Monsoon makes dry land feel like ocean and indoors like a small boat at sea. I’m standing in the middle of our room, perched above the open air dining area of the guest house like the look out on a pirate ship, staring at nothing. A sheet of water coursing off the eaves draws a curtain between our tiny balcony and the school, my blurred view interrupted by gusts of wind that blow the curtain back at odd moments. There’s a tidal roar of falling rain and wind washing through the trees. Nearly dark, twilight creeps low through the assault of raindrops, obscuring the paths through undergrowth before sliding stealthily up the tree trunks to mute the incandescent glow of the leaves. I can’t find the energy to turn on the light, to face my surroundings in the harsh fluorescents, to think about taking a shower, to even stretch out on the bed and try to rest. I’ve been at Namma Bhoomi for three days in the relentless rain and already I feel wrung out, exhausted, like I’ve been treading water for too long and my reserves are gone. With the roar and sigh of the storm in my ears, I watch the darkness gather around me until I sink into the dark.
We arrived in Kundapura in a drizzly dawn that followed an agonizing torrential night. The assumption that a sleeper bus would be comparably comfortable to a sleeper train, it turns out, was ludicrous. Lying behind the curtain in the beds built above the normal passenger seats, we snatched sleep for the small intervals between being thrown into the wall as we two wheeled around turns and kissing the ceiling hurdling lake sized potholes. The rain sprayed through the leaking window and by two a.m. I was marooned in a puddle. Tumbling gratefully onto firm ground, the chai shack across the street was an oasis in the desert, a life boat on a stormy sea.
After a short rickshaw journey we arrived ragged and nervous at Namma Bhoomi, a residential school run by The Concerned for Working Children, which provides access to education to which the 100 young people living there (aged 2 to 20) might otherwise be denied. Namma Bhoomi means “Our Land” in Karnada, echoing a deeper philosophy of youth empowerment and self-determination that underwrites the CWC and Namma Bhooomi’s work. Every child living at Namma Bhoomi is a citizen and Namma Bhoomi is their home.
Arriving before 7am we had a few hours to pull ourselves together before Ramesh, our contact, arrived for the day. Chandu, the most senior cook/housekeeper/mother, understood more than enough English to get us settled. She has the same tentative smile (flickering through an otherwise remote and vaguely resigned expression) as my godmother, that draws me into competition with myself to see how often I could bring it out, how long I could make it stay. The children do not use Miss or Mister with their teachers and caretakers, instead encouraged to address elders as Acca and Tomma, sister and brother. Between the warming influence of the tea and her swift no-nonsense welcome, I immediately began thinking of her as Chandacca (Sister Chandu) too.
By 8.30 the drizzle had become a persistent earnest rain, trampolining off Ramesh’s umbrella as he walked up the path to greet us. 6 foot 3, thin as a rail and full of a slightly nervous seeming energy and sincere enthusiasm, his welcome put our minds at ease not just with its earnestness but also his assurance we would not start working with the children directly til evening. Our post breakfast (Chandacca is a predictably wonderful cook) pre-tour nap assisted by the continued babble of rain drops and the added whispers of a curious wind.
Twelve pairs of intimidatingly unabashed eyes focused on us as we stood in the door of the Montessori preschool. Shaking the rain off our clothes our tentative “Namaste” was met with a smile from the teacher and continued silent vigilance from the audience of small faces. With the teachers encouragement we squeezed round the toddler sized table and began assisting with ABC’s. Closing my hand over a small fist, once the small chalkboard was covered shakily tandem scrawled Ds, the silent little girl in a sparkly hand-me-down dress showed the teacher with a shy smile, slipped the board into her bookbag and toddled across the room to play. Emboldened a few other children squeezed closer. “My name Divia! A B C D E G H I K L M N O Q S V U X Z!” Triumphant she toddled away to the play area and began playing with a small bowl of buttons. Soon five small hands stretched toward me, small voices reciting English numbers as I delivered the buttons into their palms. Ramesh found us two hours later, me with Divia presiding over my lap like a throne, conducting scattered conversation somewhere in the intersection of basic English and three year old’s Karnada.
