Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 11, 2022

Maths in the Jungle-2

We sat on the verandah of the little office-cum pump room-cum guard room the first day. On the second day a very interesting activity was going on in the area we call “Dandak” (we have to find more names; so far we only have two for different areas—Hyde Park and Dandak…you can probably guess the characteristics of these areas….) Sunil bhaiya was up on a tree sawing off a third limb, two lying around on the ground beneath. These were sizeable limbs, and their crash downwards was a regular TI-I-I-MB-E-E-R event.

So we took our bags and bottles and mat and spread out on the ground at a safe distance from him and his tree to catch the crash of the next few limbs.

But before we did that we made a trip to inspect two trenches. We counted all the plants in each meticulously, 110 in one and 55 in the other.

Back in our class, we took a sheet of paper each and drew a rectangle for the trench. We learnt that there were rows and columns. To have 110 we needed 11 x 10—good for the older one. 55  or 11 x 5 was a good number for the two younger ones.

Everyone did a fine job of rows and columns. Then came Utkarsh’s grand challenge—word problems.

I made a trench.

It has ten rows.

It has eleven columns

There are 10×11=110 trees altogether.

He was definitely able to profit from his experience of the day before. The words again worried him and they attacked him and injured him. But they did not defeat him, and he emerged victorious. After half an hour of reading the word ‘rows’ as ‘columns’ he did not bother reading it in this perverse manner, and even learnt up the spelling of both, as well as ‘trees’ and ‘trench.’ He worked at a good speed and focused.

The two little ones made their calculations, and wrote every single word for alphabet and phonetic practice.

In the middle we watched the sawing and the crashing down of the tree’s branches. We made up stories of how the tree was feeling. We chatted with Sunil bhaiya, high up on his perch.

We watched two kites (the bird kind) in the sky floating around, seemingly lower and lower to attack our food. We had our snack safely, however, and finished every crumb, each sharing with the other. Two had forgotten their water, and two had brought theirs in thermos flasks which kept it too hot to drink. So we waited to cool it in the flask caps and watched life at the lower levels meanwhile.

Work being over, we ran and walked around, climbed hillocks and waded through tall grass. We chatted to a shepherd and I booked the next baby goats he was going to deliver.

We crossed the bridge over the creek and came home. Between Maths and English, we crossed many a bridge today.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 11, 2022

Maths in the Jungle

I spent two consecutive mornings with my wards, Samira, 4; Ananya, 4; Utkarsh, 9; in Chitauni ‘Jungle’ doing a Maths class.

Chitauni, for those who do not remember, is a ‘Jungle’ in the sense that it as a 6-7 acre lie of land facing East-South-East into the Ganga, being laboriously planted by us with mixed trees in the “Miyawaki” technique. The planted trees are in trenches along the boundary, and in pits in designated areas. Three fields are planted with wheat. The rest of the land is bare, spotted with babool, or native gum trees, fragile and pretty, and tall grass with wispy fonds waving in the wind.

It’s pretty idyllic. When you spread your mat and sit down with books, a lovelier spot to study in cannot be imagined.

On the first morning, I wanted to just do numbers and sets with the younger two, and sets, multiplication and division with Utkarsh. He collected 20 twigs for himself and ten each of flowers and stones for the younger ones.

If a child does not understand the concept of ordinal and cardinal numbers, as Anu does not, no amount of saying, “Take out five stones,” or “Take out six,” will help her understand what ‘five’ or ‘six’ mean. She would pick one stone, proclaim “One!” Then pick one more and declare “Two!” Then she would choose a stone, “H’m, h’m….Six!” And plonk down the third stone with delight.

Adult-like, I’d correct her, “No, three.”

Wide-eyed, she’d say “Three?” and return the ‘wrong’ stone to the pile and choose a different one. “H’m, h’m….six!” And be equally pleased again.

I knew I should not get my explanation wrong again. I asked Samira, who was watching, to explain to Anu what she should do. Samira was happy to do so.

“Look, Anu,” she began. “It’s not that you should think, ‘Let me take the bigger stone—that will be “six”.’ No. Any stone can be ‘six.’ So don’t worry that it’s a big stone or a small stone. Just don’t stop counting. When you’re going, “One, two, three…keep going, and you’ll come to six.” You know? Don’t stop.”

