From Cranford to the Punjab, and back, in February 1984

This is an account of a trip made by two middle aged Infant School teachers to the Indian Panjab in the spring of 1984, ending about six weeks before the Indian Army invaded the Golden Temple in Amritsar so it was limited to a certain extent. We went because we wanted to discover more about the lives of our pupils and their families, and to show the community we work with, that we really valued the contribution and enrichment they gave our life in Britain.

Once, Cranford was a village in Middlesex; now it is a suburban sprawl of houses, offices and warehouses on the eastern edge of Heathrow Airport. In the 1960s, when the Asian population of Southall (largely from the Indian Panjab), grew, and families needed to buy new houses, they moved south into the private housing estates built in the 1920s and 1930s in Hounslow West and Cranford. Later other people joined them straight from the Panjab and by the 1970s the community was changing fast. Now there are Panjabi doctors, dentists, chemists, grocers, greengrocers, butchers and drapers, as well as a cafe! take-away, video hire, hardware and motor spares shops. This means that the children who go to Cranford Infant School grow up with a strong sense of their identity and before they come to school they may have had very little contact with the English language.

Many of the parents work at the Airport and extended holidays are a feature of school life. By mid March 1983, sixty-three children had visited the Panjab in the previous six months and many more were planning to go in the next six. We all felt that these holidays were very important to the children, but that we could not share the experiences in any way. I found that the vocabulary for the experiences was often in Panjabi and that I was unable to make comments or ask questions which triggered off more than one- or two-word answers. We were worried by this failure of communication as to so many of the children it was obviously a very enriching experience and for some it seemed to change their school achievement and give them a new confidence which more than made up for the short-term gap in their school work.

In the Autumn term of 1982 we began to discuss the idea of a school sponsored visit to India. When the Head mentioned the idea to visiting parents she got a very enthusiastic response which was encouraging. In September 1982 some staff had started a course in Panjabi for teachers taught by Harjit Kaur Assi at Hounslow Teachers’ Centre. As I had responsibility for English as a second language and Vivienne Wills for curriculum development, and neither of us had pressing family commitments, it was decided that it would be best if we went. Once this decision was made, we made an application to the London Borough of Hounslow for paid leave with cover for three weeks in February 1984, which with the addition of the week of half-term would mean that we could spend four weeks away. We outlined the objectives and value of the visit and the use to which it could be put afterwards. We wanted to go to the main towns and some villages in which our pupils’ parents originated to gain an understanding of some of our pupils’ experiences and to visit schools, both state and private, to increase our understanding of the parents’ attitude toward, and expectations of, education.

The leave of absence with cover was agreed and the school set about raising the money. It was March and already too late to get an official grant from an educational body so the money had to come from many sources. Everybody at school contributed in different ways. We held a bring and buy sale, parents and staff gave donations, we dressed and raffled a doll, and the Head even gave up smoking and put the money saved into the fund. Education Advisers gave small grants and at the end the Education Committee gave a final sum of £400 as a local emphasis on multi-cultural education was underway. Oxfam gave a grant and two local gurdwaras gave us grants and one gave us a letter of introduction to the Golden Temple. We sought publicity in local newspapers both English and Panjabi and asked for and received contributions from local businesses. While we were raising the money we were also discussing our plans with the parents — we had a stall with a map of the Panjab at the summer parents’ evening and we sent a letter home saying that we would like to take photos and letters to relatives in India, and we also asked if anybody had people with whom we could stay or just visit. Every parent who visited the Head discussed the plans and we learnt many interesting things such as who was related to whom and the fact that in one road there were about thirty people from the Moga district south of Amritsar. But, sadly, despite these efforts the message did not get home to everyone — when we came back and people saw the photographs they said, “Oh, if only we had known that you were going we could have given you introductions”, or “you could have visited my family”. We learnt that however much you may think that you have made contact with people and told them things. you may well be wrong. Letters get lost, are not read, or the language is a barrier!

