By Bobby Sebolao

03 November 2015 - 11:00

'No intensive UK driving courses could prepare a person for the unpredictability of Indian roads.'
'No intensive UK driving courses could prepare a person for the unpredictability of Indian roads.' Photo ©

Emilien ETIENNE under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Bobby Sebolao, who is completing a five-month teaching placement in India through the British Council, shares what has struck him most about the people he has met there.

Students can be teachers too

When I came to India, I knew I wanted to learn how to play cricket, a sport I know very little about. This has caused problems at home, where I am surrounded by cricket enthusiasts. For the first few weeks, this goal was more of an idea than a reality. That was until I accidentally found the unlikeliest of mentors on a bus ride home from school.

The journey usually consists of chatter, songs and a 'game' where the kids empty the contents of their pencil cases into my lap for my inspection and approval - they are in primary school. As I dutifully remarked on the impressive length of a pencil shaving, the boy beside me spoke up. 'Bobby Sir, who is your favourite cricket player?' I didn't know anyone except from Sachin Tendulkar, but let him know that I was willing to learn. His expression made me feel like I had to. Then he asked, 'Sir, do you know Dhoni, captain of India cricket?' I shook my head. Recognising the gravity of the situation, he momentarily disappeared below my eye level and rummaged for something in his bag. A second later, a thin hardback book was slid to me through the gap between the seats - ‘The Complete Encyclopaedia of Cricket’. Then he, a nine-year-old from my English class, set me homework: 'Study the list of world cricket captains on page 23, and I will test you on their names on the bus tomorrow'. I left the bus, book in hand, grinning.

Learn how to say 'I've had enough, thank you' 

Indian people are impressively hospitable. Recently, I visited one of my colleague’s mother’s houses. I was welcomed into their home in the northern part of Delhi and was treated to a feast of parathas (warm, flat bread), curd (natural yoghurt) and achaa (spicy chutney).

What I didn’t realise for a little while was that, traditionally, parathas are served one at a time, rather than piling guests’ plates full of them all at once. So, of course, I ate the food on my plate. And when my stocks kept getting replenished, and when one paratha on my plate became eight in my stomach over the course of several minutes, a realisation struck me. My colleague’s mother was busy making a seemingly never-ending stream of them in the kitchen.

Without knowing how to say I had eaten enough in Hindi, which I now realise was a rookie’s mistake, my appetite was pitted against my host’s endless hospitality in a marathon that even Mo Farah would have struggled to complete. I have since learned that the appropriate phrase is ‘bas shukriya’, which literally translates as ‘stop, thank you’ in English. If you are ever going to India, or any other ‘feeding culture’, learn this phrase or its equivalent.

I admitted inevitable defeat at around the one-hour mark and retreated to the sofa to lie contentedly like a cat who’d had its cream, and perhaps too much of it. My ‘opponent’ enjoyed her victory. The Indians I’ve met in Ghaziabad have really shown me what it means to look after guests. Perhaps one day I’ll take on the ‘feeding’ role, and see how it goes down the other way round.

Don't wait for a break in the traffic before crossing

Why did Bobby cross the road when there were cars flying all around him? If he didn't, he wouldn't have got to the other side.

Since being here, I have learned that experience is often the best teacher, and occasionally the only teacher, when it comes to road safety (or lack thereof). Travelling through Delhi’s bustling streets is no cakewalk, largely because in many places there is no sidewalk. Please excuse the Americanism – you can see why I used it. As there is so much traffic all the time, waiting for a clear bit of road before crossing is, I now know, impossible. The way I deal with this is by imagining that I am a nimble but tough vehicle with an undeniable right to be on the road. In the UK, I’m Bobby, but on the streets of Delhi, I’m a Tata hatchback that does 0-15 miles per hour in four seconds at a push. Just imagine. What kind of nimble little car would you be?

If you are brave enough to get behind the wheel of a real car, just know that no intensive UK driving courses could prepare a person for the unpredictability of Indian roads. Remember the 'hazard perception' part of the British driving theory exam where a cow strolls onto the quiet country lane on your computer screen? Imagine that, but with more cows, more cars and more discord, and you will be slightly closer to imagining a typical Indian city street.

People will comment on your physical appearance

The other day somebody asked me if my hair was 'fiction'. Initially I didn't understand. Since then I've lost count of how many times people have commented on my afro hair – many Indians have approached me to ask if it is real. A student in my class-five English class whispered to me that his friend thought my hair was 'artificial', while in my apartment block a man from the seventh floor asked me if it was 'original'. It seems that my scalp foliage has been a source of genuine curiosity.

A favourite comment of mine came from a gentleman called Sazid. Our routes of communicating with each other are slightly limited, as we each speak little of the other person's language. So when he said, 'your hair...part time?' while pointing at my head I wasn't entirely surprised. There are competing theories between teachers at my school as to what that meant. They range from asking if I'm going bald, wearing a wig, or intending to keep growing my hair. I'm still not sure.

Something that I have noticed in India is that directness is very much part of the national character, if there is such a thing. In my experience this may be partly due to the untranslatable nature of some Hindi words or phrases. When native Hindi speakers use English, sometimes they sound more blunt than they might in their own languages. However, it's not just this. I think it's also to do with an openness that is common in Indian people. In the UK, these hair-related questions would likely be met with embarrassment. But in India, questions of salary, marital status and even diet are freely exchanged in everyday conversations and with strangers.

Be ready to challenge your preconceptions

No doubt you will know something about India that you have heard from someone, somewhere. If I could pass on only one nugget of knowledge it would be this - your experience will definitely be different from mine, or your friend's, or your teacher's. Part of what makes India so special is that it totally defies any singular characterisation, and does so proudly. Everybody knows that 'India is so diverse', but it is true. Take my school as a microcosm for this incredible diversity.

From the outside, it reminds me of the White House, but walking through the corridors of the building at break time is more reminiscent of a scene from a 'Where's Wally?' picture book, than one from 'The West Wing'. The place is a hive of activity. There is a crèche where the younger children make little working Meccano mechanisms, a sports atrium that’s always in use, an art room adorned with students’ paintings and what can only be described as the ultimate toddler’s play space, which is mysteriously referred to as the ‘Concept Room’. As with schools across the world, I'm sure, no two days working here are ever the same. Despite being here as a teaching assistant, I have found myself undertaking a variety of roles, from being a compère for a student awards evening, a side-line commentator for the inter-school football tournament, a traditional Indian dandiya stick dancer and, of course, a classroom teacher.

No two experiences of this land are the same. Just imagine what you could find out.

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