Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 6, 2020

India’s New Educational Policy–First Thoughts

The last New Education Policy was announced in 1986, right in the middle of a vast ethnographic and archival research project I had undertaken on Indian education. I was working intensely, knowing that I had less than six months to complete my research. I was in my second trimester and due for delivery in mid-November. The doctor had told me to avoid bumpy rickshaws because of a previous miscarriage, so, hot and muggy as it was, I walked or drove to every school in Banaras. The goal was to study every single school. I had about 250 on my list. What made it doubly hard was that, as opposed to all other previous work, this was depressing research with hardly one bright spot on any day to lighten the work.

I was studying children in the classroom and what I found every single day of my research was that children were bored, restless, and in pain.

My findings were depressing, but less euphemistically, they were frightening. I have organized and  analysed them in several publications, including Kumar 2000 and Kumar 2007. Clearly we have in India a complex web of systemic problems, apart from several random and particular ones. If people doubt this and claim that on the contrary, there is much to boast about in Indian education, they have simply not looked closely at our classrooms.

Will this New Education Policy of 2020 be able to solve the worst of the problems, if not all?

Let us look at some of the Policy points in turn. Let us look for the moment at the proposals about preschool education.

It is an exciting proposition to group the first five years together, three of pre-school and classes 1 and 2, or ages 3 to 8. This gives recognition to the pre-school years as a legitimate part of schooling.

At present, in India, those who can afford it struggle to find a private school for their 3, 4 or 5 years old. In larger cities and metropolises, there is a range to choose from but still the shortage of preschools is palpable. There are “entrance tests” for 3 and 4-year olds and “interviews” for their parents. In smaller cities and towns, there are no preschools that educated parents could consider appropriate for their cherubs. The one prestigious English medium “convent” or “public” school in a small or medium-size city would have a Nursery and Kindergarten with perhaps six sections and 50 to 60 children in each. Thus it would open admissions to 300 or even 400 children at one time. The number of those trying for these places—those “filling out the form” as popular wording goes—might be four thousand, or even fourteen thousand if the school has a reputation.

It goes without saying that a destructive cycle has already been created here. When observed, the school will reply that of course it cannot follow Montessori or any progressivist pedagogy because the numbers in each classroom are so large. Why must they be so large? Guardians nahin mante hain (Guardians do not listen). Why not have smaller sections and child-centred education? Guardians nahin manenge (Guardians will not want it). We have to prepare for the Boards.

The demand for private preschools exceeds the supply resulting in overcrowded classrooms. This then justifies poor pedagogy, which is given the rosy hue of good pedagogy by pointing to the looming Board exams ten years later. In this version, the poor school is doing only what guardians want. Guardians are both right, and wrong, depending on who is interrogating the school.

The amazing thing is that alongside these private schools there are free Preschools run by the government called by the pleasant name of anganbadi,  “my courtyard home.” A scheme funded by UNICEF and WHO and launched around fifty years ago, it is well entrenched and widespread, at least in North India. The anganbadis don’t just have “education” for 3 to 5-year olds. They supply meals and keep a record of infants’ growth and expecting mothers’ health. In the scores of anganbadis I have visited from Himalayan towns and hamlets to those in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, I have consistently found the workers to know all about procedures and be trained in pedagogy with a respectable repertoire of the right kinds of activities for their young clientele.

Yet, with one or two exceptions, of the forty or fifty anganbadis that I have visited, the children are not being given the stimulation and attention that they could in the time they spend in the anganbadi precincts. The teachers have packed away their materials in trunks in their classrooms and their teaching techniques to a shelf at the back of their minds. They are not embarrassed at being observed in an attitude of indifference and neglect. They are apparently not aware that the explanations they give for not delivering what they are supposed to do not hold water.

How are these two problems, the scarcity of elite, expensive private preschools, and the low level of public, free preschools for lower classes and villagers, going to be resolved in the new policy?

If life indeed runs on free market principles then demand should create its own supply, and there should be as many expensive preschools as required by the middle classes. Since no affiliation or accreditation is required for preschool, any new schools awaiting affiliation with a central Board could still run preschools as they build up towards class X or XII. As for school greed in bloating up classroom sizes rather than opening new sections, a simple rule about maximum size could be made and is well overdue. And the deterioration in quality caused by ridiculously large classroom sizes and the bogey of Board exams can be fought through market competition as supply starts meeting demand.

Coming to anganbadis, there is a conundrum. We know that the most crucial years of a child’s life are the ages 3 to 8. No policy can succeed if it does not state directly the problem that has been keeping our anganbadis and Primary Schools in the inferior condition they are, and then state directly the solution. We must first acknowledge that we in India have been acting blind to the cognitive needs of small children. This remains a huge discrepancy in this clause of the policy. We are not inventing anything when we say that early childhood education should be mostly play, activities, and projects. We are saying what every developed country, and a fair number of developing countries, have known for decades. As I mentioned above, good private schools know it as well and the whole set of trained anganbadi workers. They know wonderful songs, activities and games.

