It was my second week teaching in the slum. After getting lost on three occasions on my first visit, I didn’t feel too confident about reaching my work place on time. I was correct in thinking that this still wasn’t going to be easy, and it was the first time I had taken the train to reach the slum. Last time I took the rickshaw all the way. So when I arrived at the station, I then had to decide to choose what way to exit, in other words, what side of the train track.
My decision was the wrong one and no rickshaw driver would take me to my destination; after trying four separate rickshaws, it was obvious I needed some help. Then, just as I was standing in the street trying to plan my next move, the heavens open up and I was now standing there in the rain.
But I wasn’t alone for long, and I was soon approached by a man holding an umbrella. I thought of some of my previous experiences, me and umbrellas, in this country are forming a strange and strong relationship.
‘Sir, can I help you?’ the man said, whilst holding the umbrella above me to shield me from the rain.
‘Yes, I am trying to get to the compound’ I replied.
‘Sir, you are the wrong side of the tracks, no rickshaw driver will take you there from this side. They would have to drive 15 minutes up the road to cross at the next bridge’
‘Ok’ I said not fully understanding what Mr. Umbrella Man was taking about.
‘Sir, you need to walk back into the station and cross the railway track and catch the rickshaw from the other side. There you can share a rickshaw to the compound, costing you 10 Rupees (8 pence)’
‘Ok, thanks my friend’ I reply.
‘Not to worrying sir, I will take you’.
So I am very grateful, and I walk as close as I can get to my new friend, sharing his umbrella. We enter the station, he points me to a blue wall, and tells me to follow that wall out of the station (I still refer to the blue wall now every day I go to work). I thank Mr. Umbrella Man and start walking. Still amazed by how helpful the Indian people are.
It is at this point, that I notice the worst smell I have experienced so far since coming to India. I look on the floor as I leave the station and there is poo everywhere: dogs, cats, rats, cow and even human. I since discovered, by a misfortune, that human poo is gathered in small plastic bags, which can be found, sometimes in bins, but most of the time just resting on the side of the road.
I employ an old technique that I learn whilst travelling many years ago, that when the smell is so bad that it almost makes you sick, simply only breath through your mouth – it does work to a certain degree. So I leave the station and approach the rickshaws, this time on the correct side of the track. I am still breathing through my mouth and finding it even more difficult to pronounce the name of the compound. The rickshaw driver looked at me like I was from another planet – a white man wanting to go to the slum, talking and breathing through his mouth at the same time. I am thinking ‘perhaps I am from a different planet’. I am not really shocked when he can’t understand me.
I eventually get a ride, and when I arrive at the compound, the rickshaw will not let me out of the vehicle.
‘Sir, you are lost, sir you do not want to get out here’.
I remember from last time I have reached my school in the slum. I remember the school opposite, where the school boy had walked me into the slum for the first time. I am 100% sure this is where I want to be.
I reply ‘Yes, this where I want to be’.
‘No sir, this is a slum area, you not want to stop here’.
‘Yes, I do’.
‘No, sir this is not for you, please’.
‘Yes, it is. This is where I work’.
I leave the rickshaw I pay him his 8 pence; he shakes his head.
‘Thank you, don’t worry I work here’, I say and off I go, watching every foot step to make sure I don’t step on anything unpleasant. I suppose I am the first white guy the driver as ever seen, and what is surprising to him is why would I want to stop at a slum? I suppose he thinks I should be stopping at the Gate of India to go sight- seeing.
I arrive at school, the children are always so glad to see me.
‘Good morning, Sir John’.
‘Ok, good morning John sir’.
‘Good morning’ I reply.
They won’t sit down until you tell them, and then when they sit on the floor, they are just waiting to be taught. This is very humbling for me, the respect they show me and the other adults is the highest I have ever seen. Their keenest to learn is also the highest I have ever experienced in my 20 years of teaching. It reminds me of a quote I read somewhere many years ago, and I have not really considered it until I have been teaching here in India.
I suppose teaching in most countries in the world, including the UK, as sad as it is, when you teach some children really do not want to learn. But here they do, and the quote is.
‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’
Tae Te Ching
So, if I am standing in the front of a class of 29 children that want to learn, with no desk, and no chairs, I really must want to teach them. After a morning of teaching grammar and reading, it is lunch time.
I am told by Marie, the teacher in my class,that all the teachers from the compound will be meeting in the community room, the same size room as the classroom in the same tower block. I am told that we all have lunch together when we can. So I haven’t got far to walk, just on the same floor and around the corner.
When Marie and myself reach the community room, I see there are about 14 teachers sitting on the floor. I am told that I must remove my shoes for lunch, I look at everyone else and see they are all bare footed, I followed and removed my socks as well, I didn’t want to be seen as the odd one out. Even though everything about me compared to these people was so different, I couldn’t start to describe it.
I enter the room, sit down on the floor; it’s been a long time since I have sat on the floor, probably the last time being when my children were young and I would spend hours playing.
But that was a long time ago, after sitting for less than 5 minutes, my back and legs (being crossed) were starting to ache. I move from one bum cheek to another, trying to transfer the weight. I was struggling. I kept moving in an uncomfortable manner, trying to smile to the room full of teachers that were trying their best not to look at me and showing that they knew I was in discomfort. Perhaps they were not looking me in danger of laughing at this poor white guy. I couldn’t bear this sitting cross legged for much longer, I needed to move. I bum shuffled and put my back against the wall. That’s better I was thinking.
After about 30 minutes of Hindi conversation, I realised how different I was sitting here. These teachers were probably all thinking the same thing. What is this guy doing here? I felt totally isolation, just like a child must feel when they come from another country, not knowing any language and they start their first day at school.
I sit there, listening to them all talking and laughing. Then it is my moment, the boss Mr Godvad looks at me, showing his arm in my direction, and it is at this point I understand the only word I have listen to for 30 minutes, that word being ‘John’.
I have been introduced and I assume told I will be joining their team, all the teachers nod their heads and say hello. I am now a real teacher in a Mumbai slum.
I am still sitting there. Then the lunch starts, all the teachers get their tiffin tins from their bags; the curries and breads are all shared and passed around. I am looking amazed, just comparing this lunch time to a school staff room in the UK. Sharing lunch cooked at home every day, never.
They look at me, ‘do you want some food?’ Marie asks me.
‘OK, thank you,’ they all watch me with interest, I am on show, eating with my hands and trying my best to look like I do this every day.
I then go for my lunch, one apple and a banana. They look at me, again, I am the alien.
‘Have you no tiffin tin?’ (that being the small metal tins everyone keeps their lunch, keeping it warm)
‘No’ I reply.
I then start to explain to Marie and Godvad that I don’t eat much at lunch time as it makes me feel tired. They ask are all western people like that? I say no just me. I am not sure they believe me, and think I just don’t like eating their food. This was not the case and I taste everything I can that is passed around.
It is at this point with my back to the wall, I hear a splashing sound from outside. I look up at the window. We are on the first four of a 7 story tower block, the splashing is coming from above. I look and a yellow liquid comes flying past the window, hitting the street or pathway below. No! Was that urine? I was thinking. I sit there not knowing what to say. The teachers look and then just continue talking and eating.
I then at this point feel I must stretch my legs, they have now been crossed for nearly an hour. All the teachers are all sitting crossed legged and backs straight, again I am the odd one out, I can’t do this any longer, my legs have gone numb. I unfold my legs trying not to look like I am in pain. My legs, feet and toes need to be in front of me.
After I have placed my feet in front of me, I look down at them. They are ugly; feet just are. The blood starts to flow back in my legs, feet and toes. The teachers all look at me. I know I haven’t got long before I have to fold them back under me again. No one wants to look at someone else’s feet when they are eating, I realise I might have offended them, so once the blood as reached my toes, I have to put them away again. So under they go. My bum is now feeling the numbness. I am thinking I might need a crane to get me up of the floor when lunch finally finishes.
I must try to join into a conversation to keep my mind off of the pain I am experiencing just sitting on the floor for so long. I know I should never had stopped those yoga classes I used to do many years ago.
‘Sir, what are those things floating in your bottle of water?’
‘I am not sure what you, call them in English,’ Govad replies.
