Monthly Archives: July 2015

Just another day at school in India…

Doing things the Indian way caught me totally off guard and unprepared today and I have to confess to the use of some very choice words this morning to vent my disbelief at Indian proceedings..

A former president of India passed away last night and a seven-day mourning period was announced, starting today.   So all schools following the CBSE curriculum were closed for business, a National Day of Mourning…   that is all schools apart from mine!!  This would not normally have posed too much of a problem as I would have had all my lessons ready and my resources to hand.  But this week is not  an ordinary week: Youth Festival is looming.  In our school this entails three days of children doing little shows, songs and recitals whilst the majority of the school sits for hours on end watching.  Whereas the actual festival was not to start until tomorrow, today was set aside as a whole day of rehearsal, because the teachers declared the children were in dire need of additional time to practise their performances.  And Principal, being the good woman, had wholeheartedly agreed to dedicate Tuesday to further perfecting of the programme.

Unfortunately the Principal’s generosity did not stretch to granting me a day off (I did try…), although I am not at all involved in any of the preparations.  So I came to school armed to the teeth for today’s non-event:  iPad and keyboard to indulge in a bit of writing, memory stick  to print off my holiday itinerary for September and my reading book which was just getting to the interesting part.  I was all set for a day of stress-free entertainment on the school premises and left my folders, books, board pens or ‘anything remotely useful in a classroom’ at home.

It was soon clear that the day was not going to follow the expected course. Teachers and students trickled into school at snail’s pace once the news had spread that it was business as usual, rather than a day off mourning.  Academic Director and Principal had a quick powwow and hastily convened a whole school assembly to mark the sombre occasion.  The late ex-president’s picture was hauled from the library wall, given a cursory dusting by ‘Odd-Job-Man’, garlanded with a string of yellow and red flowers, spruced up with rose petals and perfumed with incense. ‘OMG,’ A exclaimed, ‘those are not the right colours; they are marriage colours.  The flowers should be white.’  I suppose at short notice, the school had to make do with what was available.   Maybe if Academic Director and Principal had made it to school just a little before the rest of the teaching staff…

And then, after having shown due respect to the deceased, Principal decreed that  there were not to be any rehearsals after all as such frivolities were not in keeping with the solemnity of the day and we would have normal lessons all day instead!  It seemed as if this option only just then occurred to her, so we all sighed a deep sigh and resigned ourselves to another day of indecision and whimsical changes of plan.  I could not resist having a word with Principal to point out that her changing tack suddenly made things just a little awkward for the teachers but my pleas fell on deaf ears and at 9.45 am I accompanied Principal to ‘Teacher Who Adjust The Timetable Every Day to Accommodate Things That Were Blatantly Obvious The Day Before’ to trash out revised timings so that all the normal lessons could be squeezed into the school day. At moments such as this, the word SHIT is woefully inadequate.  At least me being present meant that I could then pass the message to all the other teachers who had no idea of what was going to happen and were going to rely on the unreliable bell ringing of ‘Odd-Job-Man’ to find out the beginning and end of the lessons.

Without any lessons prepared, nor textbooks or other books to fall back on or board pens to play hangman with, my only solution was to use my memory stick laden with songs courtesy of The British Council and various other sources of free musical classroom entertainment.  So, we celebrated the life of the ex-president with jolly songs, reciting the English alphabet, learning body parts and singing  ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’  to our hearts content.  It was going to be a long, long day with little of my voice left at the end of it, I feared…

But then again, how could I not have known that a whole school day is like an eternity in which so many things can fluctuate and need altering…  At lunch time, Principal came to find me and took me in her confidence about the latest change of plan.  There would be rehearsals after all, starting at 2.00pm, unless any teachers would inform her they needed additional practice time… if so, she would, at her discretion, allow teachers and children to abandon all lessons today…  Somehow, the news spread like wildfire and in no time the whole school was buzzing and humming with excitement.  Rehearsals were back on and  will continue for the whole of tomorrow…  Just a minor adjustment to the proceedings of the Youth Festival: Wednesday’s events will take place on Saturday but the rest will go ahead as originally planned…

But it is still another 12 hours before the start of school tomorrow!  A lot can happen in that time and I will not be surprised if  we see further amendments and changes…  I have to keep on trying to go with the flow… Apparently, meditation should help with that, or so A and ‘Indian Man In The Know’ keep on advising me.

The truth about India, in a nutshell…

Someone send me the following nuggets about India…  And how true they are!  After almost six months (I can’t believe I have already been here that long) in their midst, I can definitely vouch for their accuracy (or at least most of them). IMG_0835There is no truer statement than this…  Every day relies on countless miracles and godly interventions because the Indian people certainly won’t make things happen without a helping hand…  It is a marvel anything happens at all.

IMG_0842 Do I need to expand on the merits of buying into ‘Indian Stretchable Time’…  The advantage is that you are actually never late.

IMG_0837 When I arrived in India, I thought the caste system had long been abolished.  How wrong could I be??  These days, for statistics purposes only mind you (???), at the school parents and children have to complete a form which asks them which caste they belong to…  And any men with certain surnames such as Nair have an air of superiority about them just because they were born in an upper caste… So much for social mobility…

And high school marks??  I suppose we all like to boast about these, but in India, the question has to be asked whether they were really deserved or bought???   At the moment, India is still reeling from the scandal of entrance exams for Medical Schools being rigged…  It seems money is more potent than brains to enter the medical profession.