I cannot emphasise the need for acknowledgement of the problem. It is the first little step towards its resolution, to be followed by many more. We will fail before we even start if we simply state something as desirable and not mention that the problem has been not ignorance of its desirability but the lack of will or techniques to implement it.

Presuming we have now officially accepted what is important to do for preschool children, how do we get around to doing it?

First, we have to train our teachers to behave with children as if each was an individual. To respect their personalities, their pace of learning, their levels. Teachers will continue to act according to their own personal and social ideologies of the child. It would be a waste of time to make this into a subject of surprised discussion. Instead, we need to have strict taskmasters who make zero tolerance policies for physical and verbal abuse, for ignoring students and wasting time, for indifference to planning and teaching techniques.

Anganbadi teachers understand progressive teaching in principle. However, it remains only an abstract idea that they can present when asked. In order to make them live out the idea, anganbadi teachers have to be converted more deeply so that they have, as the cliché goes, ownership of the idea. This has much to do with work ethic. Teachers’ work ethic is dismal. However, I will go so far as to say that until there is a wider level of change in Indian public life, there can be no change in the work ethic of teachers. The attitude of performing while the boss is watching and for the rest letting the work lapse is rife, especially in government sites of work. To expect teachers to be lone crusaders in a mission of change is futile.

A tight management has to be combined with a nation-wide fight against disengagement with work. In my own experience of running a thirty-year old school, the following departments shirk their work unless they are illegally rewarded, particularly in the last few years: Electricity Office, Law Courts, Land Revenue Offices, Public Provident Fund, Employers’ State Insurance, Basic Shiksha Adhikari, Central Board of Secondary Education, Traffic Police, and the Income Tax Office. Since everyone knows about what is glibly called “corruption” and I am more precisely calling poor work ethic and unaccountability, it’s very difficult to not appear naïve when expecting your own staff to be 100% sincere, honest, dedicated. However, as the famous line goes, just because we cannot have a totally antiseptic environment does not mean we perform surgery in a sewer. You can pretend to be naïve and insist that: no leave application be fabricated, no weekly planning copied from somewhere, no abuse ever practiced in the classroom, no direct countermanding of lessons about pedagogy and children’s agency.

The paradigmatic shift that is needed is towards a recognition that it is not clever to be knowledgeable about the problem and hide it. It is clever to state it and then mention the solution which is also partly common knowledge but kept hidden.

What I would love to see tabled for discussion is a set of points related to the sheer technology of preschool education: Who is now going to train in the new progressive teaching? Who will oversee the implementation of the curriculum and the training? Who will inspect, both regularly and randomly? What will be the consequences of poor performance? How should we ensure honesty and transparency at different stages of these transactions?

I am being modest in simply posing questions. To follow my own precepts of clear acknowledgement of everything one knows, in my next blog or article I will tell the narrative of my own journey towards a “New Educational Policy.”

 

 

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 5, 2020

Pre-school politics-contd.

There is a creature called the bhoot that plays a large role in our preschoolers’ lives. The bhoot is technically a ghost, soul or spirit, a disembodied person with human qualities such as ambitiousness, jealousy, anger, etc. As with ghosts, a bhoot can assume any shape or form, but is mostly invisible. All the technical details, such as being swathed in white sheets, or being invisible in a mirror which are true for ‘ghosts’ are irrelevant for ‘bhoots.’ Also, since India is so much more diverse than the US, and is so far from the throes of high capitalism, anything goes in India. There are as many versions of the bhoot as there are, say, villages. There are as many lores associated with the bhoot as there are households and families. No company yet manufactures a kit with material to help children dress and playact as a bhoot. There are no popularly shared children’s songs about bhoot—I am thinking, obviously, of “Have you seen the ghost of John?….. ”  There are no set jokes, riddles, anecdotes, stories (the little-known Betal Pachisi aside) and certainly not aisles of mass-produced ghost-themed decorations for a ghost-centred festival such as Halloween.

Children learn from each other as we all know. I would love to read an account of American, or British, or any other European, children’s take on ghosts, as they learn about ghosts from each other. I do not mean the stories by adults for children. These are abundant, and many are very sweet, sophisticated, and hilariously absurd. The territory of ghosts verges in the West on witches, and bad fairies, then wizards, then many other supernatural beings. In India, there are churails (female spirits,) and varieties of jinn and jadugar (clever spirits and magic-mongers.) In India there is indeed a whole Tantrik system that can lose you in the mists of the extra-material and super-sensory. In Indian high literature, and in everyday folklore, there are monsters and ogres and creatures with fangs, forked tails, horns and scales beyond compare.

But all this is adult fare. Adults share it with children piecemeal for their purposes of babysitting and entertainment, and perhaps socialisation. I am interested rather in what on earth, and beyond it, do children imagine, and tell each other?

So, on the day of The War of the Nations in our pre-school (see blog captioned “Nations R Us”), I discovered further similarities in children and adult worlds worth pondering on. A- was cycling and S- was waiting her turn. It’s a hot time of the year and we do not always want to go outside. The furniture in preschool is flexible and large spaces can be created for cycling. One of the cycling spaces has a little-used corner. A- carefully avoided the corner.

