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Studying Indian Schools

July 23, 2014

Much has been said in recent weeks about the schools in Bangalore, India. One of the private schools came under the public microscope after reports of a 6-year old child being sexually abused by teachers were published in the media.

There were protests, petitions and more asking for justice. People asked for PTAs to be more empowered, CCTVs in all classrooms and many such measures to be implemented.

And people seem to be finally waking up to the fact that there is something extremely rotten in our education system. Forget the syllabus. The functioning of these organizations is extremely flawed.

My parents have been teachers for decades. And I’ve seen plenty of parents come home and pour their woes out to them. I’ve seen students who are fighting with their parents come to my mother for advice. My mother, I am proud to say, is one of the rare teachers who actually listen. She treats the students as human beings, which is actually quite rare in the Indian education system.

Though we proudly say that we like to teach and our Indian education system is among the best, the teachers are not really the best. I’ve sat through boring classes where we were made to read through textbooks, some of which were factually wrong. I was blessed to have parents who encouraged me to think, and some teachers who nourished that as well. But for most part, you were expected to listen in class, take notes, memorize them and pour it out on the exam sheets and score the best possible marks.

Thinking was not particularly encouraged by most teachers.

And then came the breed of private schools who claimed to promote the new, innovative concepts of education like free-thinking, creative process etc. They charged a hefty fee for this process, and then there were hidden charges.

But if you are a parent, you would want the best for your child and you would send them here, no matter what. 

Today, we are forced to ask – how valid are these schools? How qualified are these teachers to actually educate children? 

How many teachers today have chosen the field because they really liked it? Most people I know are there because they couldn’t go anywhere else. I know teachers who suck at teaching or anything related to it but they’ve been awarded ‘Best Teacher’ awards by the government and affiliated bodies.

Today, it is one school under the microscope. They are being pulled up for their fee structure, lack of safety etc. But this is the story with all schools. Who are they accountable to? How educative can they really be? How qualified are their teachers?

If I had a kid, I would not be worried about how fancy the schools is. I would want my kid to have a chance to play in proper fields, get a little mud on the uniform, build crazy things in craft classes that might not be practical but show good vision, to be a part of any number of projects the kid wanted to be in, to be able to play as long they wanted to and yes, learn a little bit about history and science and all those things in a way that would interest them. Personally, I do not give a damn how many awards the school has won or if the kid scores a 96 percent on his / her exams (actually, a 96 percent in normal circumstances would be a little disturbing). 

Perhaps we are to blame for this situation. The rat race that we are all forced to be a part of. The intense competition for higher education, or even basic colleges… where each kid to expected to score no less than a 100. This is what we are building to and these schools promise to deliver. So what if the instructors are masochists, pedophiles or just not suited to the job. They manage to deliver and we are ready to pay through our nose for that. For that 100 percent.

Narendra Modi, Godhra and The Internet

April 28, 2014

Several times in the past week people, including me, have wondered why we keep harping about the 2002 riots. There have been worse riots with death tolls being much higher in the past and a lot of people responsible for this haven’t been brought to justice till date. So why did Narendra Modi win the lucky title of the bad guy.

The answer remains simple. The Internet.

When the 1984 Sikh Riots happened, or the Babri Masjid fiasco, the channels of discussion between people were limited to their neighbours. Sure, we were outraged but we could write “Letters to The Editor” and perhaps one or two would get selected. Nobody could really do anything about it. The media was mostly nationally owned and the foreign correspondents could talk elsewhere.

Internet penetration was quite bad in 2002 as well… but there were more media who could talk about their views. More perspectives for people to hear. 

Fast forward 4 years later, by the time Modi was trying to salvage some things on his end, the social media was taking shape. Internet media had taken root. Blogs were around. A lot more people could add their two cents and these were the most recent riots for reference. At least the most talked about in the India. Sure, there were people dying in Kashmir and in the North-east but the media didn’t talk about it and so we did not.