IMG_0840 I like food and enjoy eating… but I struggle with the amount I am offered to eat and the frequency of the offers each time I visit Indian households. No sooner have you accepted and swallowed the first morsel of food than another helping is added… And this carries on and on and on…until you are ready to explode.  So in desperation, I asked ‘Indian Man In The Know’ how to avoid being overfed…  ‘Say you are fasting,’ he answered, ‘Indian people have great respect for that…’  Hmmmm… as people at school remark on my constant nibbling (fruit only, I may add), I am not sure they will fall for the ‘fasting fib’…  But the permanent tea time certainly goes some way in explaining the fattened waistlines of (some) Indian people.

IMG_0833 In a country where a cousin of a cousin is your cousin; and your neighbour is your children’s uncle; your mother’s friend is your aunty; and the children’s pledge at school makes all Indians brothers and sisters… no wonder that when someone dies, all and and sundry feel entitled to a bit of the deceased’s estate.

And if anyone had the audacity to want to make a change, there are plenty of relatives to stop them…

IMG_0838 This one does not need any further elaboration… It does not matter which side of the road you are meant to be on, if there is any space on any side, it is yours for the taking, even if it means flattening what is already there…

IMG_0839 A few days ago, Goutam Ghosh wrote the following in The New Indian Express about Indian attitudes under the title ‘We Indians are Ingenious, and Ingenuous too’: ‘We read of death and mayhem in the daily newspapers but that never dents our fortified perimeter round our microcosm.  We read of rapes, frightening murders that at times put ISIS butchery to shame, thefts, robberies and cheats; but the shelf life of the information in our heads is less than a few hours at most, saving us from nightmares.  We fail to respond to the external stimuli probably because it doesn’t fit into our larger aim in life: undisturbed comfort.’ IMG_0834 Corruption and bribery are the order of the day… IMG_0836

There is a saying in India that ‘bringing up a daughter is like watering a neighbour’s plants’. Daughters are a drain on a family’s wealth, needing a sizeable financial dowry in order to marry. Daughters are regarded as temporary members of the family as after marriage they will leave their family of origin and join a new household.  Daughters are not wanted and male offspring is much preferred.

Sex-selective abortion and female infanticide have skewed the girl-boy ratio in India. Although both are clearly illegal, they are still widely practised in many parts of the country.  Where pre-natal sex determination is not an option and girl babies are born, they are still in danger through either direct infanticide or through neglect.

Just in one week, I read the following stories in Indian magazines and newspapers:

1. A woman handed her 10th daughter to an orphanage just after she was born.  She did not hold the child for she could not muster any affection nor accept the burden of guilt at her choice.  The woman felt too ashamed to go home presenting yet another daughter, and could not face feeding another mouth.  Whereas a son would have meant a future to her, another daughter put more strain on an already overstretched family.  Where would the family get the money to pay the dowry when the time came for another daughter to be married?

2. Two suicides. No witnesses. No explanations. Two women in their early twenties.  One drowned in a well and was found by her husband hours later; the other chose self-immolation and her charred remains were discovered by her husband’s family later that day.   Although the newspaper did not suggest any foul play, a lot of questions remain unanswered.  What would have made those women’s lives so unbearable that they saw death as their only escape?  Or was S in the staff room spot-on when she linked the deaths to unpaid dowries?

3. Three young girls, aged 16 and 17, leapt of a moving train.  Two died instantly, the third succumbed to her injuries a few days later.  The motives for the suicide pact remain shrouded in mystery.  Could it be study pressure, or did the girls want to escape their inevitable future of a life of servitude and subordination in a male dominated society?

Kovalam: exotic but dangerous…

I went to Kovalam this weekend, for a weekend of relaxation and pampering.  And where better to do this than in the luxury of a 5* hotel listening to the roar of the wind-frenzied Monsoon sea and delighting in the drama of the waves turning and churning as they neared the shore.  The waters, whipped up by the Westerly winds, crashed tumultuously against enormous boulders and the rocks protecting the promenade, sending up clouds of salty, but refreshing spray.  Dark, threatening clouds cast a bluey greyness over the water which only dispersed with the heavy rain showers. The golden winter beach was covered and submerged, leaving just a narrow strip of sand on the popular Eve’s beach, in front of the lighthouse.  The ripple-free blue expanse of the winter months metamorphosed into a fun-inviting, yet perilous, playing field for local tourists on a National Holiday and a day off work. Saturday saw the celebration of Eid, the end of Ramadan when Muslims break their fasting with an abundance of food and, of course, a certain measure of alcohol.

And they had fun!  Children stripped to their underwear plucking up courage to take a dip in the water; young boys teased the waves and played chicken to see who would escape the turbulent surge; women in saris and churidars fell over laughing when they were no match for the oncoming and retreating waves. And teenagers, young men and students were there to dare the sea; they waded in deeper battling against the power of the swell, waiting with exhilaration to be dragged along by the force of the water.  They waved at me when they realised I was taking pictures, because Indians love to be photographed and often come to have a look at the result.

