Reminders of doing something right.

There is a warm glow that threatens to overwhelm everything in you when you see living, breathing proof of having done something right. It is quite the feeling.

It was a rather dreary evening yesterday and I sat trying to get most of a script adaptation done for Annual Day (coming up!) before a nagging headache got the better of me. Just as I was ploughing through lines and seeing how to best edit them, I saw two people walk in. The day instantaneously got better. Two of the graduating class (joined 11th in a different school, wrote IGCSE English in May-June) walked in, dressed in their new avatar of tracks and a grey t-shirt. Sports dress, Akka, they explained sheepishly, even as their body language showed that they had grown comfortable in this space. For the next hour or so, one of them spoke to us and every word taught us that we were doing something right.

She first opened with how she thinks she has been nominated for something, she is not sure what. Or maybe they were talking of nominating her? She does not know. When asked what this “this” was, she said “some SPL something, Akka, I don’t know.” I was not sure how to respond to the naivety appropriately. A month after commuting to the suburbs of Coimbatore every day to only the second school some of them have been to in their lives, here she was saying she was on the list of probable for SPL (we then broke down the concept of Student Pupil Leader and houses to her). She told us how other products of the school were making their mark as well – Student Parliament Vice President and Lingua Conclave Vice President to boot. She spoke of how they were preparing for the zonal team for shot put, how she asked to be included in javelin too, and how she told them she did not know how to swim even though she knew the basics just so that “I can learn properly from the beginning, Akka.” She showed us that the kids we had spent years moulding and then months worrying about had grown into their own people, self-assured and confident, with the same unquenchable thirst for learning.

She told us how they had all created a good impression amongst the new teachers, about how our kids always did their homework and were the first to answer questions. The quieter of the two then turned to me – Akka, here I was the quiet one, there I am the only one who speaks! She remembered how the Principal had seen red rice in her lunch box and congratulated her for standing apart from her peers and eating healthy. She said her friends had seen an old notebook of the school that she uses as a rough notebook, noticed the aerial picture on the cover, and wanted to know why she had left such a “big, beautiful school.” She laughed about how classmates had asked if she copies in exams and when they were told that none of them did, their response was how they came from a “good school, ya.” (On an aside, when these kids were writing pre-boards and mountains of correction were threatening to overwhelm the teachers, we would hand over the question paper to them. They’d administer it themselves in pin-drop silence, time themselves, and hand over completed answer papers with absolutely no need for invigilation. Copying? Pffbt.) She pulled out a flyer from her bag for a science Olympiad in the city on Sunday and asked if she could use my phone to ask them what it was all about – how could she register, did she have to participate through a school, where was it being held? She said they were all participating in the English elocution on Wednesday, and she wanted to research if NEET was good or bad. I will be back on Sunday, Akka. I want to interview a few people for their opinion. I am working on some questions.

But of all the stories and laughter and pride that filled the room yesterday evening, there was one that stood out for me hands down. She told me how her English teacher had written two sentences on the board and claimed only one was right. The sentences used the If I were/If I was forms and the teacher said the first was right. Now grammatically, the truth is that both are, and correctness depends on what you want to express. ‘If I were’ is subjunctive, speaking of things that are not true in the present, while ‘if I was’ refers to things that were true at a past time. ‘If I were President/Prime Minister, I would do things differently’ versus ‘If I was asleep, I wouldn’t have picked up your call.’ Except my win yesterday was not that the girl knew the difference between the two. That is a specific detail of English grammar that is easily taught. Yesterday’s win was how she dealt with that situation.

My English teacher said only ‘If I were’ is correct, Akka. I got up and said that it is wrong. She told me to go research and let her know why I think so, but I told her I can explain it there itself. I told her that both ‘was’ and ‘were’ were past tense forms of the verb ‘to be,’ that ‘was’ is for ‘am’ and ‘were’ is for ‘are’. I told her that ‘I’ is singular and ‘are’ is plural, so ‘I were’ cannot be correct. It has to be ‘I was’ only, no Akka? I explained it nicely only, Akka. The teacher did not say anything at all.