I           Ananya, you can go there and turn. You will have more space for a nice round turn.

A         ….. [incoherent]

I           What are you saying? Come here and tell me.

S          She is saying that there is a bhoot  in the corner.

I [incredulous]            Really? Right here in our classroom? In broad daylight?

A [coming up, grinning broadly]       Yes, there is a bhoot. Samira, help me get rid of it.

S          Here’s a gun. [Makes a motion in the air]

A         Here’s a gun? [uncertain, moves hands tentatively]

S [to me and the world]          Ananya does not know how to shoot a gun.  I’ll do it. Dhain-dhai-dhooosh !!! [With many swift motions, takes back the gun, positions it to aim at the corner, shoots, and laughs loudly]

A and S together         The bhoot is dead. The bhoot is gone!

They laugh and hug and dance together, bosom buddies.

Not to belabour the point, but the nation states have just given a model demo of how to invent a common enemy and then get rid of it. The enemy was constructed, the alliance rapidly formed, the weapons requisitioned, help urgently obtained, the whole public hoodwinked while the leaders laughed to themselves, and suddenly victory was announced and the enemy had declaredly been chased away and destroyed. Most fascinating to me was how the two sworn enemies chose to go into each other’s arms when confronted by the common enemy. Nothing could be worse than the bhoot , unknown as it was.

The symbolism and the ritualism were impressive. It’s a moot question as to how much children that age ‘believe’ of what they playact, and how much they playact through and through, happy to be crazy rather than serious, drunk rather than sober. Their faces reveal nothing. They radiate innocence, then the throes of pain, terror, and every other emotion they are presenting. But occasionally, one catches a glimpse of the consummate artist. Who is, as in real life, really a vulnerable human being.

If I spend enough time with them, I can plan many career changes, from actor to politician.

 

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 1, 2020

Nations R Us

There was high politics in the Pre-school today.

For their own reasons, S and A, my almost-three and just-three year old students, were both on edge. Each would insist in turn on her rights and preferences. The other would watch curiously and take a cue. S would decide to push A over the brink by deliberately provoking A in the direction S had read to be antithetical. Then, switching from this position of the rationality of the enemy, S would proceed to join hands with the victim, and clamour for the same rights and preferences. Except that the first individual, A, was of the belief that her  clamour should have precedence, being the original one, and any other imitative clamour should be ignored.

They were unnaturally rough today. Then they complained about the other’s roughness. One cried and the other laughed. The other cried and the first laughed. Both looked surprised and observed each other. Each storm passed in turn, leading to long passages of relative calm when life proceeded as usual.

They were like two nation states. They each had resources in equal measure: one Maths manipulative each, an equal number of blocks of identical colours, their selected doll, their preferred soft toy, their tunnel made of stools. But they still tried to trespass on each other’s territory, steal something when the other wasn’t looking, put on a show of great aggrandisement, then appeal to the United Nations.

The U.N. was rapidly taking notes. Must get two tricycles; must have two easels; must find another baby whale. One cardboard box seemed more interesting than others—what could that be about? Dolls were snatched and their arms ripped just because one seemed more desirable than the other to one person. You could even see the clouds of doubt as the snatcher wondered, “Really? This doll is special?” She didn’t reason too long; she just went for it. U.N. note: must have more than one such doll.

They were like two nation states not because these innocent babes suddenly displayed some high, calculating intelligence. That’s not what nation states have. Nation states are themselves like little children who are innocent enough. They want only their territory, their possessions, some order in their lives, some expansion and growth, peace, and to be loved. Just like little children. The only way for two such identical entities to get along with each other is to actually care for each other and be such deep friends that one’s happiness depends on the other. That’s not what any two nation states are, and that’s not what children are either. Both the nation states and children are selfish, of short memory, adept at distorting history, clever at manipulating outsiders, and ruthless about immediate gains, with no notion of a long run.

As the morning drew to a close, S hid her favourite tower in case A destroyed it. A tried to fiddle in S’s bag for anything she could keep back when S departed with her bag. S finished her lemonade with a whoop. A finished hers quietly, and a few seconds earlier, and pretending she had not spilled any, marched to S’s side of the table to grab a refill. A perfect impasse. The U.N. sat them down and reasoned. How much better for both to laugh than for either one to cry, went the reasoning. Both laughed and demonstrated. Then both cried. Both had found a reason to cry about although none had been evident on the surface. The morning ended for the children in a way consistent with my analogy. They both said ‘bye fondly to each other.

For both nation states and such small children, the psycho-analyst who could help them has not been found yet.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 26, 2020

one good turn deserves another

There are two ethical positions vis-à-vis poverty. Mohandas Gandhi can be used as illustration for both.

