There is a particular excitement in spotting an unknown bird, especially one with a lively plumage. The one I saw in a Delhi park was round and plump like a robin, but its front was a glossy dark blue, its top feathers were sooty like charcoal and it sported a red flash on its rump. I looked for identification under “Birds” on the shelves of the India International Centre library and found that it was an Indian Robin after all. It had been hopping under the hedge but seemed to be nesting in the venerable peepal tree, easily the most handsome feature in the park. The tree was festooned with marigold garlands and a small carving of either Hanuman or Shiva wedged in its branches. One milky morning (Delhi should be off bounds during January), the atmosphere murky as a cataract, the malis- all seven of them- were squatting assiduously by the walking path. They were watching one of their team laboriously hacking kindling out of a peepal branch that had fallen in the night; all were completely focused on their workmate’s actions. Were they going to share the booty? Perhaps they had cast lots, or were about to cast lots. The fact was that kindling was as precious as gold and silver, since it was the coldest January for years and years and everyone was suffering from the bitter north wind- even the richest house-owners, masters of two cars, electric heaters and confident of three hot meals a day, not to speak of warm quilts and servants to massage almond oil into their feet.
The sun appeared, a sickly white entity, for an hour or so in the afternoons, if it appeared at all. It seemed to have no appetite for the thick blanket of evil smog that sat heavily on the capital all month. “Just like London” said some of the snugly shawled ladies who trod the walking path in many warm layers and bobble hats. But the smog was another barrier between the world and myself. It smothered sound and stifled any reaction. My ears felt plugged with wax. And because I couldn’t see very far, it seemed I was somewhere known only to me and quite distanced from the rest of my fellow beings.
After a while I realised that I had been responsible for creating this barrier, in order to protect myself from sights and sounds, precluding involvement by covering my nose and mouth whenever I went out in the car to sit in diesel fumed jams, with horns blaring on all sides. Delhi was preparing for the Commonwealth games, due to take place in September, and every road was dug up, every pavement overturned and single lanes imposed on the already congested streets. The smog was a compound of traffic fumes and building dust and the inordinately cold air wrapped it in a toxic embrace that provoked the worst cold I’ve ever suffered in my life. In just ten hours I went through two boxes of Kleenex, consequently producing a bucket of sticky phlegm.
But in spite of all my efforts to remove myself from my surroundings, I was constantly aware of how ugly Delhi has become- the scabrous government accommodation (“Class 11, Class 111 and Class 1V Type Flats”), the shabby street furniture, the unlovely high rises, litter blowing around and squashed into the mud and the dust- visible everywhere, so even leaves look saddened and weary.
One morning I drove (or rather the driver did- I’d very quickly die if I attempted to take the wheel myself) towards Gurgaon, the new glass and concrete satellite township on the Jaipur road. We went fairly quickly over new flyovers, leaving the airport to our right and taking the Sohna road to our destination, a village school in a place called Indri. I remembered Sohna from my childhood- my dad used to drive us there for Sunday picnics. It was a village renowned for its hot springs. Now it’s a satellite town of its own with a ghastly little tourist centre in the process of modernisation, which has a unisex toilet. The situation could be quite picturesque, on a flank of the Aravalli Hills, but it’s the usual dusty, ugly sprawl spewing out snub nosed lorries with loads of clinkers and granite transported from local quarries.
It was a good twenty miles to Sohna, before we branched off a country road leading to obscure Indri. Those first twenty miles were chiefly remarkable for interminable construction work and diversions, which meant that nothing was visible through the pall of dust. Leaving nasty little Sohna with its parked trucks and messy centre to one side, we started to see a bit of green mustard fields as we approached the hills. Sangam School was signposted down a dusty track and we parked next to the games field where boys and girls of middle school age were playing football.
The school buildings were a sandy colour, low and quite pleasant. A toilet block with a broken door faced us where we stood and the classrooms were grouped round a central courtyard with a sheltering tree in its middle.
