I step out of the program center gate, lunch in hand, ready for a fantastic last day at Bopodi English Medium School (The Akanksha school branch where I intern). I walk down to the corner in front of the main Fergusson College gate, where rickshaw drivers await customers, and approach the group of drivers gathered on the sidewalk.
“Bopodi?” I ask and they all look at each other, deciding who should take me.
“Bopodi,” on finally replies, “100 rupees.”
“100?” I laugh (the ride should cost no more than 75). “Nahi, I will pay by the meter.”
“Twenty extra rupees,” he says, trying to bargain with me.
“Why?” I ask.
“No customers in Bopodi,” the driver answers.
“That’s not true. Bhaupatil Road has customers,” I counter assertively, the man now realizing that I am familiar with the area and not just any clueless visitor.
“Ok ma’am, by meter,” he finally conceded.
Not yet satisfied with my victory and frustrated by the driver’s assumptions, I say, “Nahi, I will find another rickshaw. That is no way to behave,” and I begin to walk down the street to hail a different driver. At that moment, I hear someone whistle from across the street. To my good fortune, I see my favorite rickshaw driver from the Fergusson campus waving to get my attention and crossing the street towards me. I tend to think of him as my Pune sidekick, as he frequently happens to be in the right place at the right time when I need his help. As I hop into his rickshaw and we drive off to Bopodi, I spend the whole ride daydreaming of our adventures ridding Pune of difficult drivers together, one rickshaw at a time. I think we’d make a pretty good team.
When we arrive at the front gate, I get out of the rickshaw, bid farewell to and pay my sidekick/driver and make my way towards the school. Some children from other schools on the compound giggle as I pass, others exchange shy glances before working up the courage to address me with, “Hi, how are you?” They are excited when I reply with a “Fine, thank you. How are you?” excited to show off their English skills. I walk through the open space where some teenagers are playing cricket and reach the BEMS entrance, where I can hear the sounds of countless little voices yelling and laughing. As I am let in the front door, I see a class of first standard students wandering the entranceway, papers and crayons in hand, looking for walls, benches, gates, and other textured surfaces to create rubbings with their supplies. Upon my entrance, several students rush over to me. “Leesha didi! Leesha didi! Look!” they exclaim, waving their colorful papers in my face. At this point, I have accepted the fact that the students will never quite get my name right, but to them, I am Leesha didi (didi meaning elder sister, a title given to all of the female teachers) and I have grown to embrace and love my BEMS name. I look at all of their papers and reply, “Wow, what beautiful textures you all have found! What colors have you used?” They all pause for a moment, examining their papers, before one student replies, “Red!” proudly holding up his orange rubbing of the tiled wall. “Red? Are you sure?” I ask, and the boy replies with a smile and a head bobble, before one of his classmates jumps in, saying, “No, didi! It’s orange!”
“Orange, very good!” I say, and the two boys giggle and run away to find more surfaces to capture.
After talking to a few more students about their rubbings, I enter the staff room, where teachers are gathered around tables, trading advice and discussing lessons and classroom management strategies. As I set my bag in the corner of the room, I find a small child curled up, fast asleep on a blanket on the floor, already exhausted from the excitement of a day in kindergarten. I tiptoe around her to reach the teachers on break, several of whom have charts for me to make or tasks for me to complete. I remove my shoes and find a place on the floor, grabbing some chart paper and sketch pens and spend the morning creating games and posters about sight words and place value.
The afternoon is spent finishing up my library project in the hallway, taking the books that I have organized by difficulty, labeled, and numbered and entering the titles, levels, and numbers into a spreadsheet. As I am working, a line of first standard students files out of a classroom behind the sports teacher. The minute they see me at work in the hallway they rush in line to reach me, holding out their fists, saying “Didi, star!” (I should explain: Towards the beginning of my time at BEMS, some students reached out their hands to me one day to show me the stars that an English teacher had given them for completing their work. Being the American that I am, I saw the fists outstretched and reflexively and embarrassingly responded with fist bumps. Ever since the students have been fascinated). “Sorry, bhaiya,” I apologize to the teacher, as I proceed to reinforce the improper hallway behavior. Little fist bumps are really just too precious to resist.