That day’s win was not about knowing or not knowing the subjunctive mood. It was not knowing that ‘to be’ is a verb, one as irregular as they come, and all the simple tense forms it takes. It was not anything to do with English language teaching at all. That day’s win was this girl and her ability to articulate what she believed, her thought process and her logic. It was how easily she was able to stand up for what she believed is right, the same strength that drove her to refuse the friends who asked her to let them copy. It was the fact that these children, who grew up in our classrooms, have no concept of the baggage that usually comes with authority, the resulting hierarchies and fear. It is the rightful assumption and ownership of their ability to think independently, not buying every word that they are told. It is the ability to question, raise objection respectfully, and be willing to converse.

When she first walked in to the Principal’s office yesterday and noticed me sitting in a corner, she reached out to give me a hug. Given that I had not been at school the last couple of times she dropped in, it was the first time since the last board exam that we were meeting. I miss you, Akka, she said. A few minutes later, talking of how she was largely enjoying her new school, she went quiet for a minute and looked down at the black tracks that had taken the place of the red-and-green salwar. I miss this school.

This school misses them too, I told her, and I meant it. For an hour yesterday, an old student came and told us about her new life. She told us her stories and experiences, asked us her doubts and clarifications, and through it all, she reminded us that we had done something right.

Attempts at being Strict Akka

Someone told me recently about how she always wanted to be a teacher but didn’t think she should. “I’m really not much of a disciplinarian,” she confessed. “I wouldn’t know how to handle the classroom.” I told her she shouldn’t let that one risk stop her from the classroom if that is really where she wants to be, but behind that façade of confidence, it got me thinking.

When I first walked into the sixth grade class in June 2016, everyone warned me. The class is a handful, they told me. You should be careful. Be firm the very first day. Show them that you mean business. Don’t let them think they can get away with things under your watch. Set the tone. Be the strict teacher.

All the pressure left me a rather nervous mess as I walked in that day, and in the months that has followed, this is a situation I have been dealt with time and again.

How do you remain firm without being distant? How do you make sure there is some direction to the classroom without being dictatorial? How do you straddle the line between facilitator and teacher, for want of better distinctions?

Every once in a while, students of class five will find their way to me and promptly set off on a steady stream of complaints. Akka, he is beating me. Akka, she is calling me names. Akka, I am class leader but no one is listening to me. Akka, I was asked to write names down of the people talking but they tore up the paper. Akka, Akka, Akka. The list is endless, or at least it definitely seems that way, and every time, I inevitably find myself stuttering a little bit. If you are the leader, you need to be able to handle them, I tell a ten-year-old, even as I head towards the class to figure out what is going on. Against a background score of ‘Akka is coming!’ and a mad dash to sit in their places, I hear myself and I know I sound facile. Or am I just pushing their limits? Where does the difference lie? Sigh.

Day before yesterday, in the middle of class, one of the girls in the eighth grade said she felt a little weak and shaky. A minute later, she said she wanted to lie down, another minute passed and she said she was feeling faint. Before I knew it, she was slumped over a desk and I was the teacher in charge. In the minute before I reached her, my mind was on overdrive. I was the adult in the room, I reminded myself. I was meant to fix this. The next ten minutes was a little bit of a high pressure situation involving the girl lying on my lap, sipping water, and eventually being carried over to the office for glucose and a flat surface to lie down on. In a few minutes she was more than okay and eager to come back to class, but in those few minutes, the teacher and the taught switched places yet again.

Everyday crises are a part of the job, and perhaps in those moments more than any other, I am reminded that I am seen as an adult. It is in those everyday crises that I grow, that I learn, that I truly occupy this space I have chosen for myself.

Grade cards that speak volumes

There is just something about pure, unadulterated happiness. It lights up the room like a starry sky; all encompassing, thorough, blanketing. This morning, as I sat surrounded by teary eyes and grinning faces, I saw happiness in its purest form; selfless, honest and true. This morning amidst the hugs and joy and congratulations, I was reminded of a powerful thing.

