India's Children: Some Vignettes

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 7, 2005 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

If I had stayed in India it would have been for my students, even though in certain respects they were an educator's worst nightmare. They were loud, ill-behaved, garrulous, lachrymose, irresponsible. They seldom raised their hands; they were easily distracted; they would drop chairs and overturn desks. Their grade-level did not correlate with their academic skills.

But they were products of their environment. Their school was loud, chaotic, distracting, messy. At nine o'clock every morning, the fire station across the street would test its ear-splitting siren. The students were given very little responsibility; they learned by rote; and their exams grossly overestimated their abilities. Many of them faced marriage or purdah. Their cramped spaces prevented them releasing energy: in a five-hour day, they might move for fifteen minutes. Their playground was a hectic alleyway.

Yet they were more lively, cheerful, and optimistic by far than American students. Such was the paradox of India.

Learning their names was daunting. Students would approach me and ask, "You know my name sir?" Months after I left I could still remember several. But more than names I remember faces: faces beaming with encouragement and love; faces confused by my erratic lessons; faces bounding by me on the stairwells; faces hiding shyly behind notebooks. Here are some that I remember the best.


Gulreaz was a student in the 7th standard. Tall for her age, she was thin, with a long narrow face and sleek black hair. She befriended me quickly. She would materialize beside me in the crowd adjacent the school's exit. It was here that mothers, mostly veiled, would nudge their primary school daughters toward the door. Here also was a small, decrepit Ferris wheel, which the students rode with great delight as they sucked on fresh sugar cane juice.

Gulreaz was full of sage pronouncements. Americans, she said, wanted the dark skin of Indians; Indians wanted the wealth and power of Americans. She told me that manual labor was edifying and necessary: a Gandhian idea; also an Islamic idea. On Independence Day she dressed up as Jawaharlal Nehru. When I thanked her for hailing cabs for me she would say that thanks were inappropriate and unnecessary. In the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I undertook, Gulreaz was a fairy and Snout the Rudhiwallah.

Gulreaz provided my first lesson in the conservatism of her Muslim community. Her parents didn't approve of Gulreaz talking with me. So she stopped: an opportunity lost.


Anjum played Shakespeare's scorned Helena. She was good at being scorned. She knew how to stomp her feet, spin on a heel, fold her arms, plead, fawn. Hindi films had taught her well.

She was one of the first girls to demand that I remember her name. I promised that I would give her two rupees if I forgot it. Sometimes I facetiously called her George; she would demand the two rupees. Anjum was convinced that like all American visitors I would forget her. "Americans have come," she'd say. "They say they will write and they go and they do not write." I promised that I would write. She was skeptical. "Though," she admitted, "you are the first foreigner to be friendly with us." This was damning.

Anjum taught me some Hindi insults: googly, po-putt, and haraj. They are apparently synonyms for "parrot", i.e. idiot.


I met Amera at a dance contest. She sat next to me in the audience. She wore a traditional Punjabi outfit: colorful and tinselly. Discovering that I knew a little Hindi she presumed that I knew a lot of Hindi: she would blurt out a sentence and then giggle when I told her the few words I understood. She taught me the idiom upar kamala kali hai: "You are empty upstairs": empty-headed.

Amera was ambitious. She wanted to study in America, work for NASA, be an astronaut. (I thought of her when Kalpana Chawla, the Indian female astronaut, perished in the Columbia.) When I visited her at home, she told me that she was very different from her family. When I asked how, she said, "My family likes to share."

She was being unfair to herself: all Indians like to share. Though Amera had met my American colleague only once, she gave him a birthday present: a miniature wooden basket filled with plastic flowers. She gave us Christmas presents: Abbot and Costello drinking glasses. When I asked her about the Indian national anthem, she quickly produced an English translation.

Amera's English was excellent. So was her memory: as Hermia, she was one of the first actresses to memorize all her lines. Her biggest problem was her smile: she would smile while shouting "Out, dog! Out, cur!" at Demetrius.

Amera enjoyed mimicking me. She mocked me for nibbling my food. She mocked my accent. "Howrya doin?" she'd drawl. She was determined to prove that all Americans were mean. She wondered why I hadn't accompanied the students on their trips to Essel World, Borivli, Mahabaleshwar. "If you don't come to watch us dance," she said, "I will say that all Americans are mean." I replied that all Indians were pushy. It was a common argument in India.

Sometimes the children would bring colored ribbons to school. They then spent the whole day tying the ribbons around the wrists of everybody else. Each color represents a quality: Red stands for love; pink for friendship; blue for respect; yellow for hope. Amera gave me red, pink, blue -- and then black. Black means enemy.


Asiya Patel played Quince the carpenter. She spoke her lines with peculiar emphasis: "The mOOOst lamAINntable comedy and the mOOOst cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe". The other girls often found her googly.

One day she ran up to me and started shouting "Sir!" at me. I lost my temper, as I would many times. Asiya was stunned.