People made short films. Photographs could be shared on the internet without waiting for verification by a nosy and purist editor. And so they were shared, without verification.

By 2010, when Modi started his PR campaign in earnest, a Google search would pull up the negative stories about him because there were just that many. Till his agency started working towards planting positive stories and wait for the crawlers to do their job, all we knew was of this guy who was responsible for the death of several thousand people. Most of the Facebook-savvy crowd were just being born in 1984 and issues related to those times just were too distant. We would look to the immediate past and there was this guy standing there, big and tall.

It shaped the opinions of a lot of us, who were impressionable at that time. My opinions of Modi and his guilt were shaped by a documentary I watched in college about the Gujarat riots. I went home and tried to read up on it and most of what was available talked about his guilt. The video footage of Modi asking the people what we should do with dissenters made an indelible mark in my mind.

And for the new generation, we wanted answers and accountability, starting somewhere. The somewhere was this one quantitative figure standing in front of us. 

I wonder if Modi would have been so reviled if not for the internet and social media. Or if he would be so loved if not for the internet and the social media. Or if the truth would have been so irrevokably lost if not for the internet. 

Most Indians who are hungry for economic progress have pushed his actions to the back in favor of the promises he brings. The internet makes sure we do not forget Godhra. This post will probably be another one of those floating in the top. But without the access to a blog, I’d have probably scribbled this on a piece of paper, which would be used to wrap the hot bhajjis sold on the street corner. 

There is a long list of people who have remained unanswerable to their mistakes and sins. And perhaps we would have to wait for another decade before we can make any leader accountable for anything, starting with Robert Vadra. Vadra’s sins too would have gone unspoken about if not for the internet, given the amount of influence his wife’s party exerts over certain sections of the media.

Internet. Friend or Foe.

The Delights of A “Non Smart” Phone

April 5, 2014

Being without social networks has its perks. The phone size gets a lot smaller.

The texts are not in a series for you to scroll through it and remind yourself about all the things you were supposed to do and have not done.

You do not get constantly woken up by the sounds of beeps – Text messages, Whatsapp, Facebook messages, Facebook notifications, mails, tweets and whatever else you are subscribed to.

You do not feel compelled to start your day by reaching out to your phone as soon as your eyes are open and scroll through all the messages received, allowing that to set your mood for the day.

Your phone remains silent a lot more. Most people don’t bother calling and prefer messaging, so you might have missed that important meeting notifications. But you didn’t know about it, so you cannot stress about it. Right now.

Logging onto Facebook has a novelty value. You actually go “hmm” on all the posts. You do not get annoyed by photographs and videos of everyone’s kids and might even decide to view one of them when you log on from your computer.

You get distracted a lot less. That is, once you get over the habit of automatically reaching for the phone when your mind goes blank every other minute.

You learn to listen to the voices in your head.

You finally pick up those books you bought in the strong hope of wanting to read them.

You might forget appointments since they are not listed in the calender, but then again, since the alarm didn’t go off, you continue with your peace blissfully (for the short duration at least).

You learn to recognize, if not memorize, more numbers given that your simple phone does not have the capacity to store your 3000 numbers and email IDs and all other relevant details.

You forget about Candy Crush and all those games and learn to enjoy the frustration of a small screen and a silly game.

Most importantly, the phone fits in your pocket, can fall a few times without any worry and even if it does break, all it costs is a couple of grand and a loss of 10 numbers that you probably remember anyway.

The Politics of Language

April 5, 2014

More than a decade ago, when it was proposed that every bus in Karnataka had to have the bus number in Kannada as well, I thought it was ridiculous. Buses are for the public and there are plenty of people in the state who cannot read Kannada. Hell, even people who read Kannada take a minute to decipher the numbers as we are so used to the English numbers. It was then proposed that it be made mandatory for everyone living in Bangalore to learn Kannada. I thought this was a little silly too. Then they said let every kid in school learn Kannada and I merely shrugged. Kids can learn more languages easily and one more language is always good.