Anu tried and again got it wrong. Samira explained again, in a variation of the first time. Anu swiftly got it correct. Samira strolled away, her hands in her pockets. Anu was absorbed and did her counting many times over. “Five? One, two, three, four, five. Six? One, two, three, four, five, six.”

I knew that Samira had got her ‘concepts’—I next tried addition with her and she went smoothly into it—and the challenge now was to make the process fun enough, and full of challenge after challenge each of which seemed mysterious, elusive, exciting, and always non-threatening.

I was relieved that Anu crossed a hump without the threat of adult disapproval. Samira’s working with her gave a friendly, comradely colour to the whole activity. That Samira might develop arrogance was for me to subvert by quickly beginning a different activity where there would be clear equality or even a subtle superiority on Anu’s part.

Meanwhile, Utkarsh. The poor child has missed the golden years where you can join language to mathematics….meaning, he seems to handle a mathematics task, but his brain shuts down at the vocabulary that all mathematical activity also includes. Because I was combining English and Maths in my teaching, I was giving him word problems.

Divide the sticks into ten equal piles. How many sticks in each pile?

Divide the sticks into five equal piles. How many sticks in each pile?

And so on, with more or less sticks. All his problems were related to the words, piles, sticks, divide, each, equal, how, and many.

No one could come to my help here. I kept explaining, no doubt sounding impatient with each repetition. I tried to first have him simply learn the words. He resisted that. He tried to defeat me by getting each and every word wrong every single time.

Then, Eureka! A turning point. Utkarsh still stumbled over the words but moved on and kept moving. He did three whole problems with three sentences in each all by himself with clear understanding, confidence, and a look of pleasure in his eyes.

The leaves on the trees rustled, the birds sang, the wind from the river blew, and the four of us were in one humming bond of learning.

And wait till you hear about the second day!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 9, 2022

Et tu Brute?

I awoke from a terrible dream. I was sitting in our Pre-school working with teachers. One of them was driving me up a wall. She had to make a chart for children of something simple, maybe capital and block “M m” and draw and write words beginning with that sound. She had made a hopeless mess of it. The trouble was that she listened gravely, nodded her head constantly while I spoke, and then simply couldn’t do it. She didn’t understand. How was I supposed to work with her?

This has a history and a context. If I was doing this for the first time, or even the tenth time, I would know the answer: “Just explain very simply, step by step, and if possible, model once what you want her to do.” But this may be the hundredth time or the hundred and fiftieth. I’ve been at this teachers’ guidance thing for thirty one years, at least three to five times a year. No kidding. Not that this particular teacher has been around; they’ve come and gone. But one would rightly expect that I had honed a strategy for getting across to them. Which I have. It doesn’t work.

In my dream, I say, “Turn over the chart paper and let us start afresh.” Then I moan, “Oh, you’ve used the other side already!” That’s one thrust into my side. Blood is gushing. Then I notice that one particular drawing—it’s a cake—is etched so sharply that even when we have erased everything else, that will shine forth. Another thrust, this time to my back. Blood gushes forth.

Finally, in my dream, after many discussions and hopeless exchanges, she goes away and sits at a distance studying her notebook—but noisily, not quietly, pushing past pages with her fingers with a sound—just the way I teach pages should not be turned. The final thrust of all. I topple over and Caesar is no more. There’s a pool of blood and a dead figure.

In my dream, I am saying, “Now, now. Don’t throw a tantrum. Get a hold on yourself.”

I awake saying the same thing, “Control yourself, control yourself.”

But actually it’s a matter of life and death for me, the details of how one teaches.

The Caesar imagery is from a different train of thought, maybe a dream, maybe not. Barry John, the popular English theatre director and teacher, worked all his life in India. I saw many of his plays. I saw–not his play–Julius Caesar at St Stephen’s. At seventy he stopped his theatre work and went off to the mountains to live and to write.

What a good idea to do that, instead of being eventually stabbed and succumb.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 8, 2022

More witches please!

