The lessons of India.

I’m now back in the UK having finished my placement, and my time in India. It feels slightly surreal to be home after all these months, and saying goodbye was tougher than I had anticipated, but I think it’s worth reflecting on a couple of things before I close this blog, or get completely absorbed in Christmas here!

In India I was a teaching assistant, but through the experience, I learnt far more than I taught. For the first time in three years I was writing (this blog, my diaries, emails to friends and family) at least as much as I was reading. This was significant as I was constantly reflecting on everything that I did, and deliberately storing up events in my memory so that I could tell people all about it. At university, I had virtually no time for this, and simply read a pile of books and produced an essay or two per week, before moving on to the next assignment. Writing is great because it teaches us to be more articulate (this is why students who have trouble reading a language, or even people who don’t read books in their own language, have such a small vocabulary and sometimes find it harder to put their feelings into words). Not to mention the fact that the more I read over this blog, and my diaries, the more I learn about myself, and my perception of others.

India taught me to try and let go of expectations and prejudices about things that I wasn’t even aware that I held. The experience revealed some of the irrational things that I hold onto without even realising; why do I not want to put new shoes on the table, why am I surprised when students call me by my first name (“Nikita Ma’am”) and no one knows my surname. I enjoyed myself the most in the moments that I was able to let go of these inhibitions, and realise that the time and place we are in can define us as much as our upbringing, our traditions, and our native culture. I was able to overcome a lot of anxiety that I had in the first few months, and adjusted to my surroundings to the extent that even as I sit at home in my old childhood bedroom, I now feel oddly out of place.

Ultimately though, it is the people that make a place, and an experience. I started to feel at home in India, not because I became anywhere near fluent in Hindi, nor that I started eating spicy food for every meal (not at all!) but because I made connections with the people that I lived and worked with. As I became more familiar with them, I minded less that I was so far from home. People have so much to offer, as long as you take that initial step and start your first conversation with them, or tell them something interesting about your family, or where you live.

The world is yours as long as you are open to it, which means trusting people, and trusting yourself. The biggest personal lesson that I’ll take away from this experience is that it’s just not worth getting anxious in anticipation of things which might not even happen, or which will probably turn out to be far less of a problem than you had imagined! Trust that you can adapt to living virtually anywhere, without this underlying fear and nervousness holding you back, making you hide away from people and cut yourself off from the vibrancy of your new environment. Change is not a bad thing, and people are only strangers until you speak to them (obviously not advisable in all cases…).

Looking around at my HAPPY JOURNEY/ Merry Christmas cards made by some of the students at school, against a backdrop of wrapped presents and a lit Christmas tree in my conservatory, I am finally able to start appreciating everything that has happened over the past five months. It’s incredibly overwhelming and this blog could only ever capture a fraction of my entire experience. Even so, I hope that everyone has enjoyed reading it, and that those who were connected with me in India, can look back on parts of it and smile 🙂

Merry Christmas!

Nikita

 

 

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Serendipity in a drawer.

As it’s my last week in India, I’ve been trying to take time to notice the little things. Like the fact that my room at the hostel has quite a stiff door, which has to be slammed shut, and so some of the paintwork has chipped off on the doorframe. It resembles the shape of a heart. A few nights ago, I was walking around the front of the hostel so that I could look more closely at some of the palm trees that grow there. You don’t really think about palm trees in the winter, or at least, I associate them with cartoons of Hawaii and Miami and clip art pictures for the search term “summer”. The palm trees had initials carved into their bases, and their smooth green trunks were partly covered by a thick brown layer which grew like a second skin from their base. I’m presuming that this is to keep them warm in the winter, but I couldn’t help but look at the places where this strange brown covering had been stretched, and had even come apart in places, worn away like fabric. I wondered whether it hurt, when it split like that, and whether a palm tree even registers pain according to our definition of it.

Something else came to my mind too, the contents of a set of drawers beneath my desk in the hostel. When I moved in, this room had clearly had a fairly long-term previous occupant. The door and walls were (and still are) decorated with multi-coloured streamers, and the walls were covered with home-made HAPPY BIRTHDAY MA’AM posters. I edited these, crossing out the words ‘birth’ and ‘Ma’am’ to produce motivational “Happy –DAY” prints. Most intriguing of all though was the contents of the desk drawers. To think that they could have contained anything, and yet they just happened to contain the very things which became for me symbols of my time at the hostel.

The drawers contained;

  • A plastic silver tiara (broken)
  • A bag of plastic white spoons
  • Rolls of coloured streamers
  • A glue-stick (half-used)
  • A roll of sellotape (barely-used)
  • A set of speakers labelled “030 Samiya Khan Lloyd”.

