INDIA: Returning to Kolkata

Kolkata – India’s cultural capital –  is a city of extreme contrasts. Incredible poverty abounds alongside exceptional wealth. Enduring customs and traditions remain as technology pushes insistently through. Pure beauty rubs up against permeating smog and grime. It’s captivating. It’s challenging. It’s addictive. It’s shocking. Like any place where you immerse yourself, it’s oh so easy to love.

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One year on from my last visit, in January I finally returned to Kolkata. It had been a year of planning and preparing. A year of missing our fantastic Topsia children. A year of thinking about Rabia and all the other wonderful teachers who work with the Cathedral Relief Service (CRS). A year of memories and daydreams. It did not disappoint!

For anyone who hasn’t read about my previous trip, the basic idea is that, through my school, in association with the Derby Diocese, I visited with a team of about 25 educators for 10 days. There were two main purposes: to link with a Kolkata slum school and to provide training for all the teachers affiliated with the CRS charity. Children in Kolkata’s slums need to obtain an adequate level of English before they can move to a formal school, thereby improving their prospects in life.

Topsia, our link school, is in a very deprived Muslim area of the city. Think goats atop rubbish heaps, the pervading stench of the river and towering tenement buildings. People here are not the poorest of the poor but they’re not far off. The 60 or so children meet in one tiny room which is a men’s community sports club in the evenings, evidenced by the ancient television set and the dusty trophies lining the high shelves. The building had changed since last year due to my Derby school’s fund-raising. Rabia – the schools one and only teacher – was so proud to show us the ceiling fans, electric strip lights and a tall blue metal shoe rack. We had also equipped the beautiful children with smart navy uniforms, shiny new shoes, rucksacks, lunch boxes and water bottles.

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I was so excited to see the children again. Happily, it was mutual in many cases! January is the start of their academic year, so I was touched that many of the children who should have been starting at a new school had come back to see us for the week! Some of the older girls, in particular, were keen to commemorate our time with photographs and had learnt the word ‘selfie’!

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For the first hour or so, Rabia demonstrated how hard they’d been working all year, learning and practising things we had taught them: the stories Bear Hunt and Brown Bear, Brown Bear as well as various songs and rhymes. It was brilliant to see and hear their enthusiasm.

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Last year, alongside the stories and songs, we introduced phonics to the school (via the CPD which I’ll explain about later). Unsure whether Rabia would have been equipped to continue the teaching throughout the year, you can imagine my elation when I realised that many of the older children could now read English! Candy, Sue (two other members of the English team) and I introduced them to some new stories this year – The Naughty Bus and Handa’s Surprise – which we barely had chance read aloud because the children took over! That gratifying moment really made every moment of time, effort and (my school’s) funding feel so worthwhile!

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We taught the children to play snakes and ladders, introduced them to some new puppet friends and they designed their own Naughty Buses based either on a red London bus or a blue and yellow Kolkata equivalent.

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I was struck by the children’s contented natures. Every moment of their school day, they are squashed so tightly together yet display such tolerance towards each other, helping and supporting one another. They don’t tend to fall out and, within the confines of their age and ability, they participate in everything willingly.

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After spending a great couple of days together, we wanted to give the children a gift and had decided on oranges since they feature in the story of Handa’s Surprise, as well as being a welcome opportunity to provide some nutrition for them. If I was to give my class back home the ‘gift’ of an orange, I think there would be some grumbles and very little gratitude – they would not be very impressed. But the smiles on these children’s faces were priceless as they grasped them in their little hands. They were so delighted that most of them saved them to take home. Some women on the street even thrust their arms through the ‘window’ bars to ask for one as we were distributing them. Very humbling.

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We had also needed something to stick the children’s own Naughty Buses on so we’d inadvertently bought them each a pencil too. In many cases, the buses didn’t last long as they were just so excited to have their very own pencil!

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few tears as we said our goodbyes.

Another key part of the week was teaching the teachers. We provided two days of training for teachers from all the slum schools and a few others. Our foci were teaching maths through stories (Goldilocks, One is a Snail, Best Bug Parade and How Many Legs?), phonics games, language sessions for non-English speakers and some songs. As last year, they were really positive days full of boundless enthusiasm from the Indian teachers. Here are a few photos to give you a feel for the days.

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This year, at the end of the week, we tried something new: a picnic fun day for 400 children from all of our schools. It was fantastic! A day of pure joy! The sun even managed to penetrate the city’s smog to give us the first summery day of the week!

The pupils all filed into the secondary school playing field in orderly lines, often hands on the shoulders of the child in front, some in their smart uniforms but many dressed up in their absolute finest clothes! The anticipation and excitement was palpable! Being designated photographer, I greeted them all and with an, “Ek, dui, deen, hasi!” (1,2,3, smile!) as they waited in their school groups.

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The first event of the day was breakfast. Each school approached a set of tables in their lines and received a bag containing bread, juice, a cake and a hard-boiled egg, provided by CRS. Most children had to be really encouraged to eat some of it since they instinctively seemed to feel they should take it home to share with their families. Whilst they ate, a puppeteer performed to the children. They were transfixed and found him completely hysterical. It was so great to watch them enjoying themselves!

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A carousel of games and sports ensued with each school moving around. There were egg and spoon races, three-legged races, sack races, tug-of-war, parachute games, duck-duck-goose and football amongst other things. It would be fair to say the kids were wild with excitement!

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Lunch was a welcome break and the children were provided with a generous meal of curry and rice whilst a magician wowed and stunned them all. Again, many put their hot food into their bags or shared one portion with their siblings. You can imagine it was quite a challenge to convince them that they really needed to eat their ice cream dessert rather than save it!

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Due to the heat, the children did just one more activity before finishing for the day. It had been a truly marvellous and memorable event! I couldn’t resist a few portraits of those smiles!

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Outside of the education-based activities I’ve described, we did, of course, spend a little time enjoying and experiencing the city of Kolkata and wider West Bengal. Below are some photos from around the city and of some of the excursions we made.

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A Jain temple (no photos allowed inside):

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A service at the cathedral:

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A boat trip down the Hooghly River under Howrah Bridge to a temple:

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A visit to Kumortuli pottery village:

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A Bengali evening at St Thomas’ secondary school – I got to wear a sari!

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A day trip to a rural school underneath CRS’s umbrella which turned into quite an adventure! It was great to get out into the countryside and see a different part of the region from the bus window.

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The boats pulled up to a knee-deep muddy mangrove area. Fortunately, a local man arrived with a bundle of straw on his shoulder to make a path up the steep bank for us. Heading through the mangrove trees, we ascended another bank and ducked through a hole in a tall fence.

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To reach the school, we passed paddy fields, banana trees, mud and straw houses, livestock and a precarious-looking well being operated by a team of men.

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At the school, we briefly met the pupils and were then spoiled with a feast in their barren school room. Such amazing hospitality from people with so little!

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During our return journey, I was at the back with someone who had fallen over so we lost our way in the mangrove trees. These beautiful girls navigated us back to the boat and I thanked them with Starburst sweets!

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It was an incredible trip again. A little piece of my heart remains – and will always remain – in Kolkata. Until we meet again…

A video I made of our trip can be viewed here.

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