E.L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth (New York: Athenaeum, 1967) is an important book for all of us interested in children, as well as for us budding authors of children’s literature in India.

As in her award-winning novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Franweiler (New York: Dell, 1967), Konigsburg writes about a middle-class family in which the protagonist is a young girl. She is privileged, intelligent, has no psychological or emotional issues, and is only somewhat bored with and sceptical about, her life. Her parents are typical in every way, almost to the point of being stereotypes. The mother is busy with cooking and vacuuming, but not mindlessly so. For the book’s success, she is not a hovering parent but lets her ten year old daughter be free to pursue her own preoccupations.

This time the protagonist’s adventure is that she, Elizabeth, meets a fascinating girl her age, Jennifer, who might be a witch, and becomes her apprentice. We know that it’s all make believe, even for the girls, but the innocent sweetness of ten year olds (reminiscent of The Egypt Game) makes us participate in their activities with pleasure, suspense, and even—envy.

I can report that I was on the verge of believing, as Elizabeth does, that Jennifer surely has some mysterious connection to the occult. Why not? All politically correct people today should believe in witches. I was equally on the verge of believing that ‘reality’ is over-rated, and if the girls feel that their rituals and powers are ‘real’—I for one am ready to even try the chants and rituals myself.

So, the achievement of this book is, to sustain, for a short, fleeting time, a life of the imagination; to succeed in persuading us that we are in the little girls’ heads; and to suspend our growing up into an adult world carved up into the scientific and the magical.

Konigsburg, as I think I pointed out in the review of her other Mixed Up Files  book (Sept 7, 2020, “The child as adult” in www.nitakumar.wordpress.com –ie., this blog), has the one shortcoming of being mired in the American confusion, if I may, between the individual and the social. Almost all the adults, and the children who play to their tune, represent the social. Elizabeth, Jennifer, and probably others like them, stand for the individual. How, when, where, and why, we do not know, and are finally left with the American confusion of belief in “the Great Person with the Great Gift,” and simultaneously in “Everyone is Equally great and Can Do Anything They Like.”

But let’s end with witches. Our youngest family member, Samira, would love to meet a witch and would suspend all disbelief were a friend claim to be one. True, she is four, and Elizabeth is ten….but that childhood continues is good to know. After writing Shankar’s Fairies, I am pleased to know that it continues to ripe old age.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 31, 2021

31st Dec ‘21

As the New Year approaches and the familiar New Year’s Eve dawns, I have to confess that, soppy as it sounds, I am ‘happy.’

Partly it’s because of the strangeness of WhatsApp that allows me to be on various groups, including one of old school friends and one of cousins. Mostly they are around my age and mostly what they do is send around “much-forwarded” messages that explain to you how good life is, how you have to live in the day, and how being older is superior to being younger.

Partly it’s because I am able to work full time in my organization. Whether children or adults, the hundred and fifty or so people who belong to it are familiar, complex, whole individuals whom it is a pleasure to interact with. ‘Pleasure’ is a deceptive word: the work is aggravating, exhausting, seemingly impossible, that is to say, immensely challenging. It’s not to say that I don’t try to run away from fulfilling the responsibilities I have taken up; I do. But I am keenly aware that they all constitute the Truth. I would not like to live in a bubble away from the Truth.

Mostly it’s because I have the company of little Samira, and my other child Irfana and new one Gaurav. I cannot even imagine living my life happily away from them. I only feel, humbly, that I am not doing justice to the wealth that is mine, that it is lying around unused, a wasted treasure.

Thanks to the same old yoga for fifty years, now slowed down because of two back-ache scares, I feel good in my bones and muscles. Thanks to our well-serviced kitchen and our amazing fields of vegetables and grains, I feel good in my insides. In any case, there is no one my age around, so, given that all the WhatsApp groups are dedicated to positive thinking, there is no one to share any aches or pains with, which is a blessing in disguise.

My sorrow is profound as one year gets completed from the death of my darling brother, and six from the pain of losing my mother. Daddy and Sombabu left 17 and 18 years ago, incredible as that sounds. I feel, at least, that they are all with me and I at least have the peace of mind to sit and commune with them.