Admittedly the plastic tiara was almost immediately discarded. I considered donning it for a friend’s party here, but abandoned the idea when I realised that it was broken. It has spent the remainder of my time here perched on my mug-box, in the corner of my room, for some reason I clearly felt the subconscious need to display it. The bag of white spoons was slowly depleted, owing to the fact that technically we’re not supposed to take crockery or cutlery out of the Mess (canteen).

The roll of streamers have had many incarnations; I used them to cover words that I didn’t  like on the HAPPY BIRTHDAY MA’AM posters, I wrapped up cards and presents for various occasions in them, and I even used them in desperation to tie together the strings of a bag that was breaking. The glue stick served to assemble my scrapbook of my time here, and to seal the envelopes of cards brought for birthdays, an engagement and a 30th Wedding anniversary (turns out that you don’t lick them shut here…). As for the sellotape, it survives to this day and has largely superseded the duties of the glue stick now, as well as holding up the postcards of Oxford which I have stuck to my cupboards (visible from my bed). At one point, I even sellotaped shut my window in an effort to keep out the mosquitoes, until of course a pair of wasps got trapped inside my room and it all had to be hurried ripped off (with some amount of paintwork…) to release them.

Lastly, the speakers. I can only presume that they were perhaps confiscated from Samiya Khan of room 030 – as this is room 029, directly opposite that room. The reason I think that they were forcefully taken, rather than just left here accidentally, is the way in which the label on them is scrawled, hurriedly, and formally – room no. first, then the name of the girl, and lastly, the name of a popular local college – Lloyd. These are the basic details used to identify the residents of the hostel. If I’m correct about the previous occupant of this room being a warden, then this theory also fits. Needless to say, Samiya’s speakers have not yet been returned to her, but have instead enjoyed a new life with yours truly, internet connection permitting!

It was several days after moving in that I finally got round to properly exploring the drawers. Had I opened them earlier, would I have felt more immediately at ease here? Would I have in any way, been able to predict some of the experiences that I went on to have? Probably, in the first case, and probably not, in the second. Either way, in retrospect, the content of those drawers seems more than coincidental.

Yoshida Hiroshi, and India according to 20th century Japan

In the early 20th century a Japanese woodblock printer came to India, and produced a set of prints which are famous for their place in Japan’s shin hanga (“New Print”) movement, which aimed at returning to the more traditional style of ukiyo-e (浮世絵 “pictures of the floating world”) printing. This would see Japanese techniques combined with a “western” way of representing form.

A lifetime ago in Oxford, after finishing my exams in June, I visited a TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, which featured Yoshida’s Indian prints. It felt like fate. Like me, Yoshida travelled to the Taj Mahal, unlike me, he produced six different prints of it, deliberately depicting it during the day and night, at dusk and dawn. Like me, Yoshida also visited the Amber Fort in Jaipur, and saw the pink city gates, and another of his prints shows the entrance to the Jama Masjid – one of the first things that I saw in Delhi.

You can read lots more details about the life and career of the artist here, but this is not the place to copy out all of the notes of the exhibition. What interested me was that Yoshida’s life and career transgressed cultures and boundaries, he was born in 1876 at the time of the Meiji Emperor. He died in 1950, and would have known of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. His artistic career was varied, in that it doesn’t conform to the idea that Japanese art was becoming “westernised” during this time; in fact, Yoshida trained as a “western-style” painter in oils and watercolours, and only became interested in traditional-style woodblock printing when he was in his 40s. Perhaps this is why the prints were referred to as having a “quality reminiscent of watercolours”.

One sentence stood out to me at the time, enough for me to have noted it down, alongside various other scrawls which don’t make sense now; Yoshida was particularly fascinated with the quality of light that he found in India. I feel as though several of the photos that I’ve taken here have captured much the same thing.

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Maota garden, just outside the Amer Fort, Jaipur. 
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The interior of the Chaturbhuj Temple, Orchha. 

 

You can view all of Yoshida’s India prints here.

 

 

Circles and circularity

Mandala

 

Mandala (Sanskrit for ‘circle’) is an Indian spiritual sign, symbolising the never-ending cycles of the cosmos.
As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the end.
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Today I went and watched a Hindi movie, Tamasha, with my mentor and her friend. The same friend who accompanied us to Manji The Mountain Man, all those months ago. I was excited to be able to understand a little bit more this time!
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Several other aspects of my life are starting to come full circle here; I am throwing away more than I buy, I am being recognised in my same old local haunts as opposed to visiting new places. A new teacher has started teaching Class 2, and now I can tell her the ways of the school.

