Astrologers square off against government officials on Friday holiday
Perhaps one of the most unexpected adjustments to teaching in Kerala has been the frequency with which school is called off as well as the frequency with which school events are rescheduled on short notice. In fairness, I believe that we might have hit an unusual streak even for TRINS and Kerala, but tonight's news at dinner that Friday may be declared a school holiday due to the advice of local astrologers (not astronomers, mind you) just takes it to a new level. Last week, we lost a day due to local floods and part of a day due to a school "food fair" fundraiser. The week before, we lost half of a day due to the announcement of a controversial court ruling. Next Friday is Sports Day, no classes. These events don't even include the numerous religious holidays.
Here's the deal - Hindus are in the midst of celebrating Navaratri which lasts for nine nights (nava=nine, rati=nights). Navaratri is the worship of the three divine goddesses, Saraswati (Goddess of learning and speech), Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth and prosperity), and Durga (Goddess of strength and courage). In Kerala, it's a pretty low-key affair for the most part. In other parts of India which are more dominantly and traditionally Hindu, this period of celebration is a raucous nine days. One of the other Fulbright teachers up in Ahmedabad in the very Hindu state of Gujarat reported that loud blasting music and Garba dancing began the night before last and goes on all night (outside his apartment building) as people dance and party in the streets.
No such revelry occurs in Kerala, however, the last three days of Navaratri are celebrated as a celebration called Saraswati Puja. Puja, in general, means prayers or offerings and devout Hindus offer pujas daily at their local temple or home shrine. To honor Saraswati, students bring their books to the temple (or just stash them at home) on the first day and don't open them again until the morning of the third day as an offering to Saraswati. That means no studying or academic work during this time which makes conducting school difficult. However, we thought we were catching a break this year since the three day celebration ran from Friday to Sunday and thus not conflicting with school, or so I thought.
I got a sense that something was up this morning when one of the students told me that there was not going to be classes on Friday because of the Puja holiday. I had just minutes before come from the Monday morning faculty briefing during which the very latest event schedule changes had been reviewed and there was absolutely no mention whatsoever of the possibility of a holiday on Friday. In fact, it was stated that on this Friday, some midterm exams would take place since the Sports Day that was originally planned for this Friday had been moved to next Friday (meaning no classes next Friday, either). So I bet the kid that he was wrong. I should known better.
Here's the issue - the state government had no intentions of a school holiday given that Puja started on a Friday evening. However, the general consensus of the prominent Indian astrologers is that according to the stars, there is a mistake in the calendar and that the puja should start on Thursday evening. So now the government officials are in a quandry - do they declare a holiday for Friday keeping in mind that local elections are coming up soon and they need that Hindu vote or ignore the advice of the astrologers and proceed with school as planned are risk celestial retribution. The general consensus around here is that they will not tempt astronomical (or electoral) fate and will call it off. I'm quickly learning to suspend my personal sense of logic and go with the local consensus on these things. The big questions is when they will decide to make the call - some time Thursday evening would be my guess.
Regardless of what happens on Friday, there is a ceremony on Vijaya Dashami (third day - Sunday) that I think is really cool. After the scool books are put back into circulation, a ritual called Ezhuthiniruthu or Initiation of Writing takes place in which little children are ritually initiated into their formal education before entering nursery school. The child is made to write for the first time on the rice spread in a plate with the index finger, guided by an elder of the family or by a reputed teacher. The little ones will have to write “Hari Shri Ganapataye Namah” and recite the same to mark the auspicious entry in to the world of education. This event is considered a memorable event in the life of a person and there's something about it that really resonates with me. I'm hoping to find a temple where this ceremony is taking place on Sunday and check it out. If nothing else, just seeing the little Indian kids will be worth the trip - they are so damn cute! For a more formal explanation of this ceremony, check out this link
So, will the astrologers lead me to shelve my lesson plans and books on Friday? Stay tuned...