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Brontes may bloom amid dust of Delhi

It could never happen in India." Gazing at a portrait of Emily Bront in a New Delhi sitting room, I was interrupted by my host. The emergence of a novelist of genius from labourers' stock was, he contended, far too extreme a shift to be accommodated in Indian society.

And yet, Delhi is nothing if not a city of extremes. As a teacher here, I have some insights into the city; as the partner of a VSO doctor helping to establish palliative care for cancer patients, I have glimpsed the vast contrasts of this place. We have moved from diplomatic drawing rooms to destitute patients spending their last days under a tree. Where could a budding Bront bloom here?

For potential to blossom, education must provide constraints and freedom. Neither are in short supply. A richly multi-cultural city, Delhi is never far away from a festival. Across social classes and religions people come together to celebrate. Christmas is one of many. Some of the festive preparations I witnessed here have left me wondering whether the Bront s of the future could develop freely.

Even in the heat of Delhi, Santa dons a woolly suit to meet his public. He made an appearance at a garden party I attended. While children iced ginger biscuits, agitation was evident among their parents. One three-year-old was taken through her paces. The child produced a splendid ginger biscuit while refining her responses. She knew what to say when asked about her behaviour over the year: she had not been perfect but she had been good. She knew what toys she wanted on Christmas morning; but there was a slip as she was distracted by the hundreds and thousands. She fluffed her lines when asked about special requests to Santa.

"Come on," coaxed the parent, balancing encouragement and frustration, "remember what we practised, w, w, world p, p ...."

"World peace!" declared the infant to her family's relief.

Convention and order have an important place in education; striving to create our own image through teaching will not, however, bring the next Bront . And yet a policy of non-intervention, also evident in Delhi, can only fail children. Developing independence here can be a symptom of distress rather than a benefit of learning. My walk to school brings me face-to-face with children exposed to unbridled independence. As their mothers relay endlessly up makeshift scaffold, balancing baskets of earth and bricks on their heads, their children are left to play in construction-site gravel.

With joyful faces they twist a roll of cloth as a protective cushion. With precision they place the cushion on the head of the youngest child. He squeals with delight as his siblings amass a pile of gravel treasure in his basket. No school for them; little hope of one of them enriching our world with their insights into the human condition.

The extremes of existence in Delhi limit opportunities to develop learning in a rigorous, independent way. Creativity, a consequence of such learning, is, therefore, endangered. Free exploration of ideas is bound to be limited in a land where school library books are often kept in locked cupboards by librarians anxious to avoid deductions from their salaries equivalent to the loss or damage to books. Books are freely available in my own school but traditional ways of teaching do not always embrace their free use.

During a recent study of dinosaurs, I gathered books and framed activities to develop simple research and interpretation skills in our six-year-olds. My convent-educated colleagues listened politely but opted to get the children to copy information from the blackboard. My approach was "too stressful".

An emergent Bront needs to be taught and left free. She needs to see the world our way and her own way. I have not lost all hope that she could bloom in Delhi.

As I explore the city, I am often in the company of an eight-year-old who has seen the extremes with me. One day she fell to considering bodily functions, many clearly demonstrated on the streets here. She expressed an eight-year-old's interest in women's breasts, noting their defeat by gravity.

"They're like flowers," she observed, "they wilt as they get older." Despite the sensitivity of the subject, her words revived my optimism. Maybe, in Delhi, Bront s of the future could flower after all.

Roseleen Mazza teaches at The Shri Ram School, Vasant Vasar, New Delhi

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