On a Sunday afternoon in Mumbai, Shemal Gandhi sat on a bench meant for a 13-year-old with a textbook on his lap and his head in his hands. He flipped the book open to the tenth section and read silently to himself about what a fictional Rahul Mehta had got up to in China.
After an office meeting, Mr Mehta went to his hotel in Huangzhou, the capital of the Zhejiang province in eastern China. He switched on the TV to watch the news but it was not working. Mrs. Mehta called the reception to get it fixed.
Next, Gandhi read snippets of conversation aloud, but not so loud as to disturb the other students in the classroom, who were all engaged in self study.
“Wèi?” he said—a Mandarin telephone greeting, attributed to the hotel receptionist in the textbook. Gandhi then replied with Mrs Mehta’s lines, speaking slowly as he attempted to get the accent and intonation right. “Wèi? Nǐhǎo! Wǒfángjiān de diànshìjīhuàile”—hello, the TV in my room is broken.
Twenty-four-year-old Gandhi, a diamond trader, was in classroom 9A of the St Stanislaus High School in Bandra with eight other lawyers, engineers and IT entrepreneurs, all learning to speak Mandarin. Their guides in their textbook were Rahul and Pooja Mehta, a fictional Gujarati couple, who took them through China as they visited silk factories, dined with clients and struck deals.