Saturday, November 5, 2011

Barsaat and Sahil

I have been quite a model procrastinator when it comes to blogging about my classroom experiences as a Teach for India fellow. It's been 3 months now and I feel that I now know a lot more about my 62 kids, fellow teachers and school. This incident happened within my first month of teaching.

It was the month of August and this time in Mumbai, one would count himself to be lucky if it's not raining. We (Anish: my co-teacher and I) had held up a few kids after school for extra instruction time. Sahil was one of them. After the class, we waited till all the kids leave the school. However, Sahil insisted that on leaving with us and since his house is a little further away, we should drop him near the exit of our community. During our walk back, I tried to ask him about his thoughts on the new class, new Bhaiyas and studies. He pauses and looks at me with his wide, bright eyes. Then he asks hopefully - 'Bhaiya, I speak Hindi?' 
I refuse and encourage him to try in English. He must have been disappointed. He thinks for a minute and blurts out in Hindi anyway - 'Bhaiya, mujhe English padna nahin aata hai (Bhaiya, I can't read English).'
This gutsy and straightforward admission hit me hard. Really hard. Here we were, asking our class to speak in English. Giving them pages of text to read, interpret and form opinions on and Sahil can't even read. How must he be feeling in the classroom? *

Then, as it always happens in Mumbai, it started pouring heavily. There was only one umbrella between Sahil and me, which was mine. In Mumbai rains, one umbrella is not sufficient to protect even one person, forget two with bags on them. I had important things in my bag which I did not want to get wet. Neither did I want Sahil to get wet. So I instructed Sahil to be under my umbrella. We were navigating a narrow street lined with shops and hawkers, full of water puddles and people rushing by. We tried to avoid all these obstacles while staying under the umbrella.
Once in a while, someone would come in the way and we would get separated. Then I would wait and Sahil would rush to get under my umbrella. Then we would move again. Whenever, I saw a puddle or a hawker, my primary instinct was to avoid it by jumping left or right and at times, I forgot about Sahil. Once, I jumped to the left and walked along the shop while Sahil went ahead. Later he stood in the middle of the road in the crowd and looked around, his eyes searching for me. When I reappeared a moment later with the umbrella over him, he says to me with surprise and indignation - 'Bhaiya, where you go?'
I was amused but also became aware that I had to be beside him. The rest of the walk saw a gradual shift in my instinct from being protective about me to being protective about him. Holding the umbrella over him when he would drift away while getting drenched myself. It must have been quite an image - The two of us making do with one umbrella, dodging the hindrances and walking in rain. A Chopin piece could be composed on that walk.

Turns out that all of us were drenched by the time we reached his house (we had decided to drop him to his house obviously). Our first community visit and were we welcomed! Despite our protests, we were made to sit on their dry bed and drink tea while we discussed school and life.

* Since then, we have realized that we were fairly wrong in our estimates about the level of our students. After 2 units and conducting their reading tests, we realize that they are just beginning to learn English and we had been teaching them fairly high-level stuff. In fact, the students in my school can't read any language. A year back before Teach for India fellows, even the students in our class couldn't read anything. Sometime back, I had asked a kid from 5th standard, who had been held up after school to complete his homework, to read a sentence from the pages of text that he had been copying blindly. He couldn't read the word 'number' or anything more than 3 letters. I was shaken. How are students spending 6-7 years in school without learning to read? What are the teachers doing? What is wrong with the system and why does it not focus on student learning?
India needs to invest heavily in good teachers and teacher training. All kinds of technology and gizmos will not enable the student to combine letters to form words and make sense of them. We need teachers. An article in the same vein about the new 'Akash' laptop by Atanu Dey.

Visit to Chail

As I stumbled sleepily out of bed on a holiday morning, my parents announce that we are visiting Chail today. "Uhh.. ehh..ok" is my sleepy response. I had not even heard of the place but sure, why not? Situated about 50km from Shimla, Chail is a hiker's delight. That's a different thing that we did no hiking there. But still, that's pretty much the only thing one should go there for because there is nothing there apart from hiking, despite what the brochures tell you. Chail does have a gossip lover's history though. 

Once upon a time in 1891, Shimla was the summer capital of the British in India and Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala had a flirtatious reputation. His heart was captivated by the daughter of Lord Kitchener, the Viceroy. Now Shimla has only one touristy road which is the Mall road. One fine evening, when she was taking a stroll at Mall road, the Maharaja either kidnapped her or eloped with her. The versions differ but that's not the point of the story. Elopement has been a standard Indian tradition which has gained approval from the Gods themselves. 
Clearly, Viceroy Kitchener was not very favourable towards the whole concept. He heard about this and was outraged. He banished Bhupinder Singh from Shimla. Since then, that spot, which is the highest point on the Mall road, has been bestowed with the name Scandal Point (no surprises there). Statue of Lala Lajpat Rai has been erected afterward here for some god-forsaken road. Still, Scandal Point is the hub of Shimla's social life. Tourists and locals lounge here in the sunshine, eat nuts and gossip merrily. Someone speaks from experience -
"The transmitters of gossip are ever at work and savory and unsavory secrets of our society are flashed to the uttermost limits of Simla with all the speed of wireless."

Now, the Maharaja was furious about his banishment. He decided to build a summer capital all for himself and so he decided upon the panoramic town of Chail which is also on a hill decidedly higher than Shimla.  And this is where we decided to go.
The much spoken about Maharaja's palace is a tourist bluff. There is a Rs.100 fee at the entrance of the uphill road and there's absolutely nothing there to see in the palace or around unless you book a room in the palace-converted-resort. People reach there, enter the palace hall, where there's nothing, and go like - "Alright. What next?" Haha! Gotcha! There's no next. The spread out gardens look pale in comparison with the lush hiking trails all around the place. The frustrated tourist then decides to eat at the restaurant there to extract some value for money. Sadly, the food ruins the mood further. Thankfully, we were forewarned by Ma (who has had many trips here) and avoided this debacle. 

Chail is home to the highest cricket ground in the world. The highest cricket ground in the world looks like this with the sporty monkeys practicing their strutting skills.

Cricket ground at Chail with the monkey

Now, we march on to 'Kali ka tibba', a name which I found risible, which is a temple on top of a hill. Constructed only 6 years ago, it's one of the cleanest and minimalist temples I have ever seen. It is also very environment friendly with solar panels installed all around for water heating and street lights. 

The Solar Panels at Kali ka Tibba

We did miss out on hiking through brilliant trails which we passed along. Someday, someday...