But by Saturday night the idyllic holiday scene had turned into a nightmare as five young men went missing.  They failed to return from a dip into the sea at nightfall, possibly after too much merriment and alcohol clouded their judgement.  Although during the day life guards are present to warn tourists away from the more treacherous areas where jagged rocks stick out into the sea enticing the more adventurous to explore and climb to get even closer to the violent waves, their duties finish at sun down when the five men went for a swim.  One of the bodies washed up just after midnight, but on Sunday, the coast guard scoured the coastal area with small aeroplanes, supported by local fishermen and the navy.

Coast guard using small aeroplane to look for bodies

Coast guard using small aeroplane to look for bodies (only a small dot on the photograph…)

Western tourists tend to be more cautious and take the dangers of the seas more at heart.  Maybe we are more accustomed to seaside outings and have read our guidebooks and are warned about the perils of the undercurrent of the sea in Kovalam.  But for many Indian families a trip to the seaside is a luxury they can only indulge in on special occasions.  And as for swimming lessons, those are only for the rich and few.  The absence of affordable and accessible swimming pools for a bit of harmless frolicking means the sea is an easy and free source of well deserved fun and reprieve from the summer heat…
Sunday morning... fly fishing balancing on a rock near the seething sea.

Sunday… fly fishing balancing on a rock near the seething sea.

fly fishingfly fishing 4

And on Sunday, the beach again attracted visitors, clearly oblivious to the tragedy of the previous day and unperturbed by the seething sea.  As for the fly fishermen on the rocks and promenade, they had a living to make and bad weather could not be a deterrent.

I also had my bit of seaside fun on Saturday, but I only dipped my toes into the water and was mainly an onlooker.  I have only once braved the waves around Kovalam in early March when the sea was tranquil and serene.  I found a secluded area where the surge was gentle and I swam in the deep blue water… but even then as I made my way back to the beach, I had to fight the vigour of the waves, trying to pull me back…  The peacefulness and safety of the sea was deceptive, even then,

Sand-coloured sand...

Sand-coloured sand…

The black sand of Kovalam beach

The black sand of Kovalam beach

Sunset at India’s Land’s End


Long weekend… the advantage of Kerala’s Minister of Education being Muslim!  So what to do and how to make the most of it: another visit to Kanyakumari, India’s Land’s End, this time to experience the sunset!

Unfortunately, the Monsoon rains which have remained rather elusive in Kerala (or South of Trivandrum in any case) since they were first heralded in early June, came with a vengeance Friday morning and it was definitely umbrella weather… or actually not even an umbrella would have provided a wide enough shield.  But we (A and I) were not going to be deterred by a little bit of inclement weather and, having our air conditioned car with driver arranged, set off not in the least worried by the distinct possibility that the sun might be hidden behind the clouds and sunset may be a little underwhelming.  We wanted to get out and see the sights on the way, taking in the spectacular Western Ghats and the colourful lotus ponds (if you go at the right time of year this is, and Monsoon time is not the one).  Just for a few hours we wanted to escape the dust, the noise and narrow-mindedness of the small hamlet of N.  And this was an outing arranged by ourselves, so no hidden agendas to improve India on the cheap..

The journey was pleasant and went without any hiccups.  The morning downpour had not made the roads treacherous. Well, not more than usual as our driver, being on the young side, took all the unnecessary and normal Indian risks and every time a car was approaching from the opposite side, felt this was indeed the best time to start an overtaking manoeuvre.  We took our photo opportunities when traffic and the driver allowed..

ghats 3

ghats 2


And we eventually reached Kanyakumari…  where the cloud deck remained firmly in place and was not showing any signs of budging.  But we lived in hope that maybe we would get a little peek of the sun slowly sinking behind the waves and the horizon.  Food vendors shared our optimism and were busy preparing snacks for the waiting crowds who slowly gathered on the promenade.  Maybe it was not the usual throng of sunset gazers, but there were quite a few onlookers, all intent on enjoying the spectacle regardless of whether the sunset would show itself in all its splendour or not.

food vendors 1


food vendors 2

sunset 1



In the end, the sunset was a mere yellow blob in the sky sprinkling dazzling nuggets of gold on the turbulent waves.  So although the sunset may not have lived up to expectations, it was just great to breathe in the sea air and listen to the crashing of the waves against the boulders peppering the shore.  A satisfactory start to a long and relaxing weekend.IMG_0875

sea 1IMG_0859




Hooray! The End of Ramadan is Near!!!

ramadan 1

You could be forgiven for thinking that my outburst above is linked to me joining in with the month long fasting Muslims observe during the Holy month of Ramadan, but this would be far from the truth.  I like my food and although my waistline has again shrunk since returning to India, this is not due to foregoing the pleasures of eating, but rather caused by the monotony and lack of variety of foods available in the hamlet.  And it is indeed strange that whereas Indian women seem to be expanding exponentially with age, I am spared that experience, but then again I avoid eating rice and stick to a Western take on Indian food with loads of fruit and vegetables, the odd bit of chicken and fish, and masses of dhal.

