A Letter to Future Participants

There are a few things I would do differently if I was lucky enough to go to Bangalore again.  In an effort to help prepare the the next streak of tigers, I’ve put together this list of recommendations as you plan for the amazing journey ahead of you.  They’ll tell you, “nothing can prepare you for India”.  This shouldn’t be mistaken for, “don’t prepare for India”.  There are definitely things you can do here that will make your time there far more enjoyable.  Here’s what I came up with:

1.Read past participant’s blog posts

For obvious reasons, I have to start the list with this one.  There have been quite a few participants at this point so it might be a good idea to ask Gabrielle which ones would be of most help to someone preparing for their first trip.  Better yet, get coffee with a past participant in Columbia.  I know anyone from the 2016 trip would be happy to reminisce.  I did this with the legendary Rachel Newman and I’m so glad I did.

2. Communicate with your school

I can’t recommend this enough.  On your first day of school, if not before, exchange email addresses with your host teacher and use it.  Come with a clear idea of what you want out of your school experience and communicate that to the teacher(s).  Don’t be afraid to ask to lead lessons.  Not every teacher is going to invite you to take charge.  You may have to just jump in there when you feel comfortable. And don’t be afraid to fail.  No first lesson is perfect anyway.  I bombed on an eighth grade math lesson in which I got half way through Einstein’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem, and then forgot how to finish it.  I was super embarrassed, but the students didn’t care at all.  They were really understanding and encouraging.  Remember, they want to see how you teach as well as showing you how they teach.

3. Pack light

Don’t shop for this trip at home.  Seriously, you can get everything you will need in Bangalore just walking distance from Casa for, with the exception of electronics, less than half the price you would pay in the US.  It’s not hard to find quality name brand clothing and supplies between Brigade Rd, Lifestyle mall, Garuda mall, and many more. It is not nearly as primitive a place as most of us imagined.  Save your money and shop in India.

One thing I HIGHLY RECOMMEND buying as soon as possible is a power surge protector.  Mine and Liz’s laptops both crashed due to a power surge during the second week in Bangalore.  Power surges are common in India and since it affects the motherboard, there is no fixing it.  Luckily, we were able to retrieve the data, but the computers were toast.  You can buy one of these strips at Reliance Digital near IKC.  Really wish I had known this ahead of time… you’re welcome.

4. Get an Indian Sim

The Internet at Casa sucks; be warned. And there’s no nearby place with free wifi.  The wifi at most of the schools isn’t reliable either, but you can connect using the computer labs. My solution? My Galaxy S4 has an easily removable back plate so replacing my US AT&T sim with an Indian sim was simple and very cost effective. Contract free, I was able to purchase 1 gig of 3g/4G data for under 300 INR ($5). I used Whatsapp and Facebook messenger to text. Go with Vodaphone or Airtel as they have the best coverage all over India. There is a shop down the street from Casa to do all this. Just make sure you contact your current service provider, unlock your phone, and put a hold on your US account before leaving the states. This process varies slightly between carriers and phones, but here’s a good guide which should point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, I was not able to set up a wifi hotspot with the Indian sim 😦

5. Stay in India

Not forever. But, if you can, please do travel or work at an NGO after the program. You will learn a lot from the 6 weeks in Bangalore, but Bangalore is only a tiny slice of India, and admittedly, one of the most westernized parts. India is a backpackers dream, especially the Himalayas. Explorers from all over the world come here. I’m currently typing this in Leh, Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir where I have made many friends, none of whom are from the US.  I started alone in Delhi, but I haven’t been alone since.  I made friends with a guy from Kerala and a girl from Japan at Zostel in Delhi, who were also headed North.  Then we met some guys from Germany and hopped from village to village in Himachal Pradesh, staying in a new guest house or hostel every night for about 2 weeks.  When the others had to go home, I broke off and caught a bus to Leh.  I ran out of money a little sooner than expected so I decided to join a free Vipassana 10-day silent meditation.  It’s been a truly eye-opening experience.  India is a diverse, fascinating, stimulating, and spiritual place and I fear that if you don’t take advantage of this opportunity to see more than just Bangalore, you will miss out on a lot of what makes India India.

