So what exactly is the meaning of this blog’s title?

noun: saree, or sari

  1. a garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from South Asia.

You know that everyone at the school will have a smartphone in their hand?

– My mentor, during our first meeting

She was commenting after catching sight of this little beauty during orientation;

It'll always have a place in my heart...or a museum.
It’ll always have a place in my heart…or a museum.

Say hello to its Indian successor (kindly loaned by work :P);

This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!
This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!

One of the things that has really struck me about India is its technological advancement and its pride in integrating technology into all aspects of everyday life. Or rather, everyday middle and upper class life. In the school that I’m working at, the students each have their own tablet, which can be wirelessly connected to the teacher’s tablet at the front, to make sure that everyone is literally reading from the same page. Most textbooks are stored electronically, “on tab”, which certainly saves paper (another major contrast between UK/ USA and Indian schooling – the school I’m working at uses hardly any physical worksheets, and I’ve only seen two printers for a school which runs from nursery to Class XI/11).

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The pros & cons of (non-human) roommates

PROS

  • Even if we’re talking about spiders here, they eat mosquitoes and flies! (This point obviously then, does not apply to mosquitoes and flies, who also like to share my room.
  • Company when things get too quiet, esp. at night.
  • Like being in a live National Geographic documentary.
  • Don’t have to worry about leaving my possessions unguarded.
I've named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it's the same one each time...
I’ve named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it’s the same one each time…

CONS

  • They don’t contribute towards rent or cleaning duties.
  • Not good at sharing food. Or respecting the labels on mine.
  • My mentor is starting to get tired of my ‘animal stories’ as an excuse for being late to leave in the morning, once more I’ve “got a frog (or is it a baby toad?) under my bed” or “a gecko has got into a gap in the wall”.

So, overall they are an asset then. Which is good thing, because with my room being next to the ‘garden’ here, and with the summer drawing to a close, the non-human roommates just keep coming, and, as an outnumbered human occupant of this room, I don’t seem to have much choice 😛

Landmark

Just a quick note to say that this, fairly un-extraordinary Monday actually marks a particular achievement for me. I’m now well into my 7th week in India, and today was the beginning of my 6th week of work here.

Nope, not this kind of landmark!
Nope, not this kind of landmark!

Unlike most of the other Teaching Assistants on this programme, I have never taken a gap year, or spend a year, or even 6 months abroad before. This is true of most of the participants simply because quite a few of them studied languages at university, and so had to do a compulsory year abroad as part of their undergraduate course. Naturally, a lot of them were also British Council language assistants, and placed in schools, during their university years.

6 weeks is the longest that I’ve ever been out of Europe, or in Asia. It’s probably also the longest I’ve ever been with seeing my parents, sister or grandparents. My university terms were exceptionally short at Oxford – just 8 weeks – and although I usually stayed to do some sort of activity at the start or end of term, members of my family visited me every term whilst I was at university.

So this is a very personal landmark for me. I’ve finally started to get into a proper routine with work and hostel life, and that’s set to continue for the next 2.5 months. I think I realised from the very beginning that this wasn’t going to be a holiday, but now I’m actually starting to think seriously about whether I want to live and work abroad in 2016. Now that I’ve been away from the UK for my longest ever time, I can start to properly reflect on the good and bad features that come from living away from my native country.

I wonder if in a year or two, 6 weeks away will feel like nothing. I’ll get a job and settle in another country and that’ll be that. Or I’ll be back in the UK, wondering how I ever coped without cheddar cheese for so long. For now though, I’m not thinking too much about the future. I’m thinking about this moment right now, and this landmark that I have built for myself, out of (occasional) tears, plentiful patience, and enduring memories.

