Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 20, 2014

Managing our school in India

This is the twenty-fifth year of our school, a good time to muse on many parts of our experience.

In the year 1990, when the school began, we had classes pre-Nursery to 5. I was the one who devised the curriculum for each.

For the pre-school, I went by what I had learnt from bringing up my children, then nine and four, through seven and two years of school, respectively. Irfana had gone to Hyde Park Pre-school Program from age three to four, and had gone to Kindergarten and grades one, two and three in Providence, RI. She had studied in Rajghat Besant School in grade 4, and in the middle of many different classes in Loreto, Lucknow. These four places, Chicago, Providence, Rajghat and Loreto comprised three different kinds of knowledge. And before them all, Irfana had been for one year in a Parents’ Co-op.

In the Co-op I learnt to respect children. We had these five children and even when the parents had left them to one home each day of the week, they were in fact always looking over the host’s shoulders. Everything could be discussed in the meetings, which were frequent. So, even if initially it may have seemed to be a game, how children were treated, time and peer pressure wore away my habits. Every child had a personality, had personal dignity, expressed in preferences and reactions—and we were to respect these. Connor liked cars and still wore diapers, Victoria liked cheese and her curly hair, and Stephen liked to pick his nose and eat his snot.

Equally, I learnt to plan. If you did not have a plan, you would suddenly have a house full of children and be helpless before them. I was also embarrassed to find that far less qualified parents than my husband and me always had a plan in place for the day they were the caregivers. Out of shame and peer pressure, we too started to plan. Once we did it, we liked it, and could not do otherwise.

In Hyde Park Pre-school, I volunteered and observed. They had three classes, two, three and four year olds’. They used the upstairs of a church unit, a corridor and three rooms and an office. It was expensive, as all pre-school programs in the USA are. Here I learnt that there is a procedure to everything, a vocabulary, a set of duties and results. I learnt actual content, that three year olds coloured between lines, cut and pasted, did gross motor and fine motor activity.

In Providence, Nandini started going to a Pre-School for the whole day. Initially she cried at being left, as had Irfana. Then she was in her element. In this pre-school I understood how the physical space was supposed to look. A bare, carpeted space with a mezzanine in one corner. Shelves and boxes of toys and manipulables. Low desks and kid-size chairs. Blocks and wagons. Paper and crayons. Child-friendly bathrooms. Many assistants. Parents talking to teachers and assistants as they drop off and pick up their children. Nandini standing in the middle of the room with her hands in her pockets, like a gang leader, wondering, “So where should I start today?”

Irfana was meanwhile in Kindergarten in Martin Luther King Elementary. It was interesting that by that time I understood enough of the American aims and methods to realise that this kindergarten was a little basic. They did all the same things by then familiar to me, but they did everything mechanically. Irfana’s social life in the classroom was more interesting to her than anything that came from the teacher.

When we set up our school, we put all the right materials in our pre-school classes. I personally taught in one full time and guided the teachers in the others. For years we gave them in-house training, since they had never had relevant training before. This I learnt from scratch. This I taught myself. This is something I had never observed and picked up.

I was extremely gentle initially. I was a friend to my teacher-students. I would suggest something with anecdotal backing, broad smiles, and the hint of an apology. I considered them my colleagues and was apologetic that I was teaching them. I was alarmed to be the reformer-educator-moderniser and would rather they all magically rose to the level of the imaginative, innovative teachers we needed.

It took years for me to face my failure and acknowledge that the method was entirely too subtle and grossly inappropriate for what I wanted to achieve. I then tried to plan more carefully.

Some teachers did begin to understand, through my growing interactive techniques and use of materials and spaces, how to, say teach Maths in Primary classes, or beginning English reading and writing. The success, even if partial, was immensely encouraging. I began to believe that teachers’ education is indeed possible, and also to glimpse that success in it was directly related to the educator’s comprehension of the level of the teacher-students and the degree to which she was willing to labour over her planning.

Now when I hear that “teachers can’t do __. They are hopeless at __,” I think to myself, not too kindly, “Yes, ma’am (it’s usually a Principal speaking), that’s because they have not been taught properly.”

Together with this confidence, however, goes a lot of modesty. At the very time that some teachers were learning from my labours, there were others who were looking attentively at me, nodding, participating—only to go on to never applying anything of what they had certainly understood in their classes. Again, I am a nice person and it took me longer than necessary to acknowledge that there was a certain relationship in the school that made it rational for them to cut corners and not actually follow policies. I was also naïve, still. Instead of pushing some important methods as ‘rules’ or ‘policies,’ I still presented them as suggestions. Teachers still remained my respected colleagues and trusted peers.

One huge problem in Indian schooling that I have encountered first-hand for twenty-five years is that, no matter how brilliant a curriculum you design, the teacher could sabotage it. He/she (I am really reluctant to be anti-gender hierarchy by using a ‘she’ normatively as I would otherwise do, because in teaching there are mostly she’s, and these disappointing trainees I am thinking of were in fact mostly he’s) might do so in a number of ways.

You ask for a weekly submission of their planning. He will submit something week after week that is so obviously just a summary of the chapters of the book that it’s like a clear message to you, “You want me to plan? See if you can make me. I’ll take five minutes and write down the topics from the contents page of the text book.” You explain to him again, knowing he is intelligent and understood the first time. He nods, smiles, and does the same thing the next week, and for every week for months to come. Your choices are: fire him—a limited choice, since with this choice, you might end up always firing everyone; do the damn planning for him, or, same thing, sit with him and dictate and waste your breath explaining—can you do this each week?; excuse him from the planning and hope to shame him into cooperation. I am sure there are other, smarter methods I could have tried, but what actually happened was the last.

Then there was the retiree, as I thought of him. You have discussed from many angles the problems of class management, the school’s philosophy, the nature of the child, how to create a certain culture and milieu in the class. Yet when you go to the classroom, the teacher is following none of this. He is shouting at the children, striving to ‘discipline’ them in pathetic ways. They are louder and more disrespectful by the  minute—all thanks to him. He then retreats and let them act free, teaching almost nothing. Yes, he just sits there. The children run around tossing their books in the air, a party in each period. The teacher would turn the tables neatly: “What can I do? These children are so ill-behaved.”

Then there are those teachers who decide that enough is enough with all the imaginative and creative stuff and they will get to the brass tacks now and they totally subvert the teaching ideas gone over and over. They take the textbook and they make the children read repeatedly. They dictate answers to questions. They put up meanings on the blackboard. They give dictation. They put red marks on the copies. They bark and they threaten and they preach moral outcomes and praise and criticise shamelessly.

This was perhaps the worst of all. Why, why would one start and run a school premised on change, only to be thrown back into the pit by one recalcitrant young person who thought she was too smart for you?