Happy journeys!

Ollie

Anansi and the Snake

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Thank you Gabrielle, Girish, Suman, DPS East, donors, and everyone that made this exchange possible.  The work you do is truly life changing.  If you’re goal was to facilitate a meaningful experience for both sides, you most definitely succeeded.  And Gabrielle, as for your mission to re-humanize teacher education, I can’t imagine a better way of doing this than sending pre-service teachers to learn from Indian educators and students.  I feel as though part of the human in me has been restored through this program and through connecting with teachers, students, and locals.

The last day of school was the most unforgettable.  I taught three or four English lessons on an African folk tale about a spider named Anansi, and a snake named Snake.  The spider wanted to prove to the animal kingdom that he was more than just a small weak insect; he was clever.  So he made a bet with the lion and the monkey that he could capture the most feared animal in the forest, Snake.  Then he would gain their respect and people would listen to him.  But snake also wanted to prove something.  When Anansi finally captured snake, he did so by appealing to that part of him.  He said, “The other animals think you are not the longest in the forest.  I wanted to measure you and show them that you are in fact longer than the giraffe’s and all the other animals.”   Snake fell for the trap and let Anansi “measure” him by tying his tail to the end of a branch.  Then, before he could move, Anansi tied the rest of his body as well.

I’m writing this from my hotel room in New Delhi.  As of yesterday, I’m on my own in Northern India and I’ve intentionally planned very little.  This wasn’t the idea originally, but as I talked to locals and learned more about India: what parts to avoid, what’s worth seeing, what’s overpopulated, my plan was increasingly ripped to shreds and I decided it would be better played by ear.  All that remained was the intention of heading north to the Himalayas.  But even this one vague hope was highly discouraged by a group of Delhiites over a McDonalds dinner last night.  Apparently the monsoon rains are so bad near the mountains that it can be very dangerous and keep one stuck for days.  I’m not sure if this is enough to deter me from going at all, but I’ve taken it into consideration.

I’ve never done anything like this before.  Living day by day.  It’s exciting but frightening, nourishing but lonely, freeing but challenging.  Before I embarked on this journey, my friend Louie who has backpacked Europe, warned me of traveler’s ego.  It’s when you lose sight of the important life lessons and become distracted by your ego, which seeks to prove to the world that you’ve done this or seen that, and that’s what makes you special.  You see all the picture-perfect tourist attractions and upload them ASAP because it’s not that you’ve been there, it’s that other people see that you’ve been there that really gets you off.  Especially in this age of the front-facing camera, an epidemic taking the teen population (or, let’s face it, everyone) by the millions, we’ve got to know the difference between being and posing.

20160803_114029Anansi and the snake both fell victim to their ego.  Snake literally became trapped, and even though Anansi succeeded in gaining the recognition he was looking for, he let that desire rule him for too long, spending every day trying to trap snake in different ways.  What if he had spent his entire life seeking this recognition?  Or what if he found that recognition didn’t bring him a sense of lasting peace but only a fleeting moment of glory?  What if his achievement gave him the social status he wanted, but left him without any true friends?  All these outcomes seem far too likely to me.

At the end of my home room fifth grade class on the last day, some of the students spoke a few words expressing their thanks for having me teach and spend time with them.  Then, as a class, they started thumping their desks in rhythm to a beat I taught them in music class over which the girls had hummed the melody while I sang the lyrics to “Hey Baby” by Stephen Marley.

They go like this:

“I’ve been gone a while away from you and I hope you understand
That I’ve got to do what I must do to be a better man
‘Cause if I was just to act a fool, do nothing with myself
Then all my blessings would be cursed, my world would crumble in

Hey baby don’t you worry, even though the road is rocky
I’ll be coming home to you again
If you thought that I was lost,
Know I had to bear my cross
Now I’m free from all these chains.”