We first had a cup of tea with the headmaster, a former Army education corps sergeant, who prides himself in keeping good discipline. He didn’t seem ferocious at all as he sat behind a desk, with pictures of Gandhi and the school’s founder, Kamalaji, on the wall. He didn’t say a lot but listened in a deferential way, with bowed head and sloping shoulders. It was difficult to attract properly qualified teachers. Yes, workshops for the teachers would be a good idea if volunteers would come out for a few months. Conversation did not flow, but perhaps we didn’t ask the right questions. The exchange felt humdrum, utilitarian.
We heard about the village panchayat wanting back the land, because prices were climbing every day. Perhaps the newly elected panchayat would feel more kindly towards Sangam School. The shadow of the rapacious property ethos of Delhi was looming in even backward villages like Indri, and killings were waiting to be made. It was very cold in the headmaster’s cheerless office, and we didn’t spend too long talking because we were starting to shiver. Also I made out a small feeling of panic about the prospect of needing to spend a penny. Where would we go? It was a very long drive back and we’d promised ourselves a dhaba lunch on the way home, but we still had to meet the children and listen to a few lessons.
The classrooms were as drab as you would expect. No sign of colour or decoration. The younger children sat on the cement floor looking at dictionaries with coloured pictures illustrating words. The teacher had left them to get on with turning the pages and there was no sort of interactive work going on.
The older children were engaged in some challenging maths being taught in a serious way by a young man. The girls sat on one side and the boys on the other and there was certainly an atmosphere of dedicated learning.
We then took pictures of the children during their break and thought they looked bright enough and happy enough, but who can tell? They ranged in age from about 5-14. Their playing field was without any sort of equipment. They ran around the field kicking a ball.
The classroom floors were layered with dust. What were they being taught? Literacy and numeracy of course, but what more? Would they eventually man the call centres of Gurgaon or work in squalid government offices? Or would they run for politics and speak the language of corruption, just like their elders? Would they command a servant or two to sweep their floors with a primitive grass broom and to fetch them a glass of water? Would they aspire to eating vegetarian burgers and turn a blind eye on the mess and squalor around them, because they had never been trained to notice things, to observe and react and protest.
I think I was right, that the ethos of the school was about making available some basic tools and not much else. I couldn’t help thinking that the children should have been taught a few skills in living and managing their lives, by sweeping out the dust on their classroom floors every morning, by growing a few flowers and vegetables, by constructing simple playground equipment for the younger children or learning acts of self-sufficiency in craft and cookery lessons. That’s the kind of education in living that Gandhi would have approved of.
My friends were cross with me. Didn’t I realise that it was a great thing that girls were getting to read and write, that the children looked so bright and shiny-eyed. It was a big deal for that hopeless little village and that dusty, backward region to have even half-qualified teachers actually presenting themselves for class. But I came away feeling flat and disappointed. The caretaker was concerned about his pension, the school Ayah wanted a new watch for every member of staff (“17, there are 17 people”).
My feeling was they could do better, but I couldn’t see how one would sell the idea of persuading anyone to move to this unattractive area in order to train teachers. Mr Singhal, a school trustee who had accompanied us, spoke about putting them up in the dreadful little Sohna. The very idea filled me with depression.
An hour or so later we alighted by a wayside dhaba, surrounded of course with clouds of diesel, and ate our way through several delicious kinds of roti. AshaRani, who is an expert on street food, said they were exceptional because the flour was freshly milled from grain harvested in the fields of Haryana.
A small boy of about ten brought the food to our red plastic table. He was silent and grimy and looked blankly at me when I asked where he came from. I suspected he had been warned not to answer questions.
I noticed that the fingers of his right hand were deformed and his nails looked as though they had been pulled out at some stage.
The dhaba owner informed us, “His Mummy and Daddy work in the fields. They are from Bihar.”
The boy put down a fistful of brown gur wrapped in a scrap of paper. We left it for him, because when we finished and wanted to leave him a tip he was nowhere to be seen. I can still see his dark face. He will never get to Sangam School. He may be illiterate, but probably has a few more important skills than any of the Sangam children.
My cold got worse. I stopped feeling bad about not letting the world in.