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 say.

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 mattering.

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 didn’t exist.

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.