One of my students  gave me a letter in which he wrote,

“[…]You are a really good teacher!  Make that your profession instead of mowing lawns.  Please do this.  I know you may visit in the future.  I know I might not be there, but I want you to never forget me, as I will never forget you.

Stay awesome,

Vaibhav”

If only he knew how much that meant to me…

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To everyone who’s been reading and supporting, thank you so much. I’ll continue to blog about India on my personal wordpress site: ollienaeger.wordpress.com

Till next time,

Ollie

SEVAI

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Ready for a new challenge, I left Casa Thursday morning for Trichy, Tamil Nadu.  I was invited by Dr. K . Govidaraju to spend a day interacting with the students at one of three Tamil schools he founded under the NGO, SEVAI.  Arriving at the wrong station, finding almost no English speakers, and traveling over 9 hours between 2 non-ac buses with little leg room, I found my challenge.

Dr. Govindaraju was 22 when he started his post grad in Mathematics education.  He knew he wanted to start his own school in a rural neighborhood of Tamil so in 1975, with a few friends, he founded his first school with 30 students.  SEVAI has grown exponentially since and, among others, now includes one K-12 and two K-5 schools, several housing projects, a women’s counseling center, self help, and business education programs, 3 organic farming plantations, and an HIV/AIDS intervention program.

He has lead relief programs in Tamil villages damaged by cyclones in 1977 and 1993, restoring clean water supplies, rebuilding homes, and improving local literacy.  In 2004, a tsunami destroyed 27 villages along the coast, after which Dr. Govindaraju, then a State Resource Center Chairman, assisted by United Way and the American NFL, established 1270 permanent homes and provided temporary shelter for 2000 affected families.

Anyone looking to put their talents to good use in India could easily find a volunteer position at SEVAI to make a real change.  And less than 3 hours from some of the most beautiful beaches and temples in Southern India, there’s no shortage of things to do on the weekends.  Dr. Govindaraju and the faculty at SEVAI welcomed me with open arms and do so for all their guests.  They also made sure my return trip was faster and more comfortable, helping me book a sleeper bus for the ride back.

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There I reconnected with 4 French computer science students whom I met at Casa in Bangalore.  They had been there for a week, attempting to teach programming to the students 5th standard and up.  I got to see their approach and hear about some of the challenges they’re facing.  As well as teaching C++, BASIC, and general computer usage, they are also planning to set up 12 new computers at the school in the following month they are at SEVAI.

The students were testing all morning, but I was able to play some of my favorite ESL games with an 8th standard class of 30 girls in the afternoon.  They were amazingly cooperative and fun.  I got a taste for what it’s really like to teach English as a foreign language as they were low level learners and would frequently revert to their native tongue, Tamil.  When they did, I deducted points from that team.

After school, I took the bus with a few students to a local village.  Siva, an eighth grader, showed me his home while his grandma made us tea.  Later, his dad gave me a ride back to the school on his motorbike.

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I also met a dozen Australian health science students from Curtin University in Perth.  They had been at SEVAI for a month and were leaving the following morning.  In the evening, they performed a dance for the students and faculty who expressed their gratitude for the work they had done and energy they brought to the school.  Then the students, first boys, then girls, performed an elaborate, synchronized, tastefully choreographed Bollywood dance.  This seems to be a regular ritual for groups parting ways in India.

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Throughout my entire time here, although far from family and friends, I have felt so blanketed in love and acceptance.  I can’t help but quote Shantaram, an amazing book recommended to me by my good friend Bala.

