Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ambition, Injection, Multiplication: Anecdotes from a Jaitpura School

Here's another report from Gandhi Fellow Kabir Arora on his experience in a village school in Jaitpura.
Life in the school was never boring. Every day there was a story to share back at home.
A story which can inspire for the next day. Sometimes the day in school was awesome,
many a times conflicting. All form a part of anecdotes. Stories…

When I was a child my aim in life was to become a cricketer.  I later on decided to be a musician. Ended up here. One day the class was very chaotic, no one was taking interest in mathematics. I was looking for an opportunity to strike a chord. I just gave that idea a try. I asked them about their ambitions in life.  

Hansu Ram wanted to become a police inspector, Kishore followed the same line; Naveen said his aim is to become a “goonda”. I asked the reason, answer was same: Police man and Goondas hit and kill people. I was shocked. For few minutes lost, was not even able to respond. Just ran away from the class. “What is our society offering? Violence! Where are we going?” These were the few questions which were going on in my mind. For most part of the day, I was confused. Constant self questioning and peer discussion lead to an answer--show them a different picture of livelihoods and professions. I shared some of the ideas in class, but left them with a blank picture. Actually needed more time. Opportunity is still lost for me but not for my colleagues.

I once asked Pawan about his ambition. He told me he wants to become a doctor. I was
amazed to hear the response. “At least someone wants to serve the society”. But why to be a doctor out of all? His answer--because doctors give injections.

Once I was distributing worksheets and sharpened pencils. Pawan got a very sharp pencil. Kiran was solving her worksheet in a camel-like position in front of him. Mischievous ideas are always going on in Pawan’s mind. He almost reached Kiran’s butt to give her an injection with his sharpened pencil. In second, I just dragged him. After seeing his idea in work, I got angry, but later on laughed a lot on the episode. The shadow of ambition in naughty tasks.
No answer
As mentioned Pawan is very mischievous. I see myself in him. Kids in 2nd standard complained to me about Pawan’s stealing habit. He used to take out pencils, eraser or sharpener from the bag of his classmates without their permission. If questioned about the articles, he claimed them as of his own. For a while I just ignored it.

One day I saw him stealing in front of my eyes. I love him, felt hurt to see his act. Unconsciously gave him a slap for which apologized later. My reaction was so abrupt. I should have thought before responding. There can be hundreds of reasons behind it, but “slap or anger” is not the answer. I should have placed myself on his place. Feeling guilty!

If a multiplication sum given to us with figures like four multiplied by seven. In seconds our response will be twenty eight. How did we conclude? What were the processes? We all take it for granted. But this experience gave me a chance to see that process happening on paper. I gave worksheets of 4’s table to the students of 3rd class. They know it by heart, but no idea of its usage. So to give them an idea, question was framed with a daily life example-“How many feet do a camel have?” Answer by kids, “Four”. “So what will be the number of eight camels’ feet?” The kids drew four lines and then made a circle around it. By the same method they made eight circles. When this is done, they counted the number of lines and answered Thirty two.
Let’s run together
As I had told students of 2nd & 3rd standard for mathematics class. In 2nd standard, the number was small still girls rarely talked to boys, vice versa. They were very hesitant. To break this communication gap, I decided to divide them in three groups (that day only six kids were present-each group had one girl and one boy. They were told to hold each other’s hand and run together. Tried this three-four times. The dam of hesitation got blasted. Reflecting on the exercise helped them to know more about each other. Now they swim together and sink together. One has to see the unity of the class. There are petty differences but they are proud to be together. Whenever student of other class tried to infiltrate, they are together to send him/her back.

“Apna Desh Mahan Hai…”
On second or third day of my experience in Jaitpura, while going to school, I was reading Arundhati Roy’s essay. I was emotionally high. At one point, my mind just stated “I don’t sing India any more”. With the same emotion, I entered the class. Everyone was in a mood to sing a rhyme. I had none with me, so requested them to choose any one from their book. They chose “Apna Desh Mahan Hai…” (Our country is great). I was taken aback. Frustrated with faulty –demonized democracy, I saw a light of hope in their eyes to make the country great.

For more of Kabir's experiences, see:
If I were my own teacher: confidence, colour and voices
Steep Climb 

Tourist Guide 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Karva Chauth Cosmetics Special

Today, millions of hungry and thirsty women--and a few men as well--are eagerly awaiting moonrise. For many, of course, Karva Chauth is just about love. But there is no denying that this festival has increasingly become a commercial extravaganza--a sort of Desi Valentine's Day for married people.  That is only one of the reasons that many of my friends object to Karva Chauth; in addition to being over-commercialized, they say, it is part of a larger anti-women, Hindutva agenda, and fasting on that day is just wrong. Of course many of my friends feel this complaint is silly--Karva Chauth all about faith, tradition, love, healthy husbands and female companionship.  Me, I keep my mouth shut. And whether or not Mrs. Batti or I choose to fast today, we'll keep a low profile and try not to lend support to any evil causes!

