Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 1, 2021

A Tripled Pain

Chinta is a “Harijan” as she describes herself. She has three sons, Shrawan, Kaushal, and Kishan. Shrawan studied in a government school and dropped out during lockdown. Kaushal studied in a different government school and also dropped out. This was when they had been getting free lunch, books, and uniforms. Kishan has been in a private school from Nursery. When teaching became online, he continued, because of the sheer pressure from his school. Chinta describes how she got help from her in-laws to have him supplied with an internet pack. The other two? They are already happy “doing nothing” and have told their mother they see no point in school and will not go back. They are 17, 15 and 13 years old.

There is a good reason why ethnographies of the classroom in India, online or offline, should not describe the experience of students as “boredom” or “passivity” or something similar.  

We know about boredom. If it’s a smart child, such as Hilary Mantel when she started school, as she describes in Giving up the Ghost (2003), she is likely to call it “The Palace of Silly Questions.” Its walls ring with non sequiturs such as “Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?” (p 60) We may pause here to voice the suspicion. are not adults unimaginative and humourless always?  Does not the child revolt always, everywhere?  Is not the school, finally, the same dull place everywhere? Or at least the majority of adults in it or at home?

There are brilliant pictures of the experience of the child in an insensitive adult world, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, James Coetzee’s Summer Time, and my own personal favourite, Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip. And of course there are thousands of children’s stories from the child’s point of view, such as The Moffats by Eleanor Estes, and Romona, by Beverley Cleary.[1] Reading any of these, we may feel resigned to the presence of two worlds, the child’s and the adult’s, destined to remain distant from each other, the child’s represented, at best, only by perspicacious poets and authors.

So, we can grant that adults do not have the wits or the imagination to create welcoming worlds for children. All the memorable fun and learning that children experience is in their own peer groups or through their own devices.

This reality for the child, re-created in children’s literature and adult memoirs of childhood, only speaks of one kind of pain, the pain of control, repression, repetition, non-recognition of a human subject with agency. This pain is much more than boredom.

The other pain which we must recognise, however, and battle with urgently, is a permanent, life-long one. Long after a careless childhood is over and the fun and games and laughter are memories, there will be decades of adult life served poorly by an inadequate education. If the school has been so irresponsible as to not even teach the basic subjects, not provide fluency in languages, no confidence in self-presentation, articulation and debate, no ability for self-development, leadership or entrepreneurship—it is almost certain that no dreams are going to be fulfilled in adulthood.

Of course there are plenty of happy, unschooled adults. The vast majority, however, are worried about sustaining their families, about their poor health, about the poor escape mechanisms from suffocating realities.

We should be very unhappy about Chinta’s sons whose schools were so boring that they learnt very little and were frequently absent, and then closed down totally during the Covid-19 pandemic. Then there is Sunita, the product of exactly such an inadequate education, and her husband, Bablu, who cannot imagine how to earn the basic amounts to repair their house, pay electricity bills, and obtain good enough medical care. There is Ramesh, schooled, but without the means to advance beyond a basic salary that simply does not sustain his four children. There is Akash, who wants the world for his two little daughters and wife—but is doomed to a “BPL” (Below Poverty Level) job. There is Saira, proud of her professional housekeeping skills and her strong will as a single mother, who has no clue about the demands of the Indian education system to support children at home. There is Nisha, young enough to still dream of future success for her two little children. Day by day, however, she is being badgered into recognition of a fog of failure awaiting them, unless a miracle occurs.

The Doubled Pain has tripled in Covid-19 times. One, boring studies. Okay, a familiar phenomenon. Two, pathetically inadequate studies guaranteeing life-long failure. A shameful Indian phenomenon. Three, an utter absence of education in Pandemic times because of poverty, poor technology, useless infrastructures. I don’t even have a description for it.


[1] Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir, Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary, R.K. Narayan, Swami and Friends, Rabindranath Tagore, The Post Office, Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, James Coetzee, Summer Time, Lloyd Jones, Mr Pip, Eleanor Estes, The Moffats, Beverley Cleary, Romona.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 22, 2021

An (Extra)ordinary Day

It is an ordinary day in the Kumar-Majumdar-Saini household.

A voice comes from the depths of a round chair. “Okay. So I am a bhoot. I am sitting here, invisible. You are also a bhoot. You come along saying, “I’m a bhoot. I’m a bhoot. I can see you”.”

