David Byrne

When I was asked to write this article I thought it would be a simple enough task; I just had to give a brief summary of my experience here in India in around one thousand words. Well easier said than done. I think even if I had the scope of a novel to work with I could still never truly express what this experience has been like. While planning this essay I thought back to my first days here and it was a very surreal feeling as it felt almost as if I was remembering a completely different person than myself. I have experienced so much from that time to this I suppose it’s not surprising that the old me feels almost alien. So to try to explain what this experience has been like in a few paragraphs has actually turned out to be very difficult. However as I’ve been asked to describe my time here I suppose I may give it my best shot rather than merely discuss the impossibility of doing so. So here goes.

I am currently living and working in a very small rural village called Kuthenkuly, which is located on the very southern tip of India in Tamil Nadu. I have been here for over eight months now and will be here for another four. The project here is a polytechnic college which offers diplomas in five areas of engineering. It serves the local rural youth and offers an opportunity for higher education which was sorely lacking in the area. We are surrounded here by numerous small coastal villages where the majority of families just fish to survive. The vision behind this school is to give the rural youth an opportunity at economic development through technical training. We have over eleven hundred students enrolled in the college and we also have both boy’s and girl’s hostels where we care for two hundred and fifty young people. The hostels focus both on the academic development of the students and their social development. Here we organise various games, clubs, and countless feasts and programmes for the students as well as constantly mentoring them.

Here I teach English in both the college and hostels. It was quite daunting at first as I had no previous teaching experience but now I feel as I’ve been doing it for years. The enthusiasm of most of the students to learn is really extraordinary and they are so appreciative of any help you can give them. It’s not just for English that they show this enthusiasm but for anything new that you can teach them. They particularly love to learn new songs, games, or sports. So as my experience and passion lies in boxing I set up Kuthenkuly’s first boxing club in the hostel. Since September I have been training twenty boys every evening in the art of boxing. It’s a really great team and through the shared physical hardship of boxing training they have bonded very closely as a group. Likewise I have grown particularly close to this group and of all the activities I do here I have to admit I love this time the most. The boys have come on in leaps and bounds and are becoming very nice boxers. We are organizing a show for the end of this month for all the students to attend, and are hoping to secure proper fights for some of the boys next month. One boy in particular has become really passionate about the sport and jumps at any chance of private tuition I can give him, which I gladly provide at any opportunity. He also dedicates hours of his own free time drilling what he has learnt. He has a real natural talent for boxing and if he manages to continue training could become a really good boxer.

A large part of the time however my duty is merely to be a friend and mentor to the boys and girls and this in reality is more of a pleasure than a duty. When people ask me what is the highlight of India I don’t even have to think for a second about my answer, the people are undoubtedly what make India so special. I’ve been lucky to travel to and live in many other countries over the past ten years but I’ve never experienced a people like the Indians. The people of this area really struggle, the average wage for a labourer is less than fifty euro a month, and for this they will work all day every day. There’s also a severe shortage of water in the area as it is extremely dry and hot here, and power cuts happen every day often for hours at a time. Yet in spite of this the people are the most fun loving, jovial and affectionate people I’ve ever met. They’re also the most hospitable people you’re ever likely to meet. To have the pleasure of entering an Indian’s home is a treat you will never forget and is one I’m very fortunate to have experienced many times by now. They will treat you like royalty and while they may be very poor financially you can be sure they’ll manage somehow to feed you like a king.

My whole experience here has undoubtedly been the best experience of my life, however it hasn’t all been plain sailing and at one point was so challenging I was strongly considering leaving. Just as my mentor in SAVIO said it would happen, I spent my first few months just amazed at the novelty of everything but then during the middle months of my time here I really had a difficult time of it. The huge differences in culture between here and home and particularly the huge differences in money and equality really made me constantly question and re-question everything I experienced. I must have reassessed and reformulated my own beliefs and values so many times I couldn’t even try to keep track. This whole process was very stressful and uncomfortable at times and like I said I did consider leaving. The thought of leaving the boys however prevented me from doing so and I’m very relieved and delighted that I didn’t leave back then. This uncomfortable period eventually gave way to my most enjoyable period here. The last few months I have felt as if I’m in my second home. I have also come to look upon that difficult period as one of the major rewards of my time here. The process of reshaping my beliefs and values was stressful and uncomfortable but ultimately it has changed me undeniably and I like to think for the better. It’s the reason the old me feels a bit alien and thinking back to the person who arrived here in June I now feel a good bit wiser and more importantly I have a new firm conviction on what is truly important in life. I have taught my students English, boxing and hopefully some life skills and lessons but ultimately they have taught me so much more than I could hope to teach them.

This article appeared in the Salesian Bulletin, April-June 2012.