Sunday, January 20, 2013


 Did I tell you, I can usually tell you the average income of a country just by the size or health of the stray dogs on the streets? I also predict the income of the country by the traffic patterns and traffic vehicles. Sometimes I can predict the income by the smells in the air when I land or even visibility-reduced particles in the air. But my latest gauge? My bowels.

Compare India to Italy. In Italy I never had a loose bowel movement; in India, I’ve never had a solid bowel movement. I went to Italy twice this past year, and I’m now on my third trip to India in the same time period. Almost instantly, the moment I landed on this trip, my bowel movements became loose. I don’t know how my bowels do it, but they have been a trusty measure. It’s as if they listen for the pilot to announce the destination and decide to switch to loose mode just to let me know. Unfortunately, I don’t need the help from my bowels: I know I’m in India.

This time I’m staying on a university campus and I have been put up in a guesthouse on campus in a girls’ dormitory (called hostel in Indian English). It’s been a really interesting time from the moment I stepped on the plane up until now. Every time I tell people I have problems with milk, they offer me chai tea, skimmed milk, or paneer. I thought it was a joke, but I flew with an Indian airline company here and their idea of a dairy-free meal was to give me light butter and remove the main dish. . . . well, I ate all of my side fruit and bread. It was good!

When I arrived in my room, my toilet-room had used water all over the floor (there is a water hose serving the same purpose as toilet paper). So that means I have to put on shoes every time I use my toilet. Unfortunately the floor isn't angled well enough for the water to all go away. I make sure to leave the fan on each day to dry the toilet-room floor and the shower-room floor (also doesn’t drain). At least I have a shower, thank goodness. Unfortunately, the soap leaves my skin white. I looked at the ingredients but all I could see as the possible culprit was “talc.” This morning I ran out of soap and needed to take a shower. When I asked the guest house employees for soap, they pointed to student shops and told me to go buy some soap. I couldn’t believe it; not just because I had to buy soap but they don’t speak English. So I went out and bought soap; it took me 30 minutes because I had to find one without the ingredient “talc.”

Whenever I get out of the shower, I have to try to avoid something at the end of my towel (I’m not sure what it is). However, I can see that there’s something growing in the showerhead of my shower. I’m not sure what it is. I just know that when the shower water accidentally enters my mouth it tastes like someone blew her nose in the water. The water looks clear though. I’m not sure if the water causes the smell in my room because it smells like the breath of someone who had slept for 20 years . . . maybe 30 years. So I also run the fan for the smell in the room.

But the people are extremely nice. There is one person who does speak English, the guesthouse manager. Apparently he lives here, works every day, and gets free meals as a part of his job. I was told during one dinner “Indians do not eat to live, we live to eat.” Judging by the sounds the guesthouse manager makes while eating next to me, it’s true. It sounds as if his mouth is open, but if you look closely, it’s closed. At least it drowns out the sound of the television.

The interesting thing about my guesthouse is that it doesn’t have a normal restaurant. There is no menu, you have no choice, and you can’t eat whenever you want. I’m normally in my room when someone knocks on my door. Immediately after knocking before I can answer, the employee opens my door and enters my room. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I don’t have a key to the door to my room. So people come in all the time. When they come and knock I have to eat at that time. I’ve no choice. This was especially true on days when I was the only guest in the guesthouse. On those days, dinner was just for the guesthouse manager and me. The TV was our third companion, but the guesthouse manager’s chewing drowned out the noise.

So it’s been a bit of a funny and crazy time. The funny thing is that the organisers of my visit, a professor and two university staff, ask me all the time, how my stay is. I never know what to say because I can’t tell if what I am experiencing is normal or if it’s not normal. I didn’t have Internet access for the first two days I was here, and I’ve had Internet access problems in the classrooms and labs during the day, too. Do I mention that? I have but there’s never been any resolution. Some of the students have created an ad-hoc network through their phone and then a majority of the class uses that. Or should I mention the mildew in the shower, the stains on the wall of the bedroom or living room, my toilet-room floor? Not sure.

So I just go about my business and focus on teaching and loving the students who are a joy. One day, while we were in the computer lab, I saw a ra—well, I don’t know, let’s just say a—mouse run across the aisle from the desks of some students to the desk of the lab administrator. I freaked out but the students looked at me blankly like “so what?” The only thing I could think was “If there are mice in the lab in this building and my guesthouse building is only a few buildings away . . .” (restless night).