Bhoots, if you recollect are the species of being that can only inadequately be translated as ghost, spirit, or demon.

The person addressed here, the mother, rushes forward on this ordinary day, exclaiming, “Be careful! Don’t fall off that chair!”

The grandmother, meanwhile, helps herself to her fourth round of breakfast. It is now 9.35 am and she has awoken at the ghostly, bhoot-like hour of 3 am. She is doing this regularly nowadays. Naturally, she has several cups of tea, some with toast, some with cereal, until the hot, cooked breakfast is served at 9. The question has been raised whether these unusual sleep and eating patterns, and, yes, a sore throat, all add up to symptoms of Covid.

It’s not quite an ordinary day, however. There is an unexpected turn in the weather. From 3 am at least the wind has whipped up. Temperatures have fallen. Windows are creaking, trees are swaying. A few drops of water can be felt getting a free ride in with the breeze.

Soon, there is such a frenzy that all loose paper is flying around, lighter books have got upturned, and flapping curtains fly dangerously close to lamps and bric-a-brac. In half an hour, there is silence again. The voice in the morning, the invisible bhoot, sleeps through it all.

And at 9 am, there is a lovely feel to the air.

It helps that it’s also an enforced holiday. The virus has asserted its supremacy and schools, public activities, road movement, have all been stopped. The only sounds are the thousand of birds outside, a hammering at the neighbour’s, the whirr of the washing machine.

You could lose yourself just watching the spider weave. No matter how strong the wind, the web bulges and springs back with a magical elasticity. It’s not clear whether this infectious time is good for the smaller creatures, or bad, or makes no impact on them at all.

Nineteen people under me have been definitely impacted. The Café staff only sit and wait since no one comes to the Café now. The school cleaners and drivers have nothing to do. The Pre-school and Library workers, the guards and assistants, are all at a loose end. Teachers are biting their lips.

The prescient voice has already told us that bhoots, by contrast, are busy people.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 21, 2021

Our Village Elections for the Village Head

We have a pontoon bridge now. In Autumn of 2019, a few hundred metal buoys were tied together across the river. Wooden planks were screwed in to two wooden strips outlining a road. All this was placed on the pontoons and topped with flat rectangles of metal. Sure, it’s a bridge. One with rotting wood full of holes from previous use, missing planks, wasted metal. There could be a sense of adventure crossing the river on it, drinking in the beautiful river scene on both sides, and the occasional boat passing beneath, were not the bridge so narrow and so god-forsaken old.

After they built it, they abandoned some forty pontoons on the side of the river. On our land, which adjoins the river. The government officer had asked me politely if they could do so a few months before the bridge began, and I saw no harm and said yes. They were not touched and kept sitting there for a year afterwards as an eyesore. It took me some five months of an expensive manager’s running around to get rid of them.

Our land is to the right of the bridge. On the left is a crematorium, I mean a shamshan ghat, or riverbank for cremations. The site was always used for the occasional cremation. Then the government built a gigantic structure for people to rest in while cremations proceeded, with a handpump, toilets, covered rooms, and lots of open space.

No one uses the place. All the cremation parties who come stop in front of our school gates, park their vehicles in our one un-enclosed plot, kick up a ruckus, and litter and litter. Everyone at a cremation gets a box of sweets. Everyone then thrown their empty box around wildly. Everyone cranks and cranks at the handpump and makes a noise and a mess.

The government construction increased activity at this ghat a hundred-fold. From one a month, there are now two or three cremations a day. The litter of sweet boxes and odd paper and plastic can be overwhelming.

One could dream of an orderly use of the government buildings: people parking neatly, sitting comfortably, using the water available, the garbage cans…. Well, there are no garbage cans in that compound. There are no garbage cans anywhere in the village.

If you go for a walk in the evening, many places in the village look verdant and pleasant from a distance. You strike off from the main road to enjoy them, only to realise from closer up that they are littered with garbage. Paper, plastic, packaging, and amazingly, cloth.

On the same walk you could see a lot of children. The new thing now is to see them, the small ones, that is, walking home with their backpacks on their backs. They are now all doing tuition. They are learning random things, in random, often self-defeating way, and their parents are going to feel secure that they are in fact studying. Nothing much will emerge, certainly not the ability to read English or Hindi fluently, and very weak Maths. The destructive element is the false consciousness that this comprises an education.

