5th April dawns pleasant and bright, perfect for my trip to India. This is my third trip to Sirsi, India working in Bahman Public English Medium School. I shall always be thankful to my Lord and to Yusufali of Comfort Aid International (CAI) who trusts me and allows me to work in their sponsored school.
I train teachers to use student centred teaching methodologies. Bahman School is located in Sirsi, Sambhal, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. The setup is impressive; we have the school, an orphanage, a small mosque and a clinic, all set in a large field.
This trip has an added excitement. I get to observe another full-fledged school in Lucknow. I am to train Ms. Roya, CAI's Principal at the new girls' school in Kabul. My entire journey involves every mode of modern transport - planes, train, cars and a school bus. The spunky New Delhi airport is our meeting point. Aliakberbhai, Yusufali and I wait for Roya whose flight from Afghanistan is delayed. Since we have limited time for our connecting flight to Lucknow, we are tense. Aliakberbhai checks the arrival screen for Roya's flight frequently but with the same results. She makes it, however, and our short trip to Lucknow is uneventful, each one of us tired and quiet, in our thoughts. Lucknow, here we come. The hotel is comfortable and the food scrumptious, although I am very cautious with what I eat. However, the inevitable Delhi Belly strikes me upon return home.
The visit to The Unity College, Lucknow is to observe it's professional setup and the way the school is managed. The taxi driver is excellent; he knows exactly how to maneuver his car through the maze of traffic. Occasionally, he opens his door to spit out the remains of chewed tobacco (how gross) and Yusufali cringes back, trying to protect himself from any wayward red dribble.
The CEO and management team of the school give us a warm reception; they share their experiences and advise Roya on different aspects of running a new school. The school is impressive, corridors and classrooms are dotted with information boards as well as students' displays. Like most Indian schools, I find the classrooms overcrowded, especially the lower nursery and kindergarten sections, where students have little or no space to freely move around. It is interesting to know that the school encourage the use of computers every year and have also equipped three classrooms to use the interactive board.
Our task in Lucknow over, we are ready to travel by train to our next destination - Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. But before that, we must taste the famous 'tunde ke kebab' of Lucknow, a local 'global' speciality. Origins of this kebab go back almost a hundred years, when Haji Murad Ali, a lad with stunted arms pounded ground beef and mix of masalas into fiery kebabs to feed the then nawabs, unembarrassed to make a living by his defect. The recipe flourished, making the kebabs gourmet history. They melted in my mouth but left a fiery trail going down my throat.
The railway station at 11.00 pm is as busy as it is at 8 AM; men, women, children, dogs, cows and cats crowd the platform. The air is a sour mix of human and animal waste and sweat. Breathing is a challenge for me but not for others, so I accept it. There is a kaleidoscope of a shrill female voice announcing a string of stations stops - Ituanja, Sidhauli, Sitapur, Maholi..... as the trains approach, listing the locations of arrivals and departures. I feel a moment of melancholy; my thoughts go home to London at the Baker Street platform. Similar, conflicting messages. There - mind the gap, here - mind the (shit) cakes... Families sit in groups and share their meal with one another, and with meandering cows that nudge them for more. Here, holy cows are fed oily puris or pakoras, not grass... The stray dogs of India are as timid as cats, they just sniff and go away; I never heard them bark. Women in colourful sarees tug along their young ones bogged down with tiffins and baggage of all sorts, rush to jump on the train before it halts, uncaring of the obvious dangers (to me) but miraculously escape any injury.
Our train arrives almost at midnight. We occupy the first class air-conditioned cabin with bunk beds and clean bedding. It is a challenge to climb for me while a piece of cake for an agile Roya. The rocking motion of the train is a lullaby and puts everybody to sleep. The WC is another story altogether; the washing lota is chain locked, for safety perhaps or just to keep it stationary? Whatever the case, it is too short for a comfortable wash.
We arrive Moradabad soon after fajr, recited sitting due to all the rocking. Asghar Bhai has come on a school bus to take us to Sirsi. I have never sat on a school bus, but I close my eyes and visualise girls and boys travelling in it, a racket of exciting voices talking together, sharing the day's events.
The usual warm welcome awaits us from the orphanage kids at Sirsi, presenting us with roses picked from their garden. It is great to be "home" amongst people who have changed my life. I look at each one, secretly greeting them as they shyly acknowledge it with a smile. My eyes look for the two brothers I met last time, Abu Dhār and Qambar, but they have moved on to a better place and school since they are 'big boys', now doing their 'A-Levels'; it is sad to lose them but life must go on. Naseem Baji, as usual, has prepared a hearty breakfast, which is served by Zakirbhai (Baba). After a much-needed shower and feeling rejuvenated, I make my way to Bahman School.
It's always a pleasure to be at the school, greet the students, sit and observe classes and discuss the teacher's problems. I cannot say the teachers are as enthusiastic at meeting me, as I am they, since I always 'pick' on them, continually challenging and advising. I do this because I care for the students and the school. Being a perfectionist, I believe anyone who takes up responsibility should carry it out with diligence.
My days in Sirsi are spent between the school and orphanages, while the nights are sometimes sleepless due to the continuous drone of the mosquitoes. A few claps occasionally punctuate the silence of the night. This is applause all right; for the murder of an escaping, bloodsucking mosquito. Roya has a mission to kill every mosquito that passes by her, and that leaves me wincing with pain as the survivors attack me. Never go to India in March or April; it's the mosquito season. I wonder how Yusufali is doing outside, having given up the air-conditioned 5-star room for us, while he has to contend with a monstrous and cankerous deafening portable air cooler. I think he was glad to depart for other challenges in Mumbai.
Mornings in the orphanage always begin with the sweet melody from orphan boys reciting 'Laab pay ati hay dua...' tear-jerking, eloquent words penned by Alama Iqbal. But today my eyes are dry, the soul is missing from the poem, the new reciters have yet to master the eloquence of Abu Dhār and Qambar. The rest of the week is pretty much a routine; mornings are spent at Bahmain School where I observe teachers teach, make notes of recommendations and teach English in a few classes. Afternoons are spent with the Zahra Boys, conversing in English and making some 3D wooden models and puzzles. The boys and I both look forward to this time where we can all relax, talk, laugh and play without reservations. I once asked them about Roya, a Hazara, and they said they like her very much... because 'she looks Chinese'. Evenings are spent with Roya, going through the kindergarten syllabus, planning the layout of classes, toys and furniture for the Kabul School.
After dinner, we go and spend some time with the girls' orphanage at Sakina Girls Home. The girls enjoy doing craft work, making bead jewellery and playing games; they don't let us leave unless we promise we'd return the following day. A new computer has just been set up; some of the girls have never seen a keyboard or a mouse, they watch with awe and eyes sparkle with excitement at the new toy of knowledge in their lives.
The week passes by very quickly, and soon it is time to leave Sirsi and 'my boys'. Roya and I both have memories of our time together, we communicate, and I cannot wait for her to show me the pictures of the opening of the new school and her first students. The last leg of our journey is a five-hour drive to New Delhi. Roya is going to spend a day at New Delhi with a friend while I am making my way to Bangladesh in search of another project, another school...