My happiness at the end of Ramadan is merely spurred on by the knowledge that I can at last have unbroken nights of well deserved rest.  I have before been grateful for the lamenting of the mullahs at 5 am in the morning when the sound of my alarm clock just did not penetrate my slumber and I was at risk of missing my train, but having to listen to the painful wailing of the mullahs umpteen times a day and night is just a bit too much of a good thing.  Whereas the daytime prayer calls go mostly unnoticed as I am at school, I do not need to be alerted to the presence of the mosque at 10 pm when I am about to go to bed, nor do I fancy a wake up call at 3 am so I can have breakfast, lunch and dinner before the first light of day, followed by another need to face the East (or is it West as I am in India???)  at 5 am when I may just have dozed off again…  So the end of Ramadan means a good night’s sleep!!!

And two days holiday!!!  I certainly approve of the Indian view that to keep religious harmony, all main festivals are celebrated and this means plenty of national holidays.  Although the school diary was quite clear on Saturday 18th July being declared a holiday (very unfortunate for me as I never work on a Saturday), there were rumours that Friday would also be a day off…  But the decision for this was left in the capable hands of Imams who would be studying the movements of the moon at 6pm Thursday night (today) to ensure that Ramadan would not end prematurely.  Maybe the Indian habit of leaving everything till the last minute  is firmly rooted in the unpredictable (?) waning and waxing of the moon…   Luckily, the Minister of Education (being himself of the Muslim faith) saw sense Wednesday evening and declared Friday a holiday for schools only.  Finally, after six or seven weeks of hard slog, a whole day off.  Not quite the full week I would be having in the UK, but it is something….

Obviously the school, in the spirit of a multi-faith establishment, wanted to mark the occasion with suitable fanfare.  Children were encouraged to turn up in ‘fancy dress’ which, correctly translated into English English, refers to Sunday best clothes rather than pirates, fairies or cartoon characters.  And I give due credit to the few girls who clearly defied the school management’s order not to wear jeans; if boys can, why can’t girls…. The stage background grew some green minarets and everyone was greeted by ‘Eid Mubarak’.  And if I had been told that wearing green  – the most holy colour in Islam as it is a reminder of Paradise – was the done thing, I am sure I could have stretched to digging out a green shawl from the bottom of my cupboard. Since A. has joined the school and clearly takes the covering up with a pinch of salt, I have also adopted the same approach and dispensed with the totally useless and unnecessary garment that women wear…

Fancy dress or Sunday best???

Fancy dress or Sunday best???

Maybe Sunday best...

Maybe Sunday best…

And in great Indian tradition and without fail, such a celebration at school entails many long speeches and considerable disruption to the general school time table.  A local Muslim dignitary spent over an hour preaching in Malayalam; the owner of the school, School Manager, Academic Director and his wife the Principal further added their little bit of advice to lengthen the time the children had to sit patiently waiting for the end and lunchtime…  And eventually there was even a few minutes of entertainment: songs and dance performed by the older students.  All in all a riveting morning, as you can see from the photographs below…

And he went on and on and on and on....

And he went on and on and on and on….

Yawn, Yawn.  Let's play hairdresser's.

Yawn, Yawn. Let’s play hairdresser’s.

Making good use of the time available.   Fitting in a quick nap.

Making good use of the time available. Fitting in a quick nap.

Watch the hands.  Even the Muslims in the audience had better things to do.  Texting?  Playing a game?

Watch the hands. Even the Muslims in the audience had better things to do. Texting? Playing a game?

Even the dignitaries were having difficulties with concentrating on the events.

Similarly, the dignitaries were having difficulties with concentrating on the events.

But the girls enjoyed their performance and kept the audience entertained.

But the girls enjoyed their performance and kept the audience entertained.

Indian women who do not fit the mould…

I have company this year.  Although for a while there was the possibility of another Western volunteer joining me at the school, this never materialised.  There is no long queue of Western people waiting to flock to Kerala to improve the English of the locals; they only exist in the fantasy world of B, who is involved in a volunteer programme enticing British people to India at exorbitant fees and  whose grasp on reality can be somewhat dubious to say the least.  But a new teacher arrived at the school at the end of May, an Indian teacher with Western attitudes and good English; a gem to be cherished for her proficiency in English, but at odds with Indian society because of her Western mindset.  Suffice it to say that whereas my white skin protects me from criticism and I get away with bending the rules, no such allowances are made for her.

Being Indian, A. – who comes from New Delhi but has also studied in Canada – was given ‘suitable’ accommodation in the small village of C, near the school.  She was given the luxury of having a mixie, a kind of food processor/grinder which is indispensable in a Southern Indian kitchen to make such delicacies as dosas, idli, coconut chutney and fresh spice mixes.  Although her apartment had a bed and linen, it lacked every other kind of comfort such as a fridge or  television, and internet access was dubious at best. Clearly, the school’s manager was of the opinion that as an Indian woman, A. could dispense with such extravagances.  A. has recently married and her husband, a white Canadian, is trying to jump through the hoops of immigration to allow his wife to join him, but this could take another 15 months.  In the meantime, A is living the life of a misfit in Indian society, shunned by the locals for being a ‘bad’ Indian woman and not quite accepted in the white world either as her experience with Western ex-pats in Goa taught her when they closed ranks and excluded Indians from their  social clubs.  A lonely existence.