Between the garbage, the chaotic arrangements of civic necessities, the poor structure and discourse of education, we are in a state in this village. Thankfully there is no caste or communal conflict. There is plenty of poverty, however. Half the population of some 3,500 live hand to mouth.

One could wish to be the Pradhan, or Head, of the village and use some of the liberal government funds to develop and organize the darned place. Yesterday’s election was hotly contested. There were posters and campaigning for a Dalit, a Bind, and a Rajbhar candidate. Their symbols were… a book, a pen and ink bottle, a chair. One was a woman, her husband’s face on the same poster, only somewhat smaller than hers, and two were men. The previous Pradhan was also standing again and did not, I notice, bother to campaign.

This election had some immediate adverse effects. Some workers were absent, appearing comfortably in the evening to announce, “Today was vote-casting, you see.”

Only one staff member had actually taken half a day’s leave. She came in at noon, red from the sun. “Who did you vote for?” I asked jovially. She scrunched up her face.

“What I want to know is, why was there already a mark on the name of the previous Pradhan? There was nothing against anyone else’s name. I asked the poll watchers to explain. They said, “That’s how we got the papers.” I don’t understand it at all.”

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 15, 2021

The Enlightenment and Us

It’s hard to work on a small scale in India and not be affected by the History of the World.

We have a few pet projects going on at NIRMAN right now, each one of which dates back to the Enlightenment. One is to plough up certain plots, divide the land into neat squares and rectangles, treat with organic manure, plant, weed, irrigate, and harvest, mostly vegetables but also some grains, beans, and lentils.

In order to do all this, we must plan. We must measure and divide. We  must have the right tools. And we can’t leave them lying around the fields, we must return them after use and store them properly. The way to do that is in compartments with labels.

That’s where we collapse. Even after pushing and pummeling the gentlemen on the staff to work on the fields and get some crops to peep out of the ground, the tools were still not organized. We shifted the store room from one place to another, in the hope that each time we emptied a room and laid out everything in rows, it would be put away neatly. In boxes, on shelves, labelled. They should be clean and good, and distinguishable at a glance.

No one, however, was able do this sorting and arranging, never mind the labelling. So many times have I thought, looking at our staff, that what we need are activities similar to Pre-school ones: sorting, counting, and boxing buttons, pencils, bottle caps, until the concept of categorization is established. Drawing patterns, ad nauseum, until the concept of pattern is established. Putting tiffin boxes here, bottles here, bags here, until the concept of rules is established. Following a timetable, prominently displayed on the board, until time discipline is established. As Preschool children learn, so would the staff. As Freud among many others knew, an individual’s disciplining is a replica of humanity’s civilizing process

The farm is one. Another of our projects is to run a small school. A school generates files. Every information is in a file. Hundreds of files, one each for students, for staff, for each event and activity, for each gadget and possession, for each permission, warranty, insurance, each set of audits, payments, vouchers. Did I say hundreds? I meant thousands, tens of thousands.

Well, a dozen office managers have come and gone and have each managed to leave the files in a worse mess. Each has been given a polite handshake upon watching the mess in progress and the resultant chaos. They are all blissfully ignorant of the problem. They claim to know where each thing is, like homing pigeons, to be able to produce the required document in a matter of seconds. When that does not happen, they look around, including at the ceiling, and declare their predecessor at fault.

Now, in our office, in order to find one file, you have to rifle through scores. As a rule, whatever is being searched for is never found. Then starts a process of getting or creating a duplicate, an expensive proposition in (wo)manhours and often with additional direct payment to a ‘vendor,’ who could be the seller or a middleman.

It’s the cruelest twist to have postmodern critics blame the Enlightenment for our country’s subjugation to European/Western ways of thought. Our countrymen haven’t seen the face, or felt the shadow, of the Enlightenment.

Back in the US of A, the average, or let’s even say, below-average, administrative assistant, keeps an office where everything is pigeonholed and labelled. True, she has amazing resources at her fingertips, from swivel chairs and stand-up computer desks to every known office gadget—but I have tried to provide similar riches to our office only to have them vanish in a few days, weeks or months, depending on size, without trace. The ordinary office worker in the West knows to file, label the file, number the labels, keep a master-list, check it and locate something. The educated and smart office worker in India knows only how to keep it all in their heads and treat paper with random, meaningless respect.

