Challenging Preconceptions

November 15, 2012



A typical Udaipur slum building

When people write about India, they stereotypically comment on the devastating poverty and scarcity of natural resources.  Tourists will apparently expect to suffer from culture shock and even a bad bout of dysentery (many even come prepared with a list of foods they should and should not eat). The tourist should always be conservatively dressed, with belongings kept close at all times to thwart pickpockets.  The tourist must always be fully prepared.

I don’t dispute any of this; in many cases, these preconceptions are absolutely correct. Yet maybe they are also to be regretted, as they can cloud people’s vision of India.  Or perhaps they’re a good thing, as India can now only exceed a visitor’s expectation?

Regardless of how much credit you give to Indian travel myths, my advice is this: be sure not to pass judgement on the country until you have explored India for yourself.  As the expression goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.

In 2009, I spent nine weeks in the suburbs of Udaipur (Rajasthan) teaching English to a local government school, before continuing my Indian journey southwards.  I quickly realised that, despite initially believing I was living in sub-standard conditions, my digs were considered luxurious by the large percentage of people surrounding me.  I rapidly dropped my Western expectations.

My bed was a wooden table with a so-called mattress protector, and I was given just one bucket of water each day to be used for washing myself, my clothes and even to flush the ‘loo’.  I learnt to ration my supply and was soon living the simple life – and relishing it.

The early days were spent learning Hindi, making sure my pronunciation was correct. I wasn’t allowed into the classroom until I had a grasp of the language.  On completion of this task, little did I know I would shortly be embarking on the most compelling journey.

The children I taught were aged between seven and ten, and my class size would range from two to 32, depending on whether the kids decided to turn up or not. As the school had previously only had one teacher – the headmaster – the children were delighted to have a new tutor (or ‘didi’, as they called me), and were often hyperactive.

A ‘typical’ day would start with a rickety rickshaw journey to a building in a remote rural area; this was the school. We would sing songs and dance on the sandy land outside before the children would settle down to three hours of learning.  I decided to reward my class with stickers, which soon became the highlight of the children’s day. (Despite being oceans and countries apart, this bore a real resemblance to my own childhood, where I also had a sticker collection.)

Retiring from the school at lunchtime, I would return to my apartment for some food, mostly typical Indian cuisine like palak paneer and, on some days, simply rice and naan bread.  I occupied the next few hours planning the next day’s lesson structure.  The rest of the afternoon would then be spent in the slums, which were situated behind the apartment.

These slums were fascinating: emotional and intriguing.  As families soon became acquainted with white people living in their area, so the adults started to allow us to teach their young ones (who immediately engaged with us).  Using chalk from the ground to write on random bits of tin or walls (some of which were the sides of the children’s actual ‘house’), the teaching began.  The children were so willing to learn.

As time passed, I witnessed the cycle of life – celebrating new lives, mourning tragic deaths (marked by children shaving their heads) – on a weekly basis.  It made me see that we are all just the same.  Equal human beings, all sharing the same planet, with every child embarking on a learning journey, only living in different environments. Despite the slums, their raw abodes, they were the most heart-warming people I met throughout my time in India.

So what is the purpose of this blog?  I think it is to stress the quandaries of preconceptions.  The media may inadvertently force you to formulate a judgement on India (and many other things), but I urge you to always take their advice with a pinch of salt; to make up your own mind.

I had a mental image of the Indian slums as a devastating place.  And, to some extent, they are.  The living conditions are alarming and healthcare is at an all-time low.  Yet, despite all this, the people are so inviting and gracious – a fact rarely mentioned in the hearsay that circulates around the world.  Though they had barely a rupee to spare, I was offered chai tea and fruit on every occasion.

So ditch those stereotypes, and see if India casts a spell over you like it did for me.

(Alice Thornton)