When I left Chennai on Thursday night, I was upset at how unenthused I felt. Why was I not feeling the high I expected? How come the thought of figuring out, with some sense of finality, the dreaded ‘what next’ question didn’t bring with it a wave of relief? What was this dreariness of just going through the motions of packing and getting on the train? And amidst all of this general lack of engagement, I boarded the Cheran Express, more relieved by the end of my thesis review the previous day than the anticipation of what lay ahead.
A restless night, a bus journey to the long distance bus stand, finally finding the first ride out of the city and an hour of ghat roads later, I landed in Anaikatti. Ask around the bus stop for the school and they would guide you, I was told. I approached a chai-kadai and dutifully asked, suddenly very aware of how out of place I looked in my jeans, kurti, dupatta and messy bun bearing the brunt of all the travel. After promising him that I don’t need an auto to help me through one kilometre, I walked it up and approached a bunch of stone buildings that I was all set to get to know better.
I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the flurry of emotions of the next 36 hours. Here are a few snippets.
“May I come in, Akka?” they would ask. It would take me a minute to recognize they were talking to me. “Akka, that chair is yours,” they pointed out while I settled down comfortably on the mats in the library. I didn’t understand that was the teacher’s chair. “Why do you like English?” they wanted to know. “What do English books offer that Tamil doesn’t?” How do I explain to them that it is possible that a Tamil girl doesn’t read the language? Definitely not enough to handle literature? It was going to take some time to catch up to this idea of myself as a teacher.
“Akka, give us easy topic,” they giggled as they waited for me to assign them situations to role play. “We like English but we don’t like grammar and we don’t like reading and writing.” I mock-smirked at them. Here I was, all set to don my armour and wield my grammar books, and they were flinging cannons at me. What do you like, I asked them. “You read to us, we will listen,” they said completely nonchalantly. I have a rather steep wall to scale ahead of me.
“Tell us about your childhood,” they launched at me when asked what they wanted to know. “Why did you study what you studied?” And how do I explain to them that I study Development Studies, not English? That my answer to “tell me about yourself” for the last five years has always involved IIT, an acronym that makes no sense to them? That I feel a sense of creation and satisfaction and discovery every time I write, whether it is a blog post or an academic paper? Instead I told them I like to read, and faced their wrath of not knowing Tamil once again.
As I wrapped up my two day trip, a signed contract folded neatly into the pages of my new Teacher’s Copy of the ESL textbook, and boarded my train back to Chennai, I could hear their voices ringing in my head. When asked to choose a city they hadn’t visited before for the role play, a majority of them unanimously chose Chennai, a city I call home and have come to take for granted. “Akka, neenge Chennai-lenda?” they gaped, in the same way some of us might gawk at Times Square or the Tower of London. To them, I had seen it all. To me, I hadn’t even begun.
So much more to say, so much more to get used to. Thankfully, we have a bit to get around to it. Will be back with more reminiscing soon.