Anyway, as I was walking through the market last night, I saw dozens of women waiting in line for mehndi, and it made me think this would be a great time to run something on cosmetics.  Not that  mehndi is bad; far from it.  The problem with mehndi is that most of the profits from it's application go to small time mehndi wallas, and that leaves out the giant corporations! Right now, these companies are probably working on a plan to cash in on this golden opportunity.

Along those lines, Fair and Lovely has come out with a product called "Fair and Lovely Ayurveda;" they are trying to sell us a 'natural' version of their product based on thousands of years of knowledge.  You can see their trailer here:

Sorry, but I say the story line is all wrong. Why do we have to be fair to be lovely?  And do you really trust what goes in that tube?  Sorry, those graphics are nice, but I'm not buying!

Where will it end?  Well, Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff project offers a few clues, and it's not a pretty sight.  Here's her latest: "The Story of Cosmetics."

That's all for today. And here's hoping for an early moonrise!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tourist Guide: Gandhi Fellow Kabir Arora takes a trip to the pink city

In this report, Kabir Arora leaves the village for a weekend and goes to the pink city.  Returning, he reflects on the power of imagination.

Tourist Guide
The journeys are always tempting. For me it always has been a rejuvenating experience. I visited Jaipur during the third weekend of my stay in the Jaitpura. First proper visit to the pink city. I visited all the touristy sites, which I used to explore in my childhood by flight of imagination. 

I thought my students need the same stimulation factor. Bought a guide book which had beautiful pictures of different parts of Rajasthan. Next day (Monday), class started with the session on reflection. Sharing what all we did on Sunday. Many of them visited Gudha on Sunday. The only places known to them are Jhunjhunun, Udaipurvati, Jaitpura and Gudha. I shared my experiences of Jaipur- an alien city. I showed them the photographs of places having historical importance which I visited. They were amused to see the big city. 

After looking at the photographs they used to turn their faces towards me, a question mark on their head. I used to tell them about their location, importance etc. Curiosity created. Mukesh commented on the photograph of Jaipur market “Jaipur maan kitne log”. In my imagination, I visited Jaipur with them again. Pink city is not that pink, but the cheeks of my kids were pink with glow after the round of the capital.
For more on Kabir's experience, see also:
If I were my own teacher: confidence, colour and voices
Steep Climb

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Invterview with Children's Author Subhadra Sen Gupta

On October 2nd, we suggested one way you to celebrate Gandhiji's birthday would be to give a copy of Subhadra Sen Gupta's book, Mahatma Gandhi, to a child you know. You can read more about that book--including an excerpt that looks at Gandhi's green politics, among other things--here

I thought it would be fun to follow up that piece with an interview with the author.  Subhadra Sen Gupta has written dozens of books over the years, for both children and adults.  My kids are big fans, having read several of her books, including Double Click and the graphic novel version of the Feluda Mysteries that she worked on with artist Tapas Guha. Here, we talk to her about textbooks, history, and the continuing relevance Gandhi has for children and environmentalists today. 

It would be safe to say that Gandhiji was an enormously complex man--your book's website calls him "the most unusual leader this country has seen." What is it that continues to make him relevant--and, in some quarters, controversial--even today?  In other words, why did you write this book, when there have been so many books about him already?
I wanted to do a book that was about a remarkable human being. If you read the biographies of Bapu done for children they have this icky holy, holy voice and turn him into a saint and he was never one. He did not even like being called Mahatma you know. 

Also no one talks about the things that interest kids - his false teeth, eccentric diet, wet-towel-over-bald-head image. I was sort of trying to fathom why people loved him so much, he could charm anyone.

He was never a sanctimonious man and I wanted to collect all the funny things he said. And most importantly he used his humour to show us we did not have to feel inferior to anyone. A visit to the Buckingham Palace? Okay let's go in my dhoti-chaddar fashion ensemble. I wish I could have seen the king's face :-)

Every child in India already studies Gandhiji in school.  What makes your book different from the textbooks we already have?
This book is about the Bapu we are forgetting - courageous, complex, shrewd, funny, and a man who was always ready to admit a mistake. Textbooks talk down to kids and are consciously moralising. I am just telling them about a superhero in chappals. 

What kind of reading and/or research did you do in writing this book? What I always do with my history writing for kids. Read the adult books, big fat ones - here it was the biographies by Louis Fischer, BR Nanda and Judith Brown. Also the history books on the freedom movement. 