Much of my delicious happiness has to do with my perch up on the second floor, looking out at the Ganga. It is tranquil, occasionally dazzling in the sun or moon light. On its distant other bank there are villages that fill the air with song. On its closer banks are only trees, and between the trees and us there are fields of ripening mustard, vegetables, greens. Maybe, soon, the winter flowers will pop up.

When I go for a walk in the village, I glow. People greet me left and right, and at least two or three men on motorcycles offer me a ride….

My penthouse is simple, old-fashioned, vastly comfortable, gracious and elegant to my eye. True, the furniture is mostly worn out, the linens threadbare, the bric-a-brac damaged. But the colourful daris shine and our books welcome. When I look through Architectural Digest, I wince.

When I read or listen to the voices from my country, I sense an elemental battle between dark forces and light ones. An elemental hope inside me wavers like a flame and refuses to be puffed out—that all through the history of creation, the forces of light have eventually triumphed.

That gives some strength to my Karma Yoga, rather than just Gyan Yoga or Bhakti Yoga, you might say in a prophesy-fulfilling way. Voices of children echo downstairs from 8 to 4. They are just close and just far enough to constitute more of the scary Truth. When I sit at my desk, what do I read about but—children. Yesterday it was about Reggio Emilia, a place to fire anyone up. What do I write about but—children. How Samriddhi conducted Assembly, how Faiz caricatured me. When I dream, it’s about phonetic language in Nursery, dictionaries in class 6, folk dances in 1 and 2.

When I plan the future, there’s a library, a garden, a forest, a farm with animals, and some realization of selfhood by scores of children and adults. There’s piles of research, and reams of writing. There’s maybe a movie, or two, or three.

That’s what probably comprises happiness. I have the privilege of access to the mystery of children. The mystery will never be resolved and I can dream on to the next year and the next.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 24, 2021

The discovery of the child

Whole books have been written, and continue to be written, on the subject, including by me. It is rather obvious, isn’t it? In pre-industrial societies, the child exists not in himself or herself, not as an individual, separate entity, but as a miniature adult-in-the-making. The little or no value placed in him/herself is replaced by value to the community, the society, and the adult world.

Then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the child emerges as an individualized, distinct being. Gradually this being is granted to need a specific space and rules, to have rights, needs, behaviour patterns, personality, and an essence that marks “a child.”

We know this happened in Europe because of the art work and other representations of the child made by adults, as studied by Philippe Aries and numerous subsequent scholars. Following the 17-18th century emergence of the child, we can follow gradual stages in the etching out of the concept, including close to our times.

We know this did not happen in India concurrently because right until the 20th century, children were treated as adults in being made to marry and, indeed, to consummate the marriage, and to work. Work and sexual activity, together with the responsibilities they bring, are the two markers of adulthood. Even today, children are socialized into gender roles and within childhood act as little men and women.

I spent the evening with Utkarsh, a boy of nine, and Ananya, a girl of four. They were living historical specimens, as far as I could tell. Utkarsh was from the time when childhood had not been discovered and Ananya had managed to make it in time for when it had been.

They live in the village of Bachao, some ten kilometres south of Varanasi. Their mother, Nisha, is one of the school’s support staff. She comes at 7.30 and departs at 5. Since she brings her two children with her, and since their school runs only from 9 to 2.45, the children have to occupy themselves for several hours without company. What do they do?

Utkarsh, literally, sits at the gate. On the guard’s chair. Something about his sprawling body language is so disturbing that the three or four adults living on the premises (my family) or spending longer hours there (the manager) keep scolding him, “Stay away from the gate!” “Don’t sit there!” “Go and play in the back!”

What disturbs us all and what we do not voice because he is, after all, a child for us, is that he is acting out the role of an adult. And a shifty, unoccupied, un-rooted adult at that, one who spends his day chewing cud, staring out at the passing traffic.

Where’s the energy? What about running around? Throwing a ball? Showing curiousity at all the natural wonders all around? Or, conversely, reading mind-blowing works of fiction, or even comic books? None of the images of childhood that moderns hold dear to their heart are exemplified in the figure of Utkarsh as he passes some two hours each morning and evening, literally doing nothing,  outside the classroom.

