friendship. Our discussions covered subjects as wide as our musical beginnings in our respective Suzuki violin programs, the new Star Trek movie, the effect of British colonialism in India, violin hickeys, and differences in the style of dress between generations of Indian women. She took us on a terrifying auto-rickshaw drive to the movies and led us back walking through the streets of Bangalore at night-time (repeatedly reminding us hapless Canadians who naturally gravitated towards walking on the sidewalk to please come back onto the road, it is really much safer...) Overall, my friendship with her was the most worthwhile and rewarding part of the trip, and I am incredibly grateful to have had that opportunity.

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Me and my roommates!

The Bad

Playing-wise, this was probably the least intensive summer program I've ever attended. It had to be: after a few rehearsals, the Canadian side of the orchestra started dropping like flies and rehearsals had to be cut down to only a few hours a day. Traveler's diarrhea, unexplained vomiting, heat exhaustion, food poisoning-- almost everyone came down with something at least once during the trip. The lucky ones got it over with in the first few days of the trip, while a large group of people (including myself) somehow managed to put off falling ill... until the morning of the concert. This kind of thing was pretty much inevitable. The food was a constant source of worry for everyone. Of course, being in a foreign country, one wants to jump right into the local cuisine; and the meals we were served indeed gave us the chance to do that. However, in a setting where we had more demanding tasks to perform than sightseeing, we also all knew that being sick would be highly inconvenient. Most of the food we were given was some variation on the theme of "white rice with sauce." All delicious, to be sure, but often too spicy for our stomachs to handle and unfortunately, not quite containing all of the nutrients required to keep a body in peak physical condition and resistant to illness. Any raw vegetables or fruits were out of the question due to the fear of e. coli, so a strange paradigm began to emerge in which salad is unacceptably bad for you whereas soda, seeing as it contains calories and is guaranteed not to poison you, is health food. The servers who fed us probably though that we were a bunch of spoiled children reveling in being away from our parents, refusing vegetables and jumping on sugary drinks. Of course, this kind of eating led to a state of affairs in which constantly feeling lethargic and unwell was the norm, even when not officially sick.

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Delicious but unknown substances.

The Ugly

During the last two days, when we went on a long sight-seeing tour that included a lot of time driving around in a bus, I was re-reading a book that I originally read in high school that had made an enormous impression on me. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, is the account of the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, who founded the charity Partners in Health and introduced a new way of thinking about public health spending. Farmer's achievements are impressive, and several times I found myself turning to whoever happened to be near me and saying "Listen to this! Listen to what these people did!" It's an adventure story, only a real-life adventure the goal of which is nothing less than eradicating poverty and disease the world over.

The book talks a lot about the idea of "appropriate technology"-- the idea that, in places with limited resources, you should use the simplest technology possible to get the job done. This seems like a good and logical idea until it is pointed out what it actually means: nice things for rich people and shit for the poor. A lot of the narrative also centers on the struggle to convince mainstream public health experts that the idea of some diseases being not practical or cost-effective to treat in certain areas is, simply, racist classist bullshit: that spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat a difficult patient in North America and not being willing to put the same money towards a patient in a slum in Haiti or Peru or anywhere else cannot be anything other than stating that poor people's lives are worth less than the lives of rich people. This simple fact is so obvious, yet so easy to lose in a sea of "but think about it practically..." that it seems revolutionary. If all human beings are equal, why are we OK with spending so much more money on health care for a select few of them?

These were the things I was thinking about as we drove through the rural area between Bangalore and Mysore. It was difficult to assess exactly the level of poverty we were passing by, but to do so would basically to be distinguishing between "bad" and "really horribly bad." Is that shack with leaves for the roof where those people live, or only where they sell fruit from during the day? Is that cow that man's only source of food security, or does he have other animals at home? Do you really make as little money as it seems selling mangoes at the side of the road? In any case the situation is unpleasant. Perhaps it is comfortable to Westerners to say things like "That's just how things are there; it's how they live in their culture. They're poor but they're happy!" But bad living conditions breed disease and disease is clearly rampant, and if you can look at the emaciated man with flies buzzing around his head begging at the side of the road and say in good conscience "He's poor but he's happy!" Then you're clearly on just as much crack as our dear Mayor Ford.

Another book I read while in India was I am Nujood, age 10 and Divorced. Nujood Ali, a girl from Yemen who was married by force to an abusive man three times her age, was the first young woman in her situation to ask for and be granted a divorce. The book is short, just 100 pages detailing her family life, abuse and escape. Nujood's deepest wish was to be able to return to school; at the end of the book she says that she hopes to be able to become a lawyer, like the female lawyer who helped free her. However, it is difficult for her to go to school; her family can't afford it, the teachers don't want her back after her divorce, and even after receiving scholarships to attend a private school she is still having issues getting there. This book, too, had obvious applications in the scene around us in India. Overpopulation is an enormous problem in India; my Indian roommate even stated that she thought overpopulation to be the root problem of almost all India's woes. According to Plan India's branch of the Because I Am A Girl campaign, seven out of ten girls drop out of schools before they reach grade 10, six out of ten girls are child brides, and four out of ten have their first child before they are 18 years old-- combined with lack of access to health care and contraception, a potent recipe for increasing overpopulation.

Most of all it is necessary to remember that, even when things happen in India that we as Westerners find annoying, laughably incompetent or intolerable, there are reasons for the way things are. We all laughed when, as we visited a temple outside of Mysore, (which, aggravatingly, we were let off the bus to photograph but were told we didn't have enough time to go into) a group of trinket vendors went so far as to follow us back to the bus, trying desperately to sell us things: "sandalwood elephant! Sandalwood elephant! Bangles! Coconut water!" and gesturing their prices through the window of the bus, until we had to draw the blinds to make them go away. And perhaps it was funny, at that moment. But we drove away to be fed lunch, and they walked back to their posts with nothing but the sandalwood elephants they had started with and, most likely, far too many mouths to feed at home. I would follow a group of Westerners back to their bus, too, if feeding my family depended on selling a sandalwood elephant to a sucker. As Cato observed, "It is difficult to argue with the belly, as it has no ears."

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Being sold to through the window of the bus.

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Goats, wandering freely

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The bus had to stop for quite a while for a sheep crossing.