But when I heard that Nandan Nilekani, the former chief of Infosys and current Congress candidate from South Bangalore, tried to give an election speech in English and was booed out of the auditorium, I strangely understood.

English is a language I use more than Kannada. I write in English. I talk more in English. Yet, it was somehow blasphemous that a potential political candidate would use English in his speech.

There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, South Bangalore is one of the oldest parts of Bangalore. Though there is a mix of people from other cultures – Tamilians, Telugites etc, Kannada is the predominant language in this reason. Most people know and use this language to interact with neighbours, regardless of what they speak indoors.

Secondly, Kannada has been struggling against the massive influx of other languages. The Kannada pride, as that may be, is much lesser than seen in other languages. We do not insist on parading the language, or insist on being fanatical like some neighbouring states. The dialects in this language are also quite varied. For instance, a person from South Karnataka can barely understand the Kannada spoken in the northern regions of the state, though they are both technically speaking the same language.

The cultural support that exists for the language hurts it more than it would have perhaps if there was none. Most people who are locals shudder at the thought of watching a Kannada movie, particularly in the theater. The film community, in an attempt to ‘safeguard’ the language, have various restrictions that include no dubbing of other movies into Kannada, no taxes for Kannada movies and reserving a certain percentage of movie screens across Bangalore for Kannada movies alone.

Despite these moves, much of the upper middle class rarely watches a Kannada movie in the theatres. The reason? The movies have bad storylines, worse acting, over-the-top sequences and are made by a monopolistic family. New talent in the field has to have the approval of the ‘first family’ of the industry.

Movies increasingly are the one way to sustain and show cultural changes, and Kannada movies seem to be a couple of decades behind. (Okay… slight exaggeration).

For most people in Bangalore, knowing Kannada is an afterthought and not a requirement. The basic respect for the language and the locals is being trampled by stronger outer influences. Which makes the locals quite nervous about their cultural identity, hence antagonistic about these outside influences.

Bangaloreans, by nature, are easy going to the point of laziness.

But this unspoken and subtle threat against the identity is causing a subtle shift in the easy going nature and making way for impatience and frustration. The easygoing nature, as one person said, is often mistaken for stupidity.

Naturally, when the person who is supposed to represent you, thereby your identity, to the nation, tries to speak in an absolute foreign language, you would get booed out. It does not matter if you think that half your audience is made of “other” people. While you do have a responsibility to them, you also hold an equally important responsibility towards the identity of the state, its culture, heritage and language. You cannot completely alienate that by talking about ‘issues’ to a global audience. This is not Infosys, which is an Bangalore-borne Indian company, supported by several identities.

The sheer lack of respect for the locals has been grating for a while. The slight wrinkling of the nose when one talks about “Bangaloreans” or the locals is quite pissing off. The slight pause in conversation when I claim to be a Kannnadiga to someone who is talking about all the ‘modern’ things of clubbing, partying etc. Bangalore would not have been known as the pub city if its residents were truly orthodox. They’ve definitely grown orthodox, perhaps as a reaction to the crazy invasion of other cultures. The invasion of rudeness. The invasion of jugaad. The invasion of ‘it is okay to hit you car and then beat you up’. The invasion of people who think that the locals are slow and stupid because they were polite to you.

I’ve heard often enough that it is easier to get an auto if you speak the local language. That isn’t really true. But yes, sometimes it helps us to establish our ‘localness’ and knowledge of the place and the fact that we aren’t going to bargain for a ride. It helps us to tell the driver to put the meter on and not hop into it agreeing to whatever price is quoted and fight for it later. The autos do overcharge, but they do it because someone brought in the culture of bargaining here. Because someone discounted the price of fair and hard work. I grew up in the city where an auto driver would ferry a woman and her kids home without any extra charge or fuss because it was raining cats and dogs. I grew up in the city where people would stop and help you figure out what was wrong with your vehicle if you were stranded in the middle of the road.