This is India.  Everyone who comes here falls in love — most of us fall in love many times over.  And the Indians, they love most of all. It happens often and easily for them.  That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace.  They are not perfect, of course.  They know how to fight and lie and cheat each other, and all the things that all of us do.  But more than any other people in the world, the Indians know how to love one another.” – Shantaram

Ollie

People’s Trust

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On Friday, a few of us took the day off from school to go with 6th graders from Vidyashilp to a government/trust school as part of Vidyashilp’s community outreach program called Shilp Sparsh, and headed by Kalpna ma’am.  About 60 students, in groups of 5, had prepared projects and materials to share with the students at the school, Sai Shankar Vidyashala, or simply People’s Trust.  On the bus ride there the students, in high spirits, sang bits of familiar songs by Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry.   When we arrived, each group paired up with 5 students from Sai and began their demonstrations and activities. In each group, at least one Vidyashilp student spoke both English and Kannada, the native tongue of Karnataka, and would translate for the Sai students, few of whom spoke any English at all.

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While the students completed their projects and socialized, the head managing trustee of Sai, Harish, gave us a tour of the campus.  Harish’s father founded Sai as a trustee funded school in 1982; now 50% is funded by the government.  The campus is decorated with a wide variety of trees from Butterfruit (avocado) to Sandalwood.  Harish and Kalpna educated us on the many uses of these plants and trees as we walked.

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“We want the students to see what can be done with the raw materials and tools provided directly by nature, without much human intervention”, he said, telling us of the Ayervedic uses of Neem which range from mosquito repellent to cosmetics and contraceptives.

“Many of these students come from very primitive areas.  They need a curriculum focusing on life skills and behavior.  This is not a ‘2+2=4’ school.  We want to show them ways to directly improve their livelihood at home.”

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Some of the students at Sai are residents, supported by People’s Trust.  They have no home other than Sai which provides them with all their necessities up through graduation. At the edge of the campus is a beautiful Hindu temple which the students and faculty use for meditation.

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Although the classrooms are primitive and resources few, what Harish and the faculty at Sai are doing is some of the most uplifting work I’ve seen in my life.  I wish I could have spent more time with Harish.  He is a truly inspiring person and beamed with excitement at the opportunity to show us around.  I hope to visit a few other community projects like this before leaving India and learn and share ideas among them.

Ollie

The Scotland of India

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This past weekend IKC treated us to a weekend excursion to Coorg and Mysore.  We left Casa Friday morning around 11:00 am and arrived at Abbydhama guest house in Coorg by 6 pm.  The room was far nicer than anything I deserve.  We unpacked and spent the rest of the night playing ping-pong and Capitalism, a card game I shared which has proven to be a hit.  Suman even got in on the action!

The following morning we ate a breakfast of Idli and Vada, a popular South Indian dish of steamed lentil/rice cakes and deep-fried legume dough served with a variety of chutnies and sambar.  I’ve had the best cup of coffee in my life several times since arriving in India but I think the coffee at Abbydhama, which comes from the plantations in Coorg, takes the cake.

When the British populated Southern India, many Scots came to Coorg and farmed its first coffee plantations, noticing the similarities in landscape between Coorg and Scotland, they coined it “the Scotland of India”.  A thick mist pervades through lush green forests, sometimes obstructing what you can only assume is a breathtaking view.  After breakfast, we headed to Dubare Elephant Camp and Rafting.  Apparently tourists were once allowed to ride the elephants but can’t anymore, probably for the best, but we were still able to walk and interact with them freely.

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After seeing the elephants we changed cloths and suited up for an hour of white water rafting down the River Cauvery (Liz had the GoPro so wait for pics from her).  It was an awesome time.  At one point all of us got in the water and floated for a good 20 minutes, despite the apparent crocodiles Suman saw in an adjacent stream.

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Saturday morning we took a jeep ride up to a hill station in Mandalpatti, Coorg.  From there we hiked about a kilometer uphill to a viewpoint which the fog thoroughly surrounded.  Although we couldn’t see but 20 feet in each direction, it was a sweet place to spend the morning and the jeep ride, both ways, was immensely entertaining.

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Sunday morning, before leaving for Mysore, we went to Abby Falls.  The pictures should speak for themselves.

