Gap years in India: discover a land of wondrous variety

From the slums of Delhi to the Himalayan foothills, India has a world to offer the young gapper, writes Tim Walker

The colour has drained from Jennifer's face. In fact, she looks positively terrified. She's 18, and this is the first time she's been away from home without her parents. She and two other volunteers with their A-levels close behind them, Carina and Georgie, arrived in Delhi two days ago and are about to meet the children whom they'll be teaching for the next month. But before that, they have to make their first walk through the slum - known politely as a resettlement community.

The Rathanjali School is behind a warren of earth and concrete alleys populated by some of Delhi's poorest inhabitants, their sacred cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and the rest. The open sewers are the worst part; it's the height of summer and the stench is almost overwhelming. But it's all part of the shock of poverty. Tomorrow will be easier, and the next day easier still.

The pupils at the school are the children of migrant workers; they speak local dialects that aren't necessarily Hindi, the official language of India. They certainly don't speak anything but the most rudimentary English. In her first lesson to the eldest of the three groups aged six to 14, Carina tries to teach the children about gender: "Repeat after me: I am a girl. He is a boy." In a month's time, everyone here (including Jennifer, Carina and Georgie) will have learnt something, even if not much of it is English. And Jennifer, I expect, won't be quite so terrified.

The girls are in Delhi under the auspices of GapGuru, the India gap year specialists, who organise volunteer projects with NGOs like Rathanjali; conservation programmes; paid work placements and adventurous travel options. GapGuru also organise homestays with local families, to ensure the young Brits get a proper Indian welcome and a decent meal every night after they return from work, be it at the children's publishing house in Delhi, or the crocodile conservation centre in Chennai.

Education is the last thing on the minds of most slum dwellers, who often need their children to be breadwinners, too. Not only does the Rathanjali school have to go out and find its own pupils, but the staff also have to drum up their students each and every morning. The school is not only for the children, but for the whole community: it provides an early morning gym for local boys, training in tailoring and beauty treatment for women; night school for boys who work as coolies during the day; even self-defence classes. A doctor comes once a month to distribute medicines, vitamins, give checkups and advice on personal hygiene and cleanliness. Rathanjali, now in its fourth year, is one of many such institutions run by NGOs in urban India, all, apparently, by upper middle class women of a certain age - one of whom is the formidable Mrs Susma Tyagi, headmistress of Rathanjali. She is adamant that the school must also teach the community morality and values, sex education and a kind of citizenship.

The Katha organisation has its own schools, more welcome oases in the Delhi slums, reaching out to 7,000 underprivileged children across the sprawling capital. The pupils at the main Katha school are given opportunities that many British schoolchildren would envy - a school newspaper; an impressively-equipped music room and recording studio; even filmmaking equipment. Katha ("story" in English) bases its educational approach on storytelling and also runs a publishing house, research and resource centre for children's books and local writers - translating stories into English and Hindi from 21 regional Indian languages. Here, gappers can take up an internship to become proofreaders, copywriters and researchers, even doing some creative writing of their own.

The Prayatn Charity, based in the slums of East Delhi, has a school, a medical centre and daycare centres for the elderly. The charity provides rape and domestic violence counselling for women, working with the police and the local university to apprise the victims of their legal rights. They can call Prayatn or the police if such violence occurs, and have it sorted out. A brave second-year medical student from the UK is set to arrive this month through GapGuru to work with Prayatn's mobile medical unit, treating those who have little or no access to hospital care.

GapGuru has links with more specialist institutions, too, like Action For Autism (AFA), an organisation responsible for various autism-related activities, including a school for students aged from two to 27. Autism is still a little understood condition in India and only recently became an officially recognised disability. It remains extremely difficult to quantify the extent of an autistic child's illness. It's a challenging prospect for a green gapper, but one game girl named Anjali recently spent a month helping with an AFA summer camp. Another gapper, David, found his niche in the workshop where the older, more responsive children work on skills such as painting and the loom. They have produced bags, purses, prints and greeting cards.

