If I answer, “Hello. How are you?” Faces lift in expectation—surprised and pleased. “Hello. How are you?” they repeat as a chorus. Like little parrots they are expected to repeat and remember. “Hello. How are you?”
“I am well thank you.”
The chorus comes amid giggles, “I am well thank you.”
When my own daughter was as young as these children, we talked of the language of laughter that children of different nationalities use to communicate. German-speaking, French, Hindu, Amharic … mix kids with no common tongue and, in my experience, they’ll play happily and in perfect understanding, using nothing except noise and laughter, gestures, and grins. In no time, they are picking up words of each others’ tongues, and, soon, the laughter is augmented by actual words.
But these children at the Imanbala (House of the Iman) want to practice their English. Often, they know only the one word, “Hello,” but, still, it gives them great pleasure to have the “Hello” returned.
Entering the Imanbala in Lucknow, the little group of tourists that I’ve joined is surrounded by an entire school plus their teachers when a New Zealander with us asks to take a picture of one group of children. They are well-dressed in their neat school uniforms. “Picture, picture, picture,” they chorus, enchanted with the word and with our white skins. They all want to touch us. They all want to shake hands and, maybe, get our autographs. One enterprising young man presents an Italian tourist with a ten-rupee note. “Please,” he says as though the Italian is a Bolywood star.
“I am learning good English,” one girl of about fourteen says. And she does speak quite well, telling us where they come from and telling us that they are touring to “understand our history.”
It’s certainly true that everywhere I go, each historic site I visit in India, I see hundreds of school children in their uniforms. They line up and walk along obediently with their teachers. But, once released, they swarm like children everywhere, hooting and yelling, running and playing tricks on each other.
“Hello, hello.” Our school has at last gone its way. Now, we have a new group of youngsters following us. “Hello, hello.”