I grew up in a place where the neighours would happily feed your kids if you were late from work. I don’t know when that niceness was interpreted as “stupid”.

Freedom of Speech in India

March 7, 2014

There has been much debate about the subtle curtailing of Freedom of Speech in India. There have been arrests of various reporters and cartoonists for making statements against various political leaders. People have been arrested for posting simple status messages. 

Books about Hinduism have been voluntarily withdrawn by publishers, fearing a backlash. 

The most recent case is about a bunch of Kashmiri students who were booked under sedition for cheering Pakistan during a cricket match. A match that India lost. There have been a lot of tweets against this move, calling this an act against the basic right of freedom of speech. And actually, in general circumstances, I would have been as well. I mean, it is a sport, and they were cheering for the opposing team, so what the hell.

But an India-Pakistan cricket match has never been just sport. While I might not support a sedition case, I am definitely not okay with consciousness behind this. The cricket match between India and Pakistan has always taken on momentous proportions. It is the one chance for the common man to participate in the hate game towards each other. Do we really hate each other? Would we beat up a Pakistani if we encounter him? Or call him names? Perhaps not. But a match between these two countries involves religion and a whole bunch of animosity. 

And when it involves Kashmir – a valued and disputed area, it is a potential landmine. It is no secret that the two nations have been fighting for Kashmir since Bharath was divided in Hindustan and Pakistan. India has always maintained that Kashmir belongs to us, and the people of Jammu & Kashmir are very content to be a part of us. Now, I cannot speak for those people. I’ve never even visited there and all the people I’ve met from the region are people who’ve moved away generations ago. 

So the Kashmiris face additional pressure of always showing whose side they are on – India or Pakistan. They do not have the liberty to even cheer for an opposing team (if that is Pakistan) because that we are constantly fearing that it could show the population’s inclination towards Pakistan. Everyone looks for hidden messages in every statement. Of course, the Pakistani government did not lose any time in taking advantage of the entire situation by inviting the students in study in Pakistan.

Indians have always been passionate about cricket. If you choose to support England or Australia during match against India, you will be subject to a lot of ribbing from the others. But perhaps you will not be stabbed because there are no other connotations to supporting those teams. It does not speak of a conflicting religious affiliation. It cannot be used as a political lever by the powers above. 

A Kashmiri blog said ” I wonder if a boss, who is a Manchester United fan, will fire a Liverpool fan who is his employee just because MU lost the game against Liverpool. This is hilariously absurd.”

It would be absurd, if one did not take into account the other sentiments behind India and Pakistan. If you were living in England, your boss might not fire you but he would definitely make your life a little harder for a while. When Australia lost to Italy in the Football World Cup a few years ago, the Italians walked around proudly, but very cautiously. They did not want to particularly tell anyone they were Italian till the Australians regained their good-humored sporting nature. 

I wonder if the author of the blog has ever been to a pub in Europe when a football match is on. The scene can get quite crazy. Rivarly between sporting teams has always been around, and all politics and religion into that and it is a definite receipe for disaster.

But the blog very clearly lists why this match and the following reactions are so important. Supporting Pakistan has always been Kashmir’s way of showing rebellion against India. True, they would rather not be a part of either nation and would exist as an independent little country. But what do they really want? If the elections of 2008 were any indication, they would rather be a part of India.

If the riots of 2010 were any indication, they would rather be independent. I really have no authority to comment on this subject. Kashmiri Pandits I’ve met mourn the loss of their state and talk about childhood days in Kashmir. Kashmiri Muslims I’ve met talk about the harassment by armed forces. But both have a common sentiment – the destruction of this land over territorial fights.

Freedom, Religion & Literature in India

February 24, 2014

The past few weeks have seen a quiet storm build up. In the eye of the storm is Penguin India and Wendy Doniger’s “Hinduism: An Alternative History” and a bunch of offended religious sentiment people.