Even in this cynical, unhappy, much-too-busy world we inhabit, there are some moments that are not about us. Even at a time when we are taught to look out for ourselves (because who else will, really) and ‘compete or perish’, there are some who seek their happiness outside. Even on bad days and sad days and mad days, there are things that are just…good. Today was a reminder of those people and moments that are good, that are unquestionably bigger than us.

Ever since I joined the school ten months ago, I have often been asked whether my students learn, if they are able to ‘cope’, whether they can grasp what London folks set on them. Why would a rural school for first-generation learners of the local tribes want to get affiliated to IGCSE, people wonder. The more brash amongst them phrase that in far more offensive ways, and each of those conversations become a test in composure and communication. The bias lies in the adults, I explain. If we set high standards for them, they reach and stretch and bend themselves backwards, but they get there.

Over the last ten months, this blog has been filled with stories from inside and outside my classroom, illustrations of the children I teach and all that they teach me. Today, they showed the world.

Over the course of December and January, our tenth grade kids wrote the first set of Edexcel IGCSE exams for Math and Science. Yesterday, we got a packet with the results. Today, we called a senior school meeting and announced them. Every child passed with admirable grades, each one pushing beyond their personal barriers to surpass the targets they had set for themselves. Each one did better than our dreams, being graded on par with children from all over the world and emerging on top of it all. Each one showed the world that it was possible to study in a rural school in the fringes of Tamil Nadu, and get a glowing certificate from London.

As the announcement was made though, I wasn’t looking at the students. My eyes rested on the teachers. When she heard that all but one student had made the highest grade in Math, the teacher’s expression was a mixture of disbelief, pride, and just plain relief. Her eyes welled up even as her face split into a grin. Next to her, the Chemistry teacher could barely hide her shivering hands, responding to every congratulatory pat with “their future is in their hands, I am glad I could help.” The Biology teacher, down with chicken pox, brushed off any query on how she was feeling the minute she heard results were announced. “Tell me again,” she kept asking. Senior teachers, those who had seen these children from primary school, sat down in the relief, their eyes welling up as the stress and fear of the many months that had passed threatened to overwhelm them. “I haven’t slept for nights worrying about our children,” they sighed, every sinew in their bodies relaxing, basking in the news. On every teacher’s face, there was a lightness, a brightness, a sheer happiness. For everyone in the hall that morning, the joy lay outside.

For everyone who asks me about the school and why every day is a reminder of how I made the right choice, I wish I could show you that moment. I wish you could have seen the hall this morning. You would have seen teachers holding each other as emotions threatened to overpower them. You would have seen students wiping their eyes as tears rolled down their cheeks. You would have seen relieved smiles crawling over the faces, teachers and students alike, as everyone pinched themselves to realise it was all true. But if you stayed on a few minutes, you would have seen something else. You would have seen students come up to me, a teacher of neither Math nor Science. You would have seen me congratulate them, squeeze their hand in pride. You would have seen them smile their thanks. But if you listened closely, you would have heard their response. “Akka, we write English in June. We will get As. You just wait and watch.” You would have seen students who take ten minutes to set higher standards, bigger goals. You would have seen children who are thirsting for more even as they bask in the moment that is theirs to flaunt.

Today was a reminder that happiness truly can be selfless, that the thirst for knowledge can never stagnate, that hard work really does pay off. Today was a reminder yet again that I learn more than I teach at my job.

Rural living ft. Alwin Anna

There are few things in my life as quintessentially Anaikatti as a visit to the tailor. Across the border a couple of hundred metres into Kerala, I have the distinction of claiming inter-state travel every time a new blouse comes my way!

Every trip to Alwin Anna is a project. We plan it a couple of days in advance, block out the hour right after school lets out, make sure none of us have extra class since walking “all the way there” by oneself is quite a pain, and set out. We run errands on the way there – someone always has soap or toothpaste to buy, and if nothing else, we halt at our favourite bakers and order the “usual”. Alwin Anna is usually sitting facing the door at his store, an inch-tape slung around his neck as he smiles his sheepish grin at us. Before he even opens his mouth, we know what he is going to say. Innum ready aagale-nge. It isn’t ready yet. That is our cue to haggle, telling him that one of us is heading home and need it by Thursday while he suggests Monday. Finally, we settle for Friday evening, on our way out, and leave, already scheduling our return in a few days.