3 Reasons to see a film in India (even if you don’t speak Hindi)

  1. It’s a completely different experience to European cinema. For example, there’s an interval about half way through the film. This gives the audience time to buy snacks, go to the toilet etc., without worrying about missing anything. When the curtains come down at half-time, you feel more like you’re watching a theatrical performance than a pre-prepared film. The interval allows you to talk to your friends about developments in the plot, and helps to build suspense as it normally occurs just as the plot is beginning to twist. You come back into the screen refreshed, having stretched your legs a bit (I’ve often heard complaints about the length of films from people with longer legs than myself). The interval also gives you the chance to change seats more subtly, if you want to.
  2.  The snacks are like a strange variant of what you might expect in a European or Anglophone cinema. You can get mini Domino’s pizzas to take back into the screen. Instead of Pick ‘n’ mix sweets and confectionery, you can select pakoras and samosas. Strangest of all (to me) there is popcorn, but not as I knew it. Popcorn is either salted or spiced, or even tomato-flavoured!
  3. The atmosphere is much more interactive. Watching a film in Indian is like watching a live cricket match. The audience audibly reacts to events onscreen. At times this can seem disruptive, to those of us used to restrained emotions and near-silent cinema screens, but I actually quite enjoyed the gasps and clapping of the audience – especially useful when you’re trying to gauge the mood of the dialogue without understanding any of the language!

The film I watched a couple of weeks ago was Manjhi: The Mountain Man. It concerns the story of a man from Bihar who, by various events, feels compelled to start building a road through a perilous mountain range, thereby connecting his remote village to the wider region. The story takes place over many years, but is fairly straightforward – as my mentor comes from Bihar she was able to explain to me the basic plotline, and I would say that I understood most of the essentials, if not the detail. It was also a good opportunity to see exactly how much Hindi I had picked up! I’d say that the point of this post still stands even if the language concerned isn’t Hindi, but any other Indian language. Obviously Bollywood films are a bit different, with a lot of the plot being conveyed through songs and dances, but I genuinely enjoyed and would recommend the experience.

What a girls’ hostel is, and what it isn’t.

View from ground floor window.
View from ground floor window.

Driving along the road to the hostel, for the first time.

Me:

Oh, I like it, I like that there are little balconies for each room!

My mentor:

No, that’s the boys’ hostel. The girls’ hostel faces inwards. The architectural style is completely different. We don’t have balconies.

Writing this post because I thought I had to get up for work, but surprise! It’s Bakr Eid today (‘Eid of the Sacrifice’ – not the end of Ramadan, but the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac before God’s intervention). Although I would have liked to have known this before getting up and dressed at 6:30am, and before unsuccessfully trying to communicate with the guards (concerning the whereabouts of my colleagues, and driver, to go to work), stomping around my room won’t solve anything, and being annoyed is not a productive way of getting back to sleep.


Adjusting to life in a girls’ hostel has perhaps been one of the most challenging things about my time in India. Whereas most other British Council teaching assistants have been placed with either host families, or in pairs, living in school accommodation (many of the participating schools are boarding schools), I was dropped off at a hostel which turned out to be nothing like the ‘backpacker’ hostels that I was used to.

The hostel resembles a university hall of residence, but it’s single-sex, and city-wide, so the girls living here are all studying at a college in Greater Noida (the city is a hub for educational institutions, there’s even a branch of the Oxford University Press here, which I spotted). A minority of the girls here are working, like me, in nearby schools, or companies such as KPMG. Unlike in a  university hall of residence however, there is a 12 hour curfew (7pm-7am) and armed guard.

The residents here tend to stay at least a year, for college courses or job contracts. I’ll be one of the few exceptions to that. Another exception is that I don’t have any (human) roommates – but most rooms here are triple occupancy. The canteen is called a ‘Mess’ (think army slang, and I’m thinking colonial origin…) and serves traditional, vegetarian Indian food three times a day. Perhaps the most surprising thing to UK, if not continental European, readers will be that dinner is served between 8:00pm and 9:30pm. In the six weeks that I’ve been here, dinner has been rice, some sort of vegetable (75% of the time it’s potato) and either yellow or brown daal, with few exceptions.

The hostel has a number of different spaces. Below ground is a former canteen (creepy…), a basement shop (selling confectionery, crisps, stationery etc, and some pretty good banana smoothies, or ‘shakes’,  but sadly not fruit or cereal) and a gym, which I’ve rarely seen open or used. There’s also a ‘dance studio’ – a dark space with mirrors along one side and the odd table or chair. Of the ‘study space’ I’ve seen little, other than an empty bookcase and some more desks. I remember my surprise at being taken to the ‘laundry room’, where several men were toiling with piles and piles of linen and clothes, which were each being permanently marked with the room number of the girl they belonged to. No tumble driers or washing machines here, just sheer manual labour, and a vast washing line on the back lawn.