I am sounding antagonistic, but really my problem even at that point was that I was not strict enough. These were very young people, far younger than me, far less qualified, far less trained and experienced. It was simply my ignorance about what constituted ‘management’ and my misplaced ideas about equality and collegiality that produced this dreadful situation.

To be continued…. How this is ‘postcolonial’….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 19, 2014

The child in the city

Have you seen the staggering numbers of children and youth in an Indian city? Yet—how is the child present in the city? In these new cities of modern India, bravely building up towards the sky, clogging their roads with larger and larger fume-spewing vehicles, covering any empty sky-space with hoardings that persuade you to but a flat, buy a car, and yes, choose a certain school or coaching centre for your child’s education or your own further education?

There are no spaces for the child in the city. There is typically not a single park or museum where children are specifically catered to with spaces and resources. There is no Children’s Museum in a city, apart from the ones in the metropolises dedicated to science and to toys or dolls.  There is no Children’s or Community Library (of course.) There is nowhere children from 4 to 14 could walk, or sit, of listen to something, read something, or watch something. Middle class children stay indoors and watch TV or play computer games. Working class and poor children play in the streets or in vacant spaces near their home. Occasionally they go with their families or a parent for shopping or another job. Otherwise they participate in the same activities as adults: going to malls, eating out, watching movies, or visiting other families.

Are children bored? Of course not. They have an active life of the imagination. They presume the adult world is theirs as well. They have nothing to compare with so cannot imagine, and do not miss, a city in which there might be safe walking areas, parks they could run and play in, museums or performance places, libraries or activities. They find company within the family, neighbours and streets. When asked what they do after school, children typically answer, “Home-work” or “Study.” There is no ready vocabulary for the variety of things they actually do and it is safe for them to thus imagine what the adult wants to hear when she is asking such an unusual question (most adults ask, “What do you like to study?” not “What do you do in your free time?” since the child is not expected to have “free time” or at least to not make a worthwhile use of it.)

There are some actively damaging things going on in the city. Companies have launched competitions for children which take place publicly in malls. These include loud singing and dancing contests with a low premium on talent or creativity and a high one on self-confidence aligned with the number of hours a child might be glued to the TV and learnt up the songs and dances. The events, judging from their loudness and location, are single-mindedly publicity efforts by the company and not child-centred in concept or delivery.

I would also say that the absence of any other projection of children but as consumers, where they are shown with an adult promoting water filters or refrigerators, or by themselves promoting banking or investment, is itself a negative move on the part of the city.

Adolescents are also not bored. Most have cell phones now and make the optimum use of them. They feel as if they might be free, as if they might have choices in the future. As long as they stay in peer groups, the pleasure of the company and the humour and solidarity that accompanies peer group activity can allow them to shut an eye to the reality. Their level of education and exposure is so low, for the most part, that they too cannot compare with what could exist, what they could have. These possibilities include reading randomly, watching a range of things, listening to an equal range, going places, being counselled and mentored on life choices and career paths, holidaying by perhaps earning and saving up, dancing and partying without guilt.

What does the city wish for its children? Overall the question has no meaning because the idea of ‘children’ as someone to plan and wish for has not arrived in India yet. Children are undoubtedly loved, worried over and worked for. But that there could be a plan for them that addresses their various needs is a particularly modern notion that is not part, yet, of Indian modernity.

Having acknowledged that, there are still areas that require less complacence. Developers do not accept that while they market new residences, they have to conceptualise a family with children of different ages. A swing, a slide and a patch of grass makes, for them, a good apartment complex. Manufacturers have not woken up to the huge market that is the children of India. Advertisers are ridiculously unimaginative and, as goes with the territory, uncaring. Civil society is at its best negotiating problems of water, electricity, and sewage removal shortages; it has no time for what it would consider higher matters of infrastructure such as a park, a library or a museum.

Private citizens have no clue of anything idealistic and almost no wishes except to follow marketing trends to their best advantage. Ambitious parents want many services from their children’s private schools, including superficial counselling. Lower class parents always say “I have no idea” when asked what their hopes for their children are. They are more anti-children than before because they sense a new assertion of children’s rights through their consumption of a range of new clothes, accessories, and cell phones. These rights, as they see it, take the form of less respect for elders, a shrugging off of old disciplinary structures, and an exploration of freedoms.

What would children and adolescents have if they could? We have not even begun thinking of it yet.

But whatever it is, it’s for us adults to decide and to do. We are the ones who have built the cities and its spaces, and conceptualised and produced its life. Why would we not do more for our children?

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 16, 2014

creative thinking?

Message for the day: Be creative in your thinking!

Inspiration from ‘our’ culture: when Gandhari hears that her husband-to-be is blind from birth, she decides to blindfold herself for life so that she will totally share his life.

Twice she corrects her thinking radically. She adores her oldest son, Duryodhana, and for the longest time, cannot imagine that he could be evil or horrible as a person. Then, one day, she is pushed over the brink. She tells herself, “I was blind [sic] in my love for my son. I refused to see the reality. But I will admit it now.”

The second time, she cannot overcome her grief that all hundred of her noble sons have perished in the war. The Pandavas come to her and she cannot not be angry at them for not having spared her even one son. Her anger makes a little glance from her eyes falling on Yuddhishtar’s toes, shrivel them up blue. The others shift back, Amar Chitra Katha tells us, alarmed. But then she controls herself, “They have also lost their sons, all five of them. There is no one who has been spared.” She consoles them for their losses and in that finds a plank to fight her own sorrow.

That’s creative thinking. At other places in the Mahabharata too, you are surprised at how people reason, and not only Krishna, the subtlest dialectician of them all, but Kunti, Dhritarashtra, Shakuni, Arjun, Draupadi, and lesser characters. They are all highly intellectual people to whom the world is largely a challenge in understanding, reasoning out and articulating.

I have only a tiny problem which brought me to this topic of creative thinking. I am supposed to go to a Women’s Studies reception in half an hour. It is blazing outside—105 degrees I believe—with no shade to walk under from here to Scripps. I am cool at home, comfortable, with my work open in front of me and the work is immense. I will be fine skipping the event and staying home instead. Or, I should resign myself to attending the event and just go. In neither case am I happy. I should be able to make myself two happy choices, through creative thinking, in place of which I have created a web of suffering.

No character from the Mahabharata would have put on such a poor show.

So, here’s a revitalising injection into the thinking process:

If I go, I get to eat strawberries dipped in chocolate—Scripps being a strawberry-pradhan college.

I get to have a fifteen minute walk in either direction. I can skip the club and consider that my exercise of the day. It’s good to be different.

I will no doubt meet at least one interesting person. If I focus and look smart, maybe some student or colleague will find me interesting.