Other times, he asks us to wait when the task at hand is not a big deal. If we need something taken in or a ‘fall’ stitched onto a sari or hooks onto a blouse, he will ask us to wait. The typically Indian promise of ‘five minutes ma’ ensues and we proceed to stand in the store, listening to the blaring noises of KTV and commenting on the various fabrics that will soon constitute a stranger’s wardrobe. It is in those moments that I realise the difference, notice just how distinct this rhythm is, and if I were to be honest, how uncomfortable I naturally am inhabiting that time.

You see, when we are at Alwin Anna’s, there is no such thing as a hurry. There just can’t be. It doesn’t do any of us much good. We stand around as he carefully takes out a stitch of a too-big kurta, measuring the exact length in three different places. If he is unhappy with the mark, he will start at the beginning and do it all over again. A few minutes later, he walks up purposefully to the spools of thread in the box on the floor, one for every shade imaginable on the palette and then some, and slowly compares it to the cloth in his hand. Nothing less than perfect is ever acceptable. He holds two spools in his hand, placing each against the cloth as he makes up his mind which to use. The rest of us exchange quick glances at each other and shrug. There doesn’t seem to be a difference in our eyes. He walks back to the machine, readies it, threads the spool in, tests the pedal, and gets to work. Again, if the stitches don’t fall exactly where he intends them to, he takes them apart and does it again. Until they come just right, the only thing that matters is that one line of stitches. Once he reaches the end of the garment, he starts over, stitching from the beginning again to make sure it is doubly secure, no loose threads anywhere. In case the end of the kurta has a border, he pauses to change the spool of thread again into the appropriate colour. Can’t afford to have the body-colour thread at the bottom now, can we? What happens if we accidently find someone’s head by our knee? Just when we think he is done, he holds the kurta afar to eye his handiwork, and then picks up the scissors, snipping at stray threads here and there until a satisfied half nod escapes him. Yet, we are still not done. He stands up, picks his way around all the cloth, and heads to a table at the back of the room. There, he puts the kurta down and irons it out, making sure the creases are crisp and exact, perfectly pressed and brand new. This he slips into a characteristic yellow bag, comparing a couple for the right size, and then hands the bag to us with a flourish. In the last forty minutes, he may have stitched us five hooks on a blouse, but gosh, would he have stitched them to perfection.

While all this exacting perfection is underway, we would stand around occasionally glancing at the atrocity of Tamil cinema that would usually play on KTV. Every once in a while, another customer would come in and hand over the latest addition to the wardrobe, and we would stand there eyeing the cloth up with a practiced air of people who have spent too much time observing other people’s clothes. The last time we were there, a lady walked in with two blingy salwars, handed them over to an assistant and pointed out which was for her oldest and which was for her youngest. I need the sleeves attached, she said, and walked out. The tailor didn’t bat an eyelid, evidently knowing the measurements and preferences of both the daughters in question. The other day a colleague said she wanted something stitched with three-fourth sleeves. That would be fourteen and a half inches, Alwin Anna announced, and my colleague insisted on getting it checked. He was right. The man never writes anything down, isn’t hung up on documentation and digitalisation, but he has just never been wrong.

As I stood at the store today waiting for ten hooks and the edge of a sari to be hemmed, I was restless. My mind was on a conference call that had been scheduled for ten minutes earlier, the two articles that were waiting to be written, the email I had promised to draft. My mind was perpetually weighing every hook against the number of items on the To Do list that could have been ticked off instead. My colleague, on the other hand, was at ease, filling me in on the trivia about the movie that was playing. When we finally left, I assumed we would head back to school given how much time we had “wasted.” Instead, we stopped to buy fruits and soap (duh) on the way. We finally got back to the school almost an hour and a half after we left – ten hooks, a couple of blouses, and a few bunches of grapes richer for the evening.

