English / Journalism / Teaching

Incredible India – from CELSA to study overseas

The tourist slogan is all true, says Etienne Nappey, CELSA journalism student at Madras University. He explains why he was bowled over

`All foreign students who come to Chennai for one or more semesters of study can testify, the arrival in the city is always a daze. Even more after a layover in Dubai, where all in the airport is quiet and luxurious.
Chennai is busy, crowded and quite dirty. To some extent, it looks, sounds and smells like big cities in West Africa or Central America. For example, the Hall of Residence where I spent my first nights is just near the cricket stadium. A brand new stadium, which can receive 60,000 people, recently refurbished for the World Cup that India won last summer. However its fencing walls are still not completed and are used as public urinals. Slums have grown up just under the northern stand.

The historic buildings of Madras University

The University of Madras’ main campus is not far from there, along Marina Beach, the second largest beach in the world. The premises are the former palace of the British governors. This legacy gives the buildings an incomparable magnificence, and constitutes the academic staff’s pride and joy.
Inside the building, classrooms are not as beautiful, and the magic ebbs away a little, but spending time there is not the most dreadful thing in the world. Large fans hanging from the ceiling give some relief from the heat but cause a certain amount of noise which can make understanding the teacher difficult, especially if he or she does not have a loud voice.
Outside, the average temperature is about 35°C. Even during rainy days and at night, the mercury never drops under 30. The monsoon seems to be very shy this year and it rained only twice in September.

Discipline and Disorganisation
I was in for my first surprise on the first day in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication on 1 August. No uniform, contrary to the undergraduate pupils in all the other schools of the country, but in his welcoming address, the head of department explains that T-shirts of any kind are strictly forbidden. Men must wear shirts. This suggests a certain discipline.
Disorganization becomes obvious very quickly elsewhere however. The department secretary seems baffled by everything, and struggles for answers to questions or problems. Schedules finally arrive two weeks after the beginning of the lessons. Meanwhile, how to know what time to come in the morning ? How to know if we can go home for lunch ?
Sometimes teachers seem to forget to come, or arrive at the department and stay in their office without giving a lecture. Lectures supposed to last two hours sometimes end after only 20 minutes. Indian students seem to be used to a never-ending wait, but also incertitude and last-minute changes. Western students are much less prepared to face all that. In France, time is counted in minutes. In India, the basic unit of time is half an hour. Indian students do not look concerned by this.
The relationship between students and teachers too is rather different from that in our Western societies. In this country of castes, hierachy is an essential notion in everyday life. Students get up each time a professor come into the classroom at the beginning of the lecture. In two months, I still have not seen a student disagreeing with a teacher.

One class, many singularities
Another surprising detail was the gap between girls and boys in the class during the first few days with girls on the first row, guys on the second and contact between the two very rare. In

Girls on on one side, guys on the other. Even for photographs, Indian classrooms are organised in a particular way

fact, it looked like two separate classes. In the course of time, this peculiarity faded. But a love story inside the class seems impossible. Anyway, in India almost all marriages are not based on love, but are arranged, although recent movies are beginning to change mindsets progressively. This is India: both modern and traditional.
In spite of their strong accent, very unusual for European people who are used to British and American voices, our classmates have been perfectly welcoming to us, even if some of them considered us lost tourists during the early days. Within less than two weeks, we were able to understand every word from our teachers.
The first year class of Master of Arts in Journalism and Communication is quite heterogeneous: out of 31 students, there are two French, two Chinese girls, three people from Sri Lanka, and half a dozen from Kerala, the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, in South West India. We also have a Japanese girl and a Tibetan boy in the second year.
Even so, our Indian classmates are not necessarly comfortable with international news. Many of them largely ignorant about what is happening in Syria or Libya, for example, presumably because of the lack of coverage in local newspapers. In English-speaking newspapers, the International section consists of only one page, often page 10 or 15, and in some Tamil-speaking newspapers it does not exist at all.
That said, with such a huge and crowded country, India offers many interesting issues within its own borders. Among them, cricket has a central place. Even if football is becoming famous (Leo Messi came to play twice in August in Kolkatta), cricket remains the national game. Moreover, Chennai has a very competitive team, called the Super Kings. They won the last championship and also the Champions League in 2010, a competition with the best teams on earth coming from Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, South Africa, Bangladesh and of course England. They defended their title in September, but they lost three games out of four. Fortunately, the only match they won was the one I had chosen to go to the stadium to watch! The lively atmosphere in that place reflects the welcoming culture of South India.

In town, a lot of people talk to you, asking where you come from and why you have come to India. Many question you to see if you are enjoying your trip and if you like Indian food. I do,

A priest on his mobile at a traditional wedding feast

definitely. I feel lucky to live with an Indian family, who make my life comfortable and who largely facilitated my integration during the first few weeks. So I have learned to eat with my hands, actually, my right hand (the left hand is considered impure), to sit on the floor at home even when chairs are available, to make the most of the ground’s coolness, and to bargain with taxi-drivers, an essential skill to get about in the sub-continent.
I chose to come to India to face a new and exciting situation, living abroad for a long period. Three months after my arrival, I dreaded the time in a few months when I would have to leave.’

Etienne Nappey was on the CELSA-sponsored DU program – contact Philip Scheiner for more details.