This is the kind of thing I am in America for, right? True I have done this kind of thing scores of times over, but I was never wide awake; I was in a dream. Now I can put on my ethnographer’s antlers and see everything bright and clear, as if I am having a huge adventure and nothing is to be taken for granted, everything is to be learnt.

If I don’t go, I get to drink my tea any moment now, with biscuits.

I get to go to the club for Zumba.

I can read the missing part of chapter 3 and put it back in a good way, thus finishing off with three and being all set to tackle four tomorrow. Three is such an important chapter; how could I think of jeopardising it in any way by breaking my chain of thought?

God bless Scripps and the Claremont Colleges, but they are only a speck on the surface of the universe and our lives, and I have a larger holistic plan of things to do. My ration for Claremont events can be two a week. Last week it was the library lecture and the Athenaeum dinner. This week it is another Ath dinner and a Bridges concert. Enough.

Do you notice how I have lapsed from my interest in creative thinking to the familiar pros-and-cons approach of the even-tempered rationalist who has some ambitions but a great deal more of just obligations towards the world? That’s not Kunti or Yudhishtar, and it’s certainly not Bhim. Their hunger for a kingdom was just a metaphor, right? Right?  We should all be fighting for our kingdoms.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 3, 2014

The Dublin Sequel

Many of the readers of my blogs loved the one in which I lose my passport in Dublin. They liked it so much that I thought I must give them a sequel. So I managed to go and lose my ‘green card’ in Delhi. Readers will be pleased to note that I followed all the same steps: got worked up to a frenzy, almost losing my renowned calm demeanour; harassed people to aid and help me; waited and worried at the Police Station and the Embassy—and finally managed to leave the country. This time, not the next day but a week later. And not on having found my documents but finally succeeding in getting them replaced.

I could try and be funny, but it was actually only painful.

I had checked in at the excellently ‘manned’ counter of British Airways. It was eight in the morning, faces were fresh and bright, I was hardly paying attention to anything since there was nothing to particularly attend to. Travelling long distance is easy. I mean, how much oftener could a person travel than I do? In 2014 itself, once in January, four times in March, once in May, twice in June, once in July, twice in August….I (figuratively) yawned. I read novel after fat novel. I was in love with Hillary Mantel.

Yet, for all this international travel, what I don’t have is a separate wallet for passport, travel documents etc. I think the reason is that in my twenties I despised those faux leather things they tried to sell in the name of ‘travel planner’ with pockets for everything. So bourgeois. I do it the bohemian way. I stack up the cards I don’t need and put a rubber band around them and put them in a safe place, and replace them in my wallet with the cards I do need. Then I reverse the process. In the middle the packed-up cards in the rubber band repose in the back of a suitcase, or in my cupboard, or simply on the desk I am using. It may sound inefficient but it has worked so far.

So, on the eve of this journey, I sat in my room, undid the cards and stuck them in my wallet, starting with my passport, then credit cards, green card, drivers license, medical insurance, etc. etc. I packed up in turn the Indian credit cards, pan card etc. It didn’t take a minute.

I had checked in and had turned around to go. The smart young woman behind the counter was training a new person so was busier with her than with me. As a postscript she added to my back, “Can I have your green card please?” Bored, I gave it to her.

She handed it back. “This is not it.” I had the weirdest physical sensation, as if the bottom had fallen out from my stomach region, as when your elevator might lose control and dash down to the ground. I knew in that split second that I did not in fact have my green card. The green card was in a jacket, a little white case of a smooth paper, that had a problem in a corner so that it was difficult to insert the card in without a struggle and I derived pleasure form watching all the solemn passport control officials of the world humbly struggle at this before managing the insertion and returning my card to me. I had given her another card in a jacket, and that was the wrong card but it was the only card I had in a jacket. When she said “This is not it,” I knew I could search and search but I had no other card in a jacket.

She was the best kind of professional—humane. Usually it is women, not men, who achieve this perfect blend of the professional and humane. She let me search. While I searched my bag, she kindly searched my wallet. While I searched my wallet, she took over my bag. She made a bare murmur of “May I?” Then got my suitcase back and invited me to search comfortably. Heart sinking, heart sunken, I searched without conviction. I fumbled for my phone. “Let me call my daughters,” I said foolishly. “They know my habits.” “You remind me of my mother,” she smiled encouragingly at me.

Irfana had just landed at Mumbai and not gotten connected yet. She still had the wrong sim card in her phone. Nandini was in the throes of sleep. I forgot that it would be four a.m. for her. She could not help.

I was turned over to the trainee and gently moved to one side. My luggage tags were removed and my boarding pass torn up. The trainee was a radical sort. As I fumbled inside my suitcase once more, she suggested, “Should we throw everything on the floor?” I thought grimly, “Very funny, kiddo,” and shook my head. It took some time for them to escort me out because there is a whole procedure to reversing the official entry inside an Indian airport.

Now what? I took a taxi to the American Embassy. I knew that the card had to be replaced with a travel document of some sort that would allow me to travel. The consular section where these things are done was invisible, literally a hive hidden behind a swarm of bees. There must have been hundreds of people thronging the entrance to the visa and passport services. They were not standing in line, they were pushing at the cordons around the entrance.

The ‘system’ was ‘down.’ Nothing could be done that morning. I stood on one side and waited. I knew in my hunting-gathering bones that you don’t just believe something and go away, you hang around for the ambush, for another sight of the prey. And sure enough, the crowd gradually thinned as people put their tails between their legs and went away and only a few stalwarts like me remained. I went into an unnecessary narrative about my plight, knowing it was pointless, but needing to talk, and the guard nodded wisely. He was just a young man, probably from Bihar, trained up and uniformed up for the job, but he was a nice man. He took my passport and went to the phone that hangs at their desk. I was full of hope.

But no. The person who handled these things was not at his desk.

Reader, I am ashamed to say that I threw a tantrum. As I did so, I realised why children have faith in tantrums. I simply wanted attention. I wanted him, and all the six guards there, to realise that I was a special, distinct case, and they somehow had to do something for me, that I was not going to take that kind of an answer lying down, that I would fight to the finish, that I was a worthy adversary, that they had better look out, that I would do—I didn’t know what, but I would do something. The only think I could do was rave and rant.

The whole tenor of what I said standing there over the next hour, and then over the next five days, was, “But there must be something to do? Surely there is something to do? How can there be nothing to do?”

The guard advised me to call the embassy number. The receptionist at the number called the same desk the guard had. The first time there was a voice mail. I left a jumbled message. Then they disconnected or switched off the voice mail. I called a dozen times again, and there was a sickly, downward spiralling tinkle to the phone ring as it was proved to me again and again that there was no one at the desk.