Please remember, I am saying nothing beyond that. I am not claiming superior intellectuality for the American, and some kind of inferiority for the Indian, worker. Merely that one’s system is foolproof against individual idiosyncrasies and may be named ‘modern’ and post-Enlightenment; and that the others do certainly have a system, but it is the opposite and unstudied and goes without a name.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 14, 2021

Are there many points of view,

or just one, or maybe two, or let’s even say, three?

There once was a woman who had two sons and they were twins, so much alike that the mother herself could not tell one from the other. So Hunapu always wore a red feather and Balanque a blue one.

This is the text for my English exam, held today. The first question that follows the text is: “Who was younger, Hunapu or Balanque?”

In the above story, is it not a fact that neither Hunapu nor Balanque was older or younger than the other since they were twins, and identical twins at that?

When they are asked a question about who was younger, however, my village students have many different points of view.

One is: “Ma’am, we can write anything? Either of them can be younger?”

The truth here lies in that there is of course a few seconds’ gap in the birth even of twins, and the running joke in the whole world, including surely in Betawar village, is about how one twin is in fact always younger than the other by a few seconds. Since the story does not get into that, of course a clever person could respond to the question with either name.

Another set does not know what ‘twins’ means. The word has spread, however, that it translates to the Hindi word jurwa. Now they don’t know what jurwa means. If their English was better, they could deduce the meaning of ‘twins’ from the clause following it. But they do not understand so much and the only way to help them is to act out the meaning of ‘twins.’ It is a moot point whether that would make them agree that neither of the twins is younger or older than the other. It all depends on the folklore and common sense about jurwa or twin siblings.

A third response is to simply say, “I do not know because the story does not tell us.” This group of sticklers for truth and philosophers of verity are also completely correct in their own way. The story says many varied things about the two boys but nothing about age.

So, I reason, there could be at least three different correct answers, plus my fourth, correct one, ‘correct’ and boring as only adults can be, “Neither was younger because they were twins.” No nuances, no imagination, no shifting perspectives, no plurality.

All the following questions are similar. I am a clever teacher and I like to challenge young intellects. But if you do not fully understand 12, 13, 14 year olds, you are not going to be able to challenge them, as separate from flummoxing them, exhausting them, and maybe angering them and putting them off.

“What did they always wear?” I ask. I want them to say, “A red feather and a blue feather.” But, wear a feather? What kind of a construction is that? Obviously they wore many things besides. Even Mowgli wears a chaddi, or underpants. Anyway, the story says “They wore” and the question asks “What did they wear” and who knows what ‘wear’ and ‘wore’ have to do with each other, if anything at all. As for “Where do you think they wore them?” I can, if asked, have no thoughts on the subject at all  and be very precise in responding, “I do not think about it.”

In brief, my English exam is based on a mountain of fallacies. The prime one being that there is one correct answer. Not only are there many, but there are other boxes and boxes awaiting opening by Pandora. The exam goes completely against my pluralist politics. I have so much to learn….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 10, 2021

On the other side

Colonialism? Racism? I might’ve done it. Had I simply been born differently, say into an upper middle class English household in the eighteenth century—I dare not suggest the fantastical Scottish or Welsh—why, I’d have gone ahead and conquered the world!

Configurations of history should not be regarded as the personal faults of individuals, groups, or even nationalities.

When I was perhaps fifteen years old, my mother shocked me, an arch-nationalist those days, by murmuring, “I always loved Christianity. When I was young, I prayed to be born again as a Christian.” I thought, even said, “But mummy! What about our lovely Hindu festivals! Wouldn’t you miss Holi and Diwali?” Just by the way, mummy used to recite a mean Hanuman Chalisa twice a day for some sixty years of her life. She merely shrugged at my question and looked characteristically absent-minded.

I knew what she meant though. You have no choice in your birth. So, fine, you are assigned a nationality, a religion, a community. Then you grow up to announce that they are the greatest, and perdition on all those outside their folds.

How un-intelligent is that?

Or, say you are a great historian. You go on and on about how vile the colonisers were, how they oppressed and exploited, and how now we must unveil the truth.

Just because….you happened to be born on the other side of the fence?