The person who gave us the most help was Harjit Kaur Assi — our teacher of Panjabi. She became very involved and we have formed a lasting friendship with her. She gave us private lessons in traveller’s Panjabi. endless advice and best of all organised that our first stay in the Panjab was with her father in Jullundur. When it came to it, this was the best thing that could possibly have happened. As the offers of hospitality arrived we planned an itinerary. First to Delhi. then on to Harjit’s family in Jullundur and Ludhiana, later to Amritsar. Faridkot back through Jullundur to Chandigarh and Simla then back to Delhi via Patiala staying with contacts everywhere except in Delhi. We arranged to leave Heathrow during the week at a time when the school could be involved in our departure and some children could come to the Airport to say goodbye. We left on the 1st February, 1984.

The hospitality that we later met wherever we went began on the plane where we were invited to a wedding near Jullundur and to visit another family from Ealing in their village. In Delhi we were advised to travel second class if we wanted to see India, and what excellent advice it was. The train journey was endlessly varied; not so much the country that you go through but your fellow passengers. It was dark by the time we reached Jullundur City and got off the train, but we stood still as instructed until we were found by Harjit’s brother and father and taken home.

The next day we went by bus to Ludhiana to stay with Harjit’s sister Harminder. There, we visited the government school where she works. It was called a model school which means that the language of instruction is English, the children speak and write Panjabi and also learn Hindi. We found that when they had lost their shyness the thirteen-year-olds spoke very good English and we had a stimulating time talking to them. Harminder applied on a piece of paper there and then for leave to look after us — teachers are entitled to fifteen days leave a year for social and family commitments. This discovery is important as it has changed our understanding of the children having time off to go to the Airport to meet family and to go to functions and so on. These things must be important if it means teachers can get official leave!

Later we visited the large public school where Harjit used to teach; the Head was a most impressive woman. When we went shopping in the bazaar Vivienne got a message from a friend via a shopkeeper; it was for ‘two English ladies wandering in the bazaar’! It found us because we were apparently the only Europeans in the Panjab at that time! This was because of the unrest, strikes, bombs.

After five days we returned to Jullundur where we visited factories, families of children at school, and the bazaar in the old city. We also walked off the street into a large private school where we were welcomed by the Head and shown around by the Deputy. It was a Hindi medium school and we met some children whose families had returned to India. A brother and sister from Altrincham who were Panjabi speaking had had to have private tuition in Hindi — the school did not give them extra support. They described school journeys to South India and Goa and said that they found the different sciences difficult as they had done General Science in England. Also the different background knowledge needed for History and Geography made for difficulties. They had returned to India as their mother was very home-sick. The kindergarten of this school, like others we visited, had huge bags of books under each desk. The classrooms were arranged rather like those in good English schools in the ‘30s and ‘40s — desks with separate chairs (not one piece of furniture) and posters and carefully coloured children’s work rather high on the walls. But all round this well-equipped school there was that busy hum that somehow indicates a happy school.

In Jullundur we lived as daughters of the house which meant that we spent time sitting in the courtyard with Harjit’s mother, two sisters-in-law and the eldest granddaughter — a music student called Pinkie. We sewed and knitted and chatted, and occasionally felt a bit constrained as it was not proper for us to just get up and go off up the road, jump in a rickshaw and be independent. But we also decided that, provided you had a kind mother-in-law, arranged marriages had as much chance of success as any other. There was a good feeling of sisterhood in the courtyard; children were plucked from mischief and danger by any passing adult, fed and comforted by all; and fun and worries could always be shared.

By 11th February we went off alone independently by train to Amritsar where we stayed in the Guest House on a large modern University Campus. We went with our letter of introduction to the Golden Temple where we were given a private guided tour by a young history student. Because of the troubles it was not too crowded to see the huge marble complex easily. It was very pure and beautiful. The gateways on all four sides of the complex signified that the four corners of the world were welcome. This has been true in the past as Hindus worshipped there and the three-storeyed Rest House had been home to many Western hippies backpacking in the ‘70s. The huge langar hall with rows and rows of matting on the floor could feed 25,000 people a day. We most unusually walked back to the University, attracting on the way some very lively beggar girls who pestered us for some way, until suddenly passers-by swooped on them, even leaping from bicycles, gave them a good scolding and chased them off. We found that this rescuing was constantly happening. Destinations were explained to rickshaw wallahs, fruit on stalls was priced and advice on hiding our money given. Everyone was really kind and hospitable.