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This weekend got me super excited to get out in the wilderness of India.  When the program ends, I plan to head north from Delhi to Rishikesh and into the Himalayas.  I can’t thank Girish, Suman, Sheela, and all the IKC staff enough.  They are doing wonders to help us get the most out of our stay in India, which with a group our size, is no small task.

Missing you all back home.

Ollie

On Teaching

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“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” 
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

The pages in my teaching and observation notebook are split into “Problems” on the left and “Potential Solutions” on the right.  Under “Problem”, I write one aspect of the current system I see as a problem and list its advantages and disadvantages.  On the left, I propose a potential solution and do the same.  I realize I’m new to this and to an experienced educator, most of this is going to sound incredibly naïve, but I’ve experienced at least a few too many negative aspects of the traditional education system to turn a blind eye.  Instead of avoiding the problem, I’d like to be part of its solution.

 

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”Mark Twain

I love this quote.  Because, while we learn a great deal in school, most of the important knowledge and skills in life are learned outside the classroom.  Self discovery and development come from within and cannot be forced upon someone.  Because of this, I’m lead to believe the primary job of the teacher is to inspire.

One of the problems I’ve noticed is that few teachers seem to really be excited about the subject(s) they teach.  This either has no effect or decreases the student’s interest in the subject.  In High School, I used to say “I don’t like History”.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have a natural interest in the series of events that have lead to this moment and my place in it, I meant that I didn’t appreciate the way the subject was taught to me in school.  But at a young age, it’s easy to confuse the two.

The solution?  Like so many of the problems in education, there is not one definitive answer, but if I were to take a stab, I’d say teachers often become bored of their subject because some days, they teach the same lesson 6 times.  While one advantage to this system is that it’s efficient and gives the teacher many opportunities to improve the lesson, a disadvantage too big to ignore is that they fail to ignite interest in the students because they themselves show no interest.  How do you keep teachers excited about their subject(s)?  One solution is to have them deliver the lesson only once, record it, and post it online.  But real, human interaction is essential to the development of anyone, especially at a young age.  Another solution might be to give teachers more freedom to teach multiple subjects, keeping variety in their schedules, or perhaps create more opportunities for interdisciplinary subjects.

Another problem we face is that the subjects we learn in school often have little to no relevance to our actual lives and only add to man’s alienation from his immediate environment.  There are schools addressing this problem but they are far too few and far between.  One of them is in Ahmedabad, India called Riverside School.  Riverside was founded on the basis of a “Both/And” approach, meaning students should not only learn the quadratic equation, poetry, biological and chemical processes but also problems of democracy, human rights, and other issues which their community faces directly.  This citizenship curriculum, which requires students from grade 3 to engage and problem solve in their community, is not extra-curricular but is an integral part of school at Riverside.  And despite this additional requirement, students there perform better in their standardized exams than most traditional Indian public and private schools¹.

“Today, poor student performance is often blamed on laziness and lack of interest in students or apathetic teachers. These are however, only symptoms of a much deeper problem – an uninspired and irrelevant pedagogy and curriculum. Kiran integrated her knowledge of the design thinking process into creating an educational experience that was embedded in common sense.”²

While theorizing about the best approach to education, it’s important to keep in mind the big picture.  Schools are not isolated from society.  Teachers must be paid which means students must be tested, meaning teachers must teach specific content if they want to keep their jobs.  Ultimately, our innovation must fit within the confines of the reality we live in, a concept called adaptive expertise.  Unfortunately, the problems described here are without doubt the result of problems more systemic than I have time or brains to discuss here.

With the internet, most students have an immense amount of resources available to them at their fingertips.  What they need is someone to show them what can be done with knowledge and expertise, assess and improve their critical thinking skills.  Someone to point them in the right direction and guide their natural interests and curiosity.  A role model of how to treat others and enjoy the gift of life.  What I’m uncomfortable with is proposing to even remotely meet these qualifications.  But what I’m realizing is that the students aren’t the only ones growing in the classroom.  Already, I’ve learned and grown so much from this experience I’ve chosen to submerge myself in, and while every day presents a new challenge and there have been many failures, I’m so glad I did.