Because any adult on the premises would talk to him as a child, he talks very little. Except to the guard, with whom he has an extraordinary level of exchange at all times. This is a man-to-man kind of exchange, judged by its intonation—I have never heard clearly what they say—in the “local language,” Bhojpuri. The guard has been reprimanded, “Don’t talk to the children!” “Don’t speak in Bhojpuri!” but he continues, apparently enjoying the company of Utkarsh-man.

The little girl Ananya wears cute clothes and comes hugging a teddy bear. She has a host of tiny accessories, from cap and gloves to bag and napkins. Utkarsh wolfs down roti-sabzi at break time. Ananya brings eggs, pancakes, apples. She is the best friend of a middle class child and knows instinctively that to emulate her friend is to move up the social ladder. Utkarsh knows about class too but resents it and gruffly turns away. He is not given treats and would perhaps refuse them if he were. Ananya often has candies and is bribe-able with treats as any child would be.

Their mother clearly straddles two eras. When she had Utkarsh, she belonged to the village, in her mind as well as in fact. The parents let him play with village children and hang around the village all the time outside the five or six hours in school. The school made very little impact on him and the village wielded a great deal of influence. Neither of the parents, the father an auto driver, the mother a cook and cleaner, had time to sit him down or disentangle the many webs of his socialization. And he is a lovely child, I mean person. No one would necessarily need to rebuke him for anything, except, ironically, for not doing anything.

When the mother had Ananya, she was alone for a great deal of the time in the initial three years, her husband being away for work. Ananya was mollycoddled because she was a baby, and a girl, and cute. She started school at the age of three, in the same place where Nisha works. Utkarsh did not go till he was almost six.

Meanwhile, Nisha cottoned on to the fact that there is a different role-playing if you are a modern child and if you are a pre-modern village child. If you are a modern child, you demand confectionary and toys, throw tantrums, and have fixed times for snacks and naps and changing and working and playing and so on. If you are a pre-modern non-child, you are always hungry for things, you fly a torn kite and can buy nothing, you talk ruggedly to adults, hang around doing nothing, stare at everything, and may never change, or eat, or sleep at fixed times. You are undeniably smart, and can do many wonderful adult-like things such as open tight gates and ride coolly on a bicycle or perform market errands.

So, all evening as we explored in our ’jungle,’ Ananya kept up her childish prattle about snakes and coyotes, specially their potty and susu, then the extraordinary things all around to collect. She only needed to be shepherded, and then timed out when she got giddy from running downhill.

Utkarsh was grave and grunted only a few words. He studied the skies with a glint in his eyes, hatching a plan as to how to destroy and loot the kite in the northwest, failing which the one in the northeast. It was a careful, long-term, dangerous plan. For several moments at a stretch I could forget what a child he was and be in awe of his mature planning.  

And I was in awe of the whole panorama before me of the history of the child.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 22, 2021

Teacher’s lessons

I love the drive from our village campus to the city campus. It’s exactly 30 minutes long and divided in my mind into five parts. First comes our village road. We are cleverly situated right at the end of the village, beyond which is the river. To get out of the village onto the main road is some two kilometres of driving over an asphalt ribbon with fields, bamboo groves and grazing cows on both sides. At 8.30, however, there is traffic composed frighteningly of children on bicycles and children on foot, so one can hardly look around or dream.

The second part is a wide, good road until what is called the “bye-pass”, which goes under a bridge intersecting a highway.

After that comes the longest section, maybe seven or eight kilometres of city driving, on which you can comfortably do 50 to 60 km an hour because it is wide and multi-laned, not that anyone observes lane-based driving.

The fourth is through Banaras Hindu University, a green space that can soothe your ruffled feathers, albeit it has, at last count, ten high speed breakers from when you enter the university campus to when you exit, enough to make your car and your butt groan.

The final phase is a brief one. You pause, honk, swear, stop, maneouver, and somehow turn from the university gate to reach your own gate, hardly 200 metres in all a drive, but the most packed and slow.

I do my riaz on the way. I set my throat on the octave, practice the scales, choose my morning ragas, and go through the few bandishes or songs that I know in ragas Bilawal, Bhairav, Asavari, and Jaunpuri (there are many kinds of each).

