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Frankly My Dear, I Don't Give A Dharma

Laal Gadger on teaching in India
... school teachers supplement their income by not turning up during the day and then charging their students for private tuition in the evenings.

"What is your name?"
It was a mild winter's day and a cool breeze wafted through the banana trees but I was already feeling uncomfortably warm.
"Where are you from?"
I sat in the chair, facing my interrogators and tried to read their faces. What would come next?
"Are you married? No? Why not?"

It had all seemed such a good idea at the time. I was one of several Western visitors at development project in rural Uttar Pradesh. The project was education orientated and contained everything from a kindergarten to a degree college. We had agreed to give some conversational English classes to the students. They would be enthusiastic young men and women, eager to improve themselves and we would aid them in their endeavour. It hadn't quite worked out like that.

At the appointed time, we took our seats in the tranquil gardens of the college. About 15 2nd and 3rd year students turned up. They didn't look like students as I remembered them. Not a pierced eyebrow or Bob Marley T-shirt to be seen. We had decided to commence with introductions and a game. In the game, I would pretend to have an occupation (say, doctor) and they would try to guess what it was by asking questions (e.g. "do you wear a white coat?" or "is your handwriting illegible?"). Somewhat grudgingly they introduced themselves but when it came to the game they were distinctly non-plussed. We wondered whether they felt it was beneath them. In fact, we later discovered that such interactive approaches are alien to the Indian education system. Pedagogical techniques in most Indian schools boil down to:
1. Write notes on blackboard
2. Hit child if naughty
3. Set questions
4. Hit child if it gets the answer wrong
5. Repeat until blue in the face
For most pupils the only opportunity for creativity is disobedience. This situation is exacerbated in some government schools as teachers supplement their income by not turning up during the day and then charging their students for private tuition in the evenings.

Whilst the education system is both rigid and ineffective, it is also intensely competitive. Entry exams for courses in medicine, engineering and IT or for the prestigious civil service are massively oversubscribed. Hence the popularity of private tuition, study aides, and inevitably, cheating. The situation has slightly improved since the 1970's when BA students would take guns into exams and shoot invigilators who had the temerity to invigilate.

Anyway, back to the English lesson. We decided to split into three subgroups and take one each. Hopefully, this would encourage them to be more talkative. I shepherded my seven surly, if well dressed, young men into a corner and one of them produced a battered textbook on English Grammar. They wanted me to explain the use of the gerund in compound sentences. It would be handy if explaining the use of the gerund in compound sentences was one of my favourite party pieces, deployed to charm guests and host alike. But it isn't. I have more chance of walking to Brazil on my hands than explaining the use of the gerund in compound sentences. There was an awkward pause. Then one of the lads asked me if I was married. In the coming weeks, I was to be asked similar things on trains, in cafes, and in one case, in a rowing boat next to a blazing funeral pyre. Everybody should expect the Indian Inquisition and surprise is not one of its three main weapons. Indians ask questions partly because they want to practice their English but mainly because it's their way of being friendly. In the spirit of the Indian education system, I will present some these questions to you as a mock exam paper with model answers.

Paper One: Your Life
Time Allowed: As long as it takes.
Instructions: Candidates should attempt all questions. Attempts at humour will be ignored.
Q1. What is your good name?
Q2. What is your place of residence?
Indian English is the language of law and bureaucracy. It has an official and archic flavour. Hence talking to an Indian feels like completing a particularly invasive census form.
Q3. Are you married?
The questions you are asked give you many clues about what is important in Indian society. Now family and marriage are probably the most important things of all. The answer you give will be influenced by whether you are actually married or not and also by the gender of your questioner and yourself. If you are single female being questioned by a male, it may be wisely to state that you are married. Western women are percieved as being "loose". You smoke, you drink, you wear clothes show the curves of your bodies - hussies and jezebels the lot of you!!! Ahem, excuse me. But also lone women are percieved as being loose in the sense of not being attached to anything - e.g. husband, father. And things left lying around tend to be pinched. For male travellers, you can simply expect a lot of nudging and winking.
Supplemental questions candidates may attempt for extra credit: If you are married you will be asked about your children. If you are not married you will be asked when you will be. I find a gallic shrug tends to work well here.

Q4. How many brothers and sisters do you have? Are you the oldest?
Given the importance of the family,a fair enough question. But your answer will also imply other things. Bigger families have more kudos amongst the poor. So if you only have, say, one brother, they might wonder what your Dad did to receive such punishment. Conversely Westernized Indians tend to view lots of siblings as a mark of churlish. If you are the oldest, you pull the most weight, so this can define your relative importance.

Q5. What is your job?
This should be straightforward. However, my job title is 'Knowledge Manager'. This leaves most Westerners bemused. Hell, even I don't know what I do. I normally just say I'm a terrorist.

Q6. What is your father's job?
This is a bit of a leftfielder that requires Dan's Guide To The Caste System.
Dan Byron's Cut-Out-And-Keep Guide To The Caste System
Hindu society has four main castes or classes:
1. Brahmins - the priest caste
2. Kshatriyas - the warrior caste
3. Vaishya - farmers and merchants
4. Shudras* - servant class
*Below the Shudras are the Dalits (or untouchables) - who clean toilets, deal with the dead and work with leather: all activities that are ritually unclean. The beauty of this system is no matter how shite your life might be there is always someone else to look down on.
The Sanskrit word for caste actually means 'colour' so the origins of this system lie in an ancient form of racial apartheid but it now refers to the station in life of your family. Within the four castes, there are hundreds of sub-castes (tailors, jewellers, labours, they may even be a knowledge manager caste somewhere, who knows) which allows for very fine levels of social ranking to be drawn. Castes do not intermarry or eat together.
According to Hindu scriptures, the Brahmins are the highest caste, up there with the gods. Can you guess which caste wrote the Hindu scriptures?
End of Guide

With this in mind, the dad's job question becomes clearer. You are not a Hindu so do not belong to a caste. But that isn't your fault, they can still fit you in somewhere. And knowing what you do and what your father does provides a good first guess.
Now this question should be quite easy to answer. But again my father has a job that's difficult to explain. He likes to say that he's spent the last 30 years in prison, which he has. He's a probation officer with a sense of humour ("they've let you off - only joking! you're going down for a long stretch"). So I normally say he's a social worker. This has a rather strange side-effect. As development projects I am visiting are know as social work in India,people think I am a social worker too. Therefore they think my family belongs to a social worker caste. Presumably our distinguishing characteristics would be the drinking of tea whilst nodding sympathetically.

Q7. What is your salary?
Another status related question. Problematic as most English people would rather hand out signed photographs of their genitalia on Waterloo Bridge than disclose their earnings.

Q8. Either: What is a good salary in your country? Or: How much does x cost in your country?
The World Bank and the OECD have to calculate a thing called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) to compare the world's economies. They could just convert everything into US$ at market ratesbut this would not account for the same meal costing $15 in the US and $1 in India. Just as inflation maps the power of money over time, so PPP maps it over space. And in effect, your questioner is doing something very similar here. The OECD probably uses highly trained economists to calculate PPP. They could save a lot of time and money by just sending in an Indian for a couple of days.

Q9. Do you like India?
The correct answer to this question is 'yes' but it will not always be true.

Q10. What are your educational qualifications?
Another status question
End of Paper. Chai break?

My session with the students ended on this last question. I had an MSc so ha! I won! They then continued the rest of the session in Hindi to indicate how little my qualifications meant there. After that, they never came back. They had fitted me into the scheme of things and I could be left safely in my place.

Laal Gadger email:

This is Laal's first travel piece for Hacks

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