I thrashed around, paced around, stamped around, screeched and shouted, then whispered and pleaded, “Surely there must be someone else? When will this officer come back? Can I not speak to anyone?” The answer was no, we don’t know, there is no one else, we can’t say, no, no. no. I finally left with ‘Kafka’ ringing in my ears.

I went to the Police Station. It was calm and orderly. The main inspector at whose desk I sat was fast as well as poetic. As if he were an E.M. Forster character, he recited a couple of Urdu verses during the course of the work, humming the rest of the time. He had his subordinate, sitting next to him, write my FIR. This charming young man called him ‘janab.’ They were not native Urdu speakers however. The inspector was from Ballia but had lived in Delhi now for decades. I imagined him, going home to his village once a year, with presents for everyone, being treated like royalty by his family.

FIRs are now typed and printed on the computer. It took one hour but I had lots to observe in a Delhi Police Station and was quite happy. They made me feel as if the Force was behind my cause and I left full of optimism.

Later that day I e-mailed my college and got immediate responses, much like the Police force. I was gathering up my army. But the other side was an unbreachable fortress. On Monday they told me that the missing officer would be back Tuesday or Wednesday. On Tuesday they said Thursday or Friday. On Tuesday evening I got in an appointment with ‘Information’ for Wednesday. On Wednesday they said not to be foolish but wait until Thursday or Friday, on no account to try to contact anyone to support my cause, it would all be pointless, there was a procedure, and yes, indeed, it was in the hands of one man, but he would be back. On Thursday they said no way. On Friday they said, no, not yet.

It was then that I glimpsed this man, sailing away on a yacht somewhere, calculating, in a way all too familiar to me from my long management experience, that if he could just stay away a few more hours, the long weekend would be his as well. Monday was Labor Day.

That is called “the tipping point.” I saw with furious clarity that I should never give up, that like Babar or Humayun, even when all the odds were against me and even my own soldiers had refused to fight further, I had to make one last push. I swallowed my pride and wrote again to my one slender Embassy contact, well after we had said, “Fine, goodbye, thank you.” I put my soul into it. How could it be, I asked with dignity, that the Embassy had had no knowledge that the one single officer in charge would be absent from work from Monday to Friday, followed by a long weekend? How was it possible? Could I not have been told?

I checked my e-mail for a reply every minute. I sat at the dining table ostensibly talking and typing, but my soul was battering away at the fortress. I did not acknowledge, even to myself, that I did have alternatives planned. In my diary I had planned, “Get documents on Friday, do ___. Get them on Tuesday, do ___. Get them on Wednesday….” and so on for another whole week. In my notebook was a detailed plan of action. I was going to achieve a lot if they could not do my work. But by God, they had to do it.

And the e-mail did come. I picked up and left. I sailed into the Embassy. There was the person, back from his sailing trip by the might of my will power. He took what I needed to give and told me to pick up my documents the next day. Saturday? Yes.

As I lingered on the pavement outside, wondering if that was an ice cream cart I saw around the corner—when the crowds are large the ice cream carts are right there—a guard came up to me and said, “Can you wait? They called to say you can pick up your letters right now. There’s a long weekend coming up….”

I waited, of course, and got what I needed within the hour.

I will never know, nor do I expect anyone to know, how it works. I firmly believe that if you put your whole will behind it, you get it. I have this idea from Hindu mythology, but also from the American myth of I-can-do-whatever-I-want, but most of all from my hunting and gathering ancestors, who never actually rested when they were in need of food. They knew you can get a prey only by terrific coordination of the mind, body and will. You have to look sharp and jump and nab. You have to focus.

Well, so long from California, till what I hope will never be the next account of my losing any travel documents whatsoever, much as you enjoy reading about it….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 23, 2014

Ramesh’s daughters and son

There’s Ankita, the oldest, maybe eight, strictly his niece, but he treats her as his daughter. There’s Anoushka, maybe six. She is unspeakably cute. Her laugh gurgles forth like a waterfall, tinkling and irrepressed. She has dancing eyes, a sweet dark face, and a little girl’s body that makes you think, “Ah, I know why the Creator chose this design. What could be more balanced and wholesome?” She wears little dresses and sandals and runs and runs around the campus. Ankita, older, runs and laughs less, but we can hear her voice and her full participation in all the games.

And there’s the young Sahil, just arrived from the village. The other two have been on campus for two years. Everyone is accustomed to them standing around, running and playing and prattling, Anoushka’s laughter, Ankita’s speech. Sahil is so new, you have to stare and remind yourself, “Er—now he’s here too.”

He has a wicked face. His eyes are slightly mis-aligned, making him an imp. They are bright as buttons. His mouth has a perpetual grin, but altogether his face looks quizzical as if he is in a great game with you, and out to win. No dialogue, just a joust. He is four years old. Unlike the girls, he hits you. He peeps into glass windows. He bolts and unbolts any door he sees, locking people in, or out.

Of course he is welcome to come and live with his father Ramesh, as the two girls were two years ago, and to blossom and grow in the place. The trouble is this.

Anoushka does not laugh now. Ankita, if possible, is quieter still. Neither of them run around and play. They move quietly, in a shadowy way. I smiled and joked with them. They looked wary and did not respond, as if I might had made a mistake. Did I really mean to address them? Wasn’t I supposed to now pay attention only to the brother, who was cute, bold, smart, so special? They looked at me as if I was a stranger. I read the unspoken in their behaviour and turned cold.

Sahil had done something odd. I proceeded to explain to him in a comradely way “what we do and what we don’t.” I then pointed to them and said, “Your didis will explain. They will take care of you. Listen to them.” They began to sidle away. I stopped them and said, “Anoushka, tell Sahil, “Sahil, don’t do this.”” Anoushka looked blank, her eyes dull, staring past me. She had never heard of such an idea. She had never addressed Sahil in her stature as didi, with him as her younger brother.

I asked Ramesh in an exploratory way why he had spoilt his son so completely, whereas he had made his two girls into happy, laughing, but also nice little people who could talk to you and listen to you. Why was Sahil performing and expecting attention all the time?  Ramesh did not get the question. He said proudly, “Oh, he is something. I have no idea how he became like that. You won’t believe it. Here he is tame. Back in the village he could run two miles away. He won’t listen to anyone”

Henry the Eighth, h’m.

I could guess that the girls were as unimpressed as I was by the special-ness of the boy. But unlike me, they were resigned to his status and had retreated into fast-growing shells. They were well on their way to becoming, not innocent children busy playing and laughing, but progressively aware of their difference to him, that they were perchance girls and he a godly boy, putting on that mantle of shyness and timidity that we see all around us in girls.