So it made sense for the two of us to live in the same house.  As the Westerner in India, I have a fridge and a television and my internet is pretty good when there is electricity… and teaming up with A. has given me access to a ‘mixie’ so I can try out new recipes with the meagre supply of ingredients available in the local shops.  Also, her insight into Indian culture is often invaluable and she can shed light on the peculiarities of life in India for a Westerner like me.  Although the management put every obstacle in the way to ensure the two of us would not become ‘pally’, they were bound to fail.  We have too much in common not to become friends, so regardless of the wishes of the school’s management and the power games they played,  A. moved in with me in early June.

And her arrival did not go unnoticed. ‘ Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ immediately found cause to come and introduce himself and check out the new addition to the downstairs household.  A. indeed invites curiosity as she does not follow Indian customs by bedecking herself with the customary jewellery or red dot on the forehead or hair parting to indicate her marital status and this can lead to misinterpretations; at the age of 35 she should be properly married with kid(s) in tow and husband in charge.  But neither of us had any intention of getting more closely acquainted with the upstairs neighbour, so he was given a cold reception and left with hanging tail.  Now, this did not go down very well and clearly ‘Inebriated Man Upstairs’ had his nose put out of joint and was looking for revenge…

His opportunity came a few weeks later when A. accidentally left a bag of food waste at the bottom of the steps near the entrance of the house.  As the school composts food waste and we consume considerably more fruit and vegetables than the average person in Kerala, we generously donate towards the school’s composting project; it also rids us of the problem of what to do with it anyway as fruit and vegetable peelings cannot be burnt easily which is the only option available to us for dealing with rubbish.  On our return from school, ‘Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ was hanging over the balcony, eagerly awaiting our arrival so he could chastise us.  We duly apologised and thought no more of it; it was indeed an isolated oversight on our part.

But the next morning, we found a letter from the landlord at the doorstep, clearly intended for me as the main tenant:  ‘To whomsoever it is concerned.  It has been brought to my notice that garbage and other solid waste is thrown at the entrance of my building by the servant maid. This may kindly be avoided.  The wastes may be deposited in the spot where it is meant for in the compound pit in your compound or in my compound pit set apart for this purpose.   To the Resident living in the ground floor.  Signed: The owner of the house.’   The implication was clear: as the white woman in India, I was availing myself of  the services of an Indian woman; the only ‘obvious’ explanation to the claustrophobic mind of Indian society.

Unfortunately, A. who is a highly educated Indian woman and teacher, was the first to see the letter and saw red.  Not only was the note demeaning to her, the facts were distorted. Needless to say that as two like-minded women, we did not take kindly to this behaviour and visited the landlord at the earliest opportunity to put matters straight.  Although in the Western world it may seem a very logical step for women to confront the landlord (who is a man and therefore a figure of authority), in India this was slightly daunting as women are meant to be demure and submissive, but we decided that we were capable enough to fight our own battles and did not need men (in this case the School Manager) to do it for us.  Thank goodness, I had already spoken to the landlord on several occasions to iron out a few issues, and we get on really well, so we put our side of the story and clarified A.’s position as a teacher, not servant, and the fact that we have never thrown waste anywhere, but burn it….

We have not heard another peep from ‘Inebriated Upstairs Neighbour’ since… and he is keeping out of our sight.

One-nil to the ladies in India.landlord letter

Battling the enemies in India..

You may be surprised to find that they are actually not the human kind…

Last night I managed to trap a busy cockroach, scurrying around in my bedroom!  Thank goodness I caught it as I would not have slept a wink otherwise; and as the creature did not do me any harm really, I set it free this afternoon when I returned from school..  I must admit, as it was pretty motionless by then, I had assumed it had moved onto the next world, but clearly on landing on the stones of the courtyard,, it quickly recovered and hastily disappeared under another stone somewhere.

cockroach 2

And when I opened the curtains this morning, I was greeted by the hugest spider ever….  This time, I did not even attempt to capture it, but waited patiently until it decided to move of its own accord.  I have not yet checked my bedroom to see if it has found its way out….  but I am not aware of any dangerous or poisonous spiders around in the area!!

I decided to leave this one in peace...

I decided to leave this one in peace…

There is no such thing as a ‘free ride’ in India.

Sunrise at Kanyakumari where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet.

Sunrise at Kanyakumari where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea meet.

With the weekend looming, there is always the challenge of filling 48 hours with meaningful activities.  This may not be such a labour in the Western world, but weekend entertainment is often in short supply in a small town such as N.  So when I was invited to join  B, and a few of his friends, to come along to Kanyakumari, the most Southern tip of India where the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea meet, it was an easy decision to make.  The sunset and sunrise are rumoured to be spectacular, a sight to behold.  How could I resist a visit to such a place?

There was a niggling doubt in the back of my mind though, as I have had dealings with B. on a number of occasions….  He is a man on a mission to make a ‘better India’ in which improving the English of its inhabitants, and those of Kerala in particular, features heavily and this invariably relies on British volunteers to come and save the day.  Has colonialism come full circle, I wonder, and are the people once despised by the ‘natives’ now seen as valuable sources of cheap money and crucial knowledge to be plundered at liberty? Or is it the sheer lack of business acumen and desperation that makes Indian men turn to the West, whose values many consider contemptible and inferior?