According to one, you cannot live off the labour of another. That is, you cannot exploit them, paying them less than what their work is worth, skimming off the excess value created by their labour when the product is marketed. More intangibly, they have less information about, and access to, their legal rights and available resources, and you cannot take advantage of that, even indirectly, by letting them get only the returns from their restricted knowledge, while you, with full awareness, can utilize every available pathway towards your goals.

In our capitalist system, all this happens automatically. I can pay a woman a modest salary to permit me to live in top comfort. I can pay a man next to nothing to have him maintain my surroundings to my standards of beauty and delight. I could have a staff of ten to take care of every need I may come up with, and justify their service with the seemingly logical explanation that they need their salaries and their salaries have been fixed by the market. I could justify the glaring inequality of it by producing long historical explanations of why inequality arises at all and why particularly in India its centuries of colonialism produced the division between knowledge, power, and level of marketable resources. I am, after all, merely the product of history. I neither invented the system, nor do I celebrate it—indeed my livelihood comes from critiquing it—and I definitely feel for the disadvantaged. So much so, that I work to exhausting limits to provide them precisely the marketable skills and awareness of their rights that they need to slough off their burdened condition.

It is not ethical. Gandhi made the point that it was not enough to feel for the poor. You had to share in their pain by living it yourself, such as by denying yourself certain comforts that had no part in their lives. You may not sit back in the hypothetical armchair with the hypothetical cigar and merely discourse on the dilemma. You had to live it out, now by marching barefoot, now by cleaning drains and latrines, now by living in a slum, always dressing poor, eating poor, sleeping on hard surfaces, and bathing in cold water.

I love this position. It has been my dream to adopt it.

According to the opposite position, enough of symbolism. Everything you would do to identify with the poor would be ultimately only symbolic. You are not really insecure about your next meal. You are really not so ignorant as to waste thousands of rupees on a quack for absurd medicines. You are really not afraid of bank managers, businessmen or government officers. You know you could wear footwear the day you chose to. You could eat meat and drink wine. All your forbears have been, and your present relatives are, well heeled, and all the doors of the rich are open to you. Not only that but they are open the wider because with your symbolic poverty, you are such an interesting specimen of the idealistic revolutionary. You are welcomed into slums. The portion of a slum you will stay in is scrubbed clean in advance. You can eat only fruits—well, coincidentally, fruits are the most expensive food. Why, by the way, do you not eat plain bread and onions?

So, in this position, you are almost hedonistic, because you don’t want to be stupidly symbolic. You also use extreme capitalist logic and push every rationalistic argument to its end. You are spending more on a daughter’s wedding because, well, all the expenditure will go into the pockets of the needy. You are living in the height of comfort because by so doing you are giving employment to two guards, two drivers, two gardeners, two cooks, two cleaning staff, two babysitters, to say nothing of the seamstress, carpenter, electrician, washerman, sweeper, garbage collector, and dog-keeper.

Yes, and all the time you are using your well nurtured mental and physical state to produce important solutions to poverty. Maybe through education? Maybe better administration? Maybe simply reflection? Or the arts?

Gandhiji was not a fool. He realized the dilemma. He also had plenty of enemies, who pointed out the paradox his approach represented. But he still stuck with the first of the two positions. Almost everyone else I know who worries about poverty as I do, has chosen the second position.

Why did Gandhi do that, and why do others do what they do?

He had a certain courage, and they do not. Simply speaking, he had the courage to be willing to appear foolish. Everyone else is terribly intelligent, but insecure in their intelligence. They could not bear it if, of all the possible comments made about them, there was one that claimed they were not smart.

Myself? I have proved myself a waverer. I could justify that by confiding that I often feel as if I am only at the beginning of my life and all the answers are out there for me still to discover. For decades I lived poor. I had no house, no invertor, no air conditioner, no good clothes, no jewellery, no savings. I was ready to give away whatever else I did have of luxury goods and be rid of them. If I gave them away, however, they came back, as parental gifts, as legacies, as earnings. I never did live poorly, only eccentrically. I did feel plenty of lacks and much of the time I was bone-tired—like the poor. Visitors would comment on our home-made (cheap) possessions and lifestyles. But inside me nothing changed. Once rich and powerful, always rich and powerful. I was like the wizard who has so much magic he never needs to demonstrate any.

Then a turn came in my life when I was persuaded that you did not have to prove anything by living poor. Only your work counted. Both in the short run and in the proverbial langue duree. So I tried to focus on the work. If that needed a lot of expenditure in travelling internationally, staying luxuriously, being cavalier about money, so be it.

The results? I have had some good ideas, some even verging on brilliant (they have still to be fine-tuned). I have worked hard and never cut on corners in honesty and sincerity. But, I’ve become distanced from the poor. They judge first by your lifestyle and the barriers you build around yourself. They don’t reason that behind those barriers you are sweating to produce a manifesto to break down their chains. They read my wizardry correctly now.

I feel as if I took a wrong turn back then. I need to re-think and re-plan. I want my dream back of a simple village room with a takhat, a desk and a chair, and fields all around to run in. How liberating that would be!