That evening we began working with the older residents, who for the majority of the day are at the secondary school in Kundapura or vocational training on campus. Gathered in the spartan main hall cum dining area, they watch the evening news on a mysteriously appearing and disappearing television. After which I found myself facing a wide circle of adolescents in various attitudes of expectation. I’ve never taught English before, so we stumbled over familiar ground singsonging basic small talk in a call and response. “Hello.” “How are you?” “I am fine, thank you.” “What is your name?” “My name is _____” “How old are you?” “Where are you from?” As it turned out I had students from 13 to 20 coming from as far as 500 kilometers away. At a minor loss for what to do next, I opened the floor to questions about me. Immediately requests flooded in; my parents’ names, my grandparents’ names, if I had brothers and sisters and, in what has become an oft-repeated theme in conversations with Indians, whether I am married and how it was possible that at 31 I’m not. After explaining that in my country there isn’t the same pressure or necessity to get married, Shamala (whose English expertise promoted her to translator) turned to me, thoughtful “so it’s your choice to get married if you want? …That must be nice…”
Class ran well beyond the hour and Chandacca came to collect us for our dinner. Crouched under her umbrella we picked our way through the steady rain, my mind spinning with ideas for the next day, doubts about my performance as a teacher and a quiet sadness that I pushed quickly away. Soon after I slid gratefully into bed, the sheets cool and damp, quickly succumbing to exhaustion, drummed into unconsciousness by the steady tap of the rain.
Our first full day at Namma Bhoomi begins at 5.30am. By 6am, fat lazy drops splattering from our hoods we join the children for their morning yoga class. Led by an Ayeruvedic doctor from town, practice lightens the fog in my head without dispersing it while the continual rush of rain lulls me into a meditative state. After class a preteen girl trails shyly behind us as until her friend comes sprinting up with an umbrella at which point they insist on sheltering us for the short walk across campus to the guest house. They linger below our window peering through the crack in the door. I go out to wave and they smile behind their hands before disappearing to do their morning chores.
After breakfast we meet the elementary class with whom we’ll spend most of our time. Class time seems to be divided between games (“Miss! Miss! Chasing dog!” “Miss! Miss! Cow and tiger!”) and study (endless chalkboards of ABCs, pages of basic math). Although we certainly did some small measure of teaching (hand-clapping games and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star count, right?) leaving the tumult behind as we cross the path to our guest house, we’re nagged by the feeling we’ve been more a disruption than assistance.
My second conversation class does not go well. Attempting to be teacherly, I’ve broken my circle into smaller groups to practice a short script with each other. Somehow, over the noise of Gail’s (slightly younger) group doing the Hokey Pokey and the growing chatter of the rain, I’ve managed to give instructions and answer questions. But every time I move to a new group to see how they’re doing, they are fidgeting in silence and staring mournfully at the Hokey Pokey or leaping at me with questions, in English, but not about English. “Miss! Miss! You not married? Really?” By the end of the interminable hour, I give up. Tomorrow we will do the Hokey Pokey and I will undergo further inquisition.
The following morning the rain gives up its pretense of delicacy and storms down from the sky with the ferocity of a rabid runaway tiger. We arrive at yoga drenched immediately surrounded by a mob of children chattering in Karnada. Shamala appears at my side. “Miss, you are teaching yoga class today?” “What about the doctor?” “Doctor is only coming yesterday. They say you are teaching now.” I shoot Gail a look. Now under pressure as the accredited yoga teacher between us, I know she is neither prepared nor excited for the challenge of leading this class. The hour passes in a bedraggled fashion with Shamala correcting us quietly when we miss parts of their usual practice. By the end of the hour we can feel their growing impatience with us and it’s only the appearance of their housemother prevents class from fracturing into disarray. After presiding over their final prayer she disappears into the kitchen, leaving Gail and I mirroring each other’s baffled expressions while the rain snarls in the gutters.
“You look disgusting.” Gail’s eyes are leveled on me over her tea cup. Unknown by us the elementary class had been on its best behavior for our first day. Our second day is bedlam from the moment we walk in. I’ve spent the last two hours being used as a human jungle gym; tugged, held, grabbed, jumped on, fought over, demanded, besieged. For the twenty five elementary children (five to ten years) at Namma Bhoomi who see their families (if they have them) maybe once a year, who are learning thrift along with literacy, for whom poverty is an immutable fact, whose lives at the school are punctuated by the arrival of the monsoon and the few times a year an unknown benefactor provides sweets with evening meals, we are fairy godmothers, new toys and Santa Claus all rolled into one. The excitement, yearning, possessiveness and sheer energy crash over me, and I struggle to keep my head above water as the girls fight over who’s next to play Miss Mary Mack, boys shove each other to do cartwheels in front of me, smaller children slap and cry for the right to sit in my lap and the too small, the quiet, the shy, the disillusioned and the differently abled watch with wistful resignation from the corners. By the time the bell rings for their midmorning snack I am smeared in dust and soaked in sweat. The rain, suffusing the air with leaden humidity, torpedoes in miniature explosions into the puddles forming miniature rapids. We sit clinging to the table drinking our tea. Through the door to the classroom Gosha, the devilishly precocious five year old who has deemed her chubby cheerfulness as her own exemption from obedience, who conducts frank conversations with me all week in Karnada despite my total inability to comprehend or respond, gives me her impish grin and waves.
