This week packs a nostalgic punch for us: it’s been almost one month since we stepped off our respective planes in Hyderabad and met one another (pronounced Hy-DRA-bad for anyone curious). One month of dodging auto-rickshaws, developing a chai tea habit, and waiting patiently, pleadingly for packages from friends and family (don’t worry friends and family – we’ve found the room, it’s the mail that’s a bit slow). It’s been three weeks since we began teaching at Railway Girls’ High School in Lallaguda and two weeks since we began teaching at our America India Foundation (AIF) partner schools: Sultan Bazar High School, Government Girls High School in Bansilalpet, and Audiah Memorial High School. And as of yesterday Kelly officially began teaching at our 5th and final school—Mahatma Gandhi Memorial School—with great success.
With this day, the last wheel of The Modern Story flying machine has been set spinning earnestly in motion. It is a vehicle piloted by 114 students, their 10 teachers, and ourselves, built from camera batteries and tripod legs, story-powered and running on creative juice, buoyed by blind faith in each other and in our newfound family. We seem to have lifted off beyond all return, departed from any familiar ground to gaze down at our small June selves with amusement. A great many things have changed since then.
For one, the three of us have grown from being friendly strangers to a strange band of friends, known to the Abids neighborhood and often together. When separated, shopkeepers and waiters will inquire, “Where is Kelly? Where is Dana? Where is your other friend?” Both Kelly and Dana have spent time in India before and share a profound love for the country, its many languages, religions, and peculiar challenges. Kelly is always striving to get out and see more, following her curiosity (and encouraging mine) through the winding streets of Sultan Bazaar and into the pockets of Hyderabadi life: a chai tea counter, a yoga studio, and a Hare Krishna service. On a given day, when we find ourselves stuffed into the 8A bus, dripping with sweat, careening through the streets, and contorting our limbs to hold on to whatever pole, rail, or fixed object we can find for fear of falling, Dana will often break into an enormous smile and say: “I love India.” And she means it. In many ways, experiencing the country through their eyes has forced me to reconsider my own impressions, to knock down the pin of stereotype and romanticism all the more quickly, and live at the level of people, places, and things. Because that is, after all, what matters most: people, places, and things. Nouns. Any abstraction beyond that is a bit more complicated and requires one to venture into the realm of the storyteller. How do you tell a story about India that captures a whole noun? A swath of feeling? An entire month? I haven’t the faintest idea, but am going to try.
Two weeks ago, I was teaching the 8B standard class at Railway Girls’ High School in Secunderabad. I love working with these students – they are bright, kind-hearted, and keen to become good photographers and digital storytellers.
After showing the students some storyboards and comic strips, I took them outside in small groups to record voiceovers describing their favorite object. We stood beneath a tree – dubbed the “quiet tree” to deter background noise – and amid hushed laughter, the girls took turns speaking into the camera and recording one another’s voices. Everything was going smoothly, all too smoothly. I should have known. For somewhere in between Fuqrah explaining how her father bought her a diary for New Year’s and Sim Rani describing the fur of her teddy bear, a breeze passed by and gingerly lifted the edge of my long tunic, called a kurta. I felt the coolness of the breeze, as breezes are wont to cool the skin, but with a strange and startling proximity. As if the breeze was extra strong, or my pants – these billowy, pajama-like pants called salwar – were extra thin. Or missing entirely.
Somehow, in the haste of the morning, I had torn an apple-sized hole in the back of my salwar and was bearing my backside to the entirety of the sun-soaked courtyard. Panicked, I tugged my kurta back in place and looked wildly in every direction, like the periscope of some paranoid submarine. Had I flashed the students? A teacher? The Head Mistress Madam Janaki? If she didn’t tolerate short sleeves, indecent exposure would hardly earn her approval. I spent the rest of the day attempting to be streamlined, arms pinned to my sides like a water slide rider, walking slowly and trying to not make any sudden motions. I hobbled home with wounded pride and stitched the hole that weekend.
As a teacher abroad, it is too our benefit to approach new environments with utmost respect, to be mindful of what is said and done, and to consider the meaning of our actions in a new context. To comply with unspoken rules. To adjust accordingly. To conform. All month, I’ve been watching other teachers at our schools and trying to mimic their mannerisms, their tone, and their diplomacy. I’ve begun to wobble my head back and forth to mean yes, instead of nodding up and down, and adopted a clipped Indian accent to make it easier for my students to understand my English. This is made especially ironic by the fact that so many of the girls detest the sound of their voice, of their accent, and want desperately to sound like me.
The pressure to conform and blend in, especially in the conservative sections of Hyderabad where we live and teach, urges not only our compliance, but the compliance of my students as well. Many said their greatest fear in The Modern Story class was answering a question incorrectly. Many are hesitant to speak in class, often answering my questions in a synchronized chorus. The students of 8B wear the same neatly pressed blue uniform, hair spun in two smooth braids, and frequently copy their homework from textbooks, newspapers, and each other’s journals despite my insistence they write in “their own words.” But what value does a student’s “own words” have when having the “right answer” is more socially applauded? My students and I seem to be caught in a space of mutual imitation, suspended somewhere in the middle of this two-way mirror and trying so very studiously, even desperately, to be like everyone but ourselves.
In spite of our honest efforts, however, it has proven nearly impossible for my students and I to be anyone but ourselves. Scraps of personhood will continue to make an appearance: bursts of laughter, innocently insensitive remarks, and a wayward patch of skin beneath an otherwise perfectly respectable pair of pants. Though the desire to fit in persists, there is something to be said for standing out. And instead of suppressing these flares of identity and hanging their heads in shame, I want more than anything to show these girls the tremendous beauty and joy of taking pride in themselves. Of bringing their inner life to bear on paper and preferring to do so in their own words. And when hearing their voice played back, I want them to smile at the sound of it, to appreciate its musicality, its earnest curiosity, its liveliness, everything I hear when I listen to them speak and the ownership that comes when imitation isn’t nearly as satisfying as authenticity.