The first thing that hit me was the smell. My nose had been blocked by a cold in Dublin after a stressful finals exam season. My nostril canals opened to a combination of incense, sewage and dense air in the back of sweaty taxi. I had arrived in Calcutta to teach children in a slum the basics of Maths, Geography and English. I was 22 and was numb.
The Indian God of Ganesh sat smiling on the driver’s dashboard, shaken by the primitive engine’s rumble. My stomach was in sync with the car when I realised where I was and what I had done. I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to applying for SUAS, an Irish charity that specialised in sending wet behind the ear students to some of the world’s poorest cities to teach. Completely engrossed in the important task of not failing my final exams, I gave no thought to spending three months in a country I had done no research on with a collection of strangers I wondered if I had anything in common with.
There were a dozen of us, varied in ages, personalities and universities across Ireland. We checked into the Marble Palace on Beck Baghan road in India. It was coming into evening and the sun was setting over the river. Famished rickshaw drivers sprinted through the fetid streets dressed in thin loincloths burdened by fat families. Men sat cross legged playing a type of dominos on the street, drinking small clay cups of chai. The passing of time is an art form for men in this part of India, who can find conversation in the most unlikely of places that can last for hours.
I decided to go for a walk with a new friend through the streets. We lasted a few minutes, our pale skin was attracting mosquitos and stares from locals, not used to tourists in this part of India. We retreated to our room for a briefing on how we would be approaching our teaching duties. The fact that none of us had any teaching experience was not unusual and in a few days we would be facing crowded classrooms of expectant Indian children.
If you cannot teach Indian children, you should never be a teacher. Indian children value learning and are enthusiastic about the most banal tasks. They find it rude to say no, instead giving you a sad, but ambiguous head shake, their equivalent of saying maybe to an event on Facebook you have no intention of going to. The fact that I couldn’t teach pupils like this effectively, drove a nail into any precocious thoughts I had once had about teaching as a fall back option. I was corrected in elementary mathematics daily by the children and even my best attempts to inspire them in English literature fell short. On Indian independence day we were selected to devise a play in English, the fact that most of the children only had Bengali was another issue. The play I painstakingly devised complete with dance choreography, depicted the slums we taught in falling victim to flash floods.
Calcutta is undoubtedly architecturally sore on the eye, punctuated by a context of former colonial grandeur and the finest people I have ever met before or since. Negotiating your way through monsoons, the constant cacophony of car horns and a fear that I was actually sending the children’s education into reverse, anxiety was a frequent uninvited guest in my mind. While you were walking the local streets frustrated, a child might stop you and ask you to join in with his friends who were flying homemade kites high over the city. I saw motorways stopped, not by traffic, but by businessmen, street kids and chai vendors playing impromptu games of mass cricket or barefoot football. The city provided poverty and difficulties that was usually negated by the joy of its citizens, who found happiness in the simplest parts of life.
I tried to learn some words in Bengali and enjoyed my morning chat that consisted of two sentences with the taxi driver I used on the way to my school. I had perfected these sentences to such an extent, he mistook by as a fluent speaker, and spent the rest of the journey telling me his travails with his wife. His fare varied according to his mood and we became firm friends. Calcutta is a city that lends itself to friendship. I was invited into homes across the city, normally to shelter from the monsoon. I had a cup of warming chai thrust into my hand and was ushered to sit down and watch TV. Almost always the flickering set was showing football, a strange fascination for most Calcuttans. Celtic v St Mirren was playing in one such home I ended up in. The father nodded at me with a smile, while his children sat transfixed at a cold Scottish game far away from their dusty streets.
Rugby, a game I had never been able to play in school due a lack of size became my main recreation in an exhausting city that strains every inch of you physically and mentally. Calcutta Cricket and Football Club became an oasis for me, the dusky white walls housed a full sized rugby pitch that in the summer months became a famous manicured cricket ground for the likes of Sourav Ganguly. For us, the soaked pitch swarmed with warm mosquitos, desperate to feast of seasoned Irish skin. After games with the Calcutta Police , my body wasn’t covered in the normal stud scrapes, instead I nursed festering sores from insects that had feasted on my skin when I dived on a muddy ball on the ground. I made dear friends from all over the city and we managed to win the second division of the West Bengal championships, with me doing my level best to lose the game as an mercurial and erratic out half.
I left Calcutta changed forever. I knew that I could never be a teacher and I found out the value of friendship in the most challenging of places. Crumbling chalky walls and sloppy pavements were counterbalanced by the happiest people I have met before, or since. Six years have passed in an instant, I hope to see old friends in Calcutta soon.