I arrived on my first day of work nervous, the sweat of my anxiety masked by the steamy September weather. Not that I let my apprehension show, of course; I prided myself on my ability to dissociate my bearing from my feelings. In a meeting with the director of the NGO, we had decided that I would teach in the elementary school in morning and walk around the slum in the afternoon to become acquainted with the community.
Entering the rundown, rust-colored building, I ran into my supervisor on his way out. A man in his thirties, he was about my height with a slight belly, wearing a blue-checkered shirt, dark pants, and bright green running shoes. He shook my hand firmly and asked, “How are you?” After a brief exchange, he directed me upstairs to the kindergarten class, “if that is agreeable to you.”
The stairs between the first and second floors were tucked behind a low metal doorway. Ducking my head, I joined a pack of children in maroon and gray uniforms jostling each other as they scrambled up the cramped spiral stairway to a room with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling, every surface cool and hard and gray.
Light filtering in through the curtains revealed thirty-some students sitting in three groups. A chorus of “Namaste, sir!”s rang out as one then another noticed me. I joined my hands and smiled in reply. After giving a cheery greeting, the head of the school led me into a small classroom where she introduced me to the teacher, a process interrupted by another enthusiastic round of “Namaste, sir!” About twenty five- to seven-year-olds sat crowded on the floor in front of a chalkboard. Glad for the reinforcements, the teacher acknowledged me with a nod, divided the group in two, and herded half out of the room.
I had been hoping to observe class the first day; suddenly I found myself faced with 10 expectant children. It might be good to mention here that I’d never taught before, had never worked with young kids, and at this point knew very little Hindi. The extent of my directions: teach math and English.
My brain initiated an immediate, frantic search through its neural archives for a file on kindergarten pedagogy. The result of this query—“Error: no such file in directory”—triggered a release of adrenaline.
Turning towards the chalkboard, I selected the least broken stub of chalk and started tracing the alphabet. My hand steadied a bit by the time I finished “D,” so I mustered the courage to face the children. My eyes stopped me mid-turn. That girl’s face–what’s wrong? Her coffee-colored skin was blotched with patches of creamy pinkish white. Worry not, dear reader, I quickly slapped my mind’s wrist for the illiberal reaction and odd beverage imagery. Marshaling my thoughts I pointed at the first letter: “Yeh kya hai? What is this?”
“B!” They continued unprompted: “C, D, E, F, G…”
As they passed D, I found my hand scurrying across the board in a futile effort to write each letter in time. Before I arrived at Z, the merciless children had begun again. I tapped the board as they chanted, like a rookie conductor helplessly following an experienced orchestra.
In the afternoon, the nurse in the center’s health clinic accompanied me to the slum, accessible only by turning off the main road into the narrowest of alleys. Without my guide, I would never have thought to take this path, would never have guessed what lay behind the streetside facade.
The blazing afternoon sun soon had my shirt drenched with sweat, and noxious vapors rose from a nearby river, a barely-flowing sludge of the slum’s sewage. Winding our way through alleys whose twists completely disoriented me, a labyrinth of crooked brick walls, tarp, and corrugated plastic, occasionally pressing our bodies against the dusty sides to make room for opposite foot traffic, we moved deeper into the slum, a hidden world of the unseen and untouchable tucked safely where only those who want to can find it.
It smelled like tuberculosis, if that can be said: musty, bitter, sweet, and the stench of decay.
The nurse led me into a low-ceilinged brick hut. My pupils dilated, struggling to distinguish the forms in the dark. I made out a man in an undershirt and dhoti gesturing for me to sit on the cot which occupied most of the room. A slight rustle behind him prompted an introduction: “My wife.”
“I’m happy to meet you,” I said towards the rustling shadow, using one of my pre-programmed Hindi phrases.
The sound of something being poured. The movement of something being passed to the man. The man offered me a plastic cup of chai whose thin walls seemed intent on communicating the full heat of their steaming contents.
“You will take biscuits?”
“No, thank you.”
A metallic clatter. I found a plate of Parle-Gs–my favorite Indian cookie–in my hands. I smiled at their insistent hospitality. A sip of chai seared my throat, the heat spreading throughout my chest.
A movement in my peripheral vision proved to be a mouse. Ignoring the way my stomach turned, I took a biscuit and nibbled a corner. I summoned what Hindi I knew:
“What do you do?
“I’m a musician.”
“Drum. Look: I make my own. I play concerts on the ghat. By Ganga ji. ”
“Can I come hear you play?”
“Yes, come to the river. I will be there.”
“Do you have any children?”
“Two daughters. They are out playing with the other children.”
At a cue from the nurse, I excused myself.
“You will come eat with us?” he suddenly asked.
I smiled and nodded and with a “namaste” returned to the brilliant light outdoors.
I soon settled into a routine: teaching in the morning, visiting the slum in the afternoon. To learn everyone’s name, I asked my students to sign a page in a notebook and reviewed the list each night, trying to picture the face that went with each signature. Manish, Ritika, Aman, Samir, Aman again, Khushi…I paused here. This was the girl, the one with vitiligo, her visage—the contours where brown met white—fixed in my mind.
One day, I found some colored blocks in the supply cabinet and started explaining addition.
“Two red ones. Three blue ones. How many are there together?”
Khushi piped up: “Five.”
