Tikli Bottom: An Indian Adventure

We woke before dawn on 9th March, and I almost did not remember that it was my 19th birthday. Verity, who had arrived at Tikli Bottom the weekend before, was joining me for a couple of days of shopping and sightseeing in Jaipur, even though she had already passed through it on her organised tour around India that she had completed before arriving at Martin's primary school in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi. Anji, Martin and Annie's housekeeper in the little flat they still kept in Delhi - Annie liked to call it her 'city getaway', an escape from the rural life of their guesthouse in Gurgaon - awoke at five too to make us breakfast, which we ate thankfully, hurriedly, before grabbing our prepacked bags and hailing a trusty green and yellow autorickshaw to make it in time for our 6am bus ride...

Apart from a rather melancholic and pensive hour following my sighting of the dead body of a woman on the side of the road - her car crashed, her body limp and face down on the hot tarmac, glass sprayed across the scene - the bus ride was long and boring. With Verity asleep on my shoulder, I attempted to suppress the ringing from my phone by cupping it in my hands: I had been volunteering at the Gairutpur Baas Panchayat Primary School for just over a month, and during this time had been on the receiving end of some somewhat unwanted attention from a young male teacher, who was now ringing incessantly in the very early hours to wish me a happy birthday. The school had been founded by Martin Howard, who had been the naval attache to India during the eighties, and had retired there with his wife Annie shortly after. Their self designed Lutyen's style guesthouse - Martin told he that he "gave the architect the dimensions of the living room and asked for a four bedroom house" was a little piece of colonial heaven, the bedrooms centered around a courtyard, whose trickling water fountain provided a cool retreat from the raging Indian sun a crescent shaped swimming pool, birds skittering along the surface, and peacocks cooing soft songs in the distance. Bathrooms brimmed with Jaipur Blue Pottery pots and dishes, and the words of William Dalrymple, or 'Willy' as Martin called his dear friend, beckoned from the bookshelves of the fire room, where every night us volunteers would congregate with guests to languidly discuss our days and our travels, while Martin mellowed the mood, quoting Kipling and telling old navy tales.

Upon reaching Jaipur, we met our autorickshaw driver Sam, who, once realising that it was my birthday, proceeded to spoil me for the rest of the day. With the necklaces of roses he had bought us, we climbed to the Monkey Temple where I accidentally offended a lady by giving too little a donation, but was saved total humiliation when Verity gave an extra ten rupees. In silent admiration we watched the silhouettes of monkeys dance along the blue skyline, which, as the sun set, had begun to bleed red, orange and yellow - and so ended a leisurely nineteenth birthday.

On Monday, we returned to our little volunteer's room on top of the school and were given a warm, choral welcome of "Hello mam" by the children. After our afternoon lessons, we made the ten minute walk to the Tikli Bottom guesthouse - aptly named because it was built at the bottom of the closest village, Tikli - where I was surprised to find the children of the Tikli staff, whom I taught at the school and had become my extended family for the duration of my two months in India - preparing a surprise birthday party for me. Normally adverse to any sort of attention, especially surprise birthday parties, I found myself thrilled with their efforts to put together a hula hooping show for my benefit. There was something truly beautiful in their perseverance to perfect the performance, even after two year old Jasmine, by far the youngest of the bunch, made a 'shushu' in her knickers and retreated tearfully to Martin's lap, where he comforted her softly with lullabies. It was through time spent with these children that I truly came to understand the meaning of pure innocence: their lives, so simple, were unscathed by any and all of the political and social problems that tormented their country, even those close to home. For example, of this was Sonia Gandhi's visit to Gurgaon the day before my birthday. Gandhi, an Italian who married into the political aristocracy of India and is the head of the National Congress Party, was coming to see the construction of an autistic school near Tikli Bottom and as preparation for her arrival over two hundred policemen stationed themselves at the school, taking over classrooms and even building a whole new cement road over the dirt track that had once led cars through the villages and towards the school. Verity and I felt uncomfortable with their presence after being warned by everyone of their notoriety and corruption, and even our headteacher Sheela, a figure of fear to every child in the school, seemed to shrivel into herself when confronted by police officers asking protruding questions about us volunteers. The children, however, continued with their daily routine, albeit in slight awe of the congregation of officers which prevented them from playing cricket properly in the field.