In the last few months, my expertise has been sought to kick-start a language school in Trivandrum; a project B. has left in the hands of God and which he expects to see fulfilled with plenty of prayer…  I have been accosted by the school manager to find British tourists who will flock to his new venture: a kind of residential retreat in a grandiose building in the middle of nowhere offering a full two months of a bit of yoga, a bit of cooking, a bit of martial arts, a bit ayurveda, a bit of everything..  Basically every British tourist’s dream of India (????) for which I must find a minimum of 10 people to make HIS dream come true; the business plan covered less than an A4 sheet of paper and missed fundamental information such as whether there was even any demand for the kind of services he wanted to offer…  Needless to say, B’s prayers have fallen on deaf ears, and if the Manager would like me to do his business plan and marketing for him, I will not come cheap!  So, I had my reservations about the Kanyakumari trip, but went along anyway…we were going to stay in a convent and meet some Indian nuns, and in the interest of giving a true and all encompassing picture of modern India, it was an opportunity not to be missed.

After preponing (I know, you will wonder: Indian English… but give it some thought and you will see the logic) our departure from 4.00 pm to 2.00 pm in the afternoon, B and company arrived at 2.00pm Indian Stretchable Time (IST) which funnily enough coincided with 4.00 pm on my clock.  In the meantime I had been ready and packed for the last two hours, waiting to be chauffeured to India’s extreme Southern point.  It was indeed a very interesting journey, and as always my camera was never in the right place to give you a flavour of the views that caught my eye.  But I am planning to go back in a few weeks’ time with different company and a different agenda.

The real purpose of the visit became clear on our arrival at the convent, just having missed the sunset as B insisted on stopping for tea and unnecessary food on the way.   The nuns are dealing with a legacy of Indian grandeur: a massive building originally intended as a teaching institution for budding priests.  A venture gone sour and a building (or buildings) left with no purpose, but  considerable upkeep and maintenance costs to be covered.  So, who better to advise them than B, with us in tow…  Us meaning me  (to scour British soil for British volunteers to come and teach English to young adults) ; two yoga and meditation teachers to put in their penny’s worth and a doctor with considerable expertise in leprosy.  Although I am sure B’s three other companions had been briefed on the mission, my expected contribution was not revealed until we arrived in the nuns’ office…  Unfortunately for B, I cannot see how British backpackers will be enticed to the come and stay in Kanyakumari for weeks or months on end with just the sunrise and sunset for entertainment, however beautiful they may be… I am sure the novelty will wear off after a few times…

An impressive building, but what's its purpose??

An impressive building, but what’s its purpose??

One smiling sister who is entrusted with the task of breathing life in the building...

One smiling sister who is entrusted with the task of breathing life in the building…

But let’s look at the bright side:  I saw the most amazing sunrise at about 6.00 am the next morning; I have learnt that modern nuns are just as keen as other Indians to take photographs of the white visitors on their Nokia mobile phones; food and accommodation were courtesy of the convent so I did not have to spend any of my hard earned cash; and I met some really interesting people who live and work in Trivandrum – an opportunity to escape N at the weekends and see how urban Indians live.  I keep on being told that Urban India is much more Westernised than the little hamlet where I stay.  I will keep you posted if I ever find out.

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As soon as the sun is up, market stalls open to catch the many visitors...

As soon as the sun is up, market stalls open to catch the many visitors…

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A Very Indian Education

We were going to grow mushrooms!  Please note the use of the past tense as the project lies in tatters and has been abandoned, because I refuse to play ball.

The oyster mushrooms we were planning to turn into a money spinner for the school.

The oyster mushrooms we were planning to turn into a money spinner for the school.

The last two years the school has entered an international UK-run competition to teach entrepreneurship skills to students.  A very laudable initiative when the purpose of taking part is indeed  to educate the children,  to prepare them for the real world of work and to ensure their learning extends beyond memorising useless facts.  Unfortunately, two years ago the school’s first business venture won them a prize, mainly due to the hard work of the Western volunteer in charge of the project then.  I do  not use the word ‘unfortunately’ lightly, as it has given the management the impression that a bigger win is within their grasp, without them putting in any effort…

As last year’s project, run by one of the school’s teachers, failed miserably to attract the coveted prize and the accompanying prestige for the school, I was approached to head this year’s entry.   Well, I never say no to a challenge, and agreed on the understanding that the bulk of the work would be done by the local teachers and that the students would actually be taught some real business skills.  At least I would be able to write an honest report for them in grammatically correct English, unlike the previous report  that was heaving with ‘exaggerations’ and bursting with ‘white lies’.   Nevertheless last school year ended on a positive note with several teachers expressing an interest in supporting me in the venture, and the children brimmed with enthusiasm at the chance to escape the monotony of sitting at their desks the whole day, caged in classrooms and beaten into obedience by the ubiquitous cane.  I made it abundantly clear that I would not be prepared to write any untruths in the report and that the children’s learning must be paramount, and teachers must be given the time to  play their part.  ‘Of course’, nodded the Indian heads in charge…