While we were in Amritsar we just walked into the Education Office and met the Deputy Director of Education who took us to see village schools the next day. These visits were among the happiest we made — the last school particularly had a very warm and caring atmosphere with the teachers easily and sympathetically prompting the children when they forgot their words. The problems are money and the number of children. School attendance is theoretically compulsory but people turn a blind eye to non-attendance because they could not cope if every child did in fact come. Unfortunately, when we returned to Amritsar we found the city in crisis — shooting having taken place near the Golden Temple and the railway station wrecked so a full curfew was being imposed. We were marooned on the University for two more days and after this there were curfews of various kinds, shooting, bombing and unrest all over the Panjab for the rest of our stay, which meant that we had to abandon our bus trip to Moga and return in the early morning of the third day to Jullundur. There we were received with open arms and delight for our safety.

After two days we moved on first to Chandigarh and then to Patiala in both places staying with families of children in Vivienne’s class. We visited a slum school in Chandigarh with an attached nursery class and creche where the children were provided with a meal (of diminishing quality due to cuts) and the older children were given yearly school clothing and their parents a grant to make up for the loss of their earnings. In the evenings there were adult literacy classes. UNICEF was funding a community site in the town which included a Nursery Teachers training college as well as a school and a creche. At a Post Graduate College we visited the lecturers felt that too much money was being spent on Higher Education when the real need was with the younger children. When we returned to Delhi we did a day’s tour of the city and a day trip to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. On the train to Agra we met a family from Cranford who recognised Vivienne from her lunchtime constitutionals up their road! We bought artefacts for school and found the Children’s Book Trust of Delhi. We had looked for children’s books all over the Panjab and only found two — not many young children’s books are published in Panjabi, a very few are printed in Russia and China, and a few more by the Book Trust but that is all.

The bus journey back had been very exhausting and we felt that it was no wonder the children are ‘spaced out’ when they return, because in addition long-haul flights leave Delhi in the middle of the night in order to arrive in the West in daylight hours, and if they are travelling stand-by there may be hours of waiting at the airport. London, when we returned, was a culture shock. Chiswick High Road was bleak and grey, very quiet and sad looking with no animation. Sitting in my house the only outside sounds I could hear were birds and the occasional passing car. I remembered Harjit saying that when she first came to England she had not known if there was another living being in the world. Day and night in India other people make their presence known! Sometimes a disadvantage but how desperately lonely it must be for young wives coming here leaving their sisterly life in a country with loudspeakers chanting day and a lot of the night and streets humming with people. Even in the flat, bright green countryside of the Panjab you can always see someone somewhere doing something.

Our slides and photographs developed, we showed them all to the staff who were very tolerant of our enthusiasm. We entertained the parents to tea, biscuits, a slide show and a gossip. One child said to me, “That’s where I got these shoes”, and pointed to a shoe shop in the bazaar in Ludhiana and I answered, “That’s where I got these chapals”. We share our experience with great satisfaction. The pictures can always start a conversation especially about travel, kite flying, cooking and the Golden Temple. We use them in school to support many topics; houses, transport, food, families and playgrounds have all been used recently and we have shared them with children and teachers in other schools in Hounslow. We have talked to other E2L teams, staff of schools, sixth forms, really anyone who will ask us, as we had such pleasure we want to share it. In our school the displays of photographs always attract passing parents and they are always really pleased to see where we have been and hear our enthusiasm. It has made a real difference to our whole relationship with the parents and the community. We feel that we know them so much better and I think that they feel it too.

Specially written for this commemorative Shap volume, this article strengthens and deepens the wider context of religions in education. It is offered as a piece of good practice — generous, reciprocal and effective - Ed.

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