It’s not the individual colonisers who were stupid, it was their position in the particular relationships at that historical juncture, which in turn made those at the receiving end pretty stupid too, if you want to use such derogatory descriptions at all.

I find myself in the trap of total objectivity.

I have a cynical adoration for my enemies. I despise my fellow-community members, and at best, pity them. That I am of them, and they are mine, is a simple accident of birth. I could have been anyone, and my position would then have dictated my loyalties, passions, motivations.

Can one escape this trap? To not be guilty to not belong. To be happy to enjoy a pretend-allegiance to another side. To be clever in disambiguating, deconstructing, exegesis, and research. Especially research. As soon as you know about a real human being “on the other side” and the more you know, the further are you in awe of the similarities. Between that enemy and people near and dear to you. That enemy and you. The details, the details; they  uncover the truth.

Then you can actually do what you want, say, work for the poor and downtrodden, without a pretence of false solidarity. You are doing it because they need it here and now, and you can do it. Not because, oh, your community or nation is so great. Or, alas, they have suffered so much in the past. BS. Everyone has given and received, fallen and risen. Every community is equal. You belong nowhere.

Open the doors of your mind and love what you want to love.

In my case, it’s walking down to a London pub and sitting at a heavy oak table, typing, while outside rush by a mix of people I might have taken to be British but are mostly East European whose stories open up one from the other, endlessly, but not so far away do reside some friends who are properly, heart-wrenchingly English, and Irish, but they are who they are also because of their immersion in India, which one may call a dark and innocent love, a familiarity and concern mixed with no-holds-barred cynicism and satire.

That’s Johnny, and Margaret. And Chris, and Chris, and Charlie.

Ans most of all, Anne Josephine Byrne!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 9, 2021

The Meaning(s) of ‘Change’

My mind is crowded with topics to write about: death, life, reading, teaching how to read, The Corona vaccine, Chaitra and the new year…. But, as I begin, my fingers tap out “The Meaning of Change.” The (s) after ‘Change’ if self-reflexive and intellectual, but the rest is spontaneous and unpremeditated.

We have a classmates’ group from the sixties. Some of us were together in school and graduated in 1966. Then we were together in college, joined by many others, and graduated in 1970. We are all the same age. All of us are rich and privileged. Many of us have children doing great things, some abroad, and most of us have indescribably cute grandchildren. We are all educated in the same way up to college and at one level are all liberal and secular. We are  perhaps so similar in some of these ways that there is not much to be said between us. The group therefore talks mostly of our gardens, horticultural efforts, and outside our homes, flowering trees, beautiful vistas, and the environment. One greets everyone with a new flower or bush from her garden every morning, another with a sunrise from her morning walk. Some have budding roses, and some have fragrant creepers. One has a collection of paintings, another of literary trivia. Everyone seems to love all the beauty, language, literature, and art. Some paint or sculpt or sing themselves and share their work, but only once in a blue moon. My own piece of art is a school, but I have hesitantly shared pictures of it only one or two times. We are all determinedly upbeat and immersed in life and philosophical about death.

But yesterday, we lost a member of the group. The first to go, we could not help thinking. It is inexpressibly sad to imagine college times with a buddy and then come to terms with her absence. To which is added the also inexpressed thought: ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

————-

I have been labouring this past month to teach some twenty children to read. About four of them are self-confident enough to make rapid progress. The others are diffident or distracted. I am on my toes when with them, and busy once I leave them, so I have not been able to reflect sufficiently on one of the most significant changes in anyone’s life—the transition from pre-literacy to literacy, and from loving a great number of activities to loving all those and reading.

We all know that children’s brains are able to pick up and learn any new thing, including a new language. So if they have difficulty with English, it’s a mental block of some kind. Two children are accustomed to scolding and beating by adults at home, one in a previous school, and they regard all adults as enemies. Three children are mollycoddled at home and want to play out the infant’s role prescribed for them lest they face a harsher world. Four other children already associate sitting at a desk, books and copies with boredom and pointlessness and the alternative, playing with blocks or running around outside, with fun. For the others, it’s a combination of elements and the exact mental states have to be figured out.

My strategy has been of utter kindness and humanity. We are all flawed, we are all lovable, all funny and performative, and all able to do everything, but never mind if we can’t. We sit together and talk, we sing and dance, we jump around. Then we crash down at our desks. We understand what we have to do at our desks and of course we can do it.