Google translate to the rescue.
‘Basil seeds, they are good for digestion’.
I am surprised and I show that I am interested, and wanting to continue with a conversation. Then from outside the window I hear another sound, I look around a see a massive green rug go flying pass the window. I look at Govad, who just smiles and continues to talk about basil seeds. Then, trying to keep one eye on Govad talking, I look out of the window again. This time, a brown semi-liquid substance comes past the window. That was definitely poo, and lots of it. Govad again sees it and continues to talk about basil seeds.
I am in shock, but smile and keep talking like what I have just seen being thrown out of the windows is a normal occurrence for me.
Lunch is over and back to teaching. At the end of the day I am back in the rickshaw on to the train and back to the hotel. What a day, I am thinking as I walk back to the hotel.
As I am walking along the road, I see a massive gathering of people outside my hotel. What’s going on? I hope the family are ok? I start to jog to see why there are so many people at the hotel. As I get closer, a see a massive white shining light, that is lighting up the restaurant’s name. ‘Le Café’ I then see cameras everywhere. I see the security guard.
‘What’s going on?’ I say.
‘Bollywood has come to the hotel to use the café in a famous film’.
‘Yes sir, the café is closed, they are filming now’.
Fame as come to me, I wonder if there is anyway of sneaking into the café and get a small part as an extra. Always fancied myself as a Bollywood actor, who knows, they might even want me to do a bit of my daddy dancing.
I enter the hotel, people, actors, actresses everywhere. I am told again that Le Café is closed whilst they are filming, but the restaurant is open. I get to the room; the boys and Michelle are bouncing off the walls.
‘Dad, Bollywood is here in our hotel!’
‘I know, shall we see if we can get a look?’
I am still thinking daddy dancing here I come.
We get down to the restaurant and there are so many people around. We take a seat, and realise that sadly, we will not be part of the show. No English extras are needed, so all we can do is order some lovely Indian food.
The boss of the hotel comes in to see us. Ashish is a lovely guy, who has really looked after us whilst staying in his hotel. He especially enjoys the boys company and always makes time to help and say hello.
Michelle says to him, you must feel proud that Bollywood is using your hotel to shoot a new film. As modest as he is, he just plays it all down, as if these things could occur every day in his hotel. We all know they don’t and this is special.
We talk some more, then he ask if the boys would like to meet the actress. One of the most famous actresses in India.
‘Yes, please’, they both reply together.
‘Really, can you organise that, Ashish’ Michelle asks.
‘For my English Family, of course’ he replies.
The boys look at each other, then at us, ‘Wow!’
Then they look at the clothes they are wearing and both ask if they can go back to the room and get changed. It’s a Tuesday night. They are already up past their bedtimes and now they are going to meet one of the most famous actresses in India. This is mad, I am thinking. Again ‘Only In Khush India’
The boys leave the table, run out of the restaurant and gallop upstairs like they are on a mission. Five minutes later they look like they are ready to go to a wedding, they have managed to find their best clothes, and were wearing them in style. Their hair was gelled so much you could almost see their scalps; they must think that this is a good look. Michelle and I look at each other and smile. They sit down at the table again, waiting for their meal as if nothing has happened. But really they are obviously waiting for their big moment and are waiting to meet the famous actress.
Ashish enters the restaurant and looks at the boys new look and smiles.
‘Looking good boys, I will send her through to see you in a few minutes.’
True to his word, the door opens, and an amazing looking women is standing next to our table. She seems like she has been told to meet some people and it is a chore, I suppose she gets this all the time. She then looks down and see we are western and smiles. We get some photos; her name is Sonali Seghal. She then really enjoys taking to the boys and says to make sure we watch the film that was being filmed in our hotel that night. It’ll be out in April 2018.
When she leaves, we say to each other that was amazing. We then thank Ashish for the opportunity to meet a Bollywood actress, and get back to eating our Indian food.
I am thinking, even more than I was earlier, what a day! I have gone from teaching in a Mumbai slum, having my legs crossed for nearly 2 hours, and seeing poo being thrown out of a window, to nearly appearing in a Bollywood film and meeting a famous Indian actress.