If I want to catch my breath, I put on the radio. All six stations it is set to offer nothing but obnoxious advertisements and poorly selected songs. And the new style of speaking that is all the rage in India, in which everything you are told, whether, “The number you have dialled is busy,” or “The next station is Park Street,” or “The greatest romantic actor of the sixties was Biswajeet,” is spoken with a heavy-breathing, sexual innuendo that is beyond the weight of the message.

My little students greet me enthusiastically. The teachers look visibly relieved. They can handle everything, but I journey there two to three times a week to teach, under the conviction, mine that has been imbibed by them as well, that my teaching is essential to our city campus children.

So, what is this grand teaching?! As usual I taught some and learn some.

First I worked with Nursery and KG. I wanted them to not simply sing the old twenty or so Nursery Rhymes but some new ones with a play on words or a funny or sweet twist. There are some six or seven such that they are getting to enjoy. After we sang them I sat them in twos and let them draw pictures about the different rhymes, writing the first couple of lines of each. They bent down and worked away. I learnt:

No question but that children are the best little artists. No question that they can be absorbed for an unpredictably long time just scribbling, drawing, colouring, and decorating. No doubts that they are proud of their work and identify with it. No matter what their personalities, they get stilled and immersed in something that they know and feel to be good, solid activity.

What they cannot do is follow adult ideas about top and bottom, straight and crooked. They will write anywhere and draw anywhere on a page. They will make two mountains instead of one or a person twice the size of the car he has to ride in, if that is what they want to do. No ‘rationality’ is the rule. The teacher can keep correcting them, or see that the beauty of their artwork lies in precisely their ordering of it, not a preferred adult one.

They like to hoard, whether pencils or crayons. Sorry, they like to measure pencils and get the longest, and hide crayons on their laps and in their fists. The teacher can spend time trying to cure them of this selfish behaviour, or she can wait for them to grow out of it, which they always do.

Next I worked with class 2 to 4. We are reading Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. They are working with rhyming words and creating their own four-line tales that rhyme. We are using ‘food’ as a topic. They collaboratively composed

Yesterday we ate dal and rice

I must say the dal was nice

But the rice became as cold as ice

And horrors! It also had lice!!

We then drew cartoons that told the same stories.

My lessons? Children can handle a lot of stuff. Practice makes perfect. If this was just the second or third day of rhyming words, a few more days will suck them totally in to the magic of it. However, they are a little competitive, and justifiably proud, and you have to make sure to praise everyone, not just the ones who come up with the brilliant line. At the same time, you have to praise just a tiny bit more those who do, otherwise you are punishing them for being smart.

The older children get, the less adventurous and unique their drawings become, and the more reluctant they are to colour or decorate. Almost all the class 2-4 children refused crayons and were satisfied with their pencilled black and white drawings.

I don’t know where my heart lies. I love the sweetness of the youngest ones. I adore the dignity of the older ones. I like to be crazy with the littlest, but equally to be thoughtful and explorative with the olders.

If it wasn’t so exhausting (not including even the drive) I would teach everyday, all day. And learn so much.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 22, 2021

Management Trivia

Like many people in India, our Manager, S—, finds it difficult to say “no.” This is accompanied by never being able to say, “This is not working,” or “I made a mistake,” or “It’s necessary to think this over,” or “I/we just cannot do it.”

The whole presentation of the self is of a Mr Bravado. I can, I will, it’s happening, it’s done, it will be  flawless—even when all the evidence is to the contrary.

This morning I took a walk with him to the plot in front of the school. He had had it ploughed some two months ago and planted mustard. I had remarked some two weeks after that that the mustard was not growing well. The field looked almost bare, with a touch of green here and there. “No, ma’am,” he insisted, “It just needs more watering. It will come up perfectly.”

I shrugged. He discussed the fencing he needed to make. I didn’t dispute anything.

Another two weeks later it still looked bare and brown and the green shades were even lighter and further in-between.

He told me again when asked that more watering was all that was needed. And the fencing was a mere detail–it would happen anytime now.