Gandhi managed to be free. He did not have to prove anything. His critics could only make one point—he has failed in his ethical goals of changing the minds of men. But for those like him, like us, the ‘goal’ is not the goal, the journey is. If you live and act the way you want, you can never fail.

Again and again, I think, not of Gandhi as much, but of the Gita. Chapter 2, Verse 47. Above, in position one, you are interested in the action. In position two, you justify your stance by citing the fruit of the action. What lies unspoken behind the whole discussion above is the need for non-attachment.

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||

karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi

 

 

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 24, 2020

The peacock

The beautiful peacock hopped and ran and part-flew, then walked in stately majesty, from one end of the field to the other.

Peacocks have been promenading in the surrounding fields morning, afternoon and evening. The season is theirs. They keep calling out and between their voices and their strutting about, they have a masterful presence on the land.

This particular peacock presented a triumph though. You see, the peacock was in plot 1088. For those of you who have not been following all the earth-rocking discussions on the subject, plot 1088 in the village of Betawar was originally owned by one Deviprasad Shukla (names changed to preserve anonymity). He had a daughter Parvati and a son Kuber. History has not preserved the details of why he was unhappy with his son, but he was, and longed to have a proper male heir. So he married his daughter to a young man Krishna Dubey who agreed to live in the nawasa. That is, he agreed to be a ghar jamai, or a son-in-law who lives in his wife’s natal home. All this transpired circa 1962.

North India is patrilocal. Every woman shifts to her husband’s home after marriage. For the reverse to happen is a disgrace and testifies to the weakness of the man. By this logic  he does not have the backbone to support his bride and family-to-be. To be dependant on your father-in-law saps you of masculinity and power, to the extent of making you into a laughing stock. There are hints of underlying speculations as to why the man would consent to such a disgrace. Was he lured by wealth? Did his family want to get rid of him at any cost? Did he have a defect of some kind and could not have survived normally in a normal world?  So, at least thirty five years after his marriage and shift to Betawar, I was told in turn by every single person I met, adding up to literally hundreds of repetitions of the refrain, “Krishna Dubey is not from here. He is here in his father-in-law’s house.”

Krishna Dubey was in his sixties when I first met him and must be nearing ninety now He is pale and thin, with striking wrinkles around his eyes. He was swift to tell me the same tale of matrilocality, several times over, as if to forestall the village gossip. But more seriously, I realized, because he could not help it. It had seeped into the innards of his consciousness. Who was he? He was “the man who was in his nawasa.”

But on with the story. Parvati and Krishna  had eight sons, each named after a god  (such as in my own father’s case. He was Naresh, or the “Lord of men” and his brothers were Ramesh, Mahesh, Durgesh and Suresh—or, Ram, Shiva, Durga, and Indra). After Deviprsad Shukla died, his daughter Parvati looked after all the work relating to the land until the older boys were old enough. The other progeny, Kuber, also got his share of the land. He had two sons, “The Great Lord” and “The Greatest Lord.” Just joking. Vishnu and Mahesh.

Sometime in 1992, Parvati and Krishna, blessed with six of their eight sons already, felt a pinch and needed money for domestic expenses, including medical and ritual. Fortunately, Parvati’s father had left behind sizeable land in the village of Betawar. Unusually for North India, he had made it clear that his lands should be passed  on equally to his son and daughter. As I said, history does not preserve an explanation of why he considered his son of little value and his daughter of equal worth.

A dalal or middleman called Suryanath was available at just the right time in this right place to sell off some of Parvati’s land and get her the cash she urgently needed. Also available was a buyer, a Bengali gentleman called Samir Majumdar, who had been making Suryanath run around for months trying to locate the perfect spot to buy. This land appealed to him. It was by the river, it was undulating, not flat. It was tucked away, to the extent that it was unconnected by a road.

A deal was struck for plot number 1088. Suryanath took Parvati and her brother to the court for registry and Som Majumdar had the pleasure of buying his first piece of land in Banaras. Parvati and her brother had to do the registry together because there had not been what’s called a dakhil kharij, literally, “delete and include,” or mutation, after their father’s death and they were equal legal heirs to plot 1088. Som Majumdar bought more than half of the plot, or 12 plus biswas of 22 something biswas. A biswa, as any historian will tell you, differs from place to place in India. In the relevant parts of U.P., a biswa is 1350 square feet.

He paid through his nose. In the prices of 1992-93. He paid carefully, in parts. Suryanath erected white stone pillars all around. Som looked at the land, at his empty coffers, and told himself again and again that it was a good deal. It was near a wide and gently flowing Ganga, almost the last plot (he later bought the very last plots as well), with a sleepy village between the plot and any road or semi-urban habitation. The village was poor. It had no roads, and of course no shops or businesses. Almost all the houses were clay and thatch or kachcha. Suryanath volunteered to have wheat planted in the newly sold plot. Soon the Majumdar family had a few wheat stalks in a vase on their dining table.