Sahil, it’s not your fault, but for your own sake—here we come.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | June 13, 2014

Losing my passport in Dublin

10th June ’14

My laptop got stolen yesterday in Dublin town. As I stood around for four hours in police station and embassy I lived again and again what the thief would feel. When he opened it and gawked at the screen picture. He wouldn’t give it the time of day. Just another picture. He wouldn’t stare at it every time you open it like I do. Interested anew in the unmatched expressions of Irfana, Sombabu and Raghav. Irfana is on top of things. She understands and she cares. She is self-conscious about her position but thinks that she can make herself comfortable in it,  and in any other position.

Sombabu draws a huge breath inside. My children. My place. My work. My efforts. He has spent decades mastering his breath, his thoughts, his emotions, his body. He still loses his temper. But he does not feel depressed. Or confused. These are huge achievements. He looks out typically at the world as he is doing here, chin up, a smile, cool, comfortable, full of an utterance he has yet to formulate.

Raghav knows that he was a failure which is why he was put in this school, this miniscule school with a class of two for him. He knows what the world is, where he is in it, but he also knows, they are good people. I am still a failure but oh, who cares?

Then I wondered, when will the thief find out my name? When will he begin reading my blogs, journals and miscellaneous writing? Will he ever open folder x and folder y? Of course he won’t. And as for my four books, he will never discover them, nor the rest of the world.

I knew I had a copy for almost everything, thanks to Irfana’s fine stratagem of copying everything somewhere back in May. But I don’t know where. And I stopped thinking of going to a store, buying a laptop, setting it all up, retrieving my stuff bit by bit. Stopped thinking because it was so tiring.

Did the thief know what a useless laptop it was? No, he would admire it, as we had initially done in the shop. And I had provided him with the cord and everything, neatly folded and velcrosed up.

My mind turned to my greater problems. My passport, my visa, my green card. In that order. If I didn’t have my passport, I could not travel the next day. If I did get a replacement, as embassies were obliged to give their citizens, how would I still get the British visa? Why would they simply give me a new one in a new blank passport when the old one had been like pulling teeth? The green card was easy. A few phone calls to Adam Green and he, bless his professional heart, would know exactly how to do it. And I had over two months.

My brain worked slowly. There were three phases. In the first one, I was slowly overcome by a cold fear, as I stood in the library and realised what had happened. I had laid out my stuff on a table and chair and walked off with my wallet for a cup of tea. I had walked many blocks to reach the elusive Pierce Street Library and need refreshment. The sign said “tea room” upstairs and reading room below. Before beginning the day’s work, I needed to go upstairs.

Had the lady I spoke to been different, nothing would have happened. She looked so hospitable, so welcoming, told me there was free internet everywhere, that I was welcome to sit anywhere I liked and work. She gestured towards a table and I walked to it and joyously laid out my things. It would have been ungracious to not do so, after her welcome. She could have said, “This is a really crime-ridden area. Be careful of your things.” She did not, and gave me quite the opposite impression—“This is a lovely place. Enjoy it. You are in safe hands now.” I could not have laid out my things. The table she gestured to and that I went to was under the eyes of the desk she sat at. There were at least three or four librarians at work. All the guests were busy with computers and books.

The tea room was full of natural light and had power plugs. I wished I had brought my laptop up. Then I started reading the Irish Times and went through two and a half cups of tea while I went through its pages. Uma Malloney had an excellent piece. I made notes. Finally, refreshed, I went down.

I smiled to see my laptop gone. What nice librarians. They had felt it wasn’t safe so they had put it away. My bag as well. Strange they had left the shopping bag out. They must have realised it had nothing much in it. I went smiling to the desk, and spoke, as sometimes happens, to two people together which annoyed them. It took a minute to make it clear that they had not picked up anything, that my things were in fact, stolen.

One of the two became very proactive and also protective. She called for the security guard but he was on lunch break. She gave me the address of the police station and told me to go there. She made me write down the details on a piece of paper and thanks to Jonah, I could give her a phone number as well.  After the guard’s lunch break they were going to look at the security camera’s video. Meanwhile, I should go and file a report. She seemed confident that with the video they would be able to find the thief. There seemed to be known criminals operating in the area.

The second phase began in the police station. There was a line and it moved slowly. When it reached me, it crawled to a stop. Others had come for routine passport applications. Mine was a whole theft. The police man slowly and carefully wrote down a few facts. He chatted with me in a relaxed manned, one dozen pairs of eyes eating into my back as I stood at the counter. He told me with a kindly smile, at least four times, “Oh, that area! We consider it a very bad area.” Thanks a lot, I thought. This same morning I had been walking around Dublin, humming to myself, “Oh Dublin! Wonderful city! Go anywhere—everywhere’s nice. Sit anywhere—places galore. Sit and work—such a wonderful atmosphere. Thank you Dublin!” And, because someone had mentioned it, I chose to go to Pierce Street Library, thinking further, “I’ll look at every library in the city.” I knew of five, and I did end up going to four. The fifth one, inside Trinity, used to have tourist lines a mile long. I am sure there was another entrance or another section but I did not bother to find it. I went to ILAC library, to Beatty library, to the National Gallery and to Pierce Street.

The policeman reminded me of Nikos. He got the Indian Embassy’s address for me, tried to call them, told me to just go, found the directions on his phone, took my details again, made sure someone had gone down to the library, told me he worked till 10 at night and yes, I could come back, gave me his name and number, and after what seemed to be an hour—turned to the next in line.

I was sorry, as I walked away, that I had not turned to the line of people and apologised for taking so much time.

The taxi driver knew where the Indian embassy was. I could have hugged the tricolour flag as I entered the building. Phase three began. The place was crummy, with a dirty carpet and disorder in the pile of tourist pamphlets heaped on one side as soon as you entered. An arrow directed me to the basement, where sat an ID Tiwari kind of person at a dining table, obviously not at work. On one side was a counter with glass shutting out the office behind, a little hole for applicants to speak through. I started in English, then switched quickly to Hindi.

The man and then the woman at the glass window, did the usual Indian things. They repeated what I said slowly. They looked and sounded perplexed. They were like lay passers by I might have accosted to explain my problem. They denied that anything was possible. I said, “Do it!”  as I fell into familiar Indian-ness myself. They then asked, “Give us your passport number.” I got busy trying to remember and to phone Nandini to look it up for me. They got interested in the project. They encouraged me to guess and with every combination I came up with, they searched. They found it. They then discussed the whole thing in detail among themselves, mostly how their software worked.

Then they explained that this being a small embassy, they did not have the facilities to issue fresh passports here. Those could only be made in India and took 5-6 weeks. What they could do was give a travel document. However, that was good only for travel to India. I had seen those words at entries into countries and such places and had a hope, though an ever diminishing one, that this travel document might let me enter Britain, maybe for just one day, to collect my money and suitcase and so on. I told them to let me see the officer in charge. They said the usual Indian things like, “Ab apko kah to rahe hain, baith jaiye. Jab vo khali nahin hain to apko kaise jane de sakte hain? Ap hi bataiye?” They were full of rhetorical questions: “How can that be? How can we do it? I can’t force you into his door can I? When he is not free what am I to do? Why don’t you sit down?” My research brain ever alive, I made mental notes of everything, even while another part of that brain kept pushing away anything extraneous and wept, “FOCUS.”

