The gifts I have been given

May was my last month working for Freeset.

For my last week I arranged to throw a party for all my students. Most of my classes are one on one so it was really special to bring them all, just under 20 of them, together in one room.

There have been innumerable cultural lessons for me to learn while I’ve been here, but one thing that I’ve picked up very easily is how to throw a good Bengali party. You don’t need much, no chairs or cutlery for example. But you do need a lot of sweet things. West Bengal is not called the sweetest part of India without good reason. So I headed down to the mishti shop and bought so many jalebi (pictured) that the man had to do the price calculation on a bit of paper. Plenty good spicy food and rice was ordered, and I didn’t have to worry about atmosphere; getting the current Bollywood hits on the speaker = guaranteed dancing.

jalebi

Jalebi : sugar and saffron and wonder

I wanted to celebrate these women because the time I’ve had with each of them has been so special. From going over the same vocab words over and over again until I’m amazed at their determination, to laughing over mistakes or silly sounding English words, to despairing together over the nonsensical nature of English grammar.

Living in Kolkata and working for Freeset for this period of time has been so so tough, I still can’t really put into words. But in my last couple of days, as I sat in the community centre on the main street of a bustling red light area watching Rani* ace through the 50+ flashcards of English words she now knows, it felt like the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Click to view slideshow.

There were many hopes and expectations I had that were unfulfilled, things that I wanted to achieve that had to be abandoned as I learnt the reality of life here. I had to let go of many of the things that I thought I was, but though painful, it meant I stepped into finding my strengths and my joy. And I learned how to be many of the things I’d always wanted to be. It’s been tough, but it has given me many gifts.

I’ve been at a loss as to how to sum up the most intense, complex, challenging and changing years of my life in a blog post. I’ve had to accept after weeks of scrawling notes and discarding drafts that it’s just not possible. However I recently read some old journal entries from when I was brand new and fresh to the Freeset Kolkata life, and I was able to see clearly some of the ways that I have changed since then. I had written about how unsafe I felt wandering around the neighbourhood, super conscious of the darkness that existed so close to my new home. I felt intimidated by the prospect of calling this my community in the way that Freeset have always sought to.

This contrasts hugely with the life I showed my parents around when they visited in April. By that time, 18 months in, I was ducking and diving down all the little lanes and short cuts that I know, stopping to say hello to people who know me and who were keen to meet my Ma and Baba.

I have built a life here in Kolkata, had deep friendships with people who I have seen come and go, and been humbled by relationships formed with people who will always be here. But after 20 months away from Scotland, and my other life, it’s really about time to head back. I leave feeling thankful for the huge lessons I have learnt, which are a unique gift of this place and this period. I also leave feeling immensely relieved that I’ve reached the end of this intense season of facing one confronting lesson after the other.

I leave with the support of my friends and leaders at Freeset, and with the blessing of the ladies I’ve worked with (though my goodbye from them came with the condition that I’m going home to find a husband…). I leave not with bitterness but more than anything I am proud of myself for no longer listening to the voices that were telling me that I was a failure if I didn’t make it to the exact end date of my two-year commitment, no matter what the cost to myself and my health, and instead learning to listen to what my body and my heart were telling me, that this season is at an end.

I have no doubt that my love affair with this city will continue into the future, but in a different form and at a different time. I return home to Scotland next month and move to Aberdeen at the end of August to begin my post grad in primary teaching.

I’m unable to share the pictures from my goodbye party for the security and privacy of the women, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that they are the most beautiful students of English in the whole world, and they have been far too kind to their teacher. They gave me many gifts on that last day which I will treasure, but the truth is that they themselves are the gift for which I am most thankful.

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