As the electricity in the small Indian building fails once again I awake to insects crawling about my mattress and the fans slowly circling to a stop. I can’t complain; for a mattress situated on a hard concrete floor it’s pretty comfortable, and when the fans do work they are heaven. There is just enough water in that bowl in the bathroom for me to throw over my head and body. I shiver as the freezing water sharply trickles down my skin, but it is welcome in this thick humidity.
Our hosts graciously bring in food for our breakfast – curried meat and a white doughy substance I’m told tastes better when you mix it in with everything else. I’m told by the charity I’m working for that to ask what is on my plate is rude, and to simply eat it without questioning. I have a strong stomach and an “I’ll-try-anything” approach to food, but having curry every morning for breakfast is starting to get to me. Nonetheless I use my right hand as a sort of shovel, mopping up any leftovers with that insipid white stuff.
As we are about to leave, one of our Indian friends is standing shirtless in the doorway. One of my colleagues compliments him on his muscular appearance, and he smiles.
‘All men in Chennai look like this,’ he says. ‘We work very hard.’ And as I stare out the window of the minibus on the way to the school I realise it’s true. Men all around us are working tirelessly in fields, construction sites, villages, tending to animals, you name it. And not just the men, the woman carry enormous bags filled with goodness knows what, one in each hand and another atop their heads. As they stare back into the minibus at perhaps the only white people they have seen in a long while, I can’t help but feel somewhat inferior.
When we arrive at the school we are immediately engulfed by children wanting to play, wanting to talk, wanting any kind of attention from these strange people who show an interest in their ostensibly trivial lives. In reality their lives are much more fascinating than that of the average child from the UK. They climb tall trees armed with machetes to cut down coconuts for us to drink the juices of. When I am finished mine another immediately appears from somewhere else, so I take my time with this one.
On the day we leave I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by my experience living with these comparatively depraved people. They work so hard for what seems to us so little, but this is how they live. Their children are happy and their families are fed by sheer labour and incredible resolve. If nothing else, I leave India with a new outlook and a stimulated mind.