After three flights, two layovers, and zero sleep, I’m in India!
The Fulbright English Teaching Assistants arrived in Delhi on June 28th. The moment I stepped outside, I could smell India in the muggy air—a mixture of food frying in greased pans, trash, foliage wet with rain, and the cloying sweetness of flowers used for puja. Shrill horns sounded from the traffic clogging Delhi’s roads. I’d forgotten what it’s like to live in a constant press of bodies, of people rushing through the streets with an entirely different concept of personal space. I’ll have to get accustomed to the stray dogs and cats roaming the streets, their stomachs distended, and the hot water sluicing into my shoes during monsoon season.
Our Delhi-area group has been whittled down to nine from the original 24 India Fulbright ETAs: three in Dehradun, two in Jaipur, and four in Delhi proper. Getting to know the Delhi cohort has been the highlight of my first week here. What a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent group of people! I’m lucky to have their support as we move into our host cities. We spent the first few days attending orientation at the United States India Education Foundation headquarters, a gorgeous building situated in the heart of Delhi:
Orientation was a whirlwind of presentations and panels, similar to our pre-departure orientation in D.C. We had the opportunity to work with an English Language Training specialist, who will help us plan our lessons and cirriculum. I learned so much about the Indian education system during orientation. The introduction of English under the British Raj helped standardize education across India. While English is seen by many as a language of opportunity, at the same time, it’s brought enormous privilege to certain groups and helped entrench inequalities. Under the Right to Education Act of 2009, children in India are guaranteed free and age-appropriate education up until the age of 14; schools cannot hold students back if they do not pass their current grade level. We learned more about the different school systems and the logistics of implementing this act across India. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue my preparations under USIEF’s guidance, as I feel our teacher has provided me with essential context for my teaching endeavors. Vimukti Girls School is a Hindi medium school, with most lessons conducted in Hindi; however, they are transitioning toward an English medium model, with some lessons conducted in English. I hope I will be able to assist with this transition.
On our first night in Delhi, we went out to Nizamuddin Dargah, a religious site where one of the Sufi saints is buried. We gathered on a Thursday evening to listen to Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. Worshippers purchased pink flowers glazed in rose water to bring up as an offering. We took our shoes off before entering, and the uneven stone floors warmed my feet as we wandered through narrow alleyways laden with market goods before coming out into the open air near the mausoleum, where people thronged to hear the music. It was a headlong dive back into everything I associate with India…a country rich in religious traditions, crowds, heat, and worship.
The following evening, we had dinner at the U.S. Public Affairs Officer’s house in a gorgeous Delhi neighborhood (home to many embassy officials), which stands in stark contrast with the poverty and malnourishment that is so visually apparent in nearby parts of the city. The Public Affairs Officer was kind, gracious, and so welcoming to all the Fulbright scholars. We got to hear about his time with the Foreign Service in different countries across the globe. He told us that the world is much smaller now than it was before…when he first lived abroad, he was mostly cut off from friends and family. I am grateful that the Internet allows us to so easily share our experiences abroad, fostering discussion about the diversity we encounter in countries far from our own.
Our time in Delhi culminated in a night out dancing with several current Fulbright research scholars. The next afternoon, Mina and I departed for Jaipur with Pavitra, one of our Fulbright program coordinators. Jaipur has a different feel than Delhi. When we arrived, Mina exclaimed that it was beautiful…it’s strange, because I hadn’t really thought of Jaipur as beautiful for a long time, maybe because I’m used to its architecture and famous pink buildings (they don’t call it the Pink City for nothing). It’s a reminder, I suppose, to try to see this city through fresh eyes. This is not Delhi, that’s for sure.
