Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Two weeks at the American School of Bombay

As I’ve written before, school visits are as educational for the author as for the students.

From 1/19-29/15, I was a guest at the American School of Bombay, which is in Mumbai, which is what Bombay was renamed in 1995. I spoke twice to all students from 4th to 8th grade (first an assembly then a breakout session) and once to each grade from 9th to 12th; I also did a talk for parents and a six-hour writing workshop for about 30 kids who’d signed up. Yes, six hours. (With breaks.)

Mumbai is the wealthiest city in India, though most streets I saw presented (often distressing) contradictions.

This was the farthest from home I’d ever been (7,978 miles), beating the previous record set by Tanzania a year ago the same month by only 62 miles. This was the closest my hotel has been to a school—literally next door.

The hotel was comfortable and had some quirks and perks:

  • the option of having four pieces of laundry cleaned per day
  • the most slippery floor of any hotel room I’ve stayed in (don’t know why)
  • the thinnest rolls of toilet paper I’ve seen

In any city new to me, one of the first things I ask my hotel is where the nearest outdoor running track is. In this case, I needed only look out my hotel room window.

Bonus: an adjacent cricket and tennis court.

The following Saturday, the field was transformed for a grand wedding.

 5 p.m.

 7 p.m.

 9 p.m.

4 a.m.

On my first of eight days speaking at the school, three students introduced my presentation. This culminated with one of them giving me a garland and another fingerpainting a tika (or bindi, though I understand that term is more commonly used with females) on my forehead, which I still had when I left the school that afternoon, by which time it had smeared into what looked more like a scab, which explains some of the looks I got walking back to the hotel.

The lower and upper schools are on different campuses, about a 20 minute ride. (If no traffic, it would take maybe six minutes.) Every hour during school hours, a van makes runs back and forth between the locations. On some days, I’d have to speak at one campus, then another, then back at the first. On one of the trips in the van, I had to sit in front—where there was no seat belt for the middle seat. Apparently, in India, it’s not standard to wear seat belts in the front seat. The streets are so choked that you cannot reach any significant speed, but still, I haven’t been in the front seat without a seat belt since…well, probably ever.

On my ride from the airport to the hotel, and several times after, I was amused to see a sign in an auto rickshaw (AKA tuk-tuk or three-wheeler) that read “Don’t Touch Me.” At first I thought it referred to the driver, but then realized it was always scrawled or attached to the meter, which is within reach of the passengers. Don’t tamper with your fare!

There is a movement to reduce the honking of car horns, but from where I sat, the movement has a long way to go. The noise of horns was constant. Some drivers who don’t mind paint “Horns OK Please” on their bumpers so other motorists don’t feel badly if they honk. (However, not displaying this charming permission did not hinder people from laying on the horn.)

When one of the campuses was put up, most of the area surrounding it was marshland. The building was designed to look somewhat like a hotel; if the school failed, they’d be ready for Plan B.

While in India, I was in touch with HarperCollins editor Jill Davis. To explain the odd hour my email was arriving, I said I was in India. I was surprised when she asked if I was at ASB, and even more surprised when she said she’d been here several years before. Her trip ended in an unthinkably tragic way. But she had happy memories, too. She sent me a photo of her with several students. The school helped me determine that three of those students were still at the school. We rounded them up and forced them to take a semi-reunion photo (which, unfortunately, the school policy does not allow me to post).

Throughout all this, my host was librarian Heeru Bhojwani. When asked, she shared her personal story, and, appropriately, Heeru is a hero.

This trip was a privilege and a dream. Thank you, Heeru and ASB, for giving me this gift.