We have a little self-contained community that is getting to know each other better and better. We range in age from 3 to 8. We work quietly with a hum, walk around if we need to, and mostly want to feel at home and totally in control of our lives.

It’s going to take many sustained months. For half the children, even longer, because thanks to Covid, there are huge gaps in their attendance.

As Chaitra and the new calendar year begins, I have to plan afresh yet again as the virus mutates, schools are shut down again, school teaching grinds to a halt, and all the adults in the organization feel disoriented as to how to control and continue their work.

I am secretly delighted. Much as I love to teach, I love to curl up and read and write even more. I love the teaching only with good breaks in between.

Viva la change!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 26, 2021

Your Volkswagen, Sombabu

There was a time when we planned every penny. My husband, Som, who I called Sombabu, had a theory that you should divide your salary into three. One was for your own use. One was for your family, parents, siblings, even nephews and nieces. The third was your savings.

Our savings, that is to say, the one-third nominated for that, advanced very slowly in the first five years of our married life. They could be said to be close to zilch. We both worked hard, and one of us, Sombabu, had great jobs, as Associate Professor in the Indian Institute of Public Administration; Consultant, Planning Commission; and then Visiting Professor, University of Chicago. I, too, worked for three years in prestigious colleges in Delhi, but chucked it up to do my Ph.D., which is always a case of financial near-survival.

This was the 1970’s and the royal salaries in India were around a thousand rupees each. When we moved to the USA in 1978, they were around a thousand dollars each. It always feels easier in India, and I cannot remember what there was that we couldn’t do.

It felt easy enough in the US as well. We simply accepted that we rode on buses or trains, shopped at the cheaper or discount stores, and that our entertainment lay with the university’s wide range of free and inexpensive offerings.

Then we bought our Volkswagen. A 1981 white Rabbit. It was the best car in the market for speed, strength, fuel efficiency. It looked beautiful with an elegant, comfortable, interior. It drove like a stallion, rushing forward at the lightest touch of the pedal. It’s cooling and heating were luxurious. It looked different and stood out in the US as a European car of the same brand as the super-cool Beetle, but one step up, with many more comforts, if not luxuries. We just had to look up any random review, or mention it in a conversation, to feel gratified at our smart choice. The whole world applauded it.

We could afford it with the help of my parents, who visited every year and gave us a gift cheque against our hospitality, always with a shy smile. Sombabu was sensitive about money, so it went through me as a sort of Nita’s personal thing. Once we had the car, he didn’t care.

I have always thought that my husband’s personality changed twice over the course of our relationship. One was when we bought our first car. The second was when we had our first child.

The car experience brought our his leadership qualities. Now he took the lead in maintaining, even manicuring the car. He did research and totally mastered the facts about automobiles. He spoke authoritatively and possessively. He judged and decided things in a different way. He had been the opposite of a stereotypical male before. Now he moved several notches towards the stereotype.

I had been driving for ten years when we bought the VW in 1981. I taught him to drive a year after our marriage and he rapidly became an expert on our old Ambassador in Delhi (which does not rank as our first purchase; it was neither new, nor exciting, nor a purchase.) However, much as I loved to drive, my interest in cars stopped there, whereas he developed a new car-loving persona.

In the US, with our new car, we drove over thousands of miles of the mid-West prairies, he, I, and a table player, with three giant instruments in the back: his sitar, my tanpura, and the table player’s table and bayan. We were a living advertisement for how much a little Rabbit could contain and the places it could go. And the seasons: we drove in blizzards, through snow piles, and in the lush spring and summer.

We brought the car back to India in 1984. More maintaining and nurturing continued. The car served us beautifully for close to two decades.

Then in 2003, Sombabu vanished…. No doubt for some other work in other places….

I have kept that old Volkswagen of 1981 in his memory. It stands on a vacant space shrouded with a tarpaulin. One day, I want to use it as a part of our children’s space and playground.

Yesterday, I bought a new car after twenty years. I chose the car closest to the Rabbit, a Polo. I know that Sombabu would like it. I can feel it, and him.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 19, 2021

The meaning of death

As long as I am alive—death has no reality and thus no meaning. I look around at my beautiful study as I say this. I mean that death has no meaning in a very physical, tangible sense.

