ByÂ Sharanya Ramesh:
Sharanya Ramesh is a Teach For India Fellow, teaching at the Haideri school, Jogeshwari. The Teach For India Fellowship is a full time program that places young college graduates and working professionals in low-income schools for two years. You see a lot of rough days when you’re a first time teacher, teaching a batch of 40 plus kids from underprivileged backgrounds, with poor resources and shoddy classrooms. And Sharanya was just having one of those days, until she met Miss Amina. Miss Amina is not a Fellow placed in the school, but has been hired as a regular teacher by the school administration. Through the conversation that ensues however, we see there is nothing regular about her.
“Only use blue ink pens to sign in the register. Another thing, if you pin your duppatta from the inside onto your kurti, it won’t keep sliding off when you’re bending down to pick your bag up. Oh, also, you can share my locker till you get your own to keep all your papers and books in. My name is Amina. If you need help with anything, come find me. I teach 1st grade, on the ground floor.” She said with a hint of a smile on her kind face. It was my first day of school and I was nervous, stuttering, walking around with a big smile on my face that scared most people and was finding it very hard to hold things without dropping them and then stumbling to pick it all up.
It doesn’t change. First days are always scary. What helps, on every first day, is that one kind face that will not ridicule your sudden lack of coordination, but will instead help you pick up your papers and offer to steady your balance. For me, on that first day, it was Amina Miss. Cut to almost 8 months down the line and nothing has changed.
It was one of the worst days I had ever had in my ongoing short stint as a teacher. I was frustrated and the thought of going back to an empty apartment where a pile of uncorrected papers and cold leftover food was waiting, made my mood worse. The kids had just left and I sat in my empty classroom packing my bag, trying to breathe through the chaos that had been that day.
I failed, miserably. I could feel the tears welling up and I tried to push them back as fiercely as I could, telling myself to buck up. “Bad day?” said a voice from near the door. “I knew you had a bad day when you walked down to fill water and you didn’t pop in to mine and Simmi’s (another teacher) classroom to say hi.”, she continued without waiting for me to say anything. “Here, I got some biryani from home today.” Without waiting for me to say anything she sat opposite me with those kind eyes of hers. I half snorted and giggled as I tried to wipe away the tears on my face and reached for the biryani.
She waited for me to finish eating in silence not asking about why my day had gone bad and I offered her no explanation. She finished correcting some papers and then said, “Okay, now instead of going back to your house where I know all you will do is lie and stare at the ceiling till your food comes, come to my house. I want to show you something.” I agreed. I didn’t really have a choice. Once Amina decides it was time for you to get better, you had no choice but to get better.
We walked out into the community and even after 8 months, the cramped tin houses and the dark lanes still surprised me. The tiny houses pushing and jostling into each other while kids played marbles in the little space available was a scene I thought I would get used to. “My husband and I took a small loan from the bank to build this small place which we are going to hire out to Zari workers. And on the top floor my sister and her family can move in.” She announced as we broke out of the tightly packed cluster into a relatively wider lane. I stared up at the small building that seemed large because of its short neighbours. “Zaid!” She yelled out at the street where a bunch of boys were playing. “Bring two cups of chai. We’re going up to the terrace.” She then led the way up a narrow flight of stairs and I stumbled along behind her. After precariously balancing our way up two flights of steps, we reached the terrace. “I come here when I have had a bad day and just sit here. It’s quiet. When you live in the kinds of houses that we do, quiet is hard to find.” She explained as she settled herself on the floor.
I took a moment to stare from the terrace out into the community. It was beautiful, with the sun just about to set. You could see a huge part of the community surrounded by the mosques and the tin roofs. I sat down next to her just as Zaid came with the chai.
“I’ve seen you when you walk up the lane into Haideri.” he told me as he handed me my tiny cup of tea. “You carry such big bags with you every day. I thought you were a student and then my friend told me you were a teacher. I’m in 6th grade at that school.” He said, pointing over my head. I laughed and told him many people had made that mistake of thinking I was a student instead of a teacher. The big bags, I explained, were all for class.