Every time someone asks me how I, a city girl, like my life here, it is moments like this that I tell them about. I tell them how the underlying pace of life here is different, that an evening considered “wasted” by the logic I grew up with is celebrated as “productive” here. I remind myself that having a baker who knows your favourite kind of bread and a tailor who knows the exact length you like your clothes aren’t things that find their way on a To Do list, but are exactly the kind of experiences I would never chalk up at home; that a tailor who insists on ironing your brand new blouse even in the knowledge that you were in a hurry would be hard to come by in that bustling metropolis I am so fond of.

Every time someone asks me how a city girl has “adjusted” to the rural life, I think of Alwin Anna and the many snatches of Tamil cinema that have entered my repertoire thanks to him. Every bright yellow plastic cover is testament to the many evenings spent crossing the border to just “remind him we exist,” a project undertaken only in plural. Every perfectly stitched blouse of mine is one step closer to this learning, this ability to stand guiltlessly still and not count it a waste.

The Squiggle

I distinctly remember getting my answer papers back as a student and wondering why in God’s name the teachers just couldn’t get their ‘1/2’ clearly. A seemingly arbitrary wavy line near a whole number would be assumed to be the half, and we’d continue to check for ‘totaling mistakes.’ If we were particularly astute, we’d snag another half or so through the paper. But why oh why could they, those who beat us up for badly formed handwriting and hurried answer scripts, just never get their halves right? We just wrote them off with the time-worn excuse they always hurled at the class – they must be a lazy bunch of teachers.

Fast forward many years, and I was ploughing through a never-diminishing pile of answer papers that mark the end of the school term. Correction was fast becoming a rather mechanical affair. I would mark a question paper as ‘Teacher’s Copy,’ and make a blueprint of what the answer scripts ‘ought’ to look like, for everything that could be blueprint-ed of course. Once the nouns had been underlined, adjectives were boxed, and the verbs safely circled, I would be all set to tackle the handiwork of middle schoolers. Once the geometry was in place in red pen, it was just a question of cross-checking it against every piece of paper. Thus, I set out to correct.

First came the senior school papers – classes 9 and 10, with an old board exam paper. Each question paper is an average of twenty-five pages long, and while comprehension correction is a fairly straightforward process, it is unimaginable how many different kinds of errors one can make when trying to master alien syntax. Two hundred and fifty printed pages later, I told myself the going gets easier from this point on. After all, the other kids were answering papers I, and not some London honcho, had set and that ought to be easier, right?

Long story short, I corrected about 75 middle school papers after, mechanically, robotically, one after another. And soon enough, I actually looked at what I was doing, and there it was in front of me. The Squiggle. In red ink, along the margin, like those who had given me back papers of my own. It was right there. What!

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Thus emerged The Squiggle.

I texted a friend, slightly panicked, that I felt like this was a rite of passage, and that I was truly becoming a teacher, and what is that even! As it turns out, it actually is a reasonable effort to actually take pen off paper for every stroke of the 1, /, and 2, and somewhere through the stack of long-sized ruled sheets of paper, they all merge into The Squiggle. Do I sound like I am just making excuses? I thought so. Sigh.

Tomorrow, I will hand over answer papers to seventy-five kids with squiggles generosity sprinkled all over them. Tomorrow I will feel one step closer to my own teachers, even if only in the incoherent lines that our red pens made. One step at a time?

I girl: Reconciling gender

It was very early on the job when I first came face to face with exactly how much of a contrast gender was going to be in Anaikatti. Coming from a space where practically nothing was taboo and the boys around us were not “spared” of anything, with some of my closest friends independent of gender bearing the brunt of my period pains and fainting fits, I had been spoilt by the freedom of conversation, comprehension, and camaraderie. I moved to Anaikatti, knowing in theory that things would be different. All my sleeveless clothes stayed behind at home, and I have worn skirts maybe thrice since I got here, all on non-school days.* Yet, no amount of self-awareness and mental preparation would have gotten me ready for the road that I was embarking on.

