I arrive at the college and start to teach; I’m confused by seasons, depressed by marks, inspired by students with biblical lives, and make myself at home with peanut butter and books.
I caught my third overnight train from Hyderabad to Bangalore – back in second class, with egg biryani for dinner – and on Easter Monday I was driven 40 minutes northeast from the centre of Bangalore, 5 km past the Outer Ring Road, and turned into a lane that winds past the college. After 14 different beds over five weeks, averaging 2.5 nights between each set of sheets, it’s good to be settled for seven straight weeks.
Just past the guard house inside the gate a rock displays the verse, “This is the Lord’s doing. It is marvellous in our eyes.” Beyond lies the main quadrangle, with dining hall and kitchen on the left, admin and classrooms at right, chapel with small spire and library at the far end. The buildings are of red brick, with cream pillars and balustrades. Low hedges, flowerpots and shrubs in Bangalore’s red soil edge the central lawn. The lush green is patrolled every morning by three or four white herons.
Accommodation is scattered around the complex, interspersed with trees and flower beds guarded by big black crows, swings and slides for kids, and dirt clearings for cricket, badminton, soccer, volleyball. When the rain came, the bare soil turned green almost overnight. Seasons are different here – as someone said to me, “It’s spring: the leaves are falling.” Which they were, but trees also dropped yellow and red and lilac blossoms, while three-striped squirrels scampered up and down their trunks.
I was at the college during its summer break to help teach a seven-week English enhancement program for the students starting in June who’d scored less highly in the entrance English exam. Three other Kiwis completed the volunteer team. Aucklander Dennis, a teacher of high school geography and now English as a Second Language, ran the course last year with his wife Barbara. Isla from small-town New Zealand taught it before that. I was the newbie, unsure what to expect, and had only spoken to the others on the phone. Dennis said he had imagined me as short and pot-bellied: I was less surprised at his appearance.
We had 23 students aged from early 20s to 40s. During introductions, I noted their home states and identifying features: glasses, thick beard, thin moustache, spiky hair, no hair. Only three girls. The biggest cohort came from Nagaland and Manipur in the Northeast, where the people look quite Chinese. The students from southern India were dark skinned, with a few fairer guys from central states. For the first week, the roll lived in my breast pocket for constant cribbing, and I added a few character traits to jog my memory: laughing or shy, cheeky or serious. There were easy biblical names: Samuel, Daniel, Thomas, Paul. Others took longer to memorise: Benjongsenla, Worchihan, Surendra, Srinivas. My favourite name was “Graceson” (son of grace). Another student on campus was “Lightson”.
As the names sank in, we settled on a schedule. At 8:30, a student gave a biblical reflection. By nine, Dennis, Isla and I headed for our own classrooms, with a different group of seven students each day. I taught in long trousers, but jandals and a loose short-sleeve collared shirt gave reasonable ventilation. In the morning we worked on the Academic Writing track of the Cambridge International English Language Testing System (IELTS), used by many Western universities to vet overseas students. We tackled grammar and structure exercises like rephrasing and connecting sentences with conjunctions, or organising thoughts into a logical flow.
The linguistic workout earned an hour off for lunch, which all staff and students ate together. As in old monastery refectories, a picture of Christ’s Last Supper hangs on the wall, though it’s not as large or impressive as da Vinci’s in Milan. There’s always white rice and vegetables, often with chapattis; frequently chicken or beef, and a veg-only table. Even my Colgate toothpaste read “Always 100% vegetarian.” Yoghurt to cool the spice, and bananas, watermelon, or jackfruit that hung from campus trees in bulbous bumpy shells and I found a little sickly. Apart from those I enjoyed the food – especially the biryani chicken – and twice-daily heaped servings of rice and rich sauce tightened my belt a little. I was surprised that some students found the food too hot to eat.
To work off the meal, two afternoons a week was a trial IELTS writing test. Task One (150 words) was to summarise graphical or tabular data, such as bar charts of an imaginary survey like “Factors Motivating People to Succeed” and “Irritants for Theatregoers”, or line graphs of company sales. I brainstormed synonyms on the whiteboard so every sentence wouldn’t repeat that sales that year boringly “rose” or “fell” or stayed the same, but rather “soared/rocketed” or “collapsed/plummeted” or “hovered/fluctuated fitfully/erratically”. My favourite graph showed the output of four imagined authors from age 20 to death. For fun we drew curves for Moses and St Paul. Test Task Two was a structured essay of 250 words, mostly on a controversial environmental or social issue. I enjoyed discussing Indian examples.
Marking took up to two hours. It was satisfying when I found an eloquent opening, punchy conclusion, or successful use of a phrase I’d just taught. It could be depressing, even when I saved the best students till last, and I pity professional teachers. As I corrected the same mistakes every day, I asked “Am I a lousy teacher?”, “Does anyone listen in class?”, “Does anyone read my comments?”, “Does anyone have a gun?”
Learning more about India cheered me up. In an essay on corruption, caste or dowry, one student wrote: “Justice has become a strange word for the people of India because of corruption” – which most of my class named as India’s biggest problem. “The caste system is a poison to Indian community life”, wrote another. It “has wounded the hearts of the people”. “Marriage is becoming a business entity” and “even today… thousands of women have committed suicide because of dowry problems.” As we read a booklet of Old Testament studies, I discovered how similar rural India can be to the biblical world, as I’d seen a few weeks before (see here). Students told of pastoral festivals and rites which echoed Scripture, such as thanksgiving at harvest times, or sending a scapegoat into the wilderness. More gruesomely, one had seen village priests decapitate a goat and drink its blood from the neck.
Some of our students had almost biblical lives. Speed-climbing thorn trees when wild elephants charged during a jungle trek; nearly dying from malaria; being beaten for their faith by Hindu fundamentalists – one was left for dead much like St Paul. Some came from poorer backgrounds; others had surrendered careers in IT or banking or business to study theology. All were great people, and as time progressed we laughed more in class, shared more in the evenings, met some of their families, and enjoyed the Friday night games – rock-scissors-paper recast as Samson-Delilah-lion – or movies like Oliver Twist, where I noticed that 19th-century London market lanes look like India today. (Extra entertainment from the cracks of mosquitoes frying on an electric racket.) Two had studied in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills, near one of the oldest and most recommended Hindi language schools. The steep snowy streets in their photos resembled a ski resort and suggested my next India destination!
Teaching finished at 3:30 pm and we went back to our own flats, which all had names. My door read “William Carey” (my office was “Jerusalem”). Grey stone cladding, with window bars shaped like diamond lead lights. As I’ve learnt to do when arriving in new Indian accommodation, I immediately inspected the insect mesh on all windows, opening shutters for a breeze where they didn’t leave cracks. In a few budget hotels I’ve taped over holes in the mesh.
Staff in red sari uniforms delivered a jug of creamy boiled milk every day, as well as eggs, small sweet bananas, tea and coffee, bread and muesli for breakfast. After finding ants in my cornflakes, I found the airtight pots. I even had a toaster, with peanut butter and Bournvita chocolate milk powder from the supermarket. I swapped a photo on the cream-painted wall for my Tramping New Zealand calendar, lined up my books on the shelf under the Readers Digest miscellany, and the place felt quite homely. Especially once I visited the library, where filling out borrowing cards by hand took me back to schooldays. After teaching all day, it was good to relax on my cane lounge suite. The geckos on the walls were peaceable companions, mostly darting behind a cupboard or picture frame when I approached, although I feared squashing their babies on the floor, especially at night in bare feet.