Exam time at Shishur Sevay

Growing up in the United States, I do not recall tension over exams in primary or middle school.  But here in Kolkata, the examination is the single marker of success or failure.  In the US, we had papers, class participation, extra-credit, homework evaluation, projects, all of which became factors in final marks.  But here we live from exam to exam.  I'm not sure if I wrote of the year we had Chicken Pox during exam time.  We were told to bring the three affected girls wrapped in sheets, covering their full bodies.  They sat in the office with other sick children and took the exams.  There are no "make up" exams.  If you are sick one day you could be held back for the year. 

Our system here, in the Bengali Medium schools, is broken into primary (K-IV), secondary (V-X) and higher secondary (XI-XII).  Six of our girls will complete Class IV this year.  We are preparing them for entrance exams to some higher-ranked Bengali Medium Schools.  It is an incredible achievement of theirs to even be able to meet the basic qualifications and sit for these exams.  They are psyched.  Their first exams are end of November, which is also when their final school exams begin.  When teachers aren't here, they study in groups and on their own.




The ubiquitous scratching of the head, looking for answers.

For the first entrance exam, points will be distributed as 100 for Bengali, 100 for Math, 50 for English.  What they are to expect:

English: word meaning, spelling, make sentences, jumbled words and sentences, fill in the blanks, translation, parts of speech, articles, prepositions, paragraphs, and reading comprehension.

Bengali: spelling, fill in the blanks, opposite words, similar words with different meanings, convert sentence into one word, reading comprehension, gender, numbers, synonym, breaking words into syllables, paragraphs, parts of speech, make sentences.

Math (Bengali): written words and numbers, ascending and descending order, prime factor, common multiples, lowest common factor, highest common factor, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, decimals, fractions, averages, weights, money, time, simplification, geometry.

We had a visitor earlier in the week who was concerned that the girls did not have enough "play" time, so here is a picture of them playing before class this morning.  The teacher arrived as I was taking this picture, so upstairs to the classroom they went… without protest, and even if there had been protest, they still would have had to go.


We play lots of mind games, the girls and I.  One day a while ago they complained that there was too much work, that all they did was study.  Usually this happens when teachers sympathize with them, sometimes around their being "poor orphans."  By the way that's a term we all joke about…  Well anyway, I said to them, "It's not my fault you are here.  The government could have sent you anywhere, but they sent you to an education home!"  The girls are smart.  They got it.

We are on holiday.  School is closed for another two weeks.  Friday is a Puja.  The girls decided to celebrate the Puja in the morning and to study all afternoon.  I'm proud of them.






When a Girl Learns Her Name

First, there is no way to make up the gap of time of blogging, so I’ll just give a quick summary, and over time go back over some of the events of the last 2 months.  I went to the US for the birth of Victoria, my first grandchild. Mom&Victoria_6417W 
Victoria decided she was comfortable where she was and not eager to get born so soon, so my trip was longer than planned.  It was my first/only extended trip back to the US since I started Shishur Sevay.  It was beautiful as we waited, and all had time together we’d not had before, especially that intimate mother/daughter time framed in the expectation of birth.  Then Victoria arrived, with a few more complications and fanfare than planned… I, as Grandma, sang Bengali songs to her, walked her, soothed her, and handed her back to Heather and Andrei, who morphed beautifully into parents.  


 Cici became an aunt and bonded in the style of “instant-glue.” NYC_6557-4x6wA 

Each day I talked to my children here in India.  I posted to Facebook for them, and also sent pictures through an email we set up just for this time. For a few days we had video conferencing, but the internet didn’t function well enough.  For Ganga and Bornali, each day I repeated to them, “G A N G A — Ganga!, and then B O N O — Bono” and they squealed.  Rani was thrilled seeing me on the video conference call but couldn’t connect by phone.  She slept a lot, and sprung alive when I returned.  She was joyous, as I was.

Today I post “When a Girl Learns her Name”, because it appears that one of our older girls has learned her family name, and for the first time in her life, has seen a thumbnail xeroxed picture of her (deceased) mother. I cannot write the details, for obvious reasons, but this discovery has had a profound effect on her as well as the others.    She beams.  She has a name, a place of birth, people she comes from… all hidden from her in the past.  One day she wants to change her name.  First though there are many questions to be answered, including veracity. The government is managing that well, and in the interest of our girl.  This will be a long, careful, and protected process.

I am an adoptive mother;  My daughter Cici was born in Kolkata, and came home to me at two months of age, much smaller than Victoria was at birth.    I wish so much she knew her name, her people, her place of birth. Years ago in Inda we walked many roads, some village areas, and she felt the ground, wondering if she came from here, or there, if the people around her were her people… She looked at faces.  Did anyone resemble her?  “Are you my mother, sister, brother, father?”  Where am I connected?  Where is my anchor to this Earth?

Cici is a drummer in New York, Last month while I was there, she played with a new band.  They played in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a place on Ludlow Street.    My people, those who survived, came from Ludlow Street and the streets around.  My father’s father was a peddler, only a few blocks from there.  He sold pickles from a cart.  When he wasn’t selling pickles he was driving a taxi, or a limo.  Now Cici, my Calcutta born daughter was playing drums there, and I was in the audience, so proud of her.  When Cici first started Bengali lessons, her teacher was teaching in the high school where my mother and father first met.  Her Bengali teacher was being funded by Grand Street Settlement, where my grandmother was a social worker, and where I was in daycare at 2 years of age.  My family “came up” through education.  This is the only way I know.  This is part of my drive with my children here in India. 

In one of our trips to India, Cici and I visited an area north of Calcutta, a small deer reserve (We saw one deer).  This place had a special feel to her though.  She described it as her “spirit forest” and imagined she was from there — an image that gives her comfort.   After our visit she wrote to me, “When I am alone on the subway listening to my Indian music I think about West Bengal and that day we went to the spirit forest… I feel this sense of pride about where I come from… I think about who my parents might’ve been… I am Indian, and I am Asian-American, and I have a sense of pride and connection to a geographical, spiritual, ancestral place.” Cici (2004).Momcf20116W

In our current lives, I walk the roads of her forbearers; she walks and drums the streets of mine.


There are so many reasons I started Shishur Sevay, but one was to have a home where I could imagine my daughter could have been raised if she had not been adopted.  Adopted children live with so many “if’s”, so many alternative or parallel realities.  Most of my girls here will not know their “real” names.  In their families, father was Baba, if he was there, mother was Ma, if she was there, and the children didn’t really know their formal names, or family names — title — or caste, or the village they came from.  Our girls talk about what train stations they were from, where they “lived” until police brought them into the government’s protective services.

A wise psychiatrist friend of mine used to ask her patients two key questions:  “Where do you come from?” and, “What is it like being you?” For the adopted child, the roots are missing from the answers to the first question.


 My family in the US, with Victoria at two weeks of age.


Twenty eight hours later, my family of Shishur Sevay, with a poster of Victoria they put up to welcome me home.

I am blessed.

October 2010
%d bloggers like this: