Little things of Joy: Sipping chai in an Ancient Cave in Urfa castle

Chai or cay, what would we and the world be without it? From the sweet, milky, cardamom-flavoured repeatedly- boiled chai of our dhabas, here I am, thousands of miles away, sipping black Turkish cay in a cavernous enclosure, in the old castle fort of Urfa. I am seated just some metres away from the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, close to the holy pond with the sacred fish, which hundreds of visitors have come to visit this Children’s Day. The Golbasi garden around the pool is alive with colour.

I listen to my colleagues talk. Records relate the ancient city of Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, to the 4th century BC. However, scholars pre-date it to 9000-11000 BC, which excavations, barely six miles from Urfa, underscore. The megaliths pre-date the Stonehenge by 6000 years. Called Gobekli Tepe, it has been described as perhaps being the first man-made temple in the world. This area is situated in the northern part of a “fertile arc” of arable land, stretching across the Persian Gulf to modern day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Legend has it that King Nemrut, a descendant of Noah, had built the infamous Tower of Babel, but gave up. He ordered all young children to be killed to defy a prophecy of his death. Abraham was caught demolishing the pagan idols of that time and was thrown from the citadel turrets into a fire lit below. He was barely 10 years old. However, he was protected by nature. A rose garden surrounded him and the fire turned to water, the burning embers of wood into fish. The fish and pool have been regarded as sacred and protected ever since.

Our hosts order more cay and as we sip, I glance around the cave. The tables and chairs are simple, adorned with local rugs and trimmings. One wall has a shelf full of old radios from the 50’s & 60’s. I do not feel like a stranger in this holy place, as I am sipping black cay from a curved, tulip-shaped glass, easy to hold. Young girls chatter away, oblivious to my stares. They sit, some with headscarves, others with the wind softly blowing into their carefree hairstyles. The colours of the scarves indicate where they are from – if they are Arab or Turkish but I am informed that many just wear whichever colour they wish to. Listening to the whistling wind outside (rain has been predicted), we hear many voices in the cave, a mixture of Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, Turkish and Kurdish languages, so natural. Like in my motherland, too. The thought makes me happy. My mind flits to an auto-rickshaw driver in New Delhi, asking me if I was from Bengal because of my accented Hindi! He was quite near the mark as I am from the neighbouring state of Orissa.

After cay, we stroll down to the bazaar that bustles even today. More so, as today is a local holiday. It reminds me of our ancient bazaars in the Red Fort, as crowded, as enticing, with the proverbial chai-wallah, weaving through the throngs of people, with practised ease. The caydanlk is the stacked two-kettle containers or teapots in which the cay is brewed. The smaller tea-container is used for strong brewed tea and the larger one contains boiling water to dilute the tea, if it is too strong.

I am told I cannot leave without tasting some Turkish coffee! We head across the cobbled stones to an old rest-house, converted into a modern-day coffee house. The woodwork is reminiscent of other such structures in the region and the dcor has been maintained in the traditional style. The tables have been set up in the former courtyard. My colleagues agree that coffee is still prepared in the manner in which it was during the wondrous Ottoman Empire Period. The coffee beans are ground well into a fine powder and then boiled in a brass pot, called a cezve. How can I resist having my coffee-cup read? That is another story!

These old traditional customs the world over only serve to show how people wish to welcome strangers in their midst. War and its attributes seem distant. Corruption in high places and in the field of sport seem surreal, but as I head back to the airport, its back to reality. The chai I order at the airport in Istanbul airport is just to get a chair as I have a few hours to wait for my flight. The airport is bustling with passengers and chairs are scarce. Then I ask for a coffee and scald my tongue, a wake-up call to sip the beverage slowly and savour its essence as I had in the ancient city of Urfa, a few hours ago. Somehow it does not taste quite the same.

Did this ancient ritual of drinking chai with family and friends and colleagues evolve, to allow us some space to listen, collate news and views and mend relationships?

Perhaps our elected persons in their high offices could have a time-out, just once a day, to sort out their issues, sipping chai, savouring its essence, clearing their minds and cleansing their souls. Perhaps the humble chai leaf may help flower a new chapter of history and development that we sorely need.

Expatriate Heads of Schools: An intrinsic Indian need?

There are now over 700 International Schools across India that offer foreign programmes of study, that are termed ‘Foreign Boards’. These International Schools charge from Rs 4 lakhs to Rs 8 lakhs in annual tution fees. Parents continue to want the best for their children, but mainly to send them overseas. Earlier, it was to Oxbridge or the Ivy League Colleges in the USA, but there are many other countries that have become viable options. The international programmes of study definitely do inculcate ‘learning for life’ and underscore the need to question, to rationalize thoughts and to support points of view. Teachers undergo rigorous training and are constantly re-learning – not just methods of teaching, but how to integrate subjects and most importantly, how to grade. Moreover, school managements and faculty must uphold the stringent accreditation and registration requirements. This includes the hiring of expatriate staff – a reminder of the necessity for cultural diversity in our inter-connected world.

According to online research figures, the expensive schools hire expatriate staff and Directors, to the tune of 40% of the full-strength faculty.

My words below, written six years ago, still ring true.

As an Indian, I will always revere ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’: expatriates or guests are ‘god-like’ and we must and will maintain our traditional ‘welcome’ of them.

However, when I recently enquired from a Human Resources Team in India what they meant by ‘expatriate’ in their advertisement for a Principal, I was informed, ‘one who is not an Indian citizen’. In my opinion, this implies prejudice and insensibility. If an Indian citizen lives overseas, due to the spouse’s job, then this ought to qualify him or her for the NRI or ‘expat category’. No further information or explanation was given. Therefore, I had no other option but to stop soliciting information.

My thoughts and words are directed at the management of schools, who willingly pay an expatriate teacher almost 4 to 5 times that of a local hire’s salary. True, some incentives must be given to help expatriates relocate. However, local hires work as hard, are also expected to maintain the ‘equilibrium’ of the institute, even explain issues to parents, who are often unable to fathom ‘accents’. This includes the explanation of entire programmes of study.

There are few corporate-style benefits in the education sector. Voluntary work is usually undertaken willingly and conducted thoroughly. Surely the staff needs to be appreciated for all their extra efforts?

True, there are the ‘vacations’ that others underscore as relaxation and beneficial, but let us keep that aside. My contention is: Why may an Indian not head a secondary ‘world class’ institute? There are a few exceptions in the country, but too few in this given context.

When we Indian nationals apply overseas, we are not always taken in the same numero uno position. As a vice principal, perhaps, so we tend to lose out, both at home and overseas.

If you do internet searches and check websites that mention leadership roles in education, recently selected for positions across the globe, you will rarely find a name from our sub-continent.

I have often asked my colleagues overseas why this occurs, only to encounter a shrug of the shoulders or a comment on accents or communication issues. Not that all western accents are easy to follow, including those from down under, still managements continue to seek newly-retired expatriates, or those already in the country with another school (‘poaching politely!’) or those who are in other roles or careers, even those with very little experience in teaching… the examples are endless. Why do they not promote faculty under their very noses? Collegiality is a must, but under such circumstances, it often causes rifts.

Do I suffer from an inferiority complex? No, but I do feel disheartened at all the advertisements for expatriate principals, directors, heads of international schools that are now mushrooming across our nation. Seven years ago, there were a mere handful of such schools, offering international programmes of study. Now there are over one hundred. Parents are paying ‘top-dollar’ or may I re-phrase that to, ‘top-rupee’ for their children to be educated in excellent academic programmes, accepted globally, that also nurture the all-round development of the student, easing the angst of adolescence and alienation into mature adulthood.

The teachers are required to be trained in these programmes, that require many hours of reading and learning about standard assessment procedures and a full-understanding of the programmes too. It is extremely hard work and a continuous process for the 2 years of study.

I fully support these programmes of study. I also fully support hiring expatriate staff. However, I cannot fathom why institutions are hiring directors and principals from overseas, when we have so much talent at home? True, such hires do add to the cultural diversity and sensitivity of our institutions. A few expatriate teachers are definitely required, to provide a balanced environment for the students. This inclusion of staff, in turn, equips students for their future studies and careers, wherever they may choose to study, either at home or overseas. We need to show that selection procedures remain transparent and are based on merit and experience. We need to show that India, the land of cultural diversity, cares for its own and will also care for those who come to live in our land. We need to show professional courtesy. We must not neglect our own and cause unhappiness or inadvertently cause stagnation or lateral growth in a person’s career.

Teachers are our hope for the future of our children.

As Rabindranath Tagore said: “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.”

And it is our teachers, at school and in college, who will help instill knowledge, tradition and values in our children. They are the ones who will also inculcate in their pupils a love of learning, that should last a life-time.

We do need to support our teachers and help them continue in their chosen profession, with dignity. This includes promotions and benefits and not having to worry endlessly about retirement with no pension benefits.