 

Some things have not come full circle. The expectations I had before coming to India were not met by the reality of life here. That is not to say that I was disappointed in everything, just that my time here has ended up treading a different path to what I had envisaged. There are the silly little things that I didn’t think about, like the fact that there are still mosquitoes in December, or the fact that it actually does get really cold here.

 

Then there are the bigger things, I haven’t really made as big of an impact on the school as I’d hoped, for various reasons I haven’t started a new after-school club, or organised a big event, or even a themed lesson-day. Does this mean failure? Not necessarily, just success in areas that I didn’t know existed, and strength drawn from a part of myself that I was unfamiliar with until now.

 

Even this blog is not what it ought to have been. Packed in my folder, alongside insurance documents and flight details, were academic resources, fresh from the Bodelian library, that I intended to comment on; photocopies of Indian architectural wonders, articles on Indian democracy from The Oxford Historian (Issue XII if anyone’s interested…) and even some notes I made from a talk I attended by the director of the contentious short film India’s Daughter – Leslee Unwin (the talk was organised by the University of Oxford’s India Society and took place on the 02.05.15 at St. Catherine’s College).

 

Yet the road less trodden proved more interesting, and commenting on the things that I have observed here, as they happened, has proven more interesting than any abstract, scholarly insight.
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As a cinema attendant showed customers to their seat in the darkened screen today, I thought about what a great metaphor that was for my time in India. Trying to navigate a huge and complex space, whilst at times feeling completely in the dark, and at other moments, as though a torch was being shone from somewhere, lighting the way.

 

After all, as all circles illustrate, what is an ending but a new beginning…

How learning Hindi opened windows in place of locked doors.

 

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(C) Taken from ‘India Bazaar: Vintage Indian Graphics’ (Icons Series) – (paperback published 31 Oct 2003) by Kairi Jain, Samantha Harrison and Bari Kumar.

Living in another country makes it vital to build bridges instead of walls. In my case, I don’t think that my time in India would amount to half as much if it weren’t for learning words and phrases in Hindi. Actually, not just words and phrases, but how to read some of the Devanagari script too!

Unlike most of the other British Council TAs, I am placed alone, and in a girls’ hostel. This has motivated me to really persevere with picking up bits of vocab from the girls that live here. That, and the fact that living on your own, you need to find some sort of way to amuse yourself!

My Hindi is basic, I can’t write sentences or recognise most words. I can’t say more than a dozen phrases (and their negatives) and about thirty additional words. Yet the difference it’s made to my time here (both in the hostel and outside of it) has been enormous. Often, I hear people saying that I shouldn’t invest too much effort in learning Hindi as;

  • “everyone speaks English anyway”
  • “you’re only here for a few months”
  • “English is the language of business here and most educated people speak it”
  • “Hindi sounds like a difficult language – and when are you ever going to use it after this?”

Of course, there have also been those that have taken the time to encourage me, and teach me different phrases, as well as correcting my accent! For that I’m grateful, and here are just a few examples of times in which an understanding of Hindi has altered my experience of daily life here;

  1. Driving to Ranthambore from Jaipur and being able to read the names of the villages that we were passing through, which included “Moonpur” and “Goth” – so cool!
  2. Being able to ask our driver for the weekend the word for “sorry” after we couldn’t find him parked on a busy shopping street (it’s sharma, though there are several synonyms).
  3. Being able to actually converse with shopkeepers in Jaipur about their business, wish them Diwali mubarak ho!  (which convinced one stationer to try and present me with a free notebook) and get a far better deal than the other tourists by exclaiming “Uncle! Bahut mehengra” (“too expensive!”) until the price of anything was at least halved. This also had a practical side to it, if the friends that I was shopping with wanted to see something in a different size or colour, then I could ask for that too 🙂
  4. Replying to someone in my corridor with Dhanyavaad/धन्यवाद  rather than “thank-you” and receiving a smile and a high-five!

Of course I still make ridiculous mistakes when speaking Hindi. I’ve accidentally asked my boss “what are you?” instead of “how are you?” and misunderstood the question “how are you finding India?” for “how long have you been in India?”. I read words where I can’t tell whether certain segments are supposed to be “oo” or “ee”. Yet I can’t imagine how much more closed my life would be without my little grasp of Hindi. In the hostel it’s quite often the difference between a conversation and silence. I’ll continue to make mistakes, but through my efforts, I will be rewarded with gentle corrections (“it’s hoon not ho if you’re a woman”, a Jaipur clothes shop owner patiently explained) and a respect that leads to acceptance, if not complete understanding.

