Welcome to Mumbai, India! Our team from Curry College has come on a cross-cultural expedition to support learning disabilities in India and the United States. Future posts will discuss the content of the workshop and cultural exchanges. This first post will chart our orientation to Mumbai’s unique blend of history and modernity, as the city melds ancient civilizations and traditions with modern developments and tensions. Our first view of the city shows a skyline of upwardly-stretching buildings, low swaths of layered “slum” housing, turning highways, and a curtain of smokey fog (smog).
We had a hair-raising commute on the densely packed highways to reach the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. Here, we visited the Kanheri Caves, which sit in basalt rock hills stretching through the park. In approaching the caves, we encountered roaming monkeys that have adapted to constant human visitors- they approach humans freely, ask for snacks, and engage in primate play seemingly for an audience.
The ascent to the Kanheri caves followed stone steps chiseled by hand. Workers were chiseling, hammering, and squaring stone pavers under the sun. Families and workers handed metal support posts from shoulder to shoulder, each person walking up a few steps before passing on the load.
The Kanheri caves rose as sloping mounds of black basalt and lava where the Buddhist monks carved elaborate halls, temples, and living spaces into the heart of the rock. The monks had carved systematic cisterns around and over the rooms, with winding channels about four inches wide and deep that empty into square reservoirs outside the entrance to each room. We experienced an enveloping peace as we entered the stone caves. Only natural light would stream into the caves from the doors and small window openings. Upon stepping into the caves, darkness closed in until your eyes adjusted to the absence of light. The space and carvings evolve into your adjusting vision, meaning a revelation of texture, shapes, and distance. The rooms themselves had been designed for meeting, meditating, worshipping, and chanting, with acoustics that took a singular voice to torso-shaking depths. Buddha images with symbols of the lotus flower, monkeys, cobras, elephants, and other deities stood out from the walls in ¾ relief. Benches and shrines stepped out from the walls. The air shifted from heavy and moist to cool and light inside the caves. In total, there were 109 caves carved in the first century B.C. to the 10th century C.E.
We met a couple preparing to celebrate their engagement and visiting the caves for their engagement photos. Sakshi and Ankush exuded romance, intrigue, shyness, and hope as they talked to us about their experiences. We asked how they had met and as Ankush said, “We are a traditional society. So, we each created an online dating profile. Our families reviewed profiles for potential matches and then contacted each other. The families met to assess the match. Once they decided this could be positive, they arranged a meeting for us. So, we met and felt we are compatible. It is an arranged marriage.” He said, “You know, at this stage, we don’t have to pretend. The romance and love come easily.”
And here in Mumbai the melding of ancient and modern– arranged marriages and personal destiny, family screenings and online dating profiles, Buddhist caves and booming digital economies, wheeled rickshaws and buzzing motorbikes stacked with families, traditional dress and business attire, multigenerational poverty and hope for prosperity– seems to be core in the identity manifest. It feels like symbiotic chaos, schools of fish or thoughts in rushing water, mixing and shifting currents of understanding of self in culture.
How humbling and how honored we feel to see these movements on this grand scale. Our students who come to us from India are stepping from deep roots to a comparatively new movement of education and support for students with disabilities in the United States. They come with a facile approach coupled with a thorough grounding in culture and history. Their families are willing to share their children in hopes of growth and development that is available no where else. We met with one of our families with a student at Curry College and the mother said, “There is learning that you cannot do until you move outside of your comfort zone.” The U.S. has moved rapidly during the past 40 years in civil rights and protections for students who learn differently. We have the privilege in Curry and the Program for Advancement of Learning to work with other people’s children and to use our metacognitive teaching model to support transformations in development. And now we can bring our growing awareness of our students’ culture and history to support them during the transition to an American college experience.