Oh, and due to a fun mix-up, I thought my room number was the number on my keys as my door doesn’t have a number, but actually, after more residents moved in for the start of the academic year, it turns out that I was wrong, and my clothes/bedding have all been incorrectly branded. In the process of retrieving them now. Oops.

Day #50 – again, yesterday

'English Oven' bread, fruit flavoured jam (I preferred the mango one :P), apples and a spiced pear fruit smoothie!
‘English Oven’ bread, fruit flavoured jam (I preferred the mango one :P), apples and a spiced pear fruit smoothie!

So yesterday I accompanied some of the younger years on a trip to a Parle biscuit factory, located here in Greater Noida. Parle manufactures, or at least owns a lot of foods other than biscuits, but they really do seem (after a close inspection of various wrappers & packaging) to almost have a monopoly on the biscuit market here.

Highlight: Realising that my childhood trip to Cadbury World in Birmingham was like being taken to Disneyland in comparison to an Indian school trip to a factory. No display boards, no painted path, no videos or activities, just the real noise and sweat of a working factory floor. The workers were all on the main floor of the factory, and we were literally walking in between the machines in the packaging section as they worked, with workers helpfully placing themselves in front of the moving rollers/ trays. Luckily we were viewing the ‘production’ section from a slight distance, because the heat from the ovens could be felt everywhere. It was pretty cool to see the biscuits being cut into circles and whizzing around on the conveyor belt though.

Verdict: I like biscuits, and the entire surroundings of the factory smelled like baking, so all in all, I’ve had worst afternoons! The children loved being given fresh biscuits by the workers before they were packaged! Although parts of the trip made me slightly nervous (lining the students up outside as various delivery lorries were simultaneously being loaded with the biscuits…), including posing for photos surrounded by moving machinery, I couldn’t help but think that the UK could learn a lot from a slightly more relaxed approached to health & safety on school trips. Nothing compares to actually being shown a real life process in operation, rather than just reading information from visitor signs.

Day #49 – yesterday.

“No King Cobra!” I said firmly, reprimanding a very disappointed group of boys. Luckily they were placated with some plastic Indian Air Force style toy helicopters being sold by a nearby vendour, and although these looked pretty lethal, a few test-flights on the bus home proved that they weren’t capable of much.

Today Yesterday (sorry, I’ve been working on this blog quite slowly for a while…) was my 49th day in India. I accompanied a Class III (aged 8/9?) class on a trip to Delhi where we saw Raj Ghat (memorial to Mahatma Gandhi) and the Red Fort.

Most memorable moments;

  1. [a Class III student speaking about me, talking to their normal class teacher, who doesn’t like junk food] “See, Nikita Ma’am is a good Ma’am, she eats whatever sweets I give her”. I’m always happy to help. Anything for the children really.
  2. [arriving at Raj Ghat, memorial to Gandhi]. Teacher, “Ok everyone, shoes off, out of respect. Just leave your shoes on the bus”. Me: “but there will be a closer place for me to leave my shoes right, like at a security gate or something? It’s just that there’s a car park and a road and stuff to cross…” Teacher, “It’s completely your choice…” *I attempt to leave the bus with my shoes on* Teacher, “Of course, Gandhi-ji is the father of this nation and -” I leave my shoes on the bus, and join the children desperately hoping around moving buses and along concrete walkways, whilst my soles turn to ash.

Highlight;

Seeing a snake-charmer with a king cobra just outside the gates of Raj Ghat. As the man played his pipe for a tourist, the snake rose up out of a little wicker basket, swaying, and revealing a white diamond- patch pattern on its black, funnel-shaped back. I almost walked into the road because I was actually quite mesmerized by the fact that there was a cobra in a public place, basically a tourist attraction. Some of the boys who were walking close to me watched it longingly, and leaned towards it like they did the soft drinks and toy stands.

Verdict; 10/10 Would definitely accompany again, sign me up for the next trip.