Then I tell the story in a way that kids will enjoy. Sort of seduce them into reading history. So they are full of trivia and weird and revealing facts. 

Many children (my own included) dislike history because they associate it with a twice yearly ritual of mugging up dates and names of people that seem irrelevant to their lives so that they can pass exams. Certainly, we want all children to have some common understandings of history and civics.  But is there another way?
Of course there is. The problem is that the stupidly long curriculum is set by university professors who have long forgotten what it was like to be 12 years old. 

My head is buzzing with ideas but then no one will let a writer like me do anything. You need a Phd and no sense of humour to qualify. Kids who are lucky to get a good history teacher learn to love the subject. That is why I do these books.

You've said that in many ways Gandhi was an environmentalist. What
lessons might modern greens learn from his life and teachings?
He was saying pretty much the same things as environmentalists today but what is remarkable is that he was saying it nearly a century ago.
For more about the author, go here.
To read more Green Light Interviews, check out our Voices page.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day Water Special

Today is Blog Action Day.  I confess I have mixed feelings about symbolic actions like this. I don't really think blogging will ever change the world--a pretty funny sounding thing, coming from the proprietor of something that looks a lot like a blog. I'm not going to explain that now, but if you are interested in an interesting perspective on the limits of symbolic actions, here's a good place to start.

Still, I guess a little 'blog action' can't hurt, and since this is an environmental dhaba, and the subject of Blog Action Day is water, I didn't feel I could ignore it completely.  I thought I'd run an extensive piece about water I've been working on for a while, but that's just not ready.  Instead, I'm just going run links to the best posts we've done on water in the past year. This is good stuff; do check it out!

Failing Infrastructure + Falling Water Tables=Dry Days Ahead--There's more to worry about than we sometimes think.

Photo Essay: Delhi's Nallahs--What do Delhi drains look like?  What is wonderful, and what is not about them? What to do?
Delhi Water Woes: Is this the best way?--We are laying new pipes.  But who is paying the price?

Trouble on the Yamuna: The hidden costs of unauthorized construction.--Corruption and pollution are closely related on the banks of this river!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Steep Climb: another report from a Jaitpura school

You can always tell those teachers who have taught the same lessons the same way for many years, paying no head to the changing needs of the children before them, and  in spite of their own inevitable boredom. It's frustrating, but you almost can't blame them, considering the number of times they've been reminded of how important it is to cover the entire syllabus. No teacher is perfect, but I've always thought the best ones were the ones who never stopped learning and thinking themselves. 

In this report, Gandhi Fellow Kabir Arora reflects on figurative and literal barriers he's encountered so far; successes and mistakes made along the way; why teachers need idealism, and more.

Steep Climb!
Before coming here, I was a part of many times bold, sometimes conservative society of Delhi (3 years) and open minded Jalandharis (18 years). “Life in the small town by the river (hill in my spatial context) where everyone wants to live with the Gods” was a big challenge for me. From my clothes to the conversation skills, everything can force people to stare at me. Not an attention seeker especially because of clothes, voice etc. Blank eyes looking at me! No idea in mind-which can help me to deal with the situation. Later on, got used to it. “Now I know how every woman feels when she walks down the road, I empathize with them completely”.

There was a language barrier between me and kids, residents of the village. Overcame it, Marwari is the sister language of Punjabi,  so I used the Punjabi mind in the class and outside. It worked. Kids responded more to my Punjabi than Hindi. Feeling proud of my Punjabi heritage which helped me to connect.

The toughest thing was to do passive observation in the class; either kids get scared or they’ll get too much excited to talk to new person.  During later days did some assessment of behavior by being present in the class but absent from kids minds.

Silence is indeed needed to start something new in the class. I was totally confused and was trying to find some way so that the energy level of kids doesn’t go down, but they are silent when something is taught. This conflict in mind went on for a week and half. Left for Delhi, met a friend who is also a teacher. We had a long conversation over the pedagogy and ways to make our class interesting. He suggested me an exercise which helped me in creating space of new concepts. Discipline exercise was a big hit-I experimented first with 2nd as the number was less than with third. The idea was to show a physical gesture (like a clap or raising the hand), kids have to respond to it by sitting straight and silent. This gave me time and space which was needed for learning process. Concept of Addition was introduced in 2nd standard, multiplication exercise to give clarity of tables in 3rd standard with the help of this exercise.

Bonding knows no boundaries-Why are we different from other teachers?
For me every day was a new day-new beginning. I used to get up very early and see the old night mingling with the new dawn, earth meeting the sky at horizon. Horizon inspired me! It helped me in moving closer to the kids.