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The Long Walk To…my hostel room!

The (high)Lights of Jaipur

At the end of last week I was finally able to visit Rajasthan, in particular the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur. This is something that I’d wanted to do since I knew that I was coming to India, and it was well worth the wait!

Although marked on every tourist’s map as part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of must-visit places in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), Jaipur by no means loses its charm due to the presence of pockets of tourists (in fact, I enjoyed a great conversation about travelling with an older woman and her friend who were sitting in the Amber Fort…)

The main sites of the city are so spectacular that they attract many people from India itself, and it’s not hard to see why;

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Interior of the Hall of Public Audience, Jaipur City Palace

The buildings in the centre of Jaipur conform to the Mughal style of architecture that most tourists would associate with India, but, in a vibrant twist, most of the palace structures are the heart of the city are pink, hence the nickname of Jaipur – The Pink City.

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The Hawamahal, or Palace of the Wind – the outer wall features an elaborate screen by which the palace women were able to view street processions and the outside world via a series of elaborately meshed windows and cubby-holes. 

Ok, so the Hawamahal was probably a personal favourite, because I loved going up each storey and finding something different – a balcony here, some stained glass over there, and of course, an incredible view from the top floors, which allows you to see into the Jantar Mantar complex, and all the way up to the mountainside where the Nahargarh fort  is located.

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View from the battlements of the Nahargarh Fort, overlooking the city of Jaipur during Diwali. 

So here is where myself and my friends got completely enchanted by the city of Jaipur. We’d found out from some other friends, all fellow TAs on the same British Council programme as us, that you could go up to the Nahargarh fort at night and have a drink in a bar which was perched on the walls of the fort complex. The drive upwards was far steeper and on a worse road than I had envisaged, and I can’t imagine taking the same ride on a motorcycle or auto-rickshaw (though our driver gleefully told us that the mountainside road was actually in a far better condition than a few years previously, when a girl from New Zealand had been killed, along with the driver of the auto she was in, when it plummeted over the edge of a steep ridge – not exactly what we needed to hear in the dark!).

After a slightly spooky walk through the main gate of the fort, which is ruined in places, and then along a vaguely-lit track, we came to the bar which was much brighter, and looked down at the spectacularly illuminated city below. I’ve heard that the government actually pays for the Diwali lighting (maybe just for businesses and gov. buildings?) but I have no idea if that’s actually true. Either way, the view was even more breathtaking in person, and the lights were constantly dancing, accompanied by the constant bursting of fireworks and crackers. It was such an incredible way for us to experience the Festival of Lights for the first time. We ordered some drinks, sat back, and enjoyed the spectacle of a city which deserves its place on any traveller’s list.

 

Orchha – one of India’s hidden gems.

Unexpected weekend escapes are one of the major perks of working abroad.

Having made no real plans for the holiday of Dussehra, I was very happy to end up going to Gwalior with another teaching assistant who’s working nearby, to meet up with another pair of British Council TAs. The ‘last minute’ nature of this plan did make travel more stressful (e.g., buying our return train tickets on the Sunday morning, knowing that we had to be in work on Monday!) but it was definitely worth the hassle (and approx. 20 hours spent travelling there and back from Greater Noida…) as Orccha ranks as one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in India.

Orccha is a medieval fort city in Madyha Pradesh, about 3 hours’ drive from Gwalior. We hired a driver and car and set out to explore temples, a fort and a palace complex, set along a stunning backdrop of mountains and rivers. It certainly made a change from Delhi! Although there were buses of tourists arriving, and the main street of the city was bustling with shops and stalls, the place didn’t have an annoyingly commercial feel to it, once you moved away from the designated tourist bus stands. The main attractions – the fort, the chhatri buildings along the river, and Lakshmi Temple, were not as crowded as those in Delhi and Agra, but even more spectacular. At one point, my group found themselves alone in an almost ‘secret’ gated garden compound, which was full of small temple structures and flowers. Later, as we were about to leave, we were able to sit by the side of the river on some rocks, and speak to some local children in Hindi!

Chhatris are elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used in Indian (Mughal) architecture.
Chhatris are elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used in Indian (Mughal) architecture.

All in all, weekends like the last one are a fantastic cure to the boredom that comes with any working Monday- Friday routine. When everything seems so much more complicated and illogical than at home, seeing such a magnificent place reminds me of why I chose to live and work in India.