Still confused, but eager to learn


The last few days before I leave home for India are always frantic. I have been making this trip so often that I always expect that by now I will be completely organised and ready to fly, but as I write this, little more than twenty four hours before departure my luggage remains unpacked and I have so much to do it feels like I will never be organised. I try to remain calm and tell myself that this is the usual situation and all will fall into place. This tactic however, does little to assuage my panic.

It is fifteen years since Sara and I first visited India and I have been returning with increasing regularity ever since. Nothing could have prepared us for the sensory explosion that greeted us on that first trip. The constant noise of traffic and voices all shouting to be heard, the dizzying motion everywhere from autorikshaws, buses and motorbikes dodging between dogs, goats and cattle, the heady smells of herbs and spices, and the vast range of bright colours that dominate the entire environment. The beautiful reds, greens and kingfisher blues of saris, the garish splash of the cinema posters, ornate shop fronts and huge advertising hoardings, so many in number that it is impossible to take in all the information. I had thought that after so many visits my senses would have adjusted, but they remain excited and at times exhausted by this cornucopia of sensory assault.

I can honestly say that since before that first visit I have tried hard to learn as much as I can about this stimulating and wonderful country. I have read books which inform me about aspects of the history, philosophy, religions, art and architecture of India. I have listened to music, visited exhibitions and tried to keep abreast of a burgeoning Indian media. I have taken every opportunity to question and debate with Indian colleagues about so many aspects of Indian life and culture. Yet still I feel that I know nothing and understand even less of this place to which I am about to return. It would take more than a lifetime of study to begin to appreciate what it is that contributes to this unique environment and its vast and varied populace. It would certainly require an intellect far greater than mine to comprehend the contradictions and the conundrum that is India. But therein is the joy of this opportunity; one that I have endeavoured to grasp with both hands.

I sometimes feel that it is impossible to see India with any accuracy through western eyes. I  believe that this is why for so many years the British, and to a lesser extent the Portuguese, Dutch and French tried so hard to impose their own standards and values on the country and found it difficult to understand the people over whom they governed. Even the Moghuls, with their distinctly Persian influence could not fully impose their cultural dominance upon this sub-continent. Whilst occasional rulers have left their mark, as seen in the magnificent Moghul or British imperial architecture most familiarly represented at Agra through the Taj Mahal, or in New Delhi with its imposing Lutyens buildings, or at times through the systems of administration witnessed in the law courts and education system, there remains a unique Indian interpretation that has taken the best of these but continues to assert an independence of spirit and character. Over the years there have been many great European commentators who have done their best to interpret India for those of us who remain perplexed. The best of these, such as Mark Tully, Stanley Wolpert, James Cameron and William Dalrymple bring some of the minutiae of India into sharper focus, but gaining a broader canvas by which we may appreciate the whole appears far too challenging.

I visit India as a teacher, but as with so many teaching experiences I recognise that I play the role of the student every bit as much as the tutor. Whilst sharing my knowledge and experiences with teachers, students and friends in India I am always learning from them and striving to place my interpretation of the world within their context. After forty years as a teacher (and far more as a pupil) I gain satisfaction from the clarity with which the indistinguishable nature of teaching and learning combined is in evidence, as I work in Bangalore and other parts of the country. The privilege of being a student here as well as a teacher is difficult to capture in words.

So it is that as I do begin to pack my luggage,  I gain a little confidence. The materials with which I will teach have been prepared for some weeks and I know that my colleagues Mary, Jayashree and Johnson will be equally ready. This, I tell myself means that the important preparations have been made. If in packing my suitcase I forget an item of clothing or some other accoutrement this will be of little consequence and is unlikely to detract from the teaching and learning that lies ahead. By this time tomorrow I will have checked that I have my passport a dozen times, and even at the airport I will be unsure that I have remember all that I should have with me. But I know that from the minute I am with students and colleagues in India all this will matter less and that we will embark upon the next stage of our learning together. Perhaps this time I will return from India with a little more understanding and an increased store of knowledge. I can hardly wait!

Leaving on a jet plane

The Marchioness of Ely aboard which Fanny Parkes made her journey to India in 1822

The Marchioness of Ely aboard which Fanny Parkes made her journey to India in 1822

I face the next twenty four hours with mixed emotions. On the one hand I am looking forward to arriving tomorrow evening in Bangalore ready to meet up with old friends and new. On the other, the thought of long cramped hours in an economy class aircraft seat trying to get some sleep and being away from my home and family is always a daunting prospect. To be fair, the cabin crew on Emirates flights are always friendly and considerate, and at least there is an opportunity to stretch legs at Dubai airport when breaking the journey. So, the prospects of passing the time reading and probably catching up with films I missed at the cinema should not be regarded with anything other than resignation.

Contemplating the journey ahead, last night I reached for the diary of a remarkable woman, Fanny Parkes who recorded her experiences in India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike so many English ladies who ventured to India at this time, and indeed since, Fanny Parkes committed herself to understanding the country and its people, learning languages, playing the sitar and getting to grips with the traditions and religions of the land. Her journals, which lingered far too long in obscurity were revived by the writer and historian William Dalrymple and published in a collected edition in 2002*. For anyone who wants to gain insights into life in northern India during this period they make fascinating reading.

It was whilst contemplating my own journey over the next day or so that I decided to remind myself of Fanny Parkes’ departure from England aboard the Marchioness of Ely and her eventual arrival along the estuary of the Hoogly river into Calcutta. Fanny left the Kent coast of England on June 18th 1822 arriving in Calcutta on November 13th. In her journals she describes watching whales and turtles, catching a sea snake and enjoying magnificent seascapes and sunsets. She also writes of the time when the ship was becalmed for eighteen days and when the wind returned being blown at seven knots in the wrong direction.

Travel at the pace with which Fanny Parkes journeyed to India on the Marchioness of Ely, must have many positive aspects. Though I suspect that she endured many discomforts and inconveniences along the way. I suppose her experiences watching the natural fauna and the changing seascapes are the equivalent of today’s inflight entertainment systems. Whilst it would be enjoyable to travel to India in a leisurely manner, it would hardly be practical in terms of providing two weeks of teaching!

It is with such contemplation that I will pack the final few items in my luggage and head off to the airport in anticipation of renewing my acquaintance with the sights, sounds and smells of Bangalore. In a few days’ time I am sure that it will feel like I have never been away, as I share new learning experiences with long established friends and students and a new cohort joining the MA in Special and Inclusive Education. I have no doubt there will be much to report over the coming days and weeks.

* William Dalrymple (2002) Begums, Thugs and White Mughals. London: Eland