On the 17th of January, we were late for the cremation, and waited at home upon reaching from the airport. We wandered into Sunil’s study. I breathed his air, touched his papers, caressed his desk and computer.

Where do they disappear?

Then it was all too raw, but Sunil is off, I think now, to a new phase of existence. Some may say a phase of stillness or peace. I think of it rather as a very different kind of activity that we cannot label, yet.

He has moved on, from one existence to another. We are left behind, still there where we were.

Really, the ones to grieve for are we ourselves. We are the unfortunate, the bereft, the pitiable. And also the ignorant, the clueless.

We understand only the simplest things. Such as that Sunil would have retired tomorrow. He would have begun a new life. He would have been happy to be doing so.

And…but…that he may have been terribly sick. Between respiratory problems and throat and heart, he may have suffered in agonizing ways.

A glimmer of understanding appears in his smile. His smile was always both this and that. Teasing and loving. Amused and serious. Boyish and sage-like.

So is his disappearing act a step to prevent physical inconvenience. And his exit an entry onto another stage. Maybe something to do with the things he loved: music, balls, flowers, sunshine.

Sunil was a perfectionist in his work. He remained one in life as well.

He did not let things drag on into untidy, un-pretty stages. He taught grandly, wrote richly, loved expansively, ate and drank appreciatively, joked without end—then closed the book and called it a day.

His retirement came two months earlier than scheduled. But, scheduled it was.

Happy retirement, Sunil!

I’m not going to blame you for being silent—except just a little bit sometimes. Till I learn better and better how to stay in touch and how to not long for you.

I live near a cremation ghat, as I’ve written before. I am surrounded by echoes. They never give up conveying the meaning of death.

Ram nam satya hai.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 18, 2021

St Patrick’s Day

My plan of the day for my Primary School section was for them to continue studying what a story was and how to write a story, and to do it all through omnivorous and herbivorous creatures.

I began brightly, greeting them and seating them. I arranged the classroom to my satisfaction, took out supplies, erased the blackboard.

A devil—or imp—a leprechaun, to be precise—took over. I wrote 17th March. Then I wrote “St. Patrick’s Day.” The lesson plan was completely forgotten and old Saint Patrick’s was the topic for the day.

Now, where to begin with children, mostly from the village, regarding Ireland, Christianity, the colour green, saints, leprechauns, and everything associated?

We began to discuss holy men, I mean holy people, those who are not gods but are revered. We made a list of the five major religions of India with “Christianity” at the top. The columns read “Followers,” “Founder,” “gods,” and “dates.” I discussed how every religion existed world-wide and gave plenty of interesting examples.

Needless to say, the children had already announced that “Sikhs” were “Punjabis” and “Buddhists” were “Chinese.” “Christians” would be “Americans” and “Muslims” would be “Arabs” had I not nipped it in the bud.

Then we hit some obstacles. I asked them to make at least five sentences, but preferably ten, with a bunch of words such as saint, holy man, country, Ireland, England, Christ, Christianity, green, and so on.

Some wrote prolifically albeit incorrectly, if you are finicky regarding Grammar. Some wrote modestly and somewhat correctly. Others were truly stuck until I suggested, “Well who was he? Can you say. ‘St Patrick was a holy man’?” And that “He lived in a country called Ireland” and that “Ireland is a country near England”?

I was squirming, believe me, at all the minor distortions of History and Politics that were creeping in. I alluded to some corrections, some truths, but did not push them.

Then there was the nagging question of “Why should the children care?” There were a hundred reasons, but I had to establish them all. Alongside there was all the Grammar to straighten out, all the spellings to supply. I am also always interested in the metaphors, and punning, and riddles, and wordplay, and that needed time.

We also, alongside, have the politics of tolerance and non-prejudice to teach. Children are ready to announce, “Well, Buddhism and Sikhism are obviously superior because they have no gods!” or,  the opposite. Then: “If Christianity goes around converting people, as St Patrick did the Irish, we have to stop it, don’t we?”

You get the picture of the hornet’s nest I tripped up against with my playful venturing into Irish territory.

The absolute stinker of a problem, however, the worst, most challenging, obstacle in today’s class was the fact that I had given the label “St Patrick’s…” in my heading. All children wrote “St Patrick’s” for his name. I got hoarse and began coughing again when I had only just recovered, explaining what the ‘s’ meant.

Long live Lesson Plans.

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