Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A View From a Bengali Rooftop

A pensive mood descends as I gaze from a Kolkata rooftop into the distance. Clutched in my hand rests a comforting heat of a soothing cup of brew. Despite the non-Kenyan origins of the tea, it still has a homely, welcomed, aspect I find extremely relaxing. My other hand rests on the knee of my left knee. The foot is pressed, bare, against the rough concrete wall circuiting the rooftop, which rises to my seated shoulder. It leaves my perspective clear to the distance with a plentiful view of Kolkatan urban sprawl.Sprawl is thoroughly the most appropriate word for the disarrayed, mismatched collage of living spaces, so far removed from the uniformity of suburban neighborhood in Ireland. "A City of Contrasts", as it was dubbed by a good man I recently had a few conversations with, is title which expresses many of the elements of life in this particular concrete jungle, and the architecture is simply one area where this is quote is proven. In fact, it is simply the tip of the iceberg, below which looms the continued, and far more expansive trend of diversity for which India is renowned.

At this height, it is note-able that no two buildings resemble their neighbors, outside of their need to expand upwards, rather than outwards, atypical of such condensed city living environments. The need for greater living space in a smaller area stimulates the growth of three, four and five storey accommodations. Our own building looms four floors up, not including the rooftop, however I do believe that our landlord is close to unique in owning the entirety of the building. Architecturally, there is very little outward similarity in the edifices, not even the location of the windows or relief designs. While certain designs may resemble each other, or be similarly located, it is rare and even rarer that they would be both similar and similarly located, nor do the balconies and frontal structural designs share and commonalities. The size and shape of the buildings themselves lend the idea of mismatched jig saw pieces, not fitting in in size or shape.

The differences lay open the truth to the Indian inequality, which permeates all areas of life here. The condition of the building, a perfectly kept, yet gaudy purple, building stands proudly opposite of me, its neighbor is in disrepair, flaking yellow paint and streaked with mould. This may be indicative, but on its own would not lay indication of the true depth of the inequality in urban India. To understand that, you need to walk the streets and experience the sights and smells, observe the living quarters of those who own little more than a few garments and a shack of wood, from which they sell fruit or sweets. These shacks operate as stalls, and at night the erection of a mosquito net makes them a bed. Even these are wealthier than those with no livelihood but salvaging, whose children rum in the streets, delightedly, in the nip, from their shouting mothers, or the children who carry their younger siblings in their arms to tempt guilty feeling into a few rupees.

Contrasting this knowledge against the view in my horizon, rising over a dusty barrier which seems to separate any level of Kolkatan life from its economic superior, loom the flashing lights of a trio of skyscrapers, perhaps close in spectacle and display amongst similar glass structures in New York. The dusty horizon, to me, represents the stark divide of the lives of the rich from the lives of the many in Kolkata. The skyward bound monuments and their less, but still substantial, powerful brethren, flanking either side, climb to heights in a city where basic human rights are denied to the common people. The divide, physical and metaphorical, is conjured up as a chasm, insurpassable by the mundane tools allotted to the average citizen, and forbids the overlapping of societies dependent on each other or, more truly, on itself.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Sound of the Monsoon

The Sound of the Monsoon
This morning the sun beams outside my window. It isn’t as hot as it has been for some of the last couple of weeks. Sometimes I could almost imagine myself burning in the shade. The morning sun, at 9.20am is a bearable 32 degrees, and a substantially lower humidity than usual means I didn’t sweat during my ten seconds outside. The cooler temperament today can only have been caused by yesterday’s weather.

Since hearing initially about the weather conditions during summertime India, the scorching heat and humidity have been the primary topic (generally considered to be a singular topic). Close on its heels, topic number two has been the relief brought about by the rains. Over the course of the last few weeks we have seen a few instances of rain, and heavy rain at that, but the thunder storm yesterday was unique in it’s particulars, perhaps not meteorologically, but, for me at least, metaphorically and emotively. It, coupled against the weather of the days either side of it, embodied one element of the extreme contrasts that are experienced during a stay in Kolkata and, I’m sure, India itself. For me, this thunderstorm was melancholic and beautiful. At times, its power was terrifying and humbling. But it was also delightful and inviting. This is my diary entry from that rainy morning:

Thursday, June 20th, 2013. Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

This morning, a thunderstorm roars outside. I attempted to take a video of it, but I wasn't able to quite capture the audio and video quality sufficient to do the spectacle the justice it deserved. I’m unsure why this downpour is more important than the last, but it seems to carry weight. The window to my right brightens in flashes, nine or ten times a minute, and thunder follows with a grand roar. The rain that cascades would fit in comfortably in an Irish April. Travelling to school in this feels a bit daunting, but the rain, on the other hand, does hold a level of attraction. I would be lying if I said I didn't walk out, onto the balcony, into it, earlier. The temperature relief is palpable. Less welcome, however, is the sensation of rain drops on my back as I lie on my bed, my window must be leaking a tad.

I’m well prepared for my classes this morning, due to the fact that I alternate classes daily, I will be repeating yesterdays classes, which went very well, with another group, so I have ground to hope it will go very today too. As a result, I have allowed myself to relax and lie in this morning. It’s been nice to at ease, and the rain has given my easeful morning some atmosphere. On a side-note, I've been hunting for the possibility of finding a swimming pool somewhere, I’m craving a swim!