The registry papers show two wide-eyed portraits of a rural couple, Parvati and her brother Kuber. This is their permanent mark in history; after this, they disappear from vision. They left behind plenty of survivors: their spouses and the eight sons of one and two sons of the other. Over the years 1992 and 2003, the purchased land was visited and surveyed regularly but nothing was planned concretely. In winter the school Vidyashram had its annual picnic there. Two other plots were purchased in the vicinity from other villagers. A future campus was envisioned for the school and its parent organization NIRMAN, and a home for the Majumdars. When they had leisure, and as a kind of game, they made sketches of their dream house in the village Betawar.

In 2003, Som Majumdar suddenly passed away. His wife came to the temple on the riverside, naively clutching her registry papers, and summoned the sons of Parvati to meet her. They came. She waved her papers and said she needed to take possession. They claimed that nothing had in fact been sold, that it was all a fraud perpetrated by the dalal Suryanath, who had hypnotized their mother and forced her to sign the papers. (Maybe that’s why she looked so unnaturally wide-eyed in the photograph affixed there.) The brothers were adamant that no possession would be given, or if at all, a little narrow patch in the middle of robust, street-side land.

There were no stones left of the boundary. Villagers had wrenched them out and taken them home. It was all oral memory now. Because there has been no chakbandi on that side of the village, any transaction is oral and any delineation of land is based on oral understandings. Chakbandi  is a settlement of land ownership to provide consolidated, and not scattered, land to individuals. Without chakbandi there are no single owners. Every plot of land has dozens, sometimes scores, of owners, and when one decides to sell, the balance in the whole plot heaves and shifts, and hopefully settles down again and sometimes does not. There are potential errors, confusions and possibilities for fraud lurking in every corner. People owning 1/24th of a plot, 1/18th, 1/15th, and so on, walk around with a slightly dazed look. They have faith in the government and its machinery but they also have grave doubts whether, in their lifetimes at least, they can ever have a decent-sized farm to cultivate that is clearly their own.

In this sense we were not worse off than anyone else, except that we had a mission more precise than just farming. In the next 17 years, we held at least 34 meetings, at a rough average of two a year. Most were necessitated by a breach of peace, always by the eight brothers digging or building something, we rushing to complain and stop them, they shouting and threatening, we keeping out voices further down, surrounding them, in the manner of Dilip Kumar, with a vacuum of sound in which their high voices could not travel. All efforts by us to make a boundary, to even propose a separation of our land from theirs, to even talk calmly about it, were always met by threats and ugly talk and behaviour. On numerous occasions, they abused our workers, threatened and chased away our staff or service people, beat up someone they identified with us, and spoke in an ugly fashion with me and my family. They carried lathis or poles in their earlier days, one had a rifle, and behaved, on the whole, like old-fashioned landlords, upper caste to boot, whom no one could dare challenge.

Then sometime in 2015 popped up the two other brothers, Vishnu and Mahesh. They put on even uglier fronts. No, the land could not be separated thus. No, we had no rights. No, papers were worth nothing. No, no, no. The eight brothers had made our lives miserable by uprooting all the trees we had planted, by having their labourers defecate on our land, and by carrying away hour after hour all day and night, tractor-loads of sand. These two brothers were more nightmarish in a way because of their dark, silent presence like the emissaries of Yama, the god of death.

We could see no future with the land. It was still as beautiful. The river continued to flow gently. The village behind remained as poor. Some thatched huts changed to pakka, or brick and masonry buildings. The birds sang. The cattle lowed. The peacocks strutted about and cried out plaintively. But which part was “ours” and why could we not have a boundary?

We went to the D.M. more than once. He helped us in his way but unfortunately a D.M. can only pick up his phone and order. If his underlings wish to sabotage a task, there are a myriad ways to do it. Official land measurements ordered by the D.M. were violently aborted by the eight brothers. Qanungoes and lekhpals came and went, and the land lay there with no boundary.

In the middle of 2020, over a quarter century after the land was purchased, we magically managed to separate off a portion as “ours,” mostly by saying “yes” to every compromise we could—sure, take this side; sure, take more land; sure, have this or that as well. Oh, you want us to purchase another section as well? Sure, we’ll do that…. We were left with perhaps less than what had been bought, it was worse in its location than other parts of the lot, it had even had mud and clay removed from it by the unscrupulous brothers—but it was ours.

We started a boundary right away. There was a dispute about a tree that stood in the middle but the matter was resolved to our satisfaction. The tide seemed to have suddenly turned and here we were, with our boundary, around our land, our trees, our stones and sand, our riverside, our litter and garbage.

And our peacock.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 24, 2020

The peacock

The beautiful peacock hopped and ran and part-flew, then walked in stately majesty, from one end of the field to the other.

Peacocks have been promenading in the surrounding fields morning, afternoon and evening. The season is theirs. They keep calling out and between their voices and their strutting about, they have a masterful presence on the land.

