Back to school

Me, at the “BASIC SCIENCE” exhibition in Terminal 5 Security

So I’m now very much here and just about survived an eight-hour overnight stint at Chennai Airport, a madhouse where the coin-operated telephones have no slots in which to deposit coins, and where one is required to X-ray one’s own luggage before taking it on-board an aeroplane (I think that more countries’ counter-terrorist procedures should work on the honour system like this). On the tiny domestic flight, it was so bumpy that people were actually praying, but that’s quite another story!

I’ve just spent a pleasant day speaking slowly, teaching English and also a bit of British Politics. The children are all extremely sweet, and their spoken English is excellent, with these rather cute exceptions…

Me: So, who can tell me how old they are?
7-year-old: [proudly] I live in South India.
Me: Does anyone have any questions about England?
14-year-old: Yes! Cambridge University.
8-year-old: [to me] Are you Tamil?

They learn English from Tamil books written in the style of such literary greats as Dick King-Smith. One story was about an old man who grew “scrumptious cabbages” in an idyllic English village marred only by the presence of a giant nocturnal snail with unusual markings and a penchant for vegetables.

The Principal, who is a very nice lady, is practically deified. Whenever she enters a room, the kids all stand up, salute and chant, “Hi, Miss!” They are also beginning to do the same for me (although I am not Miss, but either Mr Gabriel from London or just plain old Uncle Gabriel); and on this point, I appear to have been allocated one of the school caretakers as a servant, who will come to my room and bring me tea etc. on demand. Delightful as Indian tea is, I doubt I shall be availing myself of that facility much.

At one point, the Principal ordered five caretakers to wash and ready her car. The lucky one who got to drive kept his thumb on the hooter for the entire journey! The school electrician was sent up to my room to demonstrate how I could use my two-pin adaptor in the three-pin sockets. Rather alarmingly, the solution involves jabbing a screwdriver into the elusive third pin, but luckily, a non-metal pen does just as well.

One secretary was dispatched to the local shop to fetch me a refrigerated bottle of water, whereas the Principal herself specifically ordered “warm water” at room temperature. (She subsequently insisted that I accepted a cup of heated milk: “You must have hot drink, you have just had something cold.” Obviously concerned that I might catch a chill in the tropical climate.)

One of the Assistant Heads said of the Principal: “I don’t know about everyone else, but I am happy to walk up hill, take the mic, and say, ‘She is my angel and my inspiration.'” Now you wouldn’t get that in a city academy!

Outside the school gates, things become quite bizarre. One has to take off one’s shoes to use an ATM, and all ATMs have dedicated, uniformed guards (at least, they’re presumably dedicated when not lounging about reading a newspaper). A bus-ride costs about 7p, as opposed to a white-knuckle ride in a motorised rickshaw for 99p; I was in a rickshaw last night which gave the misleading impression that it had some structure beyond simply being a platform on wheels… I rapidly found out to the contrary when I leant against the side which turned out to be a tarpaulin. Quite nerve-wracking!

The transport may be mad, but the food is excellent (though also mad in its own way). For breakfast yesterday, I ate a huge amount of noodles, combined with an enormous mound of sugar and a sauce vaguely reminiscent of chickpea hummus. The day before, lunch was curried rice, eaten with fingers off a giant banana-leaf which was handed to me in a wonderfully casual way by a waiter. And there’s constant eating! About an hour after breakfast, people stop for a tiffin, usually a gigantic slice of coconut cake or something similar, and it’s lunch not long after that. The school ‘mess’ itself is staffed by two very jolly men, who speak no English but would make extremely adept charades players, whose Tamil names apparently translate as Mr Money and Mr Sugar.

I’ve bought an excessively cheap local mobile, one of the latest models but still more basic than my own in Britain, although it does have the redeeming features of a Tamil keypad, a cricketing game, local texts costing less than a penny and free daily gems of karmic wisdom provided courtesy of Nokia Asia. And a whole bunch of Tunak Tunak Tun-style ringtones.

On the first day, my contact in the gap-year company, Victor, excitedly told me that he had just become engaged and that it was his partner’s birthday. Asked if she minded him working: “No, I have only known her since January 1st. My sister introduce us, she give me a cake and a Sprite, then my sister asked me if I like her. I say, ‘No, it’s not right, you must ask her first.’ Then she smiled, and now we are engaged, and she said she will call me today. Time cannot pass quick enough!” Another world…!

Anyway, my full dairy is already up to over 11 pages and I haven’t even written up any of today yet (and it’s already 4o’clock…), which includes a baboon living in the school grounds and several ravens fluttering about the dining hall, so I shall take no further advantage of India’s broadband, say bye-bye and return with more soon! Oh, and please do make nice comments in the Queen’s English!

Disclaimer: I’m tired and hot and sitting in a noisy office, so there may be some [deliberate, naturally] spelling mistakes.

7 Responses to Back to school

  1. Ben Janoff says:

    Haha, fantastic Gabriel! I especially love the basic science exhibition!

  2. michelle wagman says:

    Gabriel…how lovely to read your blog…firstly to hear that you are ok…being fed etc! but more because your writing is so enjoyable to read! I almost feel like i am there with you..fantastic!! keep us updated on your adventures. Cant wait for the next installment…lots of love xxx

  3. Sandra Webber says:

    I request a picture of that baboon.

  4. Oh brilliant – I really enjoyed reading this. What a different world, but it sounds exceedingly awesome! What kind of clothes are you wearing?? The food sounds awesome!!

    • Gabriel says:

      It’s quite formal… each working day it has to be a shirt, and I can’t get away with shorts at any time, because that’s what the boys wear. It’s a bit like Britain in the 1940s, I guess. (Although I am going to try and buy a dhoti or some other more traditional Indian clothes. I’m the only non-Indian in the whole area, so people tend to stop doing what they’re doing and look a bit!)

      And I certainly think that the noodles/hummus thingy is something LJY could add into the standard wrap-guacamole-hummus-lunch! x

  5. Adam Webber says:

    Your blog has just made my weekend – witty, interesting and makes me very jealous!
    One question: are you Tamil?
    Looking forward to next intallment.

  6. Pingback: Bye bye, everybody, bye bye* | Gabrielquotes

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