Billbhaiya's children

20th February 2004 at 00:00
A chance meeting in an art gallery was the start of an unlikely journey for supply teacher Will Randall that included teaching slum children in Pune and being handed a starring role in a Bollywood movie. 'Indian Summer' is a colourful account of his experience. Geraldine Brennan introduces an extract

Will Randall admits to a touch of artistic licence in Indian Summer, his account of teaching English in the slums of Pune. But while some of the twists in his extraordinary tale of teaching under pressure at home and abroad have been tweaked into place, others happened just as he tells it.

The story begins in spring 2001, when Mr Randall, on supply in a London secondary, is struggling with an unruly group on a gallery visit. The eccentric woman passer-by who helps him restore order turns out to be a wealthy retired teacher (stranger than fiction, but he promises it's true) who offers to pay his fare to India in return for help on the journey.

Mr Randall had just finished his first book, Solomon Time, about how he gave up teaching modern languages in the West Country to administer a trust in the South Pacific; a couple of terms of supply in and around London had left him ready for another gap year. "I'm in favour of gap years for everyone," he says, "but only if you don't do what everyone else would do."

In a cafe in Pune, a city about 100 miles south-east of Mumbai, he meets a student whose father, Charuvat, has set up an ashram (shelter) in the slum "village" of Tanjiwadi for 35 orphans and a malicious goat called Beckham. The enterprise is funded only by Charuvat's earnings as a roadsweeper and sporadic charitable donations. Mr Randall is recruited as a volunteer English teacher during the most turbulent year in the ashram's history; like most of Tanjiwadi, it was built illegally and the developers who own the land want to knock it down. To help raise money to buy the land, Mr Randall finds himself staging a programme of extracts from the Hindu epic The Ramayana (with the help of a children's English edition).

He hasn't acted since primary school, but he meets an actress in his yoga class (he's comically bad at yoga, too) who introduces him to a Bollywood director. A cameo role as a British judge in a biopic of a hero of Indian independence (with the ashram children as extras) is followed by a romantic lead in An Ideal Wedding (catch it on the Asian satellite channel, Star TV). For that he has to wear full Sikh bridegroom regalia and ride a horse (another steep learning curve).

With his first film earnings, he takes the ashram children to a Test match in Mumbai. Among 25,000 cricket fans he finds Gary, a British-Asian set-builder from Birmingham, who happens to be visiting his grandmother in Pune. With Gary's help, and despite a last-minute crisis when the ashram's prohibitionist benefactors upset local residents by destroying their hooch still, the Tanjiwadi Ramayana is all right on the night and the land is secure.

There is tragedy amid the fairly constant comedy (one of the ashram's star pupils is injured by the developers' heavies, and a local boy dies in another incident), and Mr Randall is constantly aware of the sometimes overwhelming scale of the poverty around him and the narrow margin by which his pupils have survived. In the Solomon Islands, he felt ill-qualified for his job (helping islanders to set up a small business) but admired the simple and sustainable way of life. In Tanjiwadi, his confidence in the classroom cannot help him address the needs outside it.

His account in Indian Summer is honest about his initial unwillingness to commit to the ashram, partly for fear that his contribution would be so small as to be useless. He also felt uncomfortable about his ability to live above the means of his pupils (he had a publisher's advance as well as his film income) and the Tanjiwadi community's initial distrust of a westerner who could afford to work for free. Eventually, he says, "I realised that although only global-scale solutions will change anything permanently, and these are needed urgently, you can still as an individual do what you can when the opportunity presents itself."

The dedication of Indian Summer reads: "For anyone who thinks it might be worth adding their drop to the ocean." In his case, the drop grew into a trickle: through his visit, the ashram has built links with a charity, Akanksha, which has taken over the children's education.

Will Randall has settled into a pattern: a stint teaching abroad, back to the UK or France to write, then off to his publisher with another proposal.

Since leaving Pune, he's taught for six months in Botswana, which he chose because it became independent in 1966, the year of his birth. Three days north from Cape Town by lorry, he found a 60-pupil school in the north-east of the country within reach of the Victoria Falls, where the head's wife was about to go on maternity leave.

When I catch up with him he is ready to sit down and write about his "delightful" class of 13 six-year-olds ("a football team and two subs - the Kasane under-sevens"), not forgetting the spitting cobra in the school piano and his lightning promotion to headteacher for the final two months of his stay. He's already considering where to go on his next trip.

He does not rule out teaching in the UK again, "but I would choose my school carefully". The thread that links Indian Summer with his next book is the high esteem in which teachers are held "in countries where people are desperate to learn". By contrast, he believes, "the attitude to teachers in British society, like nowhere else in the world, is abysmal".

During the year he spent on supply in and around London before he went to Pune, pupil behaviour was the largest contributing factor in his eagerness to accept that free plane ticket.

"I don't mind about the workload and the extracurricular activities - that's what I went into teaching to do - but the first thing I noticed about teaching in the UK after being away was the sizeable minority of children who didn't want to be in school and who made sure nobody else could learn. We do not seem to have the tools to do anything about this."

He suggests the answer lies in his colleagues' own hands with a story of how, during his year on supply, he refused to teach a particularly troublesome pupil. "At the time I was a sought-after supply teacher - my phone never stopped ringing - and I told myself I did not have to put up with disrespect. I could say, 'That child goes or I do'. That solution isn't open to everyone but we might think about using it where we can.

"I now see myself as a kind of roving ambassador for teaching, showing people how and why we are valued all over the world, and the benefits that can come from seeing your job through new eyes."

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