I of course paced and did not sit down. I was afraid the officer would escape if I did not stay on my feet. I had a lot to plan as well. H’m. Ask Trinity if I could stay on for another five days. Go for just one day to London. Collect my cheque, my suitcase. E-mail Naveen to change my ticket. E-mail him also to make a UK visa appointment for me too since I would need a fresh visa. Make an emergency passport appointment for me as well. E-mail Maurice to say, “Please tell me where to find another key to your house. The key you gave me is lost.”

So much to think through. And at each step, to tell myself, “Think carefully. There can always be another option. A better choice than the one you are making.”

As I was finally sent to the officer’s, I realised miserably that the British would not in fact let me in on the strength of a “travel document” which would in fact be a piece of letterhead with my photograph, now-found passport number, and the seal of the second secretary, Indian Embassy, Dublin. All the time I had been thinking of passport-related things I had been thinking of a novel in which the smuggling and frauds intended are committed with just such a story as mine.

Then I had been thinking of all the good things I could get out of this experience, all the knowledge I was getting, etc etc. and I had to acknowledge that it would be a huge expense and  a lot of extra time to put into replacing my stolen things, and it was all going down the drain.  It was time to grow up. There was no point fooling myself that this was educational in any way. I communicated with the thief, “Man, why don’t you throw the passport, so useless to you, into the police station and go off with your 1000 dollar haul in the form of an actually useless Samsung laptop?” I communicated hard, “JUST DO IT.”

As I sat in front of the second secretary, Ravi Chandra, just made the first secretary, waiting for him to finish with his phone call, my own phone rang. I had talked to Nandini a half dozen times and thought it was her. When the phone said “unknown” for the incoming call, my heart jumped. Let it be the nice policeman, buzzed a prayer inside. It was. They had found the bag. I could not guess how or where and I did not ask. I said that I would get there right away. The second, I mean first, secretary, prompted me—having grasped everything from my hums and haws—to ask if the passport was there, safe? I asked. It was.

I didn’t go right away, however. I waited and chatted. I told him how the embassy needed improving. I translated my thoughts of the last hour and a half into tactful language. The thoughts were, “What a horrible place. Everything is horrible, the carpet, the walls, the approach, the system, the people, their speech, the soft boards, everything. What a bad face of India. And it hasn’t changed in the forty years that I have been seeing Indian embassies.” What I said was, “I know how you could train your staff to make it a nicer experience for those who come into the place. I work on this you know.” And other such friendly things.

Then I ran as fast as my feet could carry me, blessing the thief, blessing the Lord, blessing the librarians, and most of all blessing the policemen of Dublin. I JUST ADORE DUBLIN.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 7, 2014

Backward and forward, past and present

Muslims have a bad press. Jews used to have a bad press, then they got savvy. Hindus? Hindus have a terrible press, among, often, their own co-religionists. The last is what we call primary research. The first two are secondary research. This is only about the first.

In a talk yesterday, the speaker from the Yuval Ron ensemble narrated stories of the high classical period in Spain, produced by the influence of Muslims from the Middle East, when the rest of Europe was in darkness. Andalusia in Southern Spain was introduced to libraries, knowledge, philosophy, music and the arts. The Muslims had reached heights in these fields. In one of the stories he told how a certain musician (Zreyd?) had travelled “to the furthest corner of the world”—that is, as then known, southern Spain. There he had taught and performed music and brought light to Christians and Europeans.

The speaker’s tale was after my heart. It was emancipatory. He gently chided the West for not recognising the parts of its legacy that came from the Middle East. He made the strong point that Christianity had been intolerant and Islam enlightened. He was also a natural story teller who kept the audience enthralled. There was a knock on the door. “Who’s there?” asked the Sheikh. It was the spy. Who else would come knocking like that at night? “Your majesty,” said the spy. “You have been tricked.” I want to tell stories like that! To talk slowly, and not be afraid of repetition.

Then there was the q&a. My hand went up. I was genuinely curious. “Why did the great musician, if he had to be banished “to the furthest corner of the world,” chosen to go west and not east? By the 8th and 9th centuries, there was already Islamic culture in northwest India and Arabs coming and going for trade, building mosques and learning and teaching?”

I should have known. When someone tells a good story your defences come down and you want to think, “Ah yes. YES.” Then some detail in it clicks home and you know you have to ask a question. And that reveals that the great storyteller does not know. And while fictionalizing is perfectly fine, he should not presume to lecture an adult audience—maybe even children—on supposedly historical facts.

He went as far as to say that the heights of Islamic civilisation came down when the Muslims were banished from Spain. Oh, there were the Ottomans….he hesitated. …They were pretty advanced in culture….He moved on quickly and reiterated the point that after the fifteenth century, Muslim civilization was in decline. He was emphatic. The storytelling magic was gone and he was pedantic, and now, stubborn.

I asked, “What about the Mughals? It was precisely in the 16th and 17th centuries that Islamic culture was at its peak in another part of the world, South Asia.”

He had apparently never given it a thought. Not to be unkind, but he may have seen some Bollywood movies. I hear they are popular in the Middle East. He smiled charmingly at me, this obviously Indian woman in an Indian garb, asking obviously personal questions about the only part of the world she knew and cared about. “Yes, there was an Indian King who was Muslim I think. He was great, very liberal….tell me who I am talking about…?”  I did not answer. He said a few more things. “Akbar,” I said briefly to forestall him saying “Taj Mahal.” “Yes, yes, Akbar Khan! Akbar Khan!”

The day before I had given a mid-term exam to my class with a simple question, “What was the difference between the Turks and Afghans?” Meanwhile, Jalaluddin Akbar sighed and shifted and turned over in his grave as the speaker bounced out a few more Akbar Khan! Akbar Kahn!-s

I really don’t know what lesson to draw from all this. I will follow Irfana’s lead, who is potentially more radical than me. She says that finally, everyone wants to be oriented to the West. Everyone wants, even if they were left out in history, to be finally only accepted back by the West, to be given their rightful place, to be acknowledged and respected again.

They don’t really have an idea of themselves and their place, and certainly not of any solidarity between the different kinds of groups and people left out of history. In the great “Muslim, Jewish and Christian Harmony in the Golden Age of Spain,” as the talk advertised itself, the three parts were not equal. The story was one of poor, underestimated Muslims and how their past should be acknowledged by the great Christians and now Jews of the West.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 7, 2014

Kafka and the Universe

7th March—the date I thought I would never see in Claremont, because of the elaborate plans to be away. The suitcase lies yawning, half packed, with stacks of neat stuff around it to be put in systematically when the signal is given. It’s ridiculous to finish packing a suitcase when you don’t know when you are travelling, or now, where you are travelling to. If I don’t go to Oxford, there is no point in taking all this stuff which was brought from India to begin with to be taken to Nandini.