On Monday we visited our schools. Mina’s school is situated in a mosque in the Old City, reached by a narrow staircase that opens directly into the main bazaar. The students seemed bright and eager to meet their new teacher. Nobody in her school speaks English…the language barrier will be a challenge for her, as it will be for many of us. Next, we took a trip out to Sanganer to see Vimukti Girls School. I found out only recently that my school has moved to Sanganer, which is a more rural area outside of Jaipur; previously, the school was housed in Tilak Nagar, a neighborhood near the center of the city. Because Vimukti is an NGO school, they must rent out facilities for classes. They are currently housed in a broad, spacious school building surrounded by sprawling fields (very different from Mina’s school), and girls from Jaipur’s slums are bussed out daily to take classes. This means I will have a fairly long commute compared to Mina. Although I was supposed to teach middle school, I’m actually going to be teaching third and fourth standard. I will be expected to teach English grammar as well as conversational English—another surprise. This is typical of my past experiences in India…nothing is ever quite as expected, so flexibility is key. My coordinator and principal both seem like wonderful women. Although we only visited for a half hour or so, I got to peak into the classes where I will teach, and seeing the girls got me excited to meet them and start our work together.
Mina and I began Hindi lessons this week at the American Institute for Indian Studies (A.I.I.S.), the same institute where I studied Hindi through the Critical Language Scholarship. For the next month, we will be taking Hindi classes and observing in our respective schools; we won’t start teaching until August. I was so excited to see my A.I.I.S. teachers again—Sunita-ji, Pramila-ji, Babulal-ji, Anjani-ji, and others. They’re the best! They wasted no time in noting that my Hindi is very kharab (bad) right now. I’ve lost so much. It’s frustrating knowing that I used to be able to express myself so easily on so many topics, but now the words just won’t come, although I understand well enough when others speak. But slowly words have begun to float back, as if they’ve been swimming in my subconscious, just below the surface.
I can’t write a blog post without a shoutout to my fellow Jaipur ETA, Mina, who is the best adventuring partner/roommate I could’ve asked for. We’ve already encountered setbacks since arriving in Jaipur, and I’m so glad to have someone who will share this crazy journey with me. We also owe so much to Pavitra, who fed us, guided us, and put up with our teasing as we apartment-hunted and settled in Jaipur. She’s been an invaluable resource and a great friend.
So what’s it like, living in Jaipur? This blog post is already too long, but I’ve included here some observations I jotted down last night before bed. Jaipur is greener than I remember, even if it lacks Delhi’s rain. Palm fronds and pink flowers shade narrow alleyways. Within a one-kilometer radius you can find pits of trash stewing in the mud and gorgeously carved buildings in shades of pink and yellow. Cows wander the streets freely, and autowalas chug through the morning haze. Carts bearing fresh fruits and vegetables line the streets. Traffic is typical of India—chaotic, noisy, and filled with cars that seem to defy physics by slipping through the narrowest of gaps at speeds that are (frankly) terrifying. There are no seat belts; driving in India is an experience unto itself. When we push through the markets of Raja Park or the Old City, stares follow us, and sometimes men call out. I am never more self-conscious of my body than I am here, of being female. The heat is at times oppressive, pasting sweat across our skin like a sticky, ever-present blanket, but the rains came early this year, so it hasn’t been too unbearably hot. Unlike Delhi, the smells in the air don’t seem to coat the insides of our lungs, clinging to our hair and clothes long after we pass by…that’s a function of Delhi’s humidity. Instead, smells come in waves, receding as quickly as they arrive: mithai sweets flavored with saffron, exhaust fumes, curries swimming in oil, raw sewage, and swollen monsoon season mangoes. At lunch we scoop up dahl with floury roti flatbread (the A.I.I.S. cooks are fantastic, whipping up a mix of thalis for our afternoon meal). Our plates overflow with spicy chana (chick peas) and fried aloo parathas stuffed with potatoes and poha rice. We drink chai three times a day at least—milk boiled with masala tea, ginger, and cardamom. Tea and biscuits are a staple of every house visit, no matter how short. After signing our apartment lease, we stopped off in a narrow roadside store, where a dukanwala pressed fresh pineapples and pomegranates into juice before our eyes. When we missed America, we ordered pizza for dinner, only to realize that Indian pizza doesn’t much resemble pizza from back home. I searched the nearby bazaar for peanut butter and pasta sauce, looking forward to the day when I can move into my apartment and cook something bland and wholly American, sans masala. I relish having cold coffee with my breakfast—milkshakes can be found almost everywhere we go. It’s a rich, bustling, beautiful, dirty, fascinating city, and I know I’m gearing up for a year that will both enrich and offend my senses.
I am overwhelmed. I am excited. I am living an adventure in Jaipur.