It takes another full day at Namma Bhoomi to get the hang of it. That night’s conversation class limps along (post-Hokey Pokey) circling warily around the subject of my unmarriedness until I tell them, “Look, I might still get married. In my country it’s not that unusual for people to get married later. And also, I have a very big family. Lots of cousins with children who call me Aunty. So even if I don’t it’s not like I’m going to die alone.” They are visibly reassured. Vishnu, the 19 year-old light engineering student who’s been following Shamala’s translation closely, shakes his head in disbelief. With Shamala translating I ask why.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Wait to get married.”
“So when are you going to get married.”
“I hope, next year.”
“Why? Do you want to have a house?”
“Do you want to have children soon?”
“Then why?” In the pregnant silence that follows, a mischievous smile twists his lips and I cock an eyebrow at him. “Yeah well, there is that…” Even those not following the translation are laughing.
The following morning’s yoga class was torturous. Gail, accustomed to teaching yoga to a small room of meditative English speaking adults, loses control of the class within the first round of sun salutations and when housemother arrives to start breakfast she finds Gail and I performing asanas with three eager girls at the front while the rest of the group chatters around us. The majority our session with the elementary school class is spent teaching the English phrases “No pulling!”, “Wait your turn please,” and “Now is study time.” But that afternoon there’s a break in the rain. The sun shines for a few brief hours in which clothes that have hung wet on the line for three days dry and miniature rapids revert to pathways. I sneak away from the elementary class to visit the preschool where the toddlers look over my shoulder while I read a story about the colors of vegetables and press the bowl of buttons into my hands.
The following morning, accepting the fact that this audience requires more an authoritative tone and loud voice than yoga teaching experience, I take over the yoga class. Using numbers instead of asana names and asking those being disruptive to excuse themselves the class passes well with many of the students showing skill and grace in warrior series and chattering excitedly when I demonstrate a few more advanced standing poses. I hang around after class to help with breakfast preparation, squatting to peel potatoes from an enormous pot and discuss her law course with one of the older girls, rolling chapatti and drinking chai while Vishnu and a few girls from the aesthetician course watch over my shoulder. When Chandacca comes to prepare a vegetable masala, she immediately corrects my chapatti rolling method. I wave my rolling pin at her in mock frustration, while Vishnu grins and the girls laugh behind their hands.
The next few days fall into an easy rhythm. Yoga. Elementary. Free time. Conversation Class. Sleep. The more time I spend within the daily workings of the school the more we have to talk about in conversation. After making chapatti we spend the evening talking about food. What is your favourite food? Your favourite fruit? What do you eat for breakfast? What do you like to eat for dinner? What do you like for a special occasion? Explain it to me. Is it fried or roasted? What is the main ingredient? After spending a free hour watching the older boys play cricket, we spend a class talking about sports and games. What sports do you like? Explain cricket to me. What are the most runs you’ve scored playing cricket? These are sports we play in my country. What other sports do you play? What games? You play while climbing trees? Have you ever been hurt? Have you ever broken a bone? Have you ever gotten stitches?