As I stand back to admire my completed library work later that afternoon, Jayshree, the school’s principle introduces me to a visitor and tells her about my work. The woman, pleased by the library initiative, commits to donating more books to the small collection. The icing on top of the cake that has been my experience at BEMS, the donation allows me to leave the school already having been witness to the success of my primary project. Before I leave, I give tight hugs to each of the teachers as we say goodbye and I receive a package of homemade cards from many of the students. I depart from the school for the last time that afternoon, so extremely moved by all of the people and experiences that I have encountered through the internship, and so extremely heartbroken to be leaving. As I walk through the vibrant slum community to find a ride back to Fergusson, parents call out to me as they walk their children home, bidding me farewell, one mother stopping me to rest her palm on my cheek for a moment, communicating in a non-verbal way that we both understand.
It begins to rain and a rickshaw pulls up at my side. Five students and a mother sit piled in the back, and the driver, a father of a student insists that I get in. I squeeze into the crammed back seat, and we all laugh as we drive away, so stuffed that none of us can really move. When we reach the corner, where a rickshaw stand is located, I begin to get out to find a new ride. “No,” everyone says, “you stay.” The children climb out of the vehicle and send me on my way waving and smiling as the driver pulls away. At that moment, I am finally struck by the reality of my departure.
As I ride home, I look back upon all that I have learned and all of the people whom I have met over the course of my internship. It’s the many little interactions of everyday life at BEMS like that I am going to miss the most when I part ways with India – the rides with my sidekick driver, the collaboration with teachers, and of course, the tiny fist bumps. I will miss such moments as when I find little Sneha staring out the front gate, having strayed from her classroom. As she takes my hands to be guided back to class, she lets her whole body fall limp, laughing as I stand there immobile and helpless to the weight of her body, not being able to let go and send her crashing to the ground, but not being able to safely drag her across the hallway to her classroom, for fear of hurting her. I will miss sweet Sahil’s trips to the restroom, when I watch him perform ninja-like moves all the way down the hallway, too amused by his lively imagination to reprimand him for not walking nicely. I will miss the students that raise their hands and beckon me close only to plant a big kiss on my cheek when I am expecting a question to be whispered in my ear. And boy, am I going to long for times when I work side by side with the Marathi-speaking helpers, with whom I sip the sweetest chai I’ve ever tasted and laugh over our failed understanding of each other’s questions, enjoying each other’s company despite the language barrier between us. The collection of little moments through which I have built friendships with the school community and a strong emotional investment in the success of BEMS and its students has been worth my entire trip to India. These relationships and interactions have taught me more about India and Indian culture than I could have ever hoped to gain from my seminar. The intense commitment shown by the teachers to the success of their students has been an incredibly inspiring force to witness and the reason I believe so completely in the potential of the school to transform the poverty stricken community in which it is located.
My heart feels heavy as I think of how much I will miss working at BEMS everyday and tears make their way to my eyes. There have been several times during my time in Pune, where I feel so emotionally overwhelmed that I just want to cry and cry and cry, but the tears for some strange reason have never come. Every morning, I pass the family that lives on the sidewalk outside of the program center and think that just one more day of seeing the little pant-less baby fast asleep on the dirty tile will put me over the edge. I have to repeatedly force myself to turn away from beggar children, anger and heartbreak consuming me each time, yet I manage to barricade my tears. I get homesick beyond belief, aching for some bland food and family time, but force myself to remain composed. However, the entire ride back to campus after leaving Bopodi, I feel a salty sting build up in my eyes. When we arrive at my program center, I step out into the rain and pull out money to pay the driver. He refuses, and says, “No, didi, thank you. You don’t pay,” and as I try to insist that he takes my money, he drives away waving. At that gesture, I am left standing on the street, my face now becoming as wet as the ground around me, as my personal monsoon arrives just as late as Pune’s has. Is it embarrassing? You bet. Avoidable? Absolutely not.
This is life as Leesha didi and I love every part of it.