Once I unconsciously slapped Hansu Ram, as I was physically and mentally very tired that day. It was not frustration which came out but just a reaction to something which is very minute. I felt guilty. Embarrassed! Hansu somewhere sensed it, came forward and we got together again. After that he just sank deep in my heart-A new beginning! This can happen only with kids, we adults are so ignorant and egoistic. If some one of my age was there, he would have scrapped all the ties.

Kids accepted the way I am. Expectations were high from their side too. I accepted them the way they are. It opened the gates for exchange of thoughts on family, background and society at large. When I was hurt, they used to feel as if a nail was pushed in their heart. Their faces used to go down. In that environment, I used to put my feet in their shoes. When any teacher used to hit them, fear of the teacher pushed me in deep frozen oceans. I used to question my silence at that very moment. I felt as I’m a part of their small world.

Many of them were slow learners-but I never felt frustrated about it. But if I go three four years back, I used to get irritated when my younger brother was not able to solve his math’s problems. I’m surprised by this transformation, not too sure about the reason. They struggled to reach the destination. Their struggle not destination became important to me. Every morning I used to get ready with that struggle in my mind.

On my way to school I used to have a glimpse of high hills. For me hills and mountains were sages lost deep in meditation, the clouds around them tried to wake them up. Kids who are living under the shadow of the same hills
Students in the shadow of distant hill
always gave me a sense of satisfaction. Their journey is similar to the vastness of hills, which absorb all the ignorance of mankind and still keep meditating.

I used to look at the hills. They are so high and huge. My kids are so small but still they will reach the top with their humble background. 

Am I becoming an idealist? Yes! What is bad in idealism? This is what a teacher needs in bulk. Envisioning a perfect society. Kids are too young to think about this as my group members used to say. But can this be added to their thought-process. I don’t want to make them serious, but they are already somewhere. They feel the pain of injustice. They feel guilty when something wrong has happened. Their lips loose the movement but their eyes say so many things. I saw that in their eyes. 
For more on Kabir's experience, see also:
If I were my own teacher: confidence, colour and voices

And if you are new to the Dhaba, why not grab a free feed or follow us? Or enter your email in the form above for a free email subscription.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Green Poetry by Salil Chaturvedi


I take the cool water
out of the machine
and the cheese and the fruit
and the bread,
all these I take out of the machine
which has been keeping
them safe for me,
running quietly
on electricity that has
been entering my home
also quietly,
having been tapped from dams
that have large catchment areas
under which lie a cache of mud huts
dissolving quietly.

A River Until Smile

A river until smile
that’s dazzling until feather
flying crazy loops giddy
swimming deep being a bubble
hopping pretty flowers freaky
tickly raindrops on our traces
floating clouds until valley
tender sighs popping faces
twisty winds until giggly
dancing light liquid bodies
inside out until shiver

That Magnesium

That magnesium lies
at the very centre
where chloroplasts accumulate
and photosynthesis takes place
where poems are written
and symphonies composed
where people love and
murder each other
where dancers perform
and mothers bring up their children.

At the very centre
where the magnesium pulsates,
trees grow, birds fly,
tigers hunt, the moon shines and
deer come to take a drink.

That magnesium is what people mine
when they kiss,
and they kiss deeply
to get to the purest ore.

That magnesium is where the Dalai goes
when he closes his eyes,
where all questions bury themselves.
That magnesium blinds you,
because once you’ve seen it
you cannot see anything else.
That magnesium glows
at the very centre
of a story,
of a song,
of a life.

The Grave of Two Friends 

It’s an awfully
large tombstone
for a tree so small,
and the little bird’s call,
so big,
this mall.


I went into a forest,
in and in
and in
Where did
the soil end,
                             and the tree begin?
Where did
the tree end,
 and the bird begin?
                   Where did
the bird end,
and the sky begin?
I went into a forest,
I went in and in
and in.

Five Metallic Fingernails

Five metallic fingernails
A hollow palm full of mud
Shining steely ligaments
Caterpillar tracks skid and run
To bright yellow baby trucks
To open mouths, a meal of soil
Shining gold of setting sun
Ghetto kids cheer the toil
A mullah’s far away azaan
Wagtails on the sliced edge
A deep hole in the earth is pounded
Something’s lost when something’s founded.

These Trees

These trees,
these tall exclamation marks!
sprouting from the brown pages of the earth,
branching into lignin coated sentences.
Sometimes letting fall
commas of leaves,
em dashes of twigs,
full stops of berries,
and asterisks of flowers.
One of these days
I’ll ask the butterflies –
The close readers of this fine,
Oh-so-fine print.

Salil Chaturvedi is a wonderer and a wanderer. He blogs at saliloquy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

If I were my own teacher: confidence, colour, and voices

Today, we are pleased to run another report from Gandhi Fellow Kabir Arora on his experience in a Jaitpura school. I think Kabir would agree that ideas are like plants; they can be transplanted or spread through seeds to many minds,  but just like plants, they will look a bit different depending on the soil in which they grow, and the care they are given. 