The more rambunctious elementary students eventually leave us to our perverse desire to do school work and those wanting to learn emerge from the tumult of running, jumping and playing. Recitation and copying of ABCs gives way to spelling, bridging the gap between saying the letters and identifying them, beginning to look at groups of letters as sounds eventually leading to the ability to read. There is a huge variety in the levels of competency but one morning a few of the older girls and I read The Cat in the Hat together, sounding out the words although I’m sure they knew what very few of them meant. But perhaps the moment that will stay with me the longest was working with Raoul. Raoul is 10 years old arrived at Namma Bhoomi roughly a year ago, at which point he was given his first hearing aid. In the last six months he’s started to speak a few words in Karnada. I noticed him filling in an English worksheet, copying the names attached to the pictures in each square. Sitting down I pointed at a word. “Apple.” He watched the exaggerated movements of my mouth “Apple.” “Elephant.” “Ele-an.” Held his palm in front of my mouth so he could feel the rush of air on the “ph” and demonstrated the click of the tongue on the hard t. “Elephant.” “Elephant.” He clicked his tongue dramatically and I gave him a brief round of applause. We worked through the sheet slowly, humming, sighing and miming, each more excited than the other when successful, me dismissing hurdles with a wave of the hand; “Never mind, that’s a hard one.” I never quite managed to demonstrate “rrr” in a way he could understand but still I was left with a magical feeling. I didn’t know I knew how to do that.
Over the week, I came to know all of my elementary students better. And I learned that I’m an easy mark for anyone under the age of 11 (and most between 11 and 18). Each of their individual personalities enchanted me. Like my queen bees Kavita, who will manipulate empires to her will with her gameshow smile , and Lakshmi, at once shrewd, knowing and sly, (“Miss… tomorrow.” And with a certain nod “Chocolate.”) Anil with his near desperate desire to succeed “Umbrella! Next miss! Spelling umbrella!”) Raoul, both leader and loner, intelligence channeled into charm, sport and mime until he arrived at Namma Bhoomi and at nearly 9 years old can finally begin speaking to his friends. The five year-old tinies, Archana with her wiggling grinning excitement, Aarati with her mournful silence and thoughtful gaze and Raisha, prancing constantly. Vijay’s determined efforts at yoga in order to undo the cold shoulder he won after his slap across the head on my first day. Vishnu with his shy but relentless desire for English words and his identically amazing smiled younger brother Ragu who just wants his smile returned. Five year old Arshad, who sought out my lap, a smile, a hug more than any other child in a heartbreaking ever-smiling desire for a little motherly affection. Abukkaye, as good at games as any of the boys, as quick to learn songs as any of the girls and somehow lost between them. The boy whose tiny frame seemed strained under the weight of his skull with an attention span so short and a need for love so strong I wondered about his medical history. Lackshmi’s little sister whose lazy eye and harelip might have caused extreme shyness or may be the icing on the cake of a developmental problem. All of them deserving someone in the world whose job it is to love them ferociously and individually day and night. Not one of them seeming to feel that lack because they have their lives, their families, their home, at Namma Bhoomi.
On my last night I wandered to the hall during the news broadcast and sat at the end with those doing homework. Helping a bit, mostly just being there. Shamala (the diligent, studious achiever) passes me her sketchbook to see. Durga (insecurity and confusion covered by attention-seeking troublemaking) holds up the English newspaper with “USA” in the headlines. When the news finishes everyone gathers in a wide circle. I pass around the American $1 bill someone asked to see. We talk about currency, what things cost in the US, what people earn, how long it takes to get there, by plane, by boat, by bus. What the weather is like now, what are the seasons. What time is it in my parents’ house right now. They ask what I think of Namma Bhoomi. I tell the truth. I’ve enjoyed my stay tremendously. I’ve enjoyed meeting all of them. I don’t want to leave. Chandu (star yoga pupil and class clown) turns to me, “Acca, don’t go to America. Stay at Namma Bhoomi.” Shamala thanks me on behalf of the group (“you’ve given us so much”) and they give me a round of applause.
The next day I teach my last yoga class. Gosha shows up ten minutes late, takes a place right at front and waves at me as she does whatever poses she feels like. I show the older boys hand balances and Tavia, whose older brother is a yoga instructor in Bangalore, king pigeon. I show Durga how to stand on his head and class is over. Chandu trails behind me after I’ve waved goodbye to everyone and ruffled his hair.
Packed into the back of the rickshaw the sun is beaming down on Namma Bhoomi as we bounce out of campus onto the main road. It occurs to me that my grandmother always thought I should be a teacher. But after this experience I think she’s wrong. I’m too tenderhearted, too emotionally involved. Children, especially those at Namma Bhoomi, are incredibly resilient. I came and went and who knows what, if anything, my time will mean to them in the long run. For all the gratitude and the supplications to stay, their day, their week, their lives will go on. I was the one sat in the back of a rickshaw, fiercely telling myself not to cry.