The following week we celebrated Sheela's birthday, and began a lovely birthday party during our lunch break. It was, however, soon interrupted by a man who entered the school grounds on a motorbike. The school had been built by Martin and various donations on local village land, and therefore villagers had the right to enter the school as they pleased, a right they exercised with great frequency. Therefore, at first we were slightly amused but overall unfazed by this incident. It soon became a preoccupation when he appeared to be almost falling from the bike, and driving towards the children who were playing in the field. Men rushed to apprehend him, and the smell of alcohol was undeniable on his breath. Fearing for the safety of the students, we finally managed to round everyone into the school building, while one girl rang her mother on a teacher's mobile, tearfully informing her that her uncle had appeared drunk at school and was causing a scene.The atmosphere was tense and uncertain, but curious boys and girls watched on from the balcony, or comforted the kindergarten children, who had responded to the ongoing confusion by cryind and wailing. My absolute favourite child was four year old Yogesh who lived on the Tikli Bottom farm, and I found him in bewilderment, with tears streaming down his face: he adored cars and motor vehicles, and seeing a 'crazy' man driving a motorbike into his school and creating such chaos had left him lost. Upon seeing his reaction, I too almost burst into tears, and carried him the ten minute walk home. Upon finding his mother with the other women making traditional Indian sweets, his tears were awakened as he sobbed the story to everyone in Hindi... after a pause, the women laughed at his sorrows, and sat him down with a glass of water. I found it hard to comprehend their reaction at first, myself coming from a society where such an incident would have made the local newspaper, resulted in police involvement and a strong worded letter or two... however here there was no local newspaper, parents were illiterate and the only scolding the drunken man received was from his mother, who was called to collect him. I guess one has to learn to embrace such cultural differences wholeheartedly, much like Annie and Martin have done.

That night, Verity, Sheela and I made our way to Amritsar, a trip that had been organised for over a fortnight by then. Being Indian, we had left Sheela in charge of the trip, only to discover that this was a mistake when she took us to the wrong train station in New Delhi, causing us to miss our train. We decided to try and find a bus instead, and bought an eight hundred rupee ticket from a private bus company, to leave Delhi at nine at night. Nine thirty arrived, and still no bus appeared. Sheela overheard a conversation between the men who sold us the tickets about two 'white girls', immediately became suspicious and we all began to feel very uncomfortable. We were taken to a different place to wait for the bus, however nine soon became eleven, and with no bus in sight we abandoned hope and went in search of a government run bus. Finally, by midnight, we had begun our journey to Amritsar, where the majestic Sikh Golden Temple, with its free lunches, awaited us. Before that, we had to endure a seven hour bus ride, with Bollywood music blasting at our senses all night, the driver and his friends sitting at the front, clapping along, and an already sleepless night exacerbated by a horn blowing every fifteen minutes: if the driver could not sleep, none of his passengers were allowed to either. Our return journey was an improvement, though still terrifyingly exciting: unknowingly to Verity and I, Sheela had booked us all the second lowest class tickets, meaning that we were in unsealed compartments containing eight mattresses. Our seats were unreserved, which meant, as we soon discovered, that the train companies would sell one seat to multiple customers, and therefore we were faced with the prospect of having to share our excuse for a bed with complete strangers all night. We were fortunate to find a mattress each, but were all awoken abruptly in the night when the police decided to search a man sleeping below us, and upon 'supposedly' finding alcohol on him (they may have easily planted it themselves) proceeded to beat him when he refused to pay a fine. The scene was confusing, especially to Verity and I, who understood no more than two words in Hindi, but I believe seeing his wife and child cry as they saw him being attacked was bad enough for both of us.

My time at Tikli Bottom was fast coming to an end, and I spent my last night sleeping on Annie and Martin's roof, in a bed fit for Desdemona. The girls delighted in giving the volunteers a makeover and dressing us in traditional saris, while they performed Hindi songs for us until their mothers called them to bed. My departure was a thoroughly sad affair. We did, however, make the most of the week long school holiday at the end of March to visit Ranikhet, from where we could see the Himalayan Range. The journey, like most journeys in India, was long and laborious, but ultimately worth it. Another early morning and for an hour we stood under the bright Indian sun as it swelled the sky at dawn, gaping at the snow topped mountains. We took a car up to the top of a hill, twisting and turning all the way, and picnicked in desperate awe of the aptly named abode of the snow. The following day we took the same car back towards Delhi. This option was well chosen, as the bus we had taken up towards our retreat in Ranikhet had had me clinging to Verity for dear life - even the locals had looked slightly alarmed a couple of times, when it had felt like the bus had almost slipped down the narrow, winding road, which was built along a steep, coniferous hillside. I ended my stay in India with an afternoon, a sunset, a night and a sunrise at the Taj Mahal - enough viewings to last a lifetime? I doubt it - it was indescribably beautiful, a true monument to love: the love for architecture as well as the love for a woman.

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