In other words, learning is not mimicry, and minds are not empty cups or blank slates. At root, all learning is a creative process, and all of us are ultimately responsible for tending our own minds and the ideas that grow there.  Because of this, learning requires the participation of the learner as well as the teacher; without this, it just won't happen. Good learners figure this out.  They understand that what goes on in their minds matters.  Without this understanding and the confidence that follows from it, rote memorization really won't take you very far. Learning your tables isn't much good if you don't understand why you'd want to multiply.

In this installment of his report from Jaitpura, Kabir Arora spells out some of what this means on the ground. 
Confidence, colour, pride, voice...these are much more than nice-sounding words; they are what make real learning and thinking possible.  They are not the icing on the cake or even the cake--they are the main course.

Colourful articulation...

“If I were my teacher, mathematics would have been fun to mess up with!”

Learned how to unlearn! Key insight to move further in life. Children have lot to teach to our modern world filled with violence and hate. Their innocence can help in building “One world”, curiosity to prepare a base for rational society and scientific development.

Realized: “If I were my teacher, mathematics would have been fun to mess up with!”

Every child has a whole world inside filled with imagination which needs to be articulated. If done so, can help in making the class interesting. One way of sharing the ideas is using one’s voice, but colours make it beautiful.

We always make our copies and books colorful. I tried blank white walls of my own classroom for colourful articulation. Grids, butterflies, elephants, birds’ etc. part of their imaginary world were out on the wall. That gave them a confidence. A feeling of pride! Satisfied with their art work, they want to share what they know.

Our education system is saturated, no space to absorb, and consequently tiny voices remain unheard and die out. Words like “Dungar”, “Chirdkali”, “Choosa”, “Mand de”, “Chhant” don’t find space in their books. The state says “Marwari” is a dialect of Hindi, though linguist don’t agree.

In traditional system most of us desire for a silent class, but my own experience forces me to
Fearless minds.
disagree with the notion. The class is chaotic when students get an opportunity to share what they know; this helps them in learning something new and relating it to their own life. Silence in the class is observed on the occasions when the environment is full of fear, students know nothing or they are not able to relate it to their own reality. On my part I always tried to provide them an environment “Where the mind is without fear”, pen enough to absorb their thoughts.

To begin with I learned how to move as “I”. The induction unlocked the long dead memories of my own childhood; I used to think the hard drive of brain has been formatted when it comes to childhood. I was wrong, sweet memories are still living in the subconscious mind.

Not an attention seeker (though sometimes love it), I make myself invisible many a times. In the classroom, doing this was tough initially, later on I tried it again; kids amused me with their team spirit (in my superficial absence) which we miss in our surroundings. For the first time in my life I felt attached to some external force. Trying to find my own self in sward world, solitude is something which I have started longing for; Loneliness gives me a sense of freshness. Aimless traveling, pointless.
For more on Kabir's experience, see also:
A Gandhi Fellow in Jaitpura: Introducing the School

And if you are new to the Dhaba, why not grab a free feed or follow us? Or enter your email in the form above for a free email subscription.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Delhi Bluelines: In praise of old buses

There's a lot not to like about Blueline buses, but this week the government is picking on them for all the wrong reasons

One night in mid-September, Mrs. Batti and I emerged from the Habitat Centre and started walking toward the Jor Bagh Metro station.  After a few minutes it began to rain lightly, and we realized we'd forgotten our umbrella.  When a Blueline bus came lumbering up the road, we flagged it down.

Mrs. Batti does not care much for Blueline buses--they are frequently crowded and in the late evening hours, men often outnumber women by as much as  40 to 1. Still, that night was very nearly perfect: the conductor smiled and gave us his seat; the bus made good time; and combination of old Bollywood tunes blaring inside--and rain sparkled streets outside--was nothing short of magical. By the time we got down and began the 10 minute walk home to our flat, we really didn't mind getting drenched.

You won't find a Blueline lumbering up that road this week or next--the Delhi government does not deem them to be worthy of our new 'world class' image, so they've banned them from coming anywhere near Commonwealth Games venues. The government says they've put plenty of new DTC buses on the road, but the newspapers report the waits at Delhi bus stops are longer this week, and I believe them; on Friday at 8:15pm, I waited nearly 30 minutes for a 419--unusual for that route and time on the BRT--and when it arrived, it was almost impossible to squeeze on, and harder still to exit. What happens after the CWG is anyone's guess, but my bet is that the days of Bluelines in central and south Delhi are numbered.  And I've got to say that a small part of me is going to miss them. 

