Ludhiana, day 1

Words so far have failed me, to describe the experience in Punjab.

Ludhiana was surreal from the start. We arrived in the early morning on a sleeper train from Delhi, annoyed with broken sleep, and shuttled from the station in a white draped Ambassador to the campus of Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College. After quick breakfast refreshment, we’re brought to meet the principal of the college, and then into a conference room with all the senior faculty members of the college. In front of these esteemed professors, collectively possessed of hundreds of years of experience, we are generously introduced as “experts” in GIS and mapping and community, a notion Schuyler quickly dispells and ducks citing the constant learning we’ve both engaged in over the years, and especially during this trip. This theme of constant learning is quickly picked up the professor — “if we think we are experts, then we have grown stagnant”. Over tea and biscuits, deferentially delivered in front of all (and constantly available at our whim throughout the two days) we discuss open source, mapping, and the social function of software; not facebook but the immense societal benefit potential of software, and link that to the mission of the college, to aid rural development by accepting 70% of their students from rural districts where educational opportunities traditionally lack.

Ludhiana is the major industrial city in the state of Punjab, predominantly Sikh, a tolerant and forward thinking and modern 500 year old religion. The Sikh men wear turbans and have a different bearing from other parts of India. There’s incredible discipline, attention to detail, and explicit delegation of responsibility. And Ludhiana hasn’t caught the globalization fever yet. All of which combined to a feeling of really being in a foreign country again. Of course, if you eat “Indian” food anywhere in the west, it’s familiar and usually in the Punjabi style, thick curries and nan bread.

After our interaction with the professors, we’re brought to the computer engineering department. Finally we meet with H. S. Rai, the professor who’s independently pushed forward OpenStreetMap, and made an wonderful map of the college, and our prime reason for making the extra effort to visit Ludhiana. With barely a breath, we quickly dig into pretty advanced topics, like setting up Mapnik. H. S. Rai is keen to help distribute the load, and give good grounding to the OSM infrastructure locally.

We keep this up until exhaustion can’t be ignored any longer, when we’re informed that we will have an “interaction” with the students, and asked what will be the topic of our presentation. Exhaustion. We just want to talk about whatever the students want to talk about, informally, but our hosts insist we must have a topic — “we’ll call it Career Counselling”. Shudder. With no other choice, I quickly name our talk “Revolution”, which gets lengthened in “Revolution in Open Source”. We have a quick lunch back in our rooms (the professors usually eat at home) and then head over to the talk. We’re greated by a full room of students and some staff, who erupt into enthusiastic applause and hoots when we enter (this happens several more times during our visit), and we’re sat in front of eager and inscrutable faces. Schuyler quickly edits the projected slide with the title of the interaction back to simply “Revolution” and riffs on the notion of freedom in open source, and I incoherently try to link Facebook and Orkut and IM to the unfettered opportunities these students have with access to the web, people and knowledge around the world. With no agenda, we run out of topics and will to just talk at the students, so I turn the microphone around to face the audience, eliciting some shock. OpenStreetMap and open source is based in personal initiative, just do it and don’t ask for permission, and I want to see this in the students.There are some good questions, like how developers can earn a living with open source software. After a lengthy pause, we call it over, and head back to the rooms to collapse into sleep deprived unconciousness.

It seems like an instant later when we’re awoken. There’s not any notion of privacy here, and our hosts simply walk into the room unannounced any time there’s a need. It’s time for a cultural event. The moon is full. We walk next door to the high fenced girls hostel, and pushed ahead down a corridor, where we are showered with flower petals and beaming smiles by five girls, and continue into the front of an open central yard of the complex, facing several hundred of the female students. Applause, hollars, flash bulbs. We are seated at couches placed in front, with a small table apon which clipboards are laid out. We quickly gather that this is a dance competition, we are the guests of honor, and are expected to judge the dances of a dozen young women. Numb horror.

Someone had the good grace to recognize the shock on our faces, and we are relieved of judging duty. Still, imagine, we are sat in front of two hundred girls, watching young female students dance for us. Snacks and tea our laid out for our sole consumption. A dozen of the best dancers in the student body take turns on the stage, in their finest costumes, ranging from elaborate traditional Punjabi dance, to Bollywood numbers, to Bangra flavored hip hop, and all sorts of amazing hybrid styles. Some of these girls could easily wow any dancefloor in London or Berlin. It’s hard to imagine that these enthusiastic and expressive young women are normally the serious and shy students we’d met before. The shock stays.

After the last dancer, ourselves and some of the faculty are asked to stand before the crowd and give our views on the performance. My god. Schuyler gives a rousing statement of appreciation, and I manage to get out that this is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is. Then we are given the task of presenting the awards to the winning girls. My favorite dancer won.

We retire for tea at the nearby residence of Professor Rai, joined by the principal, where we discuss the practices and history of Sikhism, education and Punjab, and all sorts of topics, while the whoops and hollars continue at the girls hostel next door. Later over dinner at a hotel off campus, talks continue, and the teachers are especially interested in our views on education, and I especially stress the need to motivate students to work and think and act indepently. After a very full meal, it’s back to the rooms for more collapsing. And that’s just the end of day 1. Ok, more in another post.

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