Darl's adventures in India: part four
This weekend, I went to Cape Comorin, the very southern tip of India.
Here the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal meet. I
suppose the word dramatic just about covers it in the day time, but
you need some new words for describing the sunrise and the sunset.
It’s a major pilgrimage point for Indians – almost as
much as Rameswaram – so it was nice to see some Indian tourists
for a change.
A little way out to sea there’s two large rocks with a monument
each on them: one is to Thirruvalavar: ancient sage and author of
wise verse, and Swamji Vivekananda: turn of the century itinerant sage
and social reformer. You can also see the extraordinary mock
gothic church in Kanniyakumari (the town on the tip of the Cape) that
has such Northern European architecture it almost feels like home. A
nice group of volunteers were there, and nobody contracted
gastroenteritis. A success, then.
Teaching, it seems, is a funny business. One lesson you might have
planned to do something really fun and interactive, and it’ll
be a total disaster. Sometimes, you’ll have a really dull
grammar lesson that really flies and all the kids learn and
it’s immensely satisfying. There’s no predicting how
it’ll turn out. It’s not to do with preparation, I know,
because nothing is more depressing than going slowly through the
material you’ve prepared with no-one responding to anything you
I teach about 200 kids, maybe more, split over six classes. My all
time rock bottom days were when James hadn’t arrived yet and so
the classes weren’t split in two as they are now. Then one
class had around fifty seven year olds, another forty-five eight year
olds, another fifty nine year olds. And so on. Somehow, I almost kept
control of them. And myself.
The other teachers here are pretty brutal to the kids. I had to leave
a class once because someone was asking for me in the
Principal’s office, and when I returned I found a teacher
beating the children with a ruler. This, it seems, is common
practice. I’ve discovered that if you so much as pick up a
ruler, the class will fall silent.
I just need to explain the school system briefly. There are three
types of school: government funded and run, government funded and
privately run, and privately funded and run. Within these categories,
there are both Tamil medium and English medium schools. My school,
Sri Krishna Matriculation School, is the third category and English
medium, which is why they can accept unqualified Englishers to teach
their kids. Krishna, if you’re wondering, is the sixth
(eighth?) incarnation of Shiva. The word ‘Sri’ denotes
very great respect. Anyway, SKMS is an ostensibly secular school, and
takes Hindu, Christian and Muslim students. I only mention this
because some schools, viz the Christian Matriculation School over the
road, only accept Christians.
The school is very Spartan. Concrete rooms with metal benches,
nothing on the walls and a blackboard consisting of black paint on
one wall. The students are mostly pretty keen to learn, and really
the fact that you feel like you’re in a cell ends up not
Worrying, the presence of Western Volunteers here, (of whom we are
only the second generation) has raised the prestige of the school
enormously. I say worryingly, because a guy applied for a job there
the other day just because we were teaching there. SKMS, it seems, is
very much the place to be such that since opening in the second half
of 2002, it now has 822 pupils, with another 500 expecting over the
next few years. In the school prospectus, the English
volunteers’ presence get a whole section (of eight). I didn't ask for this.
As I said, the school is so new that it hasn’t yet been built,
and the site rumbles on day by day. Interestingly, more of the
builders are women than are men. That's not the weirdest thing about
this building site. It isn't even the total lack of any machinery,
the fact this school is being built by hand. The weirdest thing is
that all the women wear saris whilst building. Honestly.
Women wear saris to go swimming in. They wear saris to wash in. The
builders look incredibly graceful, whilst... building. I can't
imagine a less functional garment, or a less cooling one, though the
female volunteers tell me that they hide a multitude of sins. Under a
sari there's all sorts of unseen petticoats and blouses to keep your
propriety intact at all times. Every woman I see here, no matter what
the time, is wearing a sari.
Most of the teachers are women; about 80%, I'd say. The Principal is
a woman. Otherwise female employment is very much the exception and
not the rule. The only other walk of life which appears to allow
women is nursing. This is just The Way It Is, I am told.