I was supposed to have left the night before last for a small stop at Oxford, on the way to Berlin for the nice conference to which I was giving a special address. Everything is in place, except that the British Consulate has not returned my passport and has nothing to say in explanation or enquiry. I have sent dozens of e-mails and have heard nothing to the point and have no idea when to expect my passport back. I have cancelled tickets, shame-facedly informed those expecting me, and am, literally, sitting here in the dark.

I am thinking of Kafka. I have often thought, even with my personal tragedies, perhaps because I “survived” them—who knows what that means?—that I am “deprived” of the knowledge of the really bad. That I can never understand Kafka, for instance, because I can never become so powerless.

So maybe this experience is a little education in that direction. I am virtually a prisoner. Take away a person’s passport and she is helpless. Soviet, maybe Chinese, certainly Cuban, citizens must have had this experience in the past. But their expectations were different. Mine are of an equal citizen in a functioning democracy visiting a country also boastful of itself as a democracy, trying to visit a country that is famous as the oldest constitutionally functioning system in the world. They have all conspired to reduce me to pulp. Or a wimp. Who is withdrawing step by step from the height of expectations she held of herself in this world, and with every retreat, is whimpering and pleading for yet smaller rights, but just something, anything. The erosion of rights and self-respect is remarkable. You cannot stand tall and proclaim who you are and what you must have if total silence greets you at the other end. Your voice falls lower and lower and then you barely whisper.

But what could the British Consulate want from torturing me like this? I am not their citizen and do not need to be kept in check. I am, however, pounding on their doors to be let in. Maybe my case is a little too strong and these cases arouse hackles. Why does she insist so much? Why has she sent her previous three passports? She has visited Britain so many times—obviously she has been trying again and again to go there. What is this Claremont College? Obviously the letterhead is made up. Anyone can make up a letterhead. What is this conference? This research? Enough details are not given. Then she has a daughter in England. She should have applied for a Child Visitor visa.

What am I meant to learn? What is the Universe trying to teach me?

At one level, it is the mundane lessons that my mother and my teachers failed to teach. Plan carefully, revise everything, do not hand in your papers until you have gone over them—fourscore and ten times over. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be careless.  Somewhere there is small print. Stop thinking of yourself as this special person (because of your education) who does not need to waste her time on the small print. That is exactly what will trip you up.

At another level, it is the wise old grandmother Universe who knows the secret no one else knows, that I am behind a bunch of different work and will suffer for the delay and incompleteness of each, and am thinking naively that nothing will happen and I can postpone further, but that’s not how it works. So it (she) is quietly giving me the time to complete everything while making it seem like an accident that now I have the time to do so.

At yet another level, there is a yet bigger presence somewhere behind this Mother Universe which is reminding me of what I already knew but was maybe in danger of forgetting. That nothing can finally affect you. You are, as Kabir sang, a bubble. Lay your plans as you may. You can be burst into nothingness at any instance.

I know this. It has happened to me. There is nothing abstract about the idea at all. When my bubble burst not so long ago, I realised that in the future I would have few illusions about the certainty of things. My disappointments would correspondingly be fewer, and maybe non-existent.

Then I drifted. I built up little empires, shored my banks, toted up my accounts. I began to live and think like someone who has never glimpsed the truth but actually believes that she can control what happens to her.

So this is a gentle reminder that no one can and the worst foolishness in the world is to believe that you can. No regret can be greater than the initial moment of realising this simple truth—say it, say it—as at the death of a loved one. No disappointment has any meaning after that.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 6, 2014

Alternative Modernities

Irfana is ill. She has dengue fever. She just looked it up. It lasts for just 4-5 days, though she has now had it for a week. There is no cure for it. She has to rest and suffer and it will pass. Then she will be week for two weeks or so. At least we know what it is. For four visits to the doctor, he was tentative and experimental, like the guest who comes for a meal and instead of eating properly, says politely achha, chakh lenge (all right…I might take a bite.) After five tests turned out negative, it was we who pushed the doctor to prescribe this dengue fever test.

He: “It’s nothing. She does not have malaria or typhoid, and her chest is clear.”

We: “Does she need to take another test? What is it? The fever is continuing for a week.”

Irfana: “It does not feel like a regular fever. This is something different. My head feels funny.”

He: “It will pass once the disease is over.”

We: ?

He: “You should keep taking your medicines.”

We: “What about the dengue fever test?”

He: “Yes, you can take that.”

We: “Should we?”

He: “Yes, you can. The chances are small. The time for dengue fever is over. We are seeing fewer cases of it now.”

We: “Oh, so it’s not necessary?”

He: “No, you can take it.”

And so on. As we wound our way down to the basement of the hospital where the tests are done, we were not sure whether this expensive test was needed or not. The doctor had left us with the impression that he could not say “no” to us after we had suggested it.

But it was positive. So we will go back tomorrow and see whether more tests and medicines are needed, even though online it says that there is no cure and it passes on its own.

Drat that one mosquito whose one bite caused it.

BHU is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Madan Mohan Malaviya. It seems to have happened rather abruptly, because surely such a thing should be celebrated for the whole year? They seem to have had a committee meeting in which the VC, let’s suppose it was him, told all the heads of the department to go out and organise something, sparing no expenses. He announces a generous budget of anywhere from half to a crore. About ten departments take him up on his offer and get five to seven lakhs each. The rest goes to lighting and beautification of the campus.

If you go there now, there are people busy painting the brickwork yellow and black, cleaning the sidewalks, weeding the roadsides. The departments who took up the offer rather imaginatively opted to hold an international conference each. I have already come across the Management one, the Labour Economics one, the Sanskrit one, and the English one. Some departments have pink and white tents in their compounds, some have bagged halls. Visitors are being received from the airport and driven around. Student volunteers are rushing to and fro, organisers are looking worried, and caterers are as happy as little bunnies.

During tea, you get, not just tea or coffee and biscuits, but a whole platter of alu chop, mithai, dalmoth, biscuits, and a little plastic cup of bad tea. Looking at the plastic cup, I wish it could have been done more aesthetically and, of course, that the tea were edible.

I go to the English Department conference, properly in the new Centre for Inter-Cultural Studies. It is on Alternative Modernities and is interesting enough. Arjun Appadorai suggests that there should be an understanding of many secularisms as there is of many religions. Ashis Nandy says, provocatively, that he would rather there be bad but ethical science than there be good but unethical science. He would rather fight the village astrologer or the shaman than the Nazis or the colonizers.