Phone 359

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Riverside_School,_Ahmedabad
  2. http://schoolriverside.com/

Kabaddi and Achaar

India continues to surprise me at almost two weeks in.  This past weekend, Taylor and I visited our friend Krishna, a tall, slender, and incredibly kind twenty-something whom I met through couchsurfing.  He invited us over to watch a movie Sunday night at his apartment in Koramangala, a nice neighborhood in south-east Bangalore.  Skip the headache of booking a cab outside Truffles and becoming lost trying to find the place, and we walk into a tidy, marble floored, minimalist three-bedroom apartment.

On the TV was something that vaguely resembled a sport.  Seven men in green were holding hands on the left, turning together in a half-circle, while one man in yellow jumped around on the right, trying to touch the others.  The court was purple and wavy like a potato chip¹.  When the man in yellow did touch an opposing player, he immediately sprinted back across the line where his team stood cheering.  But more often than not, he would make it only a few steps before being violently tackled and pinned down by all seven men in green, similar to the way farmers would pin down an errant pig.  

“If any part of his body makes it across his team’s line, then all the players he touched are out”, Krishna said, as we watched a man’s body become immobilized by seven angry men.  “Oh, and he’s not allowed to take a breath until he returns to his home base.”

‘[In Kabaddi] to win a point, the raider must take a breath, run into the opposing half, tag one or more members of the opposite team, then return to his home half before inhaling again. The raider will chant “kabaddi, kabaddi” with his exhaling breath to show the referee he has not inhaled.’²

The sport is one of the oldest in the world originating in South Asia and is said to have been played by Gotama, the Buddha.  The holding of one’s breath for long periods of time to control internal organs is called ‘Pranayama’ in yoga.  In Kabaddi, it is called the ‘Cant’.  

While we watched the madness ensuing on screen, Krishna helped me check off a goal of mine for the trip: taste homemade achaar.  When I heard that pickles are common with many Indian dishes, my respect for the country multiplied.  On the plane ride here, my excitement was stoked even more by a documentary on achaar which was preloaded on the headrest TV.  This is when I learned the base of their “pickles” are most commonly either mango or lime, others include pumpkin, lotus stem, ginger, jackfruit, and eggplant, but cucumbers are not typically used.  I became somewhat skeptical, but still I had to know.  Krishna brought out jars of pickled mango, garlic, and jalapenos.  My first thought was that whoever decided ‘pickle’ should be the standard translation of ‘achaar’ made a serious mistake.  There is very little the two have in common.  They are both pickled, but the end results are drastically different.  I suppose, though, an American pickled cucumber might be the closest thing we have to Indian achaar, but that comparison is entirely misleading.  The brine is thick and red.  It is composed of many intense spices: asafoetida, red chili powder, turmeric, and fenugreek until you can barely make out the flavor of the mango chunks it covers.  The flavor puts your mouth in a state of shock and then confusion.  You are not sure if you want another one, nor if you want to continue chewing the current one. At the same time, I want one right now.  After achaar, my tastebuds will never be the same.

New experiences continue to present themselves, and with each I find a new part of myself.  Every day is fresh and unpredictable.  Some theme is emerging and I think it’s this:  what I really want out of life is unpredictability.  When I’m asked where I see myself in ten years, I respond, “I don’t want to know.”  Although I could see myself in a number of positions, any choice I make is still a choice and that’s the problem.  But opportunities continue to unfold and I’ll happily take advantage of them and try to live each day honestly.  Then, at each step, I’ll already be exactly where I need to be.  It isn’t the destination, but the journey that counts and this journey has been an incredibly one.

P.S. I will update this with pictures later.

 

  1. The wavy potato chip design is the manufacturer’s clever way of fitting more surface area into the same size chip.  Similarly, the surface area of the Kabaddi court is maximized in order to increase friction between the player’s shoe and the floor.
  2. http://www.kabaddiikf.com/history.htm