– Sharanya Ramesh
“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 up your bag. 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 as a teacher and I was nervous as I stood there in my red kurti, stuttering and pulling at my hair and bag all at the same time.
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 journey 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, just worsened my mood. My students 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 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 correct more papers 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 do so.
We walked out into the community I taught in – Shankarwadi, Jogeshwari East – and even after 8 months, the cramped tin houses and the dark lanes still surprised me. The tiny houses 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 it’s 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 school.” 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, was 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 put 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. “But I did. 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 off. 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 as the most meaningful thing I had 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. Do you know how wonderful it is to share someone’s life like that with them? Watch them give you a part of them to keep secret?” 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 two of my own at home that I need to take care of but I choose to come to school anyway to teach twenty five 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 marks 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. Thats 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. But bad days are a part of our job. 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. I know you don’t think you have anybody in school, but you do. 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 whether the construction at the local mosque had been completed. But on that day, on the terrace, we talked about her life and mine. I learned how strong and extraordinary this woman 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 off, 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 finished my chai¸set my glass down and walked over to the edge of the terrace. “We fly kites from here. My son is very good. He will teach you. I saw you trying to fly kites with your kids the other day. You’re terrible.” She said, laughing at my embarrassed face. “Come down now, come meet my husband.”
I had seen her husband before on a couple of occasions when he had come to pick her up from school or drop the kids off in school on their days off. We walked into her tiny little house where she put some hot samosas on a plate and pushed them into my hand. “I know you won’t eat them now. Take them home and eat them when you’re working at night. Heat them up though. Don’t eat them cold.” She said sternly. I promised I wouldn’t and tucked them into my bag.
“My husband will drop you home.” She said. “He bought a new bike but don’t tell him you like bikes because he will race the other bikes on the road and it’s dangerous.” I tried in vain to tell her I would just take an auto home, and the only help I needed was to just show me the way out because of how confusing the identical lanes could get, especially in the evening. “Why? He will drop you home. Stop it. No arguments.” And that was that.
I spent some more time with the family, as they laughed at my Hindi and offered me more food. When it was time for me to leave, I hugged Amina and she held my arm and said, “You will have more rough days. Come to the terrace whenever you want. I’ll probably be there too. We’ll drink some chai and talk about it, okay?”
I promised her I would as I walked out of the house.
She was right. Her husband drove me home at a ridiculous speed through lanes barely wide enough to fit us, with me holding onto my bag for dear life. When we reached my house, I thanked him, asked him if I could take a picture of him for this story I told myself I was going to write and then walked up to my apartment.
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.