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Blog: A Cow in the Playground


Sep 2013

A Cow in the Playground

Posted by / in Blog, Traveller's Tales /

Sitting in a dusty classroom reading my favourite stories to Hindi-speaking children … teaching was never better than this for Jean Ashbury.

White cranes lined up on the school wall and eyed their insect breakfasts in the cow manure below. In the field beyond, camels the colour of dark chocolate foraged in the tops of acacia trees. Beside them, I could see the corkscrew horns of endangered black bucks and skittish chinkara deer (Indian gazelles) as they grazed in the scrub beside nilgai antelopes. In the playground a cow headed towards a classroom. And in the rafters above my head swifts flitted back and forth nest-building with twigs and scrap.

I sat on the steps outside a classroom with Haseena tucked in the crook of my arm. “Baloo,” she said in Hindi and pointed to the cover of the story book in my hand.
“Yes. A bear,” I replied.
“Yesyes,” she said dismissively. “B-e-a-r … bear.”


Haseena’s portrait VentureCo Tailor made travel

Haseena’s portrait of me!

I was at Haseena’s school in a small village in Mandore near Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Four Book Bus volunteers and I were working on a pilot project to support learning English as a foreign language, and we were using favourite stories that British children read. Our aim was to teach with stories children enjoy instead of setting dry vocabulary and grammar exercises.

Seven year old Haseena is literate in Hindi, the medium of instruction in her school. She also speaks Marwari, a regional language of western Rajasthan. She’s memorised the letters of the English alphabet by their names and spells words out before saying them. Every day she practises writing English script and carefully copies phrases from the blackboard. She doesn’t often remember what these say or what they mean. When we met she greeted me with “Howareyou?” but looked lost when I asked her the same question.

To get to school Haseena walks about 1km from her house. But we had to cope with half an hour of traffic mayhem through Mandore’s sprawl of ramshackle chai shops, stores, low stone houses and spanking new government buildings. In between jerk-braking for road goddesses (cows) to amble past and slaloming round those pretending to be speed bumps, daily life flashed past: reed slender women draped in saris carrying heavy loads on their heads; sinewy, nutmeg coloured men splitting sandstone with small pickaxes. Every job that can be completed by a small machine is done by hand … many, many, many hands. It was a glimpse of the grinding existence that might be Haseena’s future.

Book bus india tales
Haseena’s family are lucky not to be living below the poverty line (i.e. subsisting on about 50p a day) but they struggle to pay for her uniform and books. They are happy she doesn’t have to walk too far to go to school, and that she gets a free school meal every day but they want more for her. Like many disadvantaged groups in India today, they see English as a way up the economic ladder, and know that Haseena must become a fluent English speaker if she is to get a get good job. Despite over half a century of Indian independence, English remains the language of India’s major institutions and the key to white-collar jobs and academic opportunities. Children of well off parents get a head-start by attending private schools where they are immersed in English throughout the school day. But those like Haseena in state-run schools make do with a poorly taught daily lesson of just one hour.

I sat on a charpoy on the porch of Haseena’s house drinking milky masala chai, hot and fragrant with ginger and cardamom. The water had been heated inside the house on a one-ringed gas burner, but on the bone-dry ground near the step was a pile of dried cow dung ready for lighting the chulha (stove) next to it.

Book bus traveler tales
The family are Bishnois and only use wood for fire when dead branches fall. They belong to an eco-conscious religious sect whose founder encouraged them to protect wildlife and trees. And they have sacrificed lives doing so. Haseena’s Bishnoi heroes are Amrita Devi and her daughters who were beheaded in 1763 by the Maharajah of Jodhpur’s soldiers. The women had put their arms around khejri trees to stop them being cut down. These days the Bishnoi use the Indian Wildlife Act to prosecute anyone caught hunting or poaching. As Bollywood star Salman Khan discovered when he went to prison for shooting chinkara deer and black bucks.

Haseena’s house is a one storey, flat-roofed rectangular structure made of bricks. It has areas for sleeping with mattresses and rugs on the floor, and one for cooking. Pylons, and large pipes from the Indira Gandhi Canal in Jaisalmer on the Pakistan border, bring power and water to the house. Water is always scarce, but there is always some left for wildlife, and for refreshing the wilting okra and spinach plants in the kitchen garden. Indira’s promise to green the Rajasthani desert remains a promise. The drought prone land supports short crops of grain and vegetables that are subject to the whims of the monsoon – late, early, or not at all. Scrub thorn, acacia and khejri trees are typical of the area where Haseena’s family tend their sheep, goats and cattle.

The school, big enough for a hundred pupils, was typical of the five we visited: low brick buildings, exteriors painted with the colours of the Indian flag, basic classrooms with blackboard and chalk, no resources to speak of, benches and desks for older children, and floor blankets for the younger ones.

indian classroom Book Bus India
On our first day, the Bishnoi elders in traditional whites and colourful turbans, women in sparkly, neon-bright saris and children in school uniform met us by a small temple in the centre of the village. Drums had mustered them there. After a prayer to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, the eager crowd welcomed us with singing, dancing, and handshaking fit for celebrities. At the school, teachers draped marigold garlands round our necks, daubed vermilion tikkas on our foreheads and placed brown sugar on our tongues. Then there was more dancing. And speeches to show how much they valued our presence as “ambassadors of English”. We stood looking sheepish with our canvas shopping bags full of pencils, crayons, paper, string, glue, scissors, sticky paper, story books …
After a tentative start, I fell into the days like the idealistic young teacher I used to be making resources every evening and discussing with my friends the nitty-gritty of the next day’s plans. Every morning, a cheeky child would wink at me during prayers, but stand to attention to sing the national anthem and I’d wonder about that mischievous gene all children seemed to have. I learnt a dinner lady’s tricks serving the right amount of food during mealtimes, recognizing the faces coming back for seconds and thirds … and the ones who needed to take some home in a little tiffin tin.

Bishnoi shepherdess
In class, I read stories the children liked until I knew the words by heart. I grew accustomed to hearing, “Ma’am, Ma’am” as impatient voices clamoured for attention. Hindi crept into my head and added the evocative margermunch (crocodile) to my lexicon. And my diary overflowed each day with surprise moments: the village elder sitting at the back of the class; teachers chuckling over pictures in a story book when they thought no one was looking; the ‘Oh!’ on a young mother’s face as she cut out a spiral paper snake and watched it twirl; teenagers with nothing to do dropping in to read with younger siblings; our jeep-driver taking charge of the smiley face stickers and doling them out to the children.

“Kal milenge,” said Haseena as she waved at the jeep taking us away from school.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, and suddenly felt impatient for the morning.

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