James and I take a class of Uni students from Tamil
medium schools. Their English is hence poor, or poorer than it would
otherwise be. We decided to talk to them about gender roles and the
role of women, and what they honestly thought. As is often the case
when you talk to people out here about this kind of thing, we got a
sanitized view: yes, this was an awful way to treat women. It was bad
that they were expected to do absolutely everything, even if they
should have the temerity to hold down a job too. It was a state of
affairs that should be seen to.
So, we said, pleased but slightly dubious, when you get married,
will you help out in the home? Stunned, appalled silence. No, sir,
they said, quite grave. Shame, sir, shame. Status problem. If my
friend come round and see me cleaning, no respect. So we taught them
words like hypocrite and prejudice.
I talked to my eighth standard – thirteen year olds - about
this just the other day, to see whether they were up to it. I started
by asking whose mothers had jobs, and of the 18 (my smallest class by
a long way) two girls had working mothers. I asked them whether they
wanted to work, and yes, sir, they wanted to be doctors. I asked the
brightest boy in the class what he thought of this. Though he is probably the single brightest student I have, he said that it
was right and that women should do the boring work because, you
guessed it, that was How It Was.
Marriage for love is very much the exception, and arranged marriages
are very much the rule. Everyone you ask about this gives you, again,
a Westernised and permissive version of the process of arranging a
marriage, where everyone involved has a say and a veto, but I have to
say that I remain unconvinced. Perhaps I’m unfairly sceptical,
perhaps not. I went to an arranged marriage and the bride was
weeping, which for me was sufficient.
And yet. As I start to read a bit more about Hinduism, I begin to
wonder how ingrained contentment is into the psyche. Most obviously,
the caste system, though Gandhi tried to disestablish it, is still
operating, in a cohesive way. Upper castes use commercial power over
lower ones, for example. It does still exist. The fact that the
Untouchables have been renamed Scheduled Castes means that they
definitely exist, because you wouldn’t rebrand something that
Those of you reading this who are better informed than I on this
topic – doubtless many – will have to excuse me if you
feel what I’m about to say is immensely crass, and please tell
me if you find it so. I’m just wondering whether contentment
with how life is is something that comes, as it were, naturally to a society innured to the caste system.
Please, bear with me.
On the streets here you see some terrible things that I cannot
imagine I will forget soon: people with wasted bodies or limbs, or no
limbs at all. People selling everything, anything, they have to get
by: their shoes their clothes. Their hair. I have witnessed –
only in passing – more poverty and deprivation in Tamil Nadu in
six weeks than in eighteen years in England. I was shocked, though,
when in a lesson I scolded a child for having drawn his house but not
added any rooms. Come on, I said, where is the bedroom? And the
kitchen? The boy looked up at me and said, seven years old and
desperately sweet; No rooms, sir. Hut. As I was shocked when children
break down in class because they have broken their pencil.
People seem however, whilst immensely poor, quite happy with what
they have. People in any situation who are managing to subsist seem
content. When I first realised this, I was taken aback by their
apparent satisfaction with so little.
So, I went to the bus station to chat with my friend there who runs
his father’s old restaurant and has a degree in Social Change
in England in the 1640s. So, I asked, are people really happy with
what they have? Yes, he says. Everyone who lives, is happy, were his
words. Except, he said, darkly, educated people. Once people learn of
the cycle of continual strife towards material improvement - and
only through ‘education’ do they do this, he says –
they become discontent, and look for more.
Enough said, I suppose. I was, and am, surprised but gladdened that a
society exists large parts of which seek nothing more than they need.
Don’t you think that’s uplifting? I did. So, I asked you
to bear with me, and though I haven’t explained exactly what I
mean, I hope you can at least see where I might be coming from about
women’s apparent acceptance of their position.
If you’ve found all this boring, I’m sorry, but I wanted to talk about this.