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Princess Vidhya of Erode

Erode, India

by Lara Callaway
cidhya 2

Vidhya is a bossy, spoiled rotten know-it-all. She is the ten-year-old daughter of Pragya and Mr. Puramjayam, my gracious hosts in their beautiful, multi-servanted home in a village called Erode in the Tamil Nadu state of southern India. I was visiting the farming village as a student home-stay experience, and Vidhya had selected herself to be my personal guide around all the local sugarcane factories and hut-like dwellings surrounding her comparative palace. Her English was flawless and she’d been allowed to miss school for the time we were staying, so she dragged me by my hand, lecturing me about all the things that I didn’t know about her village, and culture, and religion. It took me a while to put two and two together, wondering why she was such a priss, and looking around at how the rest of the village lived in comparison before… OH! She’s got “rich girl” syndrome! Of course. The association allowed me to relate Vidhya’s situation more clearly, and she quickly became my favorite subject. At the house, she kicked around her little sister like American siblings do, and in the village markets she stood waiting for me impatiently, reaming about how much she hates this “horrible, dirty place full of market people. It’s unsafe and unsanitary.” Like Sara Dickey observes in her article Lives in Madurai about the social relations and cultural practices of the people in Madurai. While the wealthy people are free to do things their own way, they seem to have very little understanding of what poorer people’s lives are like.

Whenever Vidhya got particularly huffy, I’d tease her back and try to throw her, but she never lost face. Once while insinuating how much more accomplished and affluent she was than other village kids her age, I thought I’d give her some perspective and asked, “Have you ever even been to Mumbai, missy?” knowing full well that she’d probably never been farther than Chennai. She put her hands on her hips and raised one eyebrow.

“Have YOU ever been to Beverly Hills?”  Touché.

We went on like this all day, and finished over tea with a thorough discussion of her (and my) favorite books, Harry Potter. Being wrapped up in such a competent conversation about something that I had previously considered overtly non-Indian, I’d momentarily forgotten that I was, in fact, talking to a 5th-grade girl living in an area of the globe that largely speaks Tamil exclusively. Curious, and knowing that the books are translated in over 65 languages worldwide, I asked if she read Harry Potter in English or Tamil. Fixing me with a stare that was simultaneously defensive and indignant, Vidhya confessed that she can’t read or write in Tamil. She can speak it because her parents and her village speak it; but in her private school she speaks, reads, and writes only in English.

“And the other kids in your village?” I asked, full-well knowing the answer. Even if they did have the opportunity to learn English in school, few (if any) would have friends or parents like Vidhya’s who could speak it with them for practice at home.

“Definitely Tamil only,” she clicked her tongue critically. “So what else can YOU speak?”

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