This particular peacock presented a triumph though. You see, the peacock was in plot 1088. For those of you who have not been following all the earth-rocking discussions on the subject, plot 1088 in the village of Betawar was originally owned by one Deviprasad Shukla (names changed to preserve anonymity). He had a daughter Parvati and a son Kuber. History has not preserved the details of why he was unhappy with his son, but he was, and longed to have a proper male heir. So he married his daughter to a young man Krishna Dubey who agreed to live in the nawasa. That is, he agreed to be a ghar jamai, or a son-in-law who lives in his wife’s natal home. All this transpired circa 1962.

North India is patrilocal. Every woman shifts to her husband’s home after marriage. For the reverse to happen is a disgrace and testifies to the weakness of the man. By this logic  he does not have the backbone to support his bride and family-to-be. To be dependant on your father-in-law saps you of masculinity and power, to the extent of making you into a laughing stock. There are hints of underlying speculations as to why the man would consent to such a disgrace. Was he lured by wealth? Did his family want to get rid of him at any cost? Did he have a defect of some kind and could not have survived normally in a normal world?  So, at least thirty five years after his marriage and shift to Betawar, I was told in turn by every single person I met, adding up to literally hundreds of repetitions of the refrain, “Krishna Dubey is not from here. He is here in his father-in-law’s house.”

Krishna Dubey was in his sixties when I first met him and must be nearing ninety now He is pale and thin, with striking wrinkles around his eyes. He was swift to tell me the same tale of matrilocality, several times over, as if to forestall the village gossip. But more seriously, I realized, because he could not help it. It had seeped into the innards of his consciousness. Who was he? He was “the man who was in his nawasa.”

But on with the story. Parvati and Krishna  had eight sons, each named after a god  (such as in my own father’s case. He was Naresh, or the “Lord of men” and his brothers were Ramesh, Mahesh, Durgesh and Suresh—or, Ram, Shiva, Durga, and Indra). After Deviprsad Shukla died, his daughter Parvati looked after all the work relating to the land until the older boys were old enough. The other progeny, Kuber, also got his share of the land. He had two sons, “The Great Lord” and “The Greatest Lord.” Just joking. Vishnu and Mahesh.

Sometime in 1992, Parvati and Krishna, blessed with six of their eight sons already, felt a pinch and needed money for domestic expenses, including medical and ritual. Fortunately, Parvati’s father had left behind sizeable land in the village of Betawar. Unusually for North India, he had made it clear that his lands should be passed  on equally to his son and daughter. As I said, history does not preserve an explanation of why he considered his son of little value and his daughter of equal worth.

A dalal or middleman called Suryanath was available at just the right time in this right place to sell off some of Parvati’s land and get her the cash she urgently needed. Also available was a buyer, a Bengali gentleman called Samir Majumdar, who had been making Suryanath run around for months trying to locate the perfect spot to buy. This land appealed to him. It was by the river, it was undulating, not flat. It was tucked away, to the extent that it was unconnected by a road.

A deal was struck for plot number 1088. Suryanath took Parvati and her brother to the court for registry and Som Majumdar had the pleasure of buying his first piece of land in Banaras. Parvati and her brother had to do the registry together because there had not been what’s called a dakhil kharij, literally, “delete and include,” or mutation, after their father’s death and they were equal legal heirs to plot 1088. Som Majumdar bought more than half of the plot, or 12 plus biswas of 22 something biswas. A biswa, as any historian will tell you, differs from place to place in India. In the relevant parts of U.P., a biswa is 1350 square feet.

He paid through his nose. In the prices of 1992-93. He paid carefully, in parts. Suryanath erected white stone pillars all around. Som looked at the land, at his empty coffers, and told himself again and again that it was a good deal. It was near a wide and gently flowing Ganga, almost the last plot (he later bought the very last plots as well), with a sleepy village between the plot and any road or semi-urban habitation. The village was poor. It had no roads, and of course no shops or businesses. Almost all the houses were clay and thatch or kachcha. Suryanath volunteered to have wheat planted in the newly sold plot. Soon the Majumdar family had a few wheat stalks in a vase on their dining table.

The registry papers show two wide-eyed portraits of a rural couple, Parvati and her brother Kuber. This is their permanent mark in history; after this, they disappear from vision. They left behind plenty of survivors: their spouses and the eight sons of one and two sons of the other. Over the years 1992 and 2003, the purchased land was visited and surveyed regularly but nothing was planned concretely. In winter the school Vidyashram had its annual picnic there. Two other plots were purchased in the vicinity from other villagers. A future campus was envisioned for the school and its parent organization NIRMAN, and a home for the Majumdars. When they had leisure, and as a kind of game, they made sketches of their dream house in the village Betawar.

In 2003, Som Majumdar suddenly passed away. His wife came to the temple on the riverside, naively clutching her registry papers, and summoned the sons of Parvati to meet her. They came. She waved her papers and said she needed to take possession. They claimed that nothing had in fact been sold, that it was all a fraud perpetrated by the dalal Suryanath, who had hypnotized their mother and forced her to sign the papers. (Maybe that’s why she looked so unnaturally wide-eyed in the photograph affixed there.) The brothers were adamant that no possession would be given, or if at all, a little narrow patch in the middle of robust, street-side land.

