At first they all looked alike to me, those enchanting girls to whom I
was to teach Physics and Chemistry at Jangwani Secondary School,
Dar es Salaam.
Of course the Sikhs stood out in their school uniform of trousers and tunic
top, quite distinct from the regulation blouse and skirt. Less shy than the
others, they had the confidence to ask questions, usually prefaced by
"Madam, I have a problem." They became enthusiastic members of the Art
Society I started: Amrat who favoured an impressionist style, and Jagdish
("Dishy" to her friends) who produced very powerful figure drawings.
Another Sikh confused me by writing her name as Saketer Kaur on her
chemistry book and Saketer Khambay on her physics book. I quite
thought there were two Saketers, one taking chemistry and the other
physics, whilst everyone else took both subjects. But there was only one;
Khambay was her family name, whereas Kaur just means "miss", or more
accurately, "lioness". She clumped around the lab in heavy shoes, and
once when I saw her at a party in a sari of shimmering peacock blue, I
I hardly recognised the dazzling dragonfly she'd become.
The mark worn by Hindu girls in the centre of their foreheads wasn't a
reliable guide to identity because it varied with fashion and fancy. A red
spot was popular, but Hemlata sometimes wore an exclamation mark
instead. Rekha once turned up with a green question mark on her
forehead and told me it was "copper gone rusty" (we'd just been learning
about verdegris). Even my great friend on the staff wore a red spot to a
concert one evening, and she is a Christian from South India.
When the beautiful Madhukanta became engaged, she wore a brown spot.
The others told me it was special and she must wear it until she married. I
never found out why; the question just produced a gale of giggles.
Differing hairstyles provided a clue to identity. Most of my pupils sleeked
their long hair down with coconut oil. But Hemlata (another one) didn't oil
hers. It sprang in soft little tendrils round her face, and she wore her single
thick plait forward over one shoulder. (Plaits, by the way, were tucked into
the neck of their blouses when we used Bunsen burners.)
Many of the Muslims had short hair, which curled abundantly. They were
modern in other ways too. Fatima, who fasted rigorously throughout
Ramadhan, always addressed me by name, the only one to do so. She
found Science a difficult subject and to comfort me once she said, "Miss
Marsh, whatever you do, it is done with all your heart. It is not your fault
that I fail."
Pratibha adopted a unique style, plaiting her hair for half its length and
finishing it with ringlets. As a high caste Hindu, she was not allowed out
unless a friend was with her. If the friend failed to turn up, Pratibha
couldn't come to school. One of her escorts was Zehrabanu Alibhai who
suddenly started giving her surname as Mandani. This caused great
consternation because the forms for the Cambridge examination had
already been submitted.
The school rule was that each girl could use only two of her many names
and all lists were compiled in alphabetical order of first names. This was
easier said than done, for they had a fine Shakespearean attitude to
But I slowly learned to identify them. There were the fair-skinned Parsees
with gorgeous green eyes, Goans so gay and lively ("Good God, Madam"
they'd say, quite as a matter of course), the pretty, merry Arabs, dark-skinned
Tamils, several Africans and one Jugoslav (from the embassy).
How could I ever have thought they looked alike?
At home they spoke Gujarati, Hindu, Punjabi, Urdu and Swahili, yet here
they were studying Physics and Chemistry in English. "Don't let anyone
tell you that you're stupid," I said to them one day, "You're not fools - far
from it." "Oh yes we are Madam" came a voice from the back of the lab!
Their customary face-saving response that they immediately understood a
new point was difficult to overcome. In the end, I learned to ask "Would you like me to go over it again?" There was no shame in answering "yes"
They brought me flowers every day, roses mostly, but occasionally
hibiscus or a garland of sweet-smelling Indian cork flowers. At first I used
to put them in a beaker of water on my demonstration bench. Then they
progressed to the top button-hole of my lab coat, but it wasn't long before I
stopped being so stuffy and put them in my hair as my Indian colleagues
did. "No, no, Madam, this is the way," and deft fingers would rearrange
the roses - and my hairpins.
When my tour of duty was over, each of my classes gave me a party.
"Thank you Madam, for teaching us, and for helping us too," they said. At
one party there was a cake with "Bon Voyage Madam" iced on it. I had to
be fed little pieces of this as a token of lasting friendship.
Madhukanta, who was married by then, wrote to me: "Dear Miss Pretty
Marsh. How is your hazel eyes shinning (sic) so brightly?" She no longer
addressed me as Madam. At this time the Americans were introducing
more up to date ways, and one morning my class chorused "Good
morning Miss Marsh." "Oh please don't change," I thought, "please - call