The next day, I was in the lift (elevator) and a man drove a tractor into the elevator. I kept thinking, “No, this guy isn’t going to get on this lift with the two of us in it,” but the staff member with me told the tractor driver “Sure come in.” No lie. I was pinned against the wall. His tractor filled the lift so that the driver couldn’t turn the tractor around in the lift. The scary thing was that the moment the tractor was fully in the lift, the lift dropped down about a foot. I was pretty sure we were past the weight limit of the lift and the cables above us where holding on for dear life. I just held my breath and prayed we would quickly reach the third floor. After about an hour, we reached the 3rd floor, and I kid you not: when the door opened, as the tractor driver reversed the machine out of the lift the machine warned passers by with a beep-beep-beep-beep. The moment it exited the lift, the lift floor jumped up a foot and matched the floor of the 3rd level we were to step out onto. Whew!

Through it all, I felt very accepted by these people. I could have stayed in a hotel though it would have been hard going back and forth since the university is not in a central part of town. But they wanted me to stay there. They don’t want me to wander anywhere off-campus alone and want to organize all my trips. And even though I was stood up twice (I was supposed to be taken to visit a temple on Friday night and today, Sunday, to visit the Taj Mahal), it’s kind of them to worry about my security. I’m not even allowed to walk 3 or 4 buildings from my guesthouse to the lecture hall. They send a student or an employee to pick me up and drop me off. It’s ridiculous but also quite honouring.

The students have been best of all. They have put up with a crazy man from a London company with a strange accent teaching them things about the Internet like HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. They have tolerated my bad jokes, my analogies that don’t work, and my attempts to do the Indian head nod that means yes. The most amazing thing is that amid all the craziness and funniness of the trip, they have allowed me to push them out of their comfort zone of inactivity during boring straight lectures to an interactive class that demands every person speak. They allowed me to take them through a class where I don’t have all the answers, a class where they debate issues with each other, a space where they must do something in order to learn something, a class where no one is allowed to avoid input, and most importantly, a class where everyone is called by name.

So, on Friday, my last day of my first week, the last day with my first group of students, I was sad to see them go, but I thought they might be happy to get back to normal classes from which I had taken them so they could again relax in lecture and lab. Instead they surprised me. Yes, many students thanked me and were really appreciative of all they learned. And yes, I took picture upon picture with the students (me smiling, the others straight-faced). But what happened next shocked me. A group of students told me that I was an excellent teacher. They asked if I could teach on the faculty of their university. I laughed. I told them I would have to talk with the president about that. Ha ha. Then they asked if I would do a workshop where I would teach all the university professors how to teach. This made me laugh out loud. I said “Thank you, but I don’t know if the professors here would be happy about that.” Then one student stepped forward and floored.

“Sir, in our culture, when we really respect someone for what they have done and who they are, we touch the feet of that person as a sign of great respect for the person. . . .If it is ok, sir, could I be allowed touch your feet.”

I didn’t know what to say at that moment. I was floored and taken aback. I was unfamiliar with the custom but I could tell it meant a lot. It reminded me of foot washing ceremonies that I had done with students in which we washed another person’s feet and spoke about the good we saw in that person. And here these students were affirming me—me, a person who thought he didn’t need affirming. So the first student stepped forward, bent down, touched my feet, and did a cross-like gesture over his chest. Then another student asked and did it. Then another, and another, and another. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when someone touches your feet, but I accepted it and was honoured by each of them in that moment, thankful for each of them throughout the week, and affirmed by each of them for a lifetime. I will be a life-long friend with many of those students. I know that. Many of them told me that. Ha ha! They felt that I had done so much for them, but the reverse is true. They touched my feet physically, but I was touching their feet emotionally, spiritually.


PrajK said...

This is a beautiful, well-written, and hilarious post. It moved me.

LOVED the mouse story. I'm sure that brought back memories for you! should be honored that they wanted to touch your feet. That's no joke. Very big sign of respect.

Victor said...

Thanks. Ha ha, the mouse story did bring back memories. No sightings in my room, though. Thanks goodness.

Yeah, I don't know the feet touching tradition, but I felt quite honoured and didn't know what I should do while they touched my feet. It felt quite solemn.

If you've any news on 1355, keep me updated!

nikhil gupta said...

sir, it is very humorous post. I cant stop laughing ,the way you have described and compared the things is awesome..We miss you sir.

srishti jain said...

No doubt a very hilarious post it is.I think sir you have started knowing about india very well and somewhat liked it also.Do visit again.
We miss you.:)

Anisha Syal said...

Undoubtedly a wonderful post. You have a great sense of humor and a great imagination.Those 5 days of your teaching are unforgettable for sure.Miss you sir. Do visit again.!! :)

Victor said...

Thanks, guys.

I miss you, too, Nikhil, Srishti, and Anisha. Hopefully I can visit again soon. It was a great and unforgettable time!! I wish you well in your studies this semester and success with all you hope to do in India when you graduate. (start now ;-)

See you soon!

Aman Agarwal said...

Really wonderful post sir.

Simply relived those moments spent with you.
"A week with you" is unforgettable.

And that evening walk to your guest house, in second week.

It is an HONOR to have you as our teacher.