Indian Summer

20th February 2004 at 00:00
In the spring of 2001, the year after his return from the Solomon Islands via Australia, Will Randall is supply teaching somewhere in the south-east of England.

School work and academic achievement were not priorities for most of these youngsters. That said, it would be unfair to say that they were not without certain skills: they could break almost anything that did not belong to them, could swear with a fluency that would have astonished an Irish working men's club and could list the top 10 most expensive pairs of trainers and mobile telephones as respectfully as if they were reciting verses of Milton. They also seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their rights.

Once they had gained access to the classroom for the first lesson on that frighteningly cold morning in early March, and had wholly ignored my invitation to come in "nice and quietly", they set about each other with cheerful, murderous intent. This particular period had been marked on the official timetable as a music lesson. Now I am not musical - at all - but the pleasant although curiously numb teacher in charge of staff absences had not let this worry her. Instead, she had smiled and handed me a pile of paper. "Here you are - this is for Year 8."

Relieved, I understood what I saw: the same note repeated from top to bottom in the simplest of rhythms of quavers and crotchets.

"So you get them to go through it. Like this, you see," she waved her finger up and down in time. "Dum-dum-dum-dum-di-dum-dum."

"OKI" "Fine, thanks, er, Will. You're doing a great job - really appreciate your help. Thanks." She began to wander off towards a crowd of nervously twitching supply teachers - it seemed to be their first day at school too.

"Yes, fine. OK. So what about after that then?"

"No, just that; that'll be fine."

"What - for an hour and a half?"

But she was gone.


In the event I need not have worried.

The children - they were 12 years old - only sat down after the first 40 minutes and then only if they were tired or injured; the other half continued to run around in a desperate attempt to prove the Random Theory despite my gentle and then not-so-gentle suggestions that they might like to take their places.

Well, I supposed I might as well give it a go.

"So here we are. Music." I thought it worth pointing this out.

I started to hand out the sheets. Placing one in front of a boy whose back was turned three-quarters away from me and who was engrossed in conversation with his mate, I tapped it with my hand to attract his attention.

"Here you are; have a look at this. Should be quite good fun, thisI Just write your name on the top of it, please."

As I looked down, the boy slowly placed his hard-bitten fingers flat down on the piece of paper. Then with an equal lack of haste, without turning towards me, or even complicitly winking at his friend, he scrumpled it up and tossed it back over his shoulder from whence it had come.


"Just remember, it's not you, it's them!" a whisky-soaked Scottish teacher had breathed thickly into my ear after the last bell of the first day rang and I was limping my way to the barbed-wire-topped school gates. I tried to remember, I really did, but in the thick of battle, in the midst of one of the four hour-and-a-half-long double lessons of the day, it was really very difficult to remember anything more than where the door was.

A few months later, Mr Randall meets his English class at the ashram in Tanjiwadi, a slum area of Pune.

Fourteen youngsters sat in front of me the first Monday morning of term; the youngest about nine, two or three of the older children in their mid-teens. We none of us knew what to expect but it became quickly clear that we were all intent on giving it our best shot.

Prakash, as he had to be known for short, was probably the oldest. If my arrival and introduction to the ashram went smoothly, it was thanks to him.

A tall, strong but kindly boy, he possessed a maturity that was very comforting, for if there was ever any need for me to delegate, then he would automatically take charge, astounding me with his sensitivity to the requirements of any situation. Each morning he made it his responsibility to seek out lead-swingers and skivers who, quite by mistake, had got involved in playing with kittens or the neighbour's baby and just had not noticed the time.

If ever I was wanting for anything, then it was Prakash, a popular local figure, who went looking for it in the curving, winding alleys of the slum.

When it was time for me to go home at the end of the school day he would hurry off to look out Sanjay (a rickshaw driver). Chastising the poor man, who was more often than not sipping tea at the shack with its giant bubbling cauldron on the edge of the rumbling road, he would urge him to hurry to pick me up.

His dependability was always admirable. Not that he was priggish in an I-hope-to-be-civil-servant-when-I'm-older-sir kind of way. He simply realised that in the world into which he had been born, self-reliance was a vital skill. No doubt he had learnt this during the first seven years of his life, during which he had had to survive by scavenging for scraps in the battered, yellow town skips. Charuvat had rescued him from one and had brought him home to Harshada (his wife). Having no recollection of his own parents, he was devoted to them both.

It was natural, therefore, that it was he who volunteered to start with the introductions that very first lesson.

"My name is Pushprendra PrakashI" With confident ease, he reeled off the short speech that he had given me when we first met. When he reached the end he smiled at me. "It's OK, Billbhaiya (Brother Bill)?"

"Great, very good." The others clearly thought so too as they produced an energetic burst of applause.

"So you're 14. OK... So what do you like to do?"

I had written out a number of questions which, if not exactly sparkling conversational gambits, would at least test the level of their spoken English.

"I like to eat food very much!"

A gentle giggle signalled the general agreement of the class. "Good. SoI Let's see. What kind of food do you like? What is your favourite food?"

I thought of a dozen of my favourite dishes.

"Well," he paused, his cheerful face now drawn down into a confused frown.

"WellI just some food, Bhaiya."

"Oh, yes. Sorry, right. Well, anyway, next question. UmmI where do you live?"

"I live in Tanjiwadi in Pune in Maharashtra in India."

"Good, fine. And where is India, then?"

"Where is India? What do you mean, Billbhaiya, where is India?"

"Show me where?" Flicking it open, I spread a colourful map of the world, which I had bought in one of the upmarket English bookshops near Koregaon Park, wide across the floor. Simultaneously, all the children rocked forward on to their knees and elbows, hands cupped under their chins, fascinated by the curious, incongruous shapes of the shaded landforms. All but one.

"Bharat." The boy who still sat upright looked me proudly in the eye as he used the Marathi word for India. "Bharat is a very nice country, aren't you thinking so, Billbhaiya?"

"Yes, it certainly isI ErrI" "One of the best countries? Do you think?"

"Yes! What is your name then?"

"My name is Sahas."

Sahas, Prakash's closest friend and ally, was a striking-looking fellow.

His hair always immaculately parted and combed smoothly backwards, his poor clothes always neatly worn, he took great pride in himself and his world.

Honest, too, he possessed an innate, noble sense of what was right and what was to be done well. Like all the children of the slum, he needed to be a pragmatist, but he had a dreamer's imagination too. Often I would find him, his arms folded, one foot cocked up on the low wall that surrounded the yard, his eyes narrowed, his back straight. One day an explorer, another a brave seafarer or a soldier, he would gaze out across the river into the hazy distance imagining some adventure far away beyond the dirt and dust of Tanjiwadi.

"US, where is US, Billbhaiya? That is a very nice country too, I thinkI?"

Now, he too leaned forward to look at the map.

"Maybe one day I will be going to AmericaI Or UK. UK is your place I think?' He glanced up at me questioningly.

"Where is UK, Billbhaiya?"

I showed him the small pink blob.

"YesI maybe I will go to US."

Copyright 2004 Will Randall, extracted from Indian Summer, published by Abacus, a division of Time Warner Book Group UK, pound;7.99. Order post free from Grenville Books, tel: 0870 191 9932

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