Another fortnight and many attempts at watering later, he told me that we could not in fact water it because our pipe was too small, the pressure from our pump too low, and the demand on the same pump and the same pipe for all our many fields too high. But we would have had a crop had ‘animals’ not marauded. What was our guard doing all evening if not keeping out the animals? I asked unnecessarily. He did make rounds but…

Mr B was not nonplussed when I instructed him to kindly forget all about the farming on this plot and turn his attention elsewhere. All over the village, mustard fields were turning a lovely sea of yellow. What if we didn’t have a mustard crop this year? We had enough calls on our attention.

A simple, “No,” on his part would have saved us over a month of DoubleSpeak, several kilolitres of water, hundreds of man hours, and of course, bestowed peace of mind.

When we walk around the campus there is an effusion of wrappers of sweet and savoury snacks, remnants of tobacco packets, odd plastic and cloth, and most marvellous of all, shreds of paper from textbooks, copy books, office documents, files old and new, and art work. The first two—snack and tobacco packaging—is easy to trace, to children and staff, respectively. But the paper?

It’s actually quite simple. Those sweeping out the rooms overturn the waste paper baskets into their heaps of rubbish, and then dispose of everything just outside the spaces they are responsible for. The wind, the dogs, and footfall, do the rest. The paper waste soon ends up littering the walkways, the sides of walls, the flower beds, and the fields.

No one admits anything. They all look innocently back at you when accosted. No assent, no denial. Just an innocent look. The brain is whirring away however. The favourite response, when one is forthcoming, is to accuse another person. One hundred percent of the time, every single staff member mentions someone else’s name.

Theatre exercises? Yes.

Needed by the scores.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 15, 2021

The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project

Extraordinary headlines!

“Inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor: from Resolution to Completion, P.M. Modi has achieved the Future!”

“The grandeur of Kashi: rudraksh beads at the neck, Ganga water in hand, watch P.M. Modi immersed in devotion for Shiva!”

“Moments of bliss: the whole world will be painted in Baba Vishwanath’s colours; “Har-har Mahadev!” will echo from Kashi to Kyoto.”

I noted these on the 13th when they appeared, but did not have the heart to proceed with a thought piece. When I tried to start writing, my thoughts would turn dark and a hollow depression settle inside me.

I love Banaras, or Varanasi. I have spent my life from thirty onwards in its lanes and neighbourhoods, doing ethnography, observing and writing, then running an organization to work with children and families. I am not from there nor do I have a job there. The only reason that I am in Banaras, for now 40 years, is because I love it and want to live there. My children have grown up there and love it equally.

What does ‘love’ mean? I am not one of the people who have lost their homes in the making of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor. The project has expanded a 3,000 sq ft. space to a 500, 000 sq ft space. In the process, precious structures—buildings, shrines, walls—have been destroyed. I am simply aghast at the immensity and mindlessness of the destruction. Why would any government do that?

The propaganda materials and the PM’s speeches claim that it is in the name of ‘development’ and ‘convenience of tourists.’ What an ignorant and irrelevant consideration. How about something in the name of historical sanctity, aesthetics, people’s sensibility?

History and Geography are both witnesses and taskmasters. All through History, those in power have sought to re-organise space and structures to make themselves stick out as the Axis Mundi. Ozymandias-like, no one’s names survive. Or, more correctly, the names might, getting entangled with the structures (“Ashokan pillar”), but the identity of the person certainly becomes worn out with time to the point of non-recognition. And regarding the geographical space, after all the hurrays and cheering are over, the garlands are spent and the lights go off—who cares? Pigeons will shit, old people will rest, those seeking alms from tourists will squat, where they have to. Some Maharani gilded the Vishwanath temple dome a few centuries ago. Another donated scores of shivalingas. Yet others built a tank and a courtyard. People assimilated all the changes and the places gradually became familiar and intimate.

The present changes are in the same line as the huge railway stations of Cantt. and Maduadih, the airports of Varanasi and four other UP cities, and the so-called highways outside the city. Everything is for show. The sense of the ordinary person’s convenience is conspicuous by its absence. Indeed the ordinary person is reduced to a mindless wanderer in winding lanes. The Prime Minister is so naïve that he even says, “The past scenario was terrible and everyone was miserable. Now they will be happy,” or words to that effect.