Forward to my return.  I had barely set foot in the country and had not even reached my ‘home’ when I was queried about the progress of the Enterprise Challenge.      ‘And do you have a business plan?’ was the Manager’s first question upon my arrival, ‘We expect to win this year’.     I laughed it off, ‘Give me a chance at least…’

At school, the teachers had given my ‘list of urgent things to do whilst I was away’ the anticipated Indian attention, so an immediate meeting was in order to jump-start the enterprise.  But when to meet??  The yoga period, which in February was agreed to be used for my teachers’ meeting , had suddenly been hijacked by Academic Director who assigned policing duties to the teachers  to ensure that children approached the yoga positions with the necessary discipline and agility.  And the newly introduced ‘hobby period’ to give teachers and students time to focus on the project???  Again, Academic Director had his own agenda, and growing mushrooms or teaching business skills was far from the top of the list…

My very first weekend back,  the Manager paid me a visit at my home.     ‘And you have the business plan ready?’ he demanded.     Patiently, I tried to explain that the business plan was not required until the end of July  and I needed to gather a lot of information , such as costing, marketing plans and profit projections.  The ‘planning ahead’ business approach, clearly a Western concept, was quite alien to the Indian School Manager, who runs the school first and foremost as a business rather than an institution of education.

In the meantime and against all odds, a meeting with ‘my’ teachers got off the ground and we discussed the ‘dark room’  in which the mushrooms would grow.  Pens aflutter, Art Sir who is part of the team,  skilfully sketched out the structure to be built and promptly offered it to the Manager to do the ‘needful’.  Now, if you are familiar with Indian English (I must devote a whole post on that soon…), you will understand this is not a good thing and is very similar in outcome to ‘we’ll take care of it’…   Where were the measurements?  Who had worked out the materials needed?   Whereas any Western man or woman would have been able to wield a measuring tape, pencil and a piece of paper and present me with the number of pieces of wood and their exact measurements, Indian Man’s response was to pass on the responsibility to the next person…   but it was still early days and I had not yet fully understood that ‘Indian Man’ simply does not have the skills and may never have learnt taking measurements at school as it requires applying knowledge rather than spitting out meaningless memorised facts.

Things went from bad to worse in the hands of the Manager, who had agreed to do the ‘needful’ and was obtaining a quote (or so I thought..)  to make the frame in metal, on the recommendation of MalayamTeacher, who has experience growing oyster mushrooms.

‘Sir, ‘ I approached him a week later, ‘Do you have a costing for the frame and a date when it will be ready???’      His reply, ‘And do you have the business plan ready???’      ‘Sir, may I respectfully point out that I need the costs and timings to be able to do the business plan…’      ‘Ah, but metal is expensive and the metal worker is fully busy making desks and benches for the school… there is a shortage of metal… and  after that he can do the frame…’

I tried a different approach, three weeks in.  I sent a text message:  ‘Can you please let me have the cost of the frame and a date for when it will be ready.  We cannot start growing mushrooms until then.  I cannot do a business plan without having some idea of the start-up capital we need.’     The manager arranged an urgent meeting with me and enquired enthusiastically, ‘Excellent, so how much does the frame cost and when can we start??’ Clearly, something got lost in translation and I was beginning to see red!!!        ‘Sir, has it possibly escaped your notice that YOU were the one giving me the costing, not the other way round….’        ‘Metal is expensive…  A frame will cost thousands of rupees…  Tell me, how much profit will we make?’     ‘I don’t know, Sir, I need to do the calculations, but I need to have actual costs…  Maybe we could use bamboo instead or just any wood.  It would be cheaper and  we would be able to build it ourselves with Art Sir and Science Sir and maybe some children.’       ‘Yes, good idea.  We’ll need a carpenter to cut the wood and put in the nails…’   The mind boggled. Were Art Sir or Science Sir not capable of nailing a few pieces of wood together?  How about using rope instead?  It would at least be a safer option, just in case.

If you want to get something done, you better do it yourself!!

If you want to get something done, you better do it yourself!!

The answer to my questions was revealed when I accompanied a small group of children and Science Sir to measure up the room and calculate the number of pieces of wood of different lengths required, using triangular cross-sections to strengthen the frame.  Simple measuring, applied maths and some of Pythagoras Theorem mixed in for good measure.  Giving due credit to Science Sir, he stayed for the first part to measure the walls, but left when it came to doing the maths.  Did he lack the skills or just the enthusiasm?  So the children were left to fend for themselves and indeed worked out the total length of wood needed, rather than a breakdown of how many pieces of each length.  I generously praised their efforts and set off doing the ‘needful’ myself:  the benefits of a Western education.

But how to get hold of said pieces of wood…?  Not conversant with the local language, nor having any knowledge of where wood is sold in the area surrounding the school, I had to call upon Science Sir, Art Sir and Academic Director and this time they came up with a solution!  They called upon ‘General Dog’s Body’  – or the school’s caretaker – who knew a man who could  get the wood delivered on Monday , ready for building the structure on Tuesday under the supervision of the carpenter.