GapGuru's projects generally last one month, though some gappers end up staying for six. Others find India's wondrous variety too tempting and end up joining more than one project. Imma Ramos won GapGuru's new annual essay competition earlier this year, which allowed her to pick six months' worth of projects and adventure. She can look forward to teaching in schools like Rathanjali; working as an intern in the Katha publishing house; as a journalist in Cochin in south India and more; before indulging her interest in art history in preparation for her degree. Laurence Sharifi, taking a summer break from his neuroscience degree, spent a month working with the Doorstep school and reference library for underprivileged children in the city of Pune, before moving to Delhi for a month to gain work experience in a top hospital. He's also found the time to spend long weekends in Goa, Mumbai and Agra.

India is the land of a thousand travel opportunities, and any gapper who spends time in Delhi will inevitably take the train to nearby Agra, where the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri await. But GapGuru offer more extensive travel options, too, like a jungle tiger safari, whitewater rafting, or a Himalayan trek through the mountains of Ladakh. This is close to the borders with China and Pakistan, and home to countless Tibetan refugees, who have brought the Buddhist culture with them.

The gappers have the odd inevitable quibble. Carina, Georgie and Jennifer found their host's concept of British-style food a tad eccentric, especially on the night she served them four carbohydrates (potatoes, pasta, rice and bread) on the same plate. With ketchup. Laurence Sharifi, after moving from his plush pad in Pune to Delhi, found his new homestay a little further from the medical project than advertised. But for the most part the GapGuru infrastructure means these things can be sorted - with a quick culinary chat to the hostess, or a daily lift from a friendly doctor.

GapGuru's staff on the ground in India are numerous. There are the representatives who welcome new gappers and get them settled in, like Supriya Dogra in Delhi or Suvarna Dalvi in Pune. There's Nathan Steele, who travels the subcontinent organising and maintaining GapGuru's links to the various NGOs and projects and who, seven years after his own gap year to India, is now a permanent resident of Calcutta. And there's Vimal Kampani, who calls himself GapGuru's troubleshooter in Delhi. A former vice president of Dunlop ("32 years, 16 promotions; a great British company!"), and now avid golfer, Kampani tells the story of how one scatterbrained gapper managed to get himself arrested trying to leave the country two days after his visa ran out. Kampani, a member of the prestigious Delhi Golf Club - membership waiting time: 32 years - played a couple of rounds with the Home Secretary and the Police Commissioner, and the unfortunate boy's problems were miraculously solved. Kampani and the other GapGuru representatives in India are there not only to organise the gappers' projects and homestays, but to rescue them from the scrapes that every parent has nightmares about when they say their goodbyes at Heathrow.

The concept of a gap year, of taking a year away from either study or work, is anathema to most Indians. But they are fond of many of the things British culture has left behind - dress codes, golf, mutton cutlets (of which Vimal Kampani sings the praises), gin and tonic - just as Britain has much to thank India for besides chicken tikka masala. It's a country that encompasses myriad worlds, from the cable-TV comfort of a middle class homestay, to the admirable slum schools of Delhi and Mumbai, to the foothills of the high Himalaya; a month, six months, even a year in the subcontinent will give a young gapper a lesson in what lies outside their comfort zone.

A passage to India - the options

The writer travelled to India with GapGuru. Here are some of the options the company offers.

Teach underprivileged children in Delhi, Cochin, Pune, Calcutta or Bangalore.

Coach sports in Pune and Calcutta, or teach salsa in Delhi and drama in Chennai

Become a medical intern in Delhi, Pune or Bangalore

Be an editorial assistant in Delhi, or a newspaper reporter in Cochin

Conserve crocodiles in Chennai

And take an adventure journey, too: trek the Himalayas, seek out tigers in the jungle or sun yourself on the beach in Goa.

For more information, visit www.gapguru.com

For more gap years in India, try:

Africa and Asia Venture

www.aventure.co.uk

Link Overseas Exchange

www.linkoverseas.org.uk

Mondo Challenge

www.mondochallenge.org

Students Partnership Worldwide

www.spw.org

Timeless Excursions

www.gapyearinindia.com

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