“Okay Zaid, go down now and tell my kids to come up. And make sure the door is latched in my house.” Amina said as she sipped her tea. “Let’s enjoy the calm before my children come here.” she laughed.
“Do you know I got married when I was 21. It was considered late at that time. All my friends were already married. I didn’t want an arranged marriage. I was like you, I suppose. Independent. Thought I could do all this alone. But I had to get married, didn’t have a choice.” She said as she pulled off the duppatta covering her hair. “And now I can’t imagine a life without him and my children.” She smiled at me, urging me to finish my tea.
I sipped it slowly, being careful not to burn my tongue and asked her why she wanted to be a teacher. “At first it was because I just needed a job. We had loans to pay, children to put into school, family to take care of. My job at the AIDS centre wasn’t paying much.” She said. Wait, you worked at the AIDS centre, I asked, surprised.
“Yes. I understand that tone of surprise. Why would I work in a place that doesn’t pay that much money only to help others when I should be helping my own family?” She asked me instead. “No, I meant…I don’t know…” I faltered. “I went there when I was in college. And it was the most meaningful thing I have done. These people were all going to die but they had so much life left in them and I wanted to make the life that they had remaining, beautiful and perfect.” She offered as an explanation. “My husband understood until we ran out of money. I had to find another job and quick, so I started teaching.”
“So do you like it?” I asked, somewhat lamely. She looked over at me and smiled, not unlike an older sister humouring her naive younger sibling. “Of course. It’s tougher than anything else I have done. It’s tough knowing that I have 2 of my own at home that I need to take care of but I choose to come to school anyway to teach 25 other children and take care of them instead. It’s tiring, you know.” At that moment, her two children rushed up the steps and onto their mother, wrapping their tiny arms around her. “Ammi! I got full in dictation.” yelled her daughter, while her son, who had just noticed me, smiled shyly and offered me a piece of his chocolate. I declined, smiling at him and shifted my attention to the little girl who had crawled into her mother’s lap and stared at me from under her duppatta. “Her favourite animal is a giraffe. Most kids say, dogs or cats or even lions or tigers. This one likes Giraffes. She’s different.” Amina said, with a slight hint of laughter in her voice. “They’re so tall. They touch the clouds with their heads, Ammi. That’s why.” justified her daughter. When I told her that giraffes were one of my favourite animals too, she smiled, finally leaning towards me and offering me her toy to play with.
“I know you had a bad day. Bad days keep happening. I know you’re far from your parents and I know you think you’re sinking on most days. But you’re not. You’re doing good. We all watch you in school. Don’t think you don’t have anyone at school. You have us.” She said, quietly. “I know we’re different, you and I. You come from a different world almost, a different religion, a different family. But you chose to come to my world, anyway. And that can’t have been easy. We’re not that different, you know. You remind me of when I was 21. Full of life and dreams. It’s good. I don’t want that to change just because you came to my world.” She said.
In all the 8 months I had known her, we had never talked about these things. We talked about school and work and other teachers and problems in the community. But on that day, on the terrace, we talked about her life and mine. I learned how strong and extraordinary this woman really was. She cared for her family at home, her family in school, faced more bad days than I could count and still offered to help the klutzy new teacher that everyone was wary of, on that first day.
“I’m not any different from the many women who do this every day in this community.” She said when I told her how wonderful I thought she was. “They work many jobs, take care of their children and their husbands and pray to Allah that their children will get all that they couldn’t. We do it every day here. I’m not different or special. It’s what we all do.”
I thought of Amina and women like her. Women that had braved the storm, women who were strong and holding their family together. Women, who had in their own way, created their own calm amidst all that chaos. I promised myself that tomorrow was going to be a better day. I had found my calm, in the chaos. And all I needed was a little chai and a story of the woman with the kind eyes to help me find it.