When practice ended, she handed me a note containing a pathetic apology. The extreme transgression followed by a pathetic apology, followed in turn by another extreme transgression: it was a common cycle.


Shaista was always inviting me to her house. But she never bothered to tell me her house's location, or when I should come.

She was uncommonly rugged and had blue-gray eyes. She was very confident. One day she greeted me with a thunderous "GOOD MORNING, SIR!" I shouted back, "GOOD MORNING, SHAISTA!" She thought this was hilarious; it became a running joke. People shout a lot in India.


Ashrat played Puck. Her memory was astounding. During rehearsals she would mouth everybody else's lines: she had memorized the whole play. One scene involved her and a fairy; when the fairy was absent, Ashrat played both parts.

According to one student, Ashrat was "impassion girl." She had enormous energy; she bounced everywhere. Commonly the girls would hurl insults at each other; tell each other to speak or shut up; slap each other. Ashrat was quick to retaliate. She was a born fighter.

Her hand was always raised in class, and she would frown and grumble if I did not call on her. If I did, she'd leap out of her chair and nearly always give the right answer.

Ashrat was fascinated by the togas that the play demanded. She couldn't wait to see what one looked like. She even modified a supposedly well-known Hindi song into "Toga, toga, kya hai?" (Toga, toga, what is it?) When I left, Ashrat gave me a small, dusty ceramic statue of a bonneted baby in diapers. I gave her my baseball cap. I don't think she realized that I was leaving for good.


One day I asked my students to relate the most boring thing they had learned that term: part of my subversion. One girl said that the most boring thing she had learned that term was Nayab. Nayab, a student, burst into tears.

Nayab was a compulsive giggler. I have a photo of Nayab in which her face is like a distended balloon: she was trying to contain a laugh.

Nayab played Demetrius. This was bad casting, as Demetrius is arguably the play's most serious character. Nayab struggled especially with the line: "I love you not, therefore pursue me not." After "I love you not" the pitch of her voice would go haywire; she'd chortle and cover her mouth. We would groan: here we go again.

Nayab would pause, collect herself, tighten her lips, raise a hand to plead for patience. "I love you not," she'd begin, but the laughter would tumble out. She thought it preposterous to speak of love to one of her friends.

But on the day of the performance she performed impeccably. Not a titter. She stole the show.

She was a star student of English. She wrote voluminously. Indeed I first came to know Nayab from her journal.

Very often I was surrounded by children trying to get my attention by shouting, "Sir!" Nayab, noting the futility of this, made some variations. She would either repeat "sir" quietly, or repeatedly spell "S-I-R" or "K-E-N-S-I-R". She figured out that "Ken sir" sounds like "cancer". So the kids called me cancer.

Nayab was highly sentimental and apologetic. One day, annoyed by my students, I marched out of class. The next day Nayab appeared with a note: "I am sorry very much for misbehaving" is repeated eight times.

Another student wrote a note that included this unfortunate mistake: "Hope you will forget us."


Nayab's best friend Faiza was a troublemaker, and usually to blame for Nayab's giggling. As Lysander in the play, she prompted her fellow actresses by slapping them and shouting, "Eh, bolna!" Speak!

Lysander despises Helena; then, enchanted, he falls for her. He announces that he will address all his "love and might, to honor Helen and to be her knight." I told Faiza that she had to show the audience her change of heart, as they wouldn't necessarily understand her English. She was to put one hand on her heart and point the other toward Helena. She got good at this.

Faiza too could be supremely penitent. Accompanying Nayab's note was one from Faiza. In it the word "sorry" was repeated 76 times.


An extraordinarily self-contained and mathematically gifted girl, Sadiya played Hippolyta. I had abridged the script, so she had only one line: "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; four nights will quickly dream away the time." In accordance with Hippolyta's regality, Sadiya spoke in King's English. And she endured one-hour practices to speak her one line.


As Bottom in the play, Aafreen had to wear a donkey-head made out of construction paper. She also had to sing. As a self-conscious teenager, she was leery of both. She sang in a monotone: "The ousel-cock so black of hue, with orange tawny bill, etc." But the proud Titania had to be awakened by Bottom's song and cry out, "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?" So a song was necessary. We brainstormed alternatives. A Hindi song? An English song? A few times Aafreen sang, "Don't Break My Heart", then a popular song in Bombay. But the other girls laughed. So we stuck with Shakespeare.


Kamla Nehru Park is a children's park named after the wife of Jawaharlal Nehru, who so loved children that his birthday is commemorated as Children's Day. On the fence that encircles it are several sculpted animals: reposing pandas, leaning giraffes, bounding lions. All of them are smiling and playing. The park draws crowds of adults and children alike. But like many public places in India, it is poorly maintained.

As I walked by the park almost daily, I came to see the similarities between the sculpted animals and my students. Like my students, the animals had wide smiles; they appeared to be moving; their eyes were joyous. But they never actually moved; hanging in mid-air, they were affixed to bars like those of a jail.

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