“Correct, Khushi!” She flashed a smile at me and then turned and slapped Aman. He shoved her back. I froze. As an all-out, ultra-lightweight-division brawl developed, my brain jolted me into action, and I lunged down to pull them apart. My disciplinary vocabulary in Hindi consisted exclusively of “No! Don’t do that!” so I said it over and over.
The children eventually settled down, Khushi wearing an impish grin. I looked beseechingly at my watch. Only forty minutes until lunch.
When at last class was over, I walked downstairs to eat. In one corner, the nurse was whiling away the time at her desk waiting for walk-ins. Ten or twelve women from the slum arrived shortly for the NGO’s sewing class.
After finishing my roti and subzi, I washed my hands and pulled out the book I was reading—A Fine Balance—seeking the relief of sinking into someone else’s story. Transported to India four decades earlier, I tried to lose myself in the sorrow of its characters. But reading about Shankar and the Beggarmaster, I thought of the beggars I passed everyday on my commute to work. The atrocities visited upon the two tailors interwoven with the threads of personal accounts became a vast pattern of pain transcending the dichotomy of fact or fiction. As Om and Ishvar sewed in Dinabai’s sitting room, the fabric they stitched became the dresses of the sewing class, and the whir and clicks of their machines rose like incense from the page, dispersing around me and mingling with the sounds of a dozen treadles powered by the rhythmic pumps of feet accustomed to labor.
I shut the book.
But the presence of Om and Ishvar lingered in the air, an inescapable trace of the slum’s perfume.
December: “You must wear socks,” my supervisor greeted me one particularly chilly day, pointing at the bare toes in my sandals. Cool enough in the summer, the concrete rooms had become iceboxes now.
In the afternoon, I met the nurse as usual to walk to the slum. Wrapping a coarse brown shawl over her saree, she suggested, “Quick today, okay?” I nodded.
Trying to stay warm, I hardly noticed the path we took. After some time, I followed her into a building and breathed in the scent of tuberculosis. I was directed to sit next to a thinly wrapped figure on the bed. I found myself looking at an ancient face deeply grooved with wrinkles, her skin marked with sunspots. A cataract clouded one eye, but its partner peered curiously at me. She raising a trembling hand to cover a cough.
“How are you?” I asked.
A voice like a ghost’s whisper: <Sick>.
“I’m sorry.” A response as threadbare as the shawl shielding her from the cold.
<Eye, nose, throat, back, arms—all bad.>
What can I do? Can I help her? I asked, “Can you get medicine?”.
I looked up at the nurse, but she wasn’t listening. Should I give her money? I could think of every reason not to. But how could I not help?
Someone handed me a clay cup. I drank the spiced chai slowly, savoring the sticky residue it left on my lips. I examined her face, touched by something in her demeanor, something which lay under the resignation: a coal burning under the ashes, not preparing to burst anew into flame but accepting its natural course and burning precisely the fuel it was given, a fire dwindling to its close at which the glow will fade and in a final exhale of smoke rise from its host.
She placed her hand on mine. My arm immediately jerked away from her touch. I looked down, my brain frozen with disbelief, at my treacherous limb. Did I just…? Hesitating, one millimeter at a time, each second an hour, I lifted my eyes to her face.
Guilt and uncertainty followed me to work the next day. My body had betrayed my beliefs; a worldview built with bricks of fact and ethical mortar had been shaken by the evidence of my own hand.
I tried to teach that seven minus five equals two, but the students were not convinced. I pulled out the blocks and made a pile of seven.
“Saat.” The Hindi word for seven. To the American ear, it sounds like saaṭh which means sixty. Sixty equals seven. And together, sixty and seven sound like the word for together: saath-saath. Rousing me from my distraction, the voice spoke again: “Sir, seven.”
“Okay, now take five. How many are left?”
“Right. So what is seven minus five?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked down at the class: Manish and Aman fighting over an eraser, Ritika and the other Aman puzzling over the remaining two blocks, Samir quietly copying down the equation, and Khushi smiling, her bright eyes radiating the joy that only comes from clutching five beautiful blocks.
Holi—what a day! Anyone bold enough to step outside falls victim to a colorful artillery of powders and dyes, every rooftop a hiding place, every corner an ambush site, the stained street recording the casualties. Boys-turned-bandits block the side streets with rope, demanding rupees in exchange for safe passage. The usual social order is upturned, a year’s worth of grievances released in the mayhem of chromatic warfare.
On a pleasant March day, the NGO held a Holi celebration for both its students and other residents of the slum, the festivities imbued with the joy of winter’s passing. The rooftop was a raucous scene: the children ran loose throwing handfuls of color in each other’s hair and smearing yellow and pink powder on faces, unrecognizable figures gleefully scampering through clouds of orange, green, blue, purple. The revellers emerged from the chaos one by one to rub a messy red tikka on my supervisor’s forehead, then dashed back into the fray.
I had been told that as long as the powder stayed dry it could be wiped off, but water makes the stain sink in. When I joined in cautiously, my students jumped at the opportunity to paint their teacher’s face and hair. It felt like I was in a school of fish: a swarm of brightly colored hands surrounding me, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing, smearing every brilliant hue of their palette onto my skin. As the play died down, I looked around. Everyone’s colors had mixed and become the same shade of brown.
I walked to the bathroom downstairs to clean up, rubbing the powder off as well as I could. As I exited the bathroom, my hand nicked the metal latch on the door. I returned to the sink to wash the blood off and found a dark patch on my hand, a mark which resisted all scrubbing. I collected my things and set off for home, my cut still stinging.