On the first few days that I was here, I figured that doing laundry was an integral part of moving somewhere. I would wash out my underwear when in the shower, and put them out to dry along with my towel on my way out. This act, that I had so taken for granted, was brought to my attention, clothed in many appreciative noises. Apparently I was brave. I told the speaker that it was only because I needed my bra/underwear to be dry, and I really wasn’t looking to be a pathbreaker of any sort. It was the first hint on what was going to be a road filled with many such acts of “bravery” (?) along the way.

Over the next few months, every day has been a reminder of my gender. Never before have I been so directly, so constantly, and so blatantly reminded of my gendered position as the last three months. I have been told I sound like a man, courtesy a base voice. I have been told I should be careful how I laugh, because it hurts the ears. Soon after I carried a hurt child up to the office, I was told only elephants can be given hard manual labour. I have been told that girls who know how to behave don’t dress the way I do, that it is undesirable and unattractive. I have been told that even if Future Husband is an asshole, I don’t have a choice but to put up with it. I have heard that no matter what I do here, I will eventually end up cleaning someone else’s vessels. I have been asked repeatedly when I am going to get married, and off late this has shifted to how I probably am not, because I mean, look at me.

In a conversation about how his family was looking out for a potential bride, I once heard about how girls were “rejected” because their faces were too round, or not round enough, I forget which. It seemed to be the most obvious criterion to decide life partners, how the face compares against a compass drawn circle. The conversation then went on to talk about how the girl must wear what the man wants her to wear, and behave how he wants her to, and talk to the people he wants her to.

Cut to a snippet of Sports Day practice. There was an event which involved girls doing push-ups, five at the end of a hurdle relay (ish). While hanging around watching the practice, I spent some time trying to teach some of the girls how to do the push-ups right. Make sure you bend the elbows, not strain the back. Two days later, the number was brought down from five to one, which later crumbled into a weird touch-the-floor exercise, because isn’t it wrong for girls to do push-ups? At that very minute, I thought of two women I spoke to for my thesis – one is an international Silambam champion, and the other is a personal trainer and power lifter. Chatting with them about women in sports seemed lightyears away.

Now the catch is this. Through my last two years of high school, I lived through bullying on a daily basis – spiteful, mean and insensitive, just like every textbook describes it to be. My body type, my work ethic, my love life, everything was fair play through classes 11 and 12. And thanks to surviving that, I can tell that things here are fundamentally different. People here are not inherently mean. Those asking me not to laugh and telling me that for local standards, I am undesirable, weirdly enough, mean well. They call me their sisters (because of course that is the only socially accepted relationship possible) and “look out for me.” In their books, the complexity of the English language may effortlessly roll off my tongue, but I desperately need to be taught how to perform my gender. And somehow, such well-intentioned cautionary notes fluster more than mean-spirited high school bullying did.

On a different note, this morning I had two minutes to spare before I had to rush out the door to a day of teaching six periods straight. Not up for sitting and figuring it out, I googled for examples of idioms, and inexplicably, was given a poster that read “A girl should be like a butterfly; pretty to see and difficult to catch.” I was stumped. I shared it on my social media account in the full knowledge that my peers would react with the same resigned horror that was threatening to overwhelm me just then, and went about my life, walking into a day where I was sure to be at the receiving end of some form of sexism. Guaranteed.

Butterfly Girl

Not so long ago, all of us teachers who live on campus had coincidentally gone home the same weekend. A man who knew us only in passing from the town asked us on the Monday of our return where we had been and we were making small talk. He proceeded to ask whether we had all been to same town, and responding to the negative, suggested that we all do that sometime. We nodded in agreement, just because such empty agreement is the fuel of polite conversation, when he pulled the rug so quickly from under me that I did not even know what hit me. Why don’t you all go to Chennai, he asked my colleagues. “Indha Akka-ve paatha thaan nalla perisa irukaange, pasange elaam bayandhe odi poiduvaange. Prachanai varaadhu.” (This Akka only looks so big that all the boys will run away, scared. There won’t be any problems.”) Apparently, if you are 5’7”, you are immune to molestation of whatever kind. News to me for sure.

