Darl's adventures in India, part one in an occasional series.
Trying to describe India is as impossible a task as you could set me.
I arrived in Chennai
(Madras) at 6 am on Saturday morning last week. Having declared myself SARS
-free (I don’t know to what effect: you just signed to say you were and that was it. The sneezing didn’t help) I immigrated
. There to meet me was a guy called Ramesh, who’d been waiting a cool 25 hours, poor guy. When I told TPA in England that my flight was on the 16th and got in at 6am, I neglected to say and they neglected to infer that I would arrive on the 17th. All things considered, he was very nice about it.
The first thing that hits you about India as you walk outside is, inevitably, the heat. It is high summer here. It really is quite stonkingly
hot. You’d be surprised. Trust me on this.
We then left Madras airport in the ubiquitous
Indian Car: a funny sort of 1950s thing, called the Ambassador Deluxe or variations on the theme, that looks like it’s from La Dolce Vita
Speeding along at 60kmph, all my airy Western notions of road regulations were dreamily abandoned as a complex
whimsy. Sides of the road are treated with a resentful acquiesce
nce, most of the time, otherwise it's every vehicle for themselves. When you're driving along a rural B-road and there're two buses coming right at you, side by side, with no spare road left and enormous cacti
either side of you, it gets exciting.
From Chennai airport we went to a place called the Raj
Residency by the train station, where I was informed that my train was 'not available' and that we'd be getting an overnight bus to Sivakasi, the apparent location of my placement, the next morning. Ok. Never in my life have I had to fend off so many people wanting to do my laundry
. A curt discussion through my door (Your laundry please sir. 25 rupees. Back tomorrow afternoon. / I'm going at 6 this evening. / Ok sir. Tomorrow morning.... etc) would then be reprise
d on the telephone. Anyhow, we left Madras at about 8 and journeyed down to Sivakasi.
At about 2am, the bus stopped. Many other buses were also stopped on that stretch of road. There was a large crowd up ahead. My bus soon emptied excepting myself and Ram
esh as everyone went off to join the commotion. Turned out that the road was blocked for half a mile either way with people ghoul
ishly staring at a road accident.
We got to Sivakasi at about 8 am. The experience of being on an Indian bus, even a luxury
overnight one, is extraordinary. After even the shortest of journeys, you can feel your skin covered in a layer of grime that shifts and streches around uncomfortably as you move it. It is unutterably nasty
Similarly, when the air is hotter than your blood, not only do you sweat at a rate that is frankly impressive, you accrue
dirt in fantastic quantities, all the time. How, I don't know. It's just all over you. It's getting a little cooler now that May
is finishing, but it's still 2 or 3 showers a day weather.
Having got to Sivakasi, I showered, was breakfasted, did some VISA-type paperwork, and was then told that I would be taken to my placement. 5 hours drive north. Oh.
That done, I finally met my host family, and saw the school in which I am now teaching. The family I'm with, it turns out, actually founded the school last year. The architecture from the outside it attractively modern
; inside all is concrete floors and metal benches. The pupils are very eager to learn, which is nice.
The family live in a very well to do two floored house. They are, it seems, the town's Respect
ed Family. Suresh, the head of the family, takes me everywhere with him and knows everyone. I've learnt a couple of words of the local language, Tamil
, which goes down very well with people, and is fiendishly difficult to pronounce correctly.
I'm still skirting around things here: the immensity of change
in my enviroment just defies description. The streets alone deserve an email. Oddanchatram has one main street, and on it more fruit is sold than you would believe. Speaking of which, the fruit here is not like the fruit in England. In that it is smaller, and actually tastes of something. the banana
s, for example, that most banal of fruits, are a veritable treat: tangy and sweet with a taste that's almost lemony. The mangos are just astonishing. And I still haven't been really ill.
My accommodation is very
good indeed. I had tried (doubtless ineffectually) to steel myself for a caked earth floor, a bucket shower and cockroach
es galore. What I have instead is my own fully unfurnished flat with granite floors, a sometimes functioning WESTERN TOILET, and a real shower, that runs very cold
indeed, just as it should. The cockroaches are infrequent (in fact, I've only had a really close encounter with one that sprang out of the tap at high speed when I was doing my washing) and I have fans on my ceiling
, which make sleep possible.
Having met up with a group of the other volunteer
s on a fortnightly organised weekend just yesterday, I now appreciate a little more how fortunate I am here. Other people DO have caked earth floors, and they DO share with indian children, and they DON'T have any privacy at all at all. Privacy is something that I have a lot of, if I choose. This is nice.
I almost, infact, have too much privacy. I realised on Friday
that what I was feeling right then was something that I hadn't felt since I was 7 years old. I was, and still am a little, homesick
. It's not that I'm not happy here: I love India (and hate it). It's just that I'm tired of having, every day, to confront all my presuppositions and ideas about how things work. Everyday, I am taken aback. And when my West
ern Toilet doesn't work, things get bad.
When I first arrived, the WT wasn't in the mood for working, and there was no toilet paper. I won't attempt to describe the arrangements that I was left with, because nothing can prepare you for them. I soon discovered why you eat with your right hand. Then I got toilet
paper, and everything was ok.
The little things however, like eating with your right hand and your right hand only, and being very careful not even to brush a member of the opposite sex
when you pass them, actually make just as much of a difference as bigger things, like the heat or the language barrier, which soon fade into the cultural background noise
of your life.
Yesterday we had the first rain for weeks. According to Suresh, it was the biggest single rainfall he'd experienced in 6 years. You could, and did, actually feel the thunder
passing through your body. Many huts were just flattened.
I was unprepared for the standard of English out here. As with everything about India
, I don't know what I had imagined, but this isn't it. Some people have no english at all at all, and then you're down to gesticulation, good will, and luck. On the other hand, though, I was taken to the annual pre-monsoon
festival at a local farm, and the host shook my hand warmly and said 'So, you've come for your taste of rural India. How do you like cultural tourism
?'. People on buses are very talkative
. In the same mould, some say, 'Where you from, sir?' Whereas one guy last weekend wanted to discuss Milton
, Bunyon and what Public sector reform Tony Blair
had really effected.
My teaching is very erratic. When I'm well rested, and motivated, and really up for it, I genuinely believe that I'm a quite a good teacher for this kind of thing. When that isn't the case, I'm awful. I get impatient and exasperated, or pitch
the lesson at the best pupils. Being a teacher makes you think a lot, too, about what kind of pupil you were. I was a terrible
pupil, it transpires. When people are disruptive, it irritates to a degree that took me back. So, the teacher
s of mine who are reading this, thanks. Anyhow, I'm being chucked out now, so, later.