Penguin India announced a couple of weeks ago that they would be withdrawing and pulping (an innocent term for destroying) all copies of the book. There was no court order banning the book but there was a case filed against it in 2010 by Shiksha Bachao Andolan.

I had not heard about the book and perhaps would have continued in ignorance if not for this announcement by the publisher. 

The argument of the petitioner was the book hurt religious sentiments, had wrong facts and thereby would case “fear and alarm among that their religion and religious beliefs are not safe any more and can be trampled with and denigrated, distorted & insulted and hence  you have intended to induce and incite them to commit offences against the State and against Public Tranquility.”

This is not the first time a book has been banned due to these reasons. But there always was a court order behind such bans and withdrawals. I am looking for Penguin’s reasoning behind the withdrawal but can’t seem to find any. But there definitely is not a court order behind this move. 

The lack of clear reasoning makes this act more scary than a court order. The move seems to be another in a growing list of things that are going against the Freedom of Speech and Expression in India. From being arrested for innocent tweets and Facebook status messages to creating cartoons on figureheads, the mantra of intolerance seems to be on the rise in India.

What seemed to be funny articles have suddenly acquired a darker meaning. Kochi – the state that was all about the proletariat suddenly announced they were seizing all t-shirts and other things with Bob Marley’s photographs on them. Why? Because Bob Marley apparently promotes weed.

Goa – the party destination of India and Gokarna, the alternate refuge for hippies, have more complaints about police raids and harassment. Cops claim that this is done to ensure the safety of the tourists, given the rise in number of rapes and murders. Hashish / Charas / Ganja – the drug of our gods have suddenly taken a more sinister meaning.

Is there a reason behind this intolerance in the country? Is the story of Wendy Doniger and Penguin just a wake up call that most of us will not heed?

**

In researching the story about Doniger and Penguin, I visited the website of the petitioner - Shiksha Bachao Andolan. 

Their description was as follows (though in Hindi) - Important role of education in national reconstruction is the goal . The overall development of the personality of the nation’s citizenry is the key role of education in any country . Education structure , curriculum – curriculum qualitatively , access and conform to the culture of the country , there has been public discussion on issues of education . Despite being the largest component of student academic world on various aspects of education debate has been kept away from him . Education for the nation re-building seminar on the role of students in an innovative effort being through education, culture, regeneration trust . This seminar is for pupils and students for students .

I came across another article on NDTV at the same time, which talked about factual errors in government-prescribed textbooks of school children. You can read the story here.

Impressionable children are being allowed to read wrong facts about Indian history. Facts and figures. Straight forward dates. And there are organizations which are worried about adults reading an interpretation of myth, religion and religious texts. Interpretations and analysis from which they are allowed to draw their own conclusion. 

I wonder if Wendy Doniger had  been an Indian, would there have been a similar riot? Foreigners are increasingly  been given the stink eye in India. Ask any foreign correspondent who has been working in Delhi in the past couple of years. 

Paranoia or truth?

February 24, 2014

You wake up to the smell of summer in the air. But instead of that warm glow it used to bring, now it reminds you of those carefree days of summer. That hint of summer in the air meant the end of exams or almost and two whole months of absolute freedom ahead.

You wonder when life began to get so complicated, when your dreams got so big that you’d wonder if you can achieve them or not. You pick up your cellphone, loaded with notifications and instead of the glee, you think of an article which said you should not look at your cellphone the first thing in the morning.

Little pings of the cellphones mean more work stuff rather than friends with something silly. In fact, something silly begins to annoy you because that means the extra effort of opening the phone again and wasting precious time. 

You start the morning with a smoke and a bowl of fruit, as your concession to health. 

You pause midway, looking at the fork in one hand and the phone in the other with the latest news and you wonder – when the hell did I grow so old!

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