The thunder outside sounds like artillery! Occasionally, the lightning so powerful, it exceeds the usual sheet illumination in the distance and brightens my field of vision and the resulting thunder sounds like an explosion in our near vicinity. The visual is followed by, in a split second, remarkable aural effects. It feels like a real-life cinema, sounds like the monsoon to me.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Initial Sentiments of Teaching in Nabadeep

When Yesterday, Monday the 10th, rolled around, I have to admit the nerves had kicked in. I had told myself over and over that I was used to teaching kids, I knew English, and I had a total grasp on this, but the nerves niggled away nonetheless. After the weekend I was starting to feel like I was getting a grasp on Kolkata itself, but I was here to be put out my comfort zone, and to work, not to establish a level of relaxation and ease in a city on the other side of the world. So, waiting for the car to arrive to bring myself and my teaching partner to Nabadeep Coaching Center, I settled on a level of nerves and determination, not dissimilar to the sensations of anticipating the exam paper you have done very little to prepare for. My internal dialogue had no pity for my nerves, and sounded something along the lines of "suck it up", and I entered the car with a level of calm, tinged with colorful flourishes of nerves and excitements.

The car pulled away from the side street where our accommodation loomed, buildings much like Jervis apartment blocks, come Aladdin, and down the long narrow street, no wider than my own road at home. I, since my arrival here on Thursday, have been endlessly baffled by the lack of vehicle related deaths on this street. The swerving of taxis, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, and heavy vehicles, all amongst nonchalant pedestrians almost being skimmed by headlights, would warrant absolute shock in Irish traffic. When Dr. Collins warned me traffic accidents were more likely to cause me physical harm than illness, I didn't believe him, but I do now. We emerged from the stall and shack lined allies in this jeep onto the Rash Behari Avenue Connector, a main road similar to the Navan Road, where doing a U-Bend  and breaking red lights at high speeds is accepted fairly complacently. The Round-A-Junction at Ruby Hospital, above which a sign declared the temperature a mild 32 degrees thanks to the rain, brought us onto the dusty EM bypass. Out of the dust more tall buildings of Kokata's sporadic spread loom in the distance. We soon take a turn off  on the left, down a gravel side road and turn left, keeping the running water to our right hand side. A right hand turn takes us over a small concrete bridge, and one of the teachers, who escorts us, points proudly to a yellow building with a red slate roof, facing the water, released a storm of toddler shaped blue uniforms. "Another of our schools" she states. To the left of the road there is a twin of the building, but no children. The taxi marches on, turns right, and takes us under the overhanging bypass and up a concrete road. To our right, shacks made of black plastic and brown wood, stand almost uniform, black plastic taking the place of brick red on these streets. A left hand turn leads us up an industrial street, and I catch a glimpse of a Hyundai sign on a workers t-shirt as he lolls at the back door of one of the factories, ahead Nabadeep training centre stands a green three story building at the end of the field. We hop out early as a heavy machinery vehicle sits in the road, and walk for a few minutes.

Inside, we recognize one of the teachers, and are introduced to two others, all of whom kindly feed us. Under the impression we were running late, we were a bit at a loss as to how the class was operating, but one of teachers soon explains that not all the children arrive til after half one and that the rain that day would have some of them absent. She also tells us how we will split the classes, myself taking class V and VI on alternate days, but both for today. The alternating days eased a lot of my fears that I would be incapable of juggling abilities across two classes, even if they were only small classes. The reason for the split is to allow the children some variety in their coaching center hours, rather than studying English solely. I learn that the children who come to the coaching center in the afternoon, have been in school since 7am and come to the center for extra help. The children in the coaching center I move to after this session have been in school 10-4 and come for extra work also. After lunch with the teachers, mango sauce, banana, and veg fried in mustard seed oil, we meet our students and I glean some names. We are with them for two hours, roughly, and soon work out that the crux of the work they have been given in school is tenses, so I work on their reading and attempt to explain the concepts of past, present and future and some verb conjugations. I was really charmed and the name all children calling male volunteers, Uncle, was enthusiastic and heartwarming. I left the first coaching center feeling elated.

The walk to the second center brief, about five minutes, but rainy and as we turn down the path and a small blue concrete hut sitting under a tree comes into view, a football pitch and bodies of still water surrounding, my shows are quickly becoming sodden. I leave them outside, as is standard in India. The hut is even smaller on the inside, crammed with children, about 30, in a space built for about 10 people, at a push. For today, I was asked to take classes IV and V here, IV only being of one student. Here, juggling material between the two groups became a challenge. The smaller space was a tough deal too, and I left with my energy low, my joints sore and my moral a little low. Arriving back at the accommodation, it was safe to say I descended to a little grumpy, but a few chats with the gang perked me up.

Day 2, Today, went much easier. Again, we arrived early despite being panicky about being late due to delays in Gariahat, the market center, whilst trying to get our phones and internet up and running (I'm still bumming the Mbs of one of the coordinators, as I type this) and enjoyed lunch with the teachers. Today it was mango, peas and potato in an unknown, but delicious, sauce, a bizarre looking fruit resembling a rotten banana, which tasted far better than it looked, a grey lump which reminded me of my mother apple sponge. The meal was a thorough reminder not to judge food by appearances. Class started and the three two girls I had were an absolute pleasure. Towards the end of the class I simply got them to use some markers to draw pictures and write a few sentences out of. The use of colored pens made them very excited to write out their pronoun sentences, and made the class that bit more enjoyable. I also got my name written in Bengali on my copy for me. Class 2, again didn't go as well as class 1, but it still went better than Day 1. At one point the lack of facilities in the building resulted in one of the boys of my class leading me by the hand across a narrow path between the still water beds to use his family toilet. A surreal experience, as "Uncle, slow" led me onto more solid ground, what I can only surmise to be his sisters, grandmother and mother were there to show me to the toilet. The end of the class had me in a better mood than the day before, the class was entirely class VII and my energy was much higher, so as I type this I am exhausted but hugely optimistic about the coming ten weeks. Signing off for some coffee!


Dr. Shovelhands.