The great thing about Bluelines--in addition to their unique character--has been that in recent years when you really needed a bus, more often than not it was a Blueline that came along and rescued you. Maybe you'd have to step out in the middle of the road to flag it down; maybe you'd even have to run alongside to jump on board, but Bluelines have moved lakhs of people every day for years in Delhi, and you have to give them credit for that much at least.

Having given credit where credit is due, let's be clear about something else: Blueline buses were a bad idea from the start.  Although I never liked the media's 'killer bus' campaign --it seemed to be too much of a 'call to riot'--there is no question that running a poorly regulated, for profit system alongside an underfunded public one was a recipe for disaster.

Safety has been the worst problem with Blueline fleet: in their drive to get more and more passengers, the drivers of these buses often go much too fast, and/or fail to stop properly while passengers get on and off. Of course, not all accidents are the result of rash driving; sometimes the buses can't stop in time because their breaks simply don't work due to poor maintenance. Our Delhi Struggle has an interesting analysis of the economics of Blueline safety problems, as does Rediff. But whatever the reasons, the results have often been horrifying.

The government has been promising to remove these buses for a long time, but so far, they've failed, in part because the Delhi Transport Corporation hasn't got nearly enough buses to move the number of people waiting at our bus stops. But Tehelka has also revealed that much of the Blueline buses' staying power has to do with the fact that some Blueline owners are very powerful and well connected.  Many people think that after the Games, Blueline operators will be shifted to the city's 'fringes', where they will be less visible to tourists and rich people, and where safety isn't such a concern.  In fact, this process is underway; the government has already begun issuing new permits for Blueline buses to operate on the edges of the city.

Yes there are many reasons to phase out the Blueline buses. But improving our 'image and look' for the Commonwealth Games is not one of them. A 'world class' bus system does not mean every bus must be sleek and new.  Rather, it requires some practical things: safe buses, well trained drivers, room to breathe, reasonable commute times, and facilities for people with disabilities. There is room in a good public transportation system for some well-maintained old buses.

We aren't a rich country, and banishing poor people and old buses to far away places won't change that, just as 'view cutters' won't change the slums they are designed to hide. Delhi is a great city.  It has a lot of real problems.  Let's get to work on fixing those--for real--rather spending our energy on whitewash.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

CWG 2010 Kick Off: Come out and play?

In a September rain, a few blocks north of Nehru Stadium.
Sometime in mid-September, I was speeding south in an auto.  We were on Khel Gaon, not far from Nehru Stadium, when a hard rain hit and a boy came running out onto the footpath, smiling and waving his arms.  Seconds later, when I snapped this picture, he was clearly having second thoughts--that rain was colder than it looked! 

The Commonwealth Games are opening today.  My sense is that most people hope it goes well. But I think we all feel a bit like the boy in this photo: what seemed like such a good idea earlier hasn't turned out the way we expected.

As for that boy, I'm not sure who he was, or where he came from.  He could have been a child of a CWG labourer--there was plenty of road work going on nearby; he could have been taking a break from a job selling magazines or flowers.  But whoever he is, you aren't likely to see him or any of his friends in Delhi for another two weeks: the streets have been mysteriously cleared near major Games venues of people (and buses) that don't look sufficiently 'World Class'.  

Of course, I guess we all knew that the slogan 'Come out and play!' was never referring to these kids--or their parents.  Still, it doesn't feel right--probably because it's not right. And it's not just the corruption and the incompetence that we've seen in abundance. It's the basic perversion of priorities that has allowed us to put pride and show before all else. 
My son previewed this essay and said I should add more--'it cuts off too quickly....maybe you should say more about how unfair it was to deport all those beggars.  Isn't that against the law, anyway?'  

He's right.  I should say more.  But forgive me this once: I'm tired, Mrs. Batti is out of town, the house is a mess, and one kid's got a fever. I wouldn't be posting anything if I hadn't already drafted it last week, anyway! Besides, I've been writing about these Games for a long time, since well before they became controversial, in fact. If you want to read more, you'll have to read one of the many excellent essays you'll find here, on our special CWG page.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Celebrating Mahatma Gandhi with Children's Author Subhadra Sen Gupta

The text-book version of Mahatma Gandhi--and most other historical figures, for that matter--is typically pretty flat.There are many reasons for this, but you can't really blame the author's of text books alone.  Our system of education requires our children memorize vast amount of content, but does not ask them to think deeply about ideas. It is enough to memorize names and phrases.  My son's fifth standard SST textbook, for example, covers the modern freedom movement in four pages. Two paragraphs are given to the Non-Cooperation Movement, including this beauty:
During the Non-Cooperation Movement, leaders such as Rajendra prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, C Rajagopalachari, Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru participated actively.  (My Big Book of Social Studies, by Pushpa Jain, p. 107).
We ask our children to commit to memory long lists of names, but we forget to ask them to evaluate and analyze the ideas, politics, and passions that inspired and informed the people that led the movements that made this country what it is--for better or worse. We forget to tell them that these leaders, like all of us, had flaws, that they often looked at each other critically, and that we, in turn, will only move forward if we learn to think critically about our own society and the history that gave rise to it.