That used to be my one nightmare when I fell in love with Banaras and chose to live here: that one fine day, it will be re-designed to please tourists and no longer be the quirky home of its interesting residents.

Like so many cities in India and the world, the beautiful city of Banaras is losing its soul to an ignorant drive towards ill-educated history, poor aesthetics, and shallowly judged commerce. I mean, would you go to Venice or Amsterdam if they had pulled down cobbled streets, arches and canals in the name of ‘development’?

Posted by: Nita Kumar | December 12, 2021

Curricular integration is fun–and easy

I am a teacher of English according to the timetable. Most of the time I like to find texts, small ones, or full chapters and stories, and have the children read them before doing any grammar or comprehension exercises. We are all aware what a wealth of stories there are in the world to plunder for pleasure and learning.

Some of the time, however, I like to use: a Science experiment, a Maths concept, a song lyric, a folk dance choreography, theatre or martial arts exercises, or topics from History, Geography or Economics to teach English.

It’s all very exciting.

Today I taught class 4 how to write with correct spelling, punctuation and syntax something about Fractions. The fun went on and on. There are the wonderful characters, Numerator and Denominator. There is the grand old symbol, an Equal Sign. There are the “greater than” “smaller than” symbols as well. Numerous simple, yet classy, sentences can be composed with all this material, starting with,

What is a Fraction?

A Fraction is part of a whole. All the parts have to be equal to call one a fraction.

As I composed definitions and word problems, trying always to keep the language close to their level, I cannot describe the exciting tug, like a powerful underground current, the Maths concept exerted on me.

Then there were all the Science experiments we did. I may not have studied Science beyond a point because of the division in my time between ‘Arts’ and ‘Sciences’ at an early stage, but I know enough to make the class do exciting things, then write about them in correct and colloquial English.

As for songs, even Nursery Rhymes can teach nouns and verbs. But early Primary enjoys:

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

To see what he could see, see, see

And all that he could see, see, see

Was down at the bottom of the sea, sea, sea

The repetitiveness of most songs makes them great tools for oral English, but they are an underutilized resource for written language as well.

I like choreography because of its relative complexity. One piece I have goes:

Hold hands—step right, cross, skip, hop

Step-hop! Step-hop!

After they have learnt to follow this vocabulary, the magic that happens when the music is turned on is incomparable!

Enough said. There are problems galore in this approach as well.

The main one is what I call the Rabindranath Tagore syndrome. Rabindranath could teach but not teach others to teach. Likewise, I pretend that my talking to teachers and guiding them and assisting them is having an impact—but, honestly, it would need a hundred times greater effort that I make at present to achieve anything.

Adults are resistant to learning. When I introduce integrated teaching, there are a variety of responses.

Some nod vigorously, agreeing to everything, then ask later, maybe days later when I’ve been depending on everything having proceeded according to plan, “Ma’am, woh concept  nahin clear hua tha. Yeh tooth-brushing  science, maths, art, music dwara kaise parhayenge? Ma’am, I was not clear about that concept. What did you mean that we can teach tooth-brushing through Science, Maths, Art, Music?” It’s easier to recognize different learning levels in children than in adults because the tendency is to automatically treat all adults as your equals without respecting their real differences.

Others say ‘yes’ with a flurry and then do absolutely nothing, going on assuring you that they are just on the verge of starting integrated teaching.

Yet others look wide-eyed and delighted. “What a great idea! Imagine that! Really? You are so creative!! I had never thought of such a thing!” And on and on, till you give up trying to bring them back to technicalities and finally say, “Fine. Just do it.” And they will—about one fortieth of what you proposed.

The vast majority are caught in the vice of theoretical abstraction. They will listen to it. They will think about it. They will plan it. They will just not ever do it. I have tried to empathise. I’ve imagined talking to my class about the river and its weeds. My feet, however, will not stay still. I have to have the children make a line and march them off and we stand at the river bank and observe. Now, if those limbs stayed still, I would not go out of the classroom or do anything else but with my voice and hands. I cannot imagine it but I can imagine imagining imagining it.

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