Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ciao for now, Chennai

I know - this one has been a long time coming, but I had to wait until it REALLY hit me!  We have left Chennai!  We arrived there over nine years ago with a three year old, three suitcases and a three month visit planned for Nikh and myself.  My Darling was to stay for a year.  We left several weeks ago with a twenty foot sea freight container, twelve suitcases, six carry on baggage, a twelve and a half year old, a five and a half year old and many regrets that we had not seen and done everything we should have! 

My Darling was finding that he was travelling abroad for more time than he was with us in Chennai.  He would try to cram as many meetings into each trip as (in)humanly possible, often landing in London, racing home to change and for example,heading to Oxford by mid morning.  This is not good.  It is not safe and it is not healthy.  The up side for us was a new shopping list for him to fill each trip, but the downside was a lot of time without him, a lot of 'coping' and a lot of relying on good friends to fill the gap, help out, ferry the kids, and even have us move in when the cockroaches invaded!

AISC - as you may have read in previous posts - the school in Chennai was practically the centre of our universe.  We were thoroughly invested as a family.  I volunteered and helped in any way possible, ran the Food Committee, a Multicultural Committee, was President of the PTA, worked as a coordinator in the Elementary School before taking on a class of my own; ran Madras Kids, worked on the After School Activities programme, helped with SAISA, organised Bake Sales, Yard Sales and Charity Fairs. And this was not the half of it!  Nikh trained for different teams, raised money for the Tsunami Appeal and Habitat for Humanity, took an active role on the Student Council and was even planning to be a Student Ambassador had we stayed on.  The Ray had only just started at the school shortly before we left, but she made her mark too - Friday after school picnics were her contribution!

We were very sorry to leave, but we are starting to get bogged down - the Elementary Principal was a complete waste of space - in my opinion.  She agreed with the loudest voice, barely attended meetings, treated the competent staff poorly and promoted the incompetent ones.  She is gone now!  The Middle School Principal was truly the bees knees.  She was fantastic - the school's saving grace! The Security Manager was too busy 'entertaining' nannies and toddlers in his office to bother securing the school.  The  secretaries and other admin staff were wonderful.  The custodial staff - the lowest rung of the ladder were incredible!  They worked hard, they worked long and like the admin staff, they supported every single event organised by the PTA and parent body, even when the majority of the faculty did not feel they should.  We noticed that teachers in the Middle School were beginning to treat kids as favourites and others as not so favourite.  Senior teachers would show full length movies over the course of two or three lessons to make a point that could have been made in a 5 minute clip.  Some teachers were shown to be less and less accountable.  Some teachers were beginning to take advantage of the fact that children move on regularly as an excuse to NOT do their best. Some teachers need to be forced to retire - NOW!  Others need to be made to work forever!  On the other hand, there are teachers who do not feel they are teaching enough hours each week, who would love to work harder and who openly state that they would leave this school because of the lack of process, protocol and accountability.  In may view those are the ones we need to KEEP!

So as a result, we made the decision to take Nikh away from the school he has been to since he was tiny and bring him home to London to experience the British Curriculum.  He got a place in one of the best state schools in Harrow.  He is now enjoying, in addition to English, Maths and three sciences, Design and Technology, ICT, French, German, Classics, Religious Education and Philosophy, Drama, Music, Art, PE, Citizenship, Geography, History and he is pulled out of class for Keyboard lessons and vocal coaching.  He is also part of the choir which meets at lunchtime and attends Badminton Club which is run by a national champion after school.  I feel that AISC needs to broaden it's horizons.  It needs to expand the curriculum, to make teachers accountable for what they do and do not teach.  To make the pastoral care a priority.  The Principals and Head of School need to be more mobile - moving around the school, the classes and 'popping' in all over the place.  Don't get me wrong - I love that school.... I just want it to be sooooo much better!

It has not been easy.  The Ray is in a private co-ed prep school. Nikh is in a State school.  Luckily both are on the same road, about a mile apart!  Their holidays are different.  Their timings are different.  Neither child finds wearing a blazer and tie easy.  Neither child is enjoying the constant drizzle of the last month and the frosty mornings of the last week.  Both children (and their mother) long for the blazing hot humidity of Chennai.

But for now, I think we are doing the right thing.  We still have a long way to go - we need a new house. We have a new car and new cell phones.   I need to find a job.  We have to work our way through The Ray's first ever winter, and our first real winter in nearly ten years.  We have to get over missing our friends every single day.  We are finding that notes from friends, texts popping into the phone and skype calls are as essential now that we are 'home' as when we were away.

The worst part for me is feeling like a stranger in my own home town,  I spent so much time trying to make people feel comfortable, secure and like they knew Chennai, I am eternally grateful to the old friends and new friends from The Ray's class who are literally taking me under their wing!

Leaving Chennai was really, really tough.  It had become home.  It had become the centre of our world. It had become everything to us.

So we sai 'Ciao for now, Chennai' you will always be a fond memory, but not a stranger - we will visit and we will stay close!  Thanks for the memories and the friends!


I am sure there are people who live there who think that Chennai is simply the pits of the Earth!  They find the environment dirty, polluted and dank.  They hate the people urinating and spitting anywhere and everywhere.  They find the traffic is simply too chaotic to bear and they hate that you can't buy a good bottle of wine, or a beer, with your meal at every restaurant.

Well, speaking as the grandma in the corner, clutching a stiff drink and sucking on my false teeth, let me tell you about the good old days!!

When we came to Chennai, ALL those years ago, there were many things not available or not built that the ex-pats who choose Chennai now take for granted.  
The long life sterilised milk, for example, both the full fat and the skimmed version did not exist.  Many of us spent time boiling and straining milk to make it palatable for us and our children.  
Eggs came in one variety - warm, covered in feathers and bird poo, and in a plastic bag, so mostly broken by the time you got home!

Yoghurt - set yoghurt was not available, again, I would warm milk, add a starter and leave over night to make the plain curd for the next day's meals and buttermilk. Rinse and repeat!

Imported vegetables and fruit - very, very scarce, few and far between and you only got them if the shop keeper knew and liked you, so saved them for you; or if you were in the right place at the right time!

Restaurants and hotels - there was the Park Sheraton, the GRT Grand, Fish Cove, the Connemara and the Coromandel available to us as 'safe' places to eat and drink - no Marriott, no Hilton, no Park, no Taj Mount Road and certainly no Azulhia, Tuscana, Italia, Anokhi, Sandy's, Cream Centre, Mocha, etc etc etc - no nightclubs except for one in the Park Sheraton which was mostly a dive!  Now there are new places opening daily offering food, drink and variety galore - whoopee!!

Schools - AISC was there, but based in an office building and a cultural centre in the middle of a busy street - no facilities to speak of and small, small classes.  I think there were 150 or so kids when we first arrived.  So we chose an Indian pre-school and followed up with LKG/UKG at the KFI (The School - Krishnamurti Foundation).  A lovely philosophy, a nurturing, caring place except that the toilets were holes in the floor - eeeeuw!!  Nikh got used to it, but I could not cope!  eventually under the idea that we would soon be leaving Chennai, we moved Nikh to the American International School.  The school was compact and more like an extended family - we instantly made fast friends and fell in love with the whole shebang!  The PTA was involved and active, the parent body joined in almost everything, the teachers and faculty leaders were enthusiastic and energetic (on the whole!!) and we fitted right in!  I was offered a job, Nikh settled down perfectly - utterly brilliant class teachers for the first three years - KG, Grade 1, skip Grade 2 as a write off and a simply incredible Grade 3.  By now we were invested as a family and we had The Ray - our Chennai-born addition to our family!

As Nikh moved up the school, other establishments opened up, offered expat curriculi (is that a word?!) and tried to match the facilities.  They called themselves 'international', 'American' 'British', 'German' etc.  Truth was - none of them was really real!  We were in the best choice for our child.

Now - pre-schools are expanding and calling themselves full blown schools, new schools and pre-schools open regularly, children's centres offer play areas, coffee and classes - the main issue is that there is no regulatory body for all these operations - AISC is fully accredited and can be held accountable.  To whom do the others answer?  

Shopping in general - department stores have opened (Ebony, Lifestyle, Westside) and some have closed too.  They were not what we were used to - no service, people pushing and shoving because they found the orderly layout too difficult! Many of the items on sale could be found cheaper at Parry's Corner or in T-Nagar.  But they had a few items that you couldn't find anywhere else - I once found an ice pack for bumped heads in the shape of Spiderman's head - it is brilliant - I still have it after nine years!
Parry's corner is an experience.  I seem to recall having to go at least once a year to ensure that I had enough stuff for Halloween, Christmas and birthday parties.  T-Nagar, Pondy bazaar, the fish market etc - all great adventures!

But you know - in all the time we lived there - a few things never changed - the friends we made, both local people who will still be there when we go back to Chennai in 10 years time, and the expat friends who have passed through the city like a breath of fresh air - both sets of friends are good, strong and loved.  Another thing that remained the same in all our years was the phenomenal way we were treated in the hotels, restaurants and most of the shops.  People are friendly, welcoming and mostly want to help you.

In my view this far out weighs the cheating maids, the staff who rob you blind, the constant asking for money from beggars on the street to your employees who earn substantial salaries.  The people who have become interwoven in the rich tapestry of our lives totally make up for the Madras Eye, the mosquito bites, the stream of viruses that seemed to be a continual drone!  These friends cum extended family - many of whom we travel great distances to see and be near are for life.  Things in Chennai continue to change!