In the long run, we need to remake our system of education. But for this Gandhi Jayanti, I'll suggest something more modest. Next time you're in a bookstore, go buy Subhadra Sen Gupta's Mahatma Gandhi and read it with your children.  If you don't have a child, then go buy the book for a child of a friend or relative. 

The Gandhiji in Sen Gupta's book is shrewd, complex and funny. Sen Gupta clearly loves Bapu, but by presenting him as a complex character, she allows young people to engage with his ideas on their own terms. Later, if they encounter less sympathetic portrayals of Gandhi and the movement he helped organize and lead, they will be in a better position to evaluate those ideas as well.  A good understanding and analysis of our history will not help us predict our future, of course, but it can help us to understand our present. 

I realize that the bookstores are mostly closed today. So I asked Subhadra Sen Gupta if we could run an excerpt of her book here at the Dhaba--something about Gandhi the environmentalist. She sent the section below, from Chapter 7, and she even agreed to give us an interview, which we'll run next week.  

As you read, think about the similarities between Gandhiji's ideas and the ideas that inform the best of the environmental movement. Ideas are great that way--unlike paper and plastic, they can be recycled indefinitely, and they often get stronger in the process.

It was while walking from village to village in the Champaran district of Bihar that Gandhiji came face to face with rural poverty for the first time. The hopeless lives of the villagers shocked him to the core. Kasturba who was with him met a family where the women possessed only one sari and lived in that one dirty garment till it was in tatters. They saw the empty huts without a stick of furniture, kitchens with few pots, the filthy streets with open sewers and the constant fear of hunger stalking the land. Gandhiji never got over the experience and the welfare of Indian villagers and finding a solution to their poverty became a constant challenge for him.

He was the first national leader to go deep into the countryside where he sat and listened to peasants and what he heard turned him into a crusader. For the rest of his life he worked ceaselessly to improve their lives. He knew that this was the real India where 85% of Indians lived and it was pointless talking about freedom, democracy and human rights when people were not sure of getting even one meal a day. How could they become a part of the freedom struggle when they were illiterate, burdened with work and afraid and did not even understand what democracy meant?

During his wanderings Gandhiji noticed that farmers sat idle for many months every year once the sowing of crops was over. This was when he wove in the idea of khadi into the old Swadeshi campaign. He spread the message that Indians were not only to use Indian products but those made in villages. He started the All India Spinners Association and began to distribute charkhas encouraging village men and women to spin thread and weave cloth. He also hoped that it would revive India’s dying textile industry which had always been based in the villages.

Today when the world is dazzled by the intricate craftsmanship and variety of Indian textiles remember, it all began with Bapu distributing charkhas to villagers and making leaders start spinning daily to spread the message. From the delicate ikats and pochampallies to the gorgeous patolas, tangails and maheshwaris – all these traditional weaving arts were under threat. They were being systematically killed by high taxes and cheaper British factory products. The weavers of Dacca who were famous for their fine muslin were dying in slums because they had no work. The khadi campaign slowly breathed life into these beautiful crafts.

It is hard to imagine Bapu as a fashion icon but he sent a message when he was photographed walking into Buckingham Palace in his dhoti and chaddar. He was always a shrewd judge of the message a picture could send and knew that when a man from a colonised nation wore his traditional garments to meet a king he was being fearless and also proud of his own heritage. What he was saying with his impish grin was that his khaddar chaddar was just as good as the king’s medal encrusted uniform! The khadi campaign made the wearing of handlooms both patriotic and trendy. At political rallies people saw the handsome Maulana Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru in natty achkans and Subhas Bose in an elegant flowing dhoti and began to wear khadi. When Sarojini Naidu swished up on stage in kanjeevaram saris in brilliant peacock hues, suddenly the socialites of Bombay began to discard their French chiffons for handlooms.

Gandhiji wanted villages to be self-reliant – growing their own food, weaving their own clothes and making their own pots and pans. He spoke constantly about living simply and believed that we should only use the earth’s bounty as much as we need. He opposed the senseless cutting of trees and the destruction of forests. He said, “The earth has enough for our needs but not enough for our greed” and remember he said this at a time when no one was talking of the threats to the environment or the dangers of climate change. And he showed this through his own simple life. All his earthly possessions could be packed into a single cloth jhola bag. He travelled light. There were his dhotis, chaddar, his rosary beads, tin bowl, plate and spoon. And also his spare glasses, false teeth and a copy of the Bhagwat Gita.