‘Any idea how much the wood will cost?’ I enquired.  ‘I need to know so I can work out how much start-up capital we need, so I can work on the business plan which really is not due until end July but School Manager has been asking for it since end May…’   But the question fell on deaf ears as the men congratulated themselves on having offloaded the responsibility onto someone else… a job well done!  Yesterday was Tuesday, and although no one apart from a few privileged souls had been let into the secret that the project has been abandoned, neither the wood nor the carpenter were anywhere to be seen, but I had been informed that  wood  was available in a shop 4 kilometers from here.  Some progress, indeed.

But the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was finding the start-up capital, not that I ever came close to discovering how much we were actually going to need.   School Manager decided that the profits from the existing school businesses (soap  and organic compost making) would be channelled into the new business to get the ball rolling. ‘Hooray,’ I thought, ‘finally some common sense…  Not just the school handing out the money.  Let the kids work for it and earn it.  Give them some real experience and a sense of achievement!’

So I approached VicePrincipal  M’am, who is in charge of soap and compost, and asked to see the books so we could work out how much money was available and I could think about how to cover any shortfall.    Vice Principal looked glum and the smile on her face faltered.  ‘The books, LeefaM’am (that’s me, by the way)?  The books??? ‘  She looked bewildered; and maybe was about to head to the library.      So I rephrased my request: ‘Yes, M’am.  The books with all the income and outgoings for the soap and vermi compost…  I need to know how much profit we made…’      There was the deepest sigh, and VicePrincipal shook her head in clear despair : ‘We did not make a profit…’     What happened to all the ambitious plans mentioned in the final report to make lots of money with the compost and organic vegetables??  More white lies to impress the judges in the Western world?  And the books??  I never saw any evidence of their existence. ‘And the soap you just sold to the hotel?’   I clutched at straws and I knew it….     Vice Principal looked harassed and far from comfortable.  ‘I sent the soap a few weeks ago, but we will not get paid…’     My ‘Why??’ evoked more unease, but no clarification.  Could it have been that the soap was not up to standard, I wondered.  The few wrapped soaps I spotted at the end of last year would certainly have fallen short of expectation…   So, the only start-up capital available was a very small amount left over from selling organic vegetables at the end of the previous school year.

‘So, no money, but not a disaster, yet…’  I surmised.  We still had time to raise some funds.  ‘Let’s rekindle the soap making business, quicker than growing organic vegetables at short notice,’ I concluded.  ‘We can put in some effort and give the children some marketing experience selling the soaps to parents at the end of the school day.’       ‘Let’s ask the management for the money,’ was the knee-jerk reaction from my Business Brain Team of Year 9 students.  Really??  Were these the Indian entrepreneurs of the future?       ‘Why waste time making soap?  We want to grow mushrooms and surely the management will give us the money!!’ added my team of teachers.  Hmmmm….  They clearly favoured the easy route.    ‘I suggest that all the teachers involved in the project put in 1000 Rupees of their own money,’ interjected the Academic Director, who was obviously not going to chip in himself…  (1000 Rs represents roughly 1/7th of the monthly salary of those teachers…)    The molehill I had envisaged to navigate in my efforts to enlighten everyone on the process of making a profit in business had  just taken on Himalayan proportions.  Did they not understand that money borrowed (from school or elsewhere) has to be paid back, and the prospect of our enterprise becoming profitable dwindled with every passing minute?  But then they did not have the Manager breathing down their neck with a demand of delivering the WINNING entry;  it was only my neck on the block!

And when the Business Brain students finally suggested to do a small fundraising event  – just a small presentation and passing round the bucket – at last Sunday’s Parent/Teacher Convention, this needed to be sanctioned by the Manager.  Unfortunately, the Academic Director did not mention this, nor did he do the ‘needful’.  The teacher who was supposed to talk to the Business Brain students and help them with the presentation ‘forgot’ to do the ‘needful’…  so I exploded last Friday  when I realised that no one had done anything and everything was left to me to sort out, again…

My early Saturday morning email to the Manager indeed got an immediate response.  He visited yet again and claimed, ‘This mushroom business is giving me too much of a headache’, as if he actually had contributed in any positive manner…  What about my headache??  ‘We are now so far behind with the project…,’ he continued.      ‘Really, Sir???  We are exactly where we are expected to be… the business plan is not due until end July and we should not start growing mushrooms until then…  ‘ I am fully aware that his headache was caused by my insistence on doing the project properly, my unwillingness to bend the rules and  demanding the unthinkable that the teachers and students would be given TIME to work on the enterprise and learn something.    So, the plug has been pulled on the mushroom project because I am refusing to do all the work myself and am expecting the teachers and students to do the bulk of the work, whereas the school’s expectation is that I do the work, they pretend they did the work and want me to lie about it in the reports… Over my dead body!!!!

I can’t get through to them that if they put the learning of the children first and make that the priority of the project, the winning will come.  What an example to set the children!!  What an education…   The only one learning anything has been me, an Indian education indeed… Next time when anyone mentions mushrooms, I will make it clear I am only interested in the magic variety…   and the only thing I will be growing in India will be basil, coriander, tomatoes , pumpkins and chillies using the contraband packets of seeds I smuggled into the country…  It’s OK, on some occasions I do bend the rules… ‘