Others say interesting things too but I want to go back to Irfana with her fever, so I leave. I have strong thoughts on the subject of the conference so can’t listen to too much either without getting impatient. I have presented papers, in the past, on “Learning the ABC of Modernity” and “Learning Modernity? The technology of Education in India” and on the modernity of Banaras itself. My papers are also called “A Post-colonial school in a modern world” and I am now writing a book on the subject.

Modernity, as the cliché goes, is coming out of my ears.

What I think is this: it’s too many words. Words, words, words. We will never figure out anything like this. We should have a simple set of agendas and plan of action. Such as: how can we make those children who simply want to be “modern”—in clothes, behaviour, lifestyle—also free to be other things and to be reflective and critical and funny and creative? That’s what my agenda is. Otherwise we privileged people are debating away about words while all the time we live happily in several worlds, and there are those who are stuck in one and all they long for is to touch the hemline of the other, and they have no idea, and no hope, of ever debating anything and certainly of picking and choosing between alternatives.

So, in Southpoint school, we recently performed The Merchant of Venice in Hindi. Eight children, doing a few multiple roles each, brought Shakespeare to life in colloquial Hindustani, the characters transferred from the Mediterranean to North India. The new people were called Razzak Ali, Mehjabeen, Anwar Hussain and so on. The children playing them were from poor weavers’ families, a tailor’s, an unemployed mazdoor’s, and two without fathers whose mothers depended on their natal families. They were children who would otherwise have swotted in some boring school, got turned off studies, dropped off, and taken to some semi-skilled low-paying work to make survival possible for the family.

Here, they performed The Merchant of Venice. They were a team that knew that they were trained, skilled and competent. They roused laughter and admiration and for one hour kept an audience of hundreds enthralled. They knew pages of dialogue and knew that they were delivering it in a trained way. They also understood the story and felt ownership over it: greed, rivalry, persecution, anger, revenge, love, competition, justice, intelligence, beauty and fulfilment. It was as if they had the power to create truth. Everyone acknowledged them as young masters of a profession and they knew they had achieved something wonderful.

For working class children like them to have performed Shakespeare in Hindi and be so respected and empowered is an alternative modernity.

There is no point in debating the desirability of the alternative. That is the only kind of modernity for us in the non-West that is possible. The hospital and the doctor that Irfana had to suffer were perfect examples of derived and imitative modernity. A huge box of a building with a poor imitation of everything that a Western hospital has, but Indian people manning it with inadequate and unreflective training about their work, consequently a shabbiness and looseness in everything. Why do people like to imitate modernity, even when they can see that it does not work? Why not worry about how to achieve the alternative? My—our—answer to that: give actual respect to the desires of individuals by trying to offer them all the opportunities for reading, exposure and creation that all the privileged people in India experience. The children’s Merchant of Venice was a conference on Alternative Modernities.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 6, 2014

Community versus fantasy?

Community versus fantasy? In a nutshell, this is a crucial question we considered today.

First, in the teachers’ workshop at Southpoint, we discussed two important aspects of the curriculum: how to begin and conclude a class. The beginning was to always be “oral.” All too often a teacher begins by entering her class, asking her students to “open your copies” and starts writing on the blackboard something for them to copy. She does not tell them what the plan is, does not greet them or acknowledge them in other ways, and does not make an effort to get them interested in the topic of the day.

We have to change all this, said I, leading the teaching workshop. No matter what, you must begin with a discussion. Nor should the discussion be the familiar litany of “What is your name? What did you eat for breakfast today? How did you come to school? What did you see on the way?” Whatever the topic may be, eg the ubiquitous one of ”transport,” that at least three teachers had told me they were doing at present, it could rise above these ghisa-pita, simplistic approaches.

No question but I worked hard to bring smiles to their faces. I told them the importance of using jargon words like “curriculum” instead of making loose statements such as “the children were taking a lot of interest in this” and “they had a good response to this.” I know, by the way, that these seem like harmless, even meaningful statements, but my battle is to make them plan every step in their classroom more, and even more, to reflect on everything they do in more technical language. To emphasise the importance of language, I joked about changing Mamta’s name to “Pintu”—-that produced smiles.

There were many techniques to stimulate discussion. I am haunted by a thesis of Kieran Egan, that children’s imagination is routinely stunted in schools by mistaken teaching notions of “development.” He argues that it is not true that children’s brains, or minds, “develop” over age. For some things, such as art or poetry, they are at their peak in earlier years and decline with age, until in adulthood, the minds are the least developed. The evidence lies, among other things, in children’s appreciation of fairy tales, where they can apparently engage with complex emotional issues presented through characters they could never encounter.

So, while presenting some techniques to stimulate discussion—bringing an object, starting a debate, brainstorming, going outside or looking outside—I told our teachers that we favoured the “community” approach because it was underplayed in India and children did not learn to observe around them or interact with everyday things or apply those observations to what they were learning in school. But we favoured even more the “fantasy” approach where instead of simply talking, taking the transport example, of whatever they knew, we talked about what could be or whatever their imaginations could produce. They were not in fact two opposing sides, community and fantasy, though I had presented it as such. I hastened to add that there was a transition between them. Much of what could be said about transport was in fact mysterious for children and had to be researched, not least by the teacher first. Instead of simply “how did you come to school?” the lead question could be “Let’s look at everything in our classroom. How did it get here? The bricks, the cement, the glass, the wires, the tiles?”

After the teachers’ workshop there were meetings with individual teachers. Then we went through three acts of a play in progress, acted by class X and Azim, in IX, and watched by the teachers. This was The Merchant of Venice translated into Hindustani and located in present-day Banaras. All by chance, it illustrated beautifully this community-fantasy paradox.

The characters in the play now had Muslim names and dressed as Muslims, with fezes and skull caps, pyjamas and lungis. They had nice Urdu inflexions and greeted and parted with salam-alequm and Khudahafiz. Coincidentally four out of the eight children were Muslims, one from a weaving family, one from a butcher’s, one a trader’s and one from an ex-weaver’s, presently unemployed family. All that also rang a bell because the play talked about commerce and trade, wranglings with money and the need for justice. Because Shakespearean England was not very removed from contemporary small-town India in certain respects, the play sounded “natural,” as if the children were talking about their own lives.

We had come back to “community” via “fantasy.” In order to talk about Muslim “difference,” love and hate, plotting and revenge, competition and disappointment, we used a faraway story in space and time that the children first read, in a language not ours and with characters called Bassanio and Antonio. We modified everything a bit with a friendly translation but kept true to Shakespeare’s intentions—and emotions and humour. Via this discursive route, the children discovered and talked about themselves. There was no way to measure what happened, but big things did.

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