From the time he returned to India in 1914 his life became one of ceaseless work as he travelled across the land, often walking. At every village where he stayed he would talk of how the villagers could improve their lives. He tried to break their apathy by teaching them about hygiene and cleanliness, guided them towards cooking nutritious meals, the need to build schools to educate their children, the equality of women and against untouchability. He was keenest on hygiene and the need for clean toilets because he knew that if the sweepers did not have to clean them, then slowly the stigma of untouchability would fade away. Sadly even today many village homes lack toilets.

Even during the Dandi March, at every village where they stopped he spoke of ways in which villages could become self-reliant – dig canals, build roads and schools, clean their streets, start small scale industries like weaving, making baskets, pottery, metal and leather work. What is really amusing is that the government, that did not trust Gandhiji at all, even looked at his social work with great suspicion. Officials and the police were convinced that under the guise of social work he was in fact building up an army of rural Satyagrahis!

If you think villagers always listened and obeyed Bapu you would be mistaken. Many of them looked at him with suspicion and were angered by his talk of the rights of the lower castes and of women. Also many of them did not know how to help themselves and Gandhiji realised that he needed volunteers from the cities to go to work in the villages and among them were people like Vinoba Bhave and Baba Thakkar. So all the Non-government Organisations (NGO) working in villages today are really carrying on the work he began. Today’s Khadi Gramodyogs, Cottage Industries emporia, Dilli Haats and crafts melas are really a continuation of his campaigns and they provide livelihood to millions of crafts people.

The village improvement campaigns he called “a plodder’s work” – slow, laborious and needing endless patience but he persisted with it for thirty years. The poor were never far from his thoughts. It is easy for a politician to strut into a village, stand before a microphone, give a lot of advice at the top of his voice and drive off in a big car. Do you think they are taken seriously? The villagers listen politely to his “bhashan”, shake their heads in amusement and go back to their hard lives. They do not trust politicians.

Bapu walked the talk. Not only did he live simply, he also moved to live in a village. He chose a tiny village called Segaon near Wardha in Maharashtra and in 1936 built a hut there. Segaon had no shops, no post office or school, no roads and forget about electricity or telephones. Slowly a whole community of people interested in social work grew around him, all of them working in the nearby villages and they included a Japanese monk. This ashram was named Sevagram and the Congress leaders had to travel there to meet Gandhiji, at times trudging through ankle deep mud during the rains.

Bapu also decided that the Congress workers should experience village life first hand. So the next annual session of the party in 1936 was held in Faizpur, a village in Maharashtra. The pandal was like a bamboo village designed by the famous artist from Shantiniketan, Nandalal Bose. Delegates were served village food, lived under thatched roofs and they had to do all their sweeping and cleaning and Bapu made sure the Brahmins picked up the brooms. It was his way of introducing future ministers to their real constituents!

Critics of Gandhiji say he was against science and technology and wanted to go back to some ancient pre-industrial time but that is not correct. He was just very suspicious of technology and rightly so. What he did not like was our belief that any new technology is automatically good for us. Every industrialist and his factory are not for the benefit of the nation, take a look at our polluted rivers and our smog filled air and you know he was correct. An industrialist is in it for profit and he is not thinking of the people at all and in most cases industries just make a few people very rich.

Often industries also deprive people of their livelihood - take our tribals who are losing their forests because of the mining industries and this has spurred on the Naxal movement that is leading to so much violence. What Bapu wanted us to do, is judge every technology on its merits and decide whether we really need it or not. He wanted the people to decide, not the bureaucrat or politician. As he used to point out gently, even the charkha or a potter’s wheel is a machine but it does not pollute, it does not take away people’s livelihood, instead it offers them a source of income.

He often spoke of turning “waste into wealth” and was passionate about recycling things long before the word entered our vocabulary. He would use pencils until they were reduced to tiny stubs. He collected all the letters he received and they came by the hundred every day. He opened out envelopes and used the blank sides of letters for his replies. Both his ashrams at Sabarmati and Sevagram were filled with trees, had kitchen gardens and there were cows and goats being tended by the children.

Gandhiji’s ideal village was of a “perfect democracy based on individual freedom” and his villagers would grow their own food, have a school, an auditorium and a medical clinic, good roads and shops. Everyone would find employment in the area and no one would be not forced to migrate to the cities. Here elementary education would be free and children of all castes – girls and boys would study together. People called him a dreamer but in fact he was a supremely practical man devising practical solutions to poverty. And he was not afraid to fight for his dream.
From Puffin Lives: Mahatma Gandhi (2010), by Subhadra Sen Gupta.
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