Today, unlike ever before, gender tires me. I feel the weight of being a girl. I feel the weight of being a tall girl. I feel the weight of being a tall girl who isn’t paper thin. I feel the weight of being a tall, not-thin girl who doesn’t shy away from physical work. I feel the weight of being a tall, not-thin girl, who is okay with physical work and travelling alone. I feel the weight of being watched, being judged, and then being informed of said judgement. Just performing gender, toeing my own lines, and constantly reminding myself to make the distinction between adjustment and transformation, is tiring work.

If anyone were to ask what I do – I teach, I correct, I write, I read. But also, I girl.

 

*- To be fair, the school does not have a dress code. I just think of it as choosing my battles.

What will you do on weekends?

Whoever said small towns don’t come with their share of adventure? If this weekend was anything to go by, I should have no problems keeping myself busy getting to know this part of the world.

It all started yesterday, with the school working on the first and third Saturdays of the month. After the end of a staff meeting at about 5 PM, we all traipsed back to our rooms and sat around wondering what to do. Just that morning, I had met Kali, a theatre artist from Chennai, who had come to the school to do a session of drama with the kids. And just because I can see her cringe that I’m saying it, I must mention that Kali Akka has also been to Cannes as a part of the cast and crew of Dheepan, a French movie that went on to win the Palme d’Or. I just had to put that out here. But coming back to the point, Kali Akka and I decided that the Chennai spirits in us could not let such gorgeous weather go to waste and we headed out for a walk, me in chappal and her all geared up in shoes. The rest of this story is, well…

Roughly ten feet into this “walk” of ours, Kali tripped and fell, and after pausing for a minute to make sure it wasn’t a fracture, we obviously decided to keep going. Soon a decision point arrived – dirt path or tar road? And of course, dirt path it was. We climbed up and discovered a brick kiln, did the rounds there a little, promised to come back next time to discover the trail that was leading up the hillock and headed back to the road. A short while and a similar decision later, we trudged through a rather rocky path and found ourselves at a stream. Both of us had left our phones behind, didn’t have any source of artificial light on us and the sun was starting to set. Should we have turned around? Perhaps. Instead, we gave ourselves another five minutes and headed downstream, just to see where it would go. The minute we found a little waterfall, we sat down and made ourselves comfortable, getting our feet wet and resting on the mossy rocks. Just as we were talking about how this is the life and things equally romanticized, two men on a motorbike came up behind us and said one simple sentence. “Inge elaam yaanai varum ma.” (“The elephants will come here, ma.”)

And we ran.

The way back was a blur. With no light, no means of reaching people and alone in the bushes, we told ourselves our best bet was to get to the main road as fast as our legs could carry us. The threat of elephants and the very real fear of the groups of men trudging towards the rocks for what we assumed was their evening dose of fun provided the fuel for our rather tired selves. And how we ran. Every shadow was a potential threat, man or animal. Every rustle was the possible announcement of tusked visitors. Every breath could be one movement too loud. Passing a bull on the way, we wondered if they could smell fear the same way dogs can and resolutely acted cool, or tried at the very least. By the time we got back to the school, our hearts were pounded from the fear just as we were laughing in an effort to seem/be calm. And with that, the two Chennai girls came back from their first scout of the neighbourhood.

Come Sunday, after a rather laid back morning, a fellow teacher and I decided a Sunday afternoon off was too much to spend sitting in our rooms. So we set off to say hi to our neighbours across the state border. Getting on a bus, using my oh-so-fantastic Malayalam (Chetta, ivvade ATM undo?) and getting lost in the snaking lanes of Goolikadavu, we discovered quaint bakeries and local textile outlets that would put our urbanity to shame. Two coffees, one cream bun and a vegetable puff later, we could barely believe our Rs. 40 bill, and armed with our stock of Rs. 100 kurtis that could compete with the FabIndias and Kalpastrees any day, we headed back to Anaikatti.

All set for Week 2.