There were no stones left of the boundary. Villagers had wrenched them out and taken them home. It was all oral memory now. Because there has been no chakbandi on that side of the village, any transaction is oral and any delineation of land is based on oral understandings. Chakbandi  is a settlement of land ownership to provide consolidated, and not scattered, land to individuals. Without chakbandi there are no single owners. Every plot of land has dozens, sometimes scores, of owners, and when one decides to sell, the balance in the whole plot heaves and shifts, and hopefully settles down again and sometimes does not. There are potential errors, confusions and possibilities for fraud lurking in every corner. People owning 1/24th of a plot, 1/18th, 1/15th, and so on, walk around with a slightly dazed look. They have faith in the government and its machinery but they also have grave doubts whether, in their lifetimes at least, they can ever have a decent-sized farm to cultivate that is clearly their own.

In this sense we were not worse off than anyone else, except that we had a mission more precise than just farming. In the next 17 years, we held at least 34 meetings, at a rough average of two a year. Most were necessitated by a breach of peace, always by the eight brothers digging or building something, we rushing to complain and stop them, they shouting and threatening, we keeping out voices further down, surrounding them, in the manner of Dilip Kumar, with a vacuum of sound in which their high voices could not travel. All efforts by us to make a boundary, to even propose a separation of our land from theirs, to even talk calmly about it, were always met by threats and ugly talk and behaviour. On numerous occasions, they abused our workers, threatened and chased away our staff or service people, beat up someone they identified with us, and spoke in an ugly fashion with me and my family. They carried lathis or poles in their earlier days, one had a rifle, and behaved, on the whole, like old-fashioned landlords, upper caste to boot, whom no one could dare challenge.

Then sometime in 2015 popped up the two other brothers, Vishnu and Mahesh. They put on even uglier fronts. No, the land could not be separated thus. No, we had no rights. No, papers were worth nothing. No, no, no. The eight brothers had made our lives miserable by uprooting all the trees we had planted, by having their labourers defecate on our land, and by carrying away hour after hour all day and night, tractor-loads of sand. These two brothers were more nightmarish in a way because of their dark, silent presence like the emissaries of Yama, the god of death.

We could see no future with the land. It was still as beautiful. The river continued to flow gently. The village behind remained as poor. Some thatched huts changed to pakka, or brick and masonry buildings. The birds sang. The cattle lowed. The peacocks strutted about and cried out plaintively. But which part was “ours” and why could we not have a boundary?

We went to the D.M. more than once. He helped us in his way but unfortunately a D.M. can only pick up his phone and order. If his underlings wish to sabotage a task, there are a myriad ways to do it. Official land measurements ordered by the D.M. were violently aborted by the eight brothers. Qanungoes and lekhpals came and went, and the land lay there with no boundary.

In the middle of 2020, over a quarter century after the land was purchased, we magically managed to separate off a portion as “ours,” mostly by saying “yes” to every compromise we could—sure, take this side; sure, take more land; sure, have this or that as well. Oh, you want us to purchase another section as well? Sure, we’ll do that…. We were left with perhaps less than what had been bought, it was worse in its location than other parts of the lot, it had even had mud and clay removed from it by the unscrupulous brothers—but it was ours.

We started a boundary right away. There was a dispute about a tree that stood in the middle but the matter was resolved to our satisfaction. The tide seemed to have suddenly turned and here we were, with our boundary, around our land, our trees, our stones and sand, our riverside, our litter and garbage.

And our peacock.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 21, 2020

Memories on my Wedding Anniversary

Today in filling out a form I had to choose “married” or “single.” Well, I was married and now was single. But “single” has a specific meaning, which is not “widowed.” What did the form-makers mean—the literal or the social meaning of the terms “married” and “single”?

I randomly chose one of the two options, and it turned out to be the correct one. I was elated. It was correct because it saved me pages of further form-filling. Just as, when applying for a UK visa, I blithely chose “nope, never been there before” to circumvent pages of enquiry as to the exact dates of all previous visits (all twenty-five, over twenty-five years), where you had stayed each time, who your friends and business associates in the UK were, what was each one’s annual income and last tax paid. No, I was not going to get bullied into collecting all this crazy stuff. I don’t consider my choice a lie, so much do I want to avoid filling out useless forms put together on some bureaucratic whim.

So, on today’s form I chose “single,” but while pleased with the time-saving that followed, I also felt a clenching at my chest. Why was I denying my darling husband, my soul-mate, the father of my children? The word “single” certainly did not apply to me. Once married, forever married. Forever his. Tied in marriage knots. Resting my head on his shoulder.

True, we fought a lot. When the instances of violent disagreement are long past, it’s impossible to imagine them. I can only remember the most trivial and the most dramatic.

We had two homes, and each one of us, in turn, commuted between the two. For years, the children were with him in Banaras. Then for years they were with me in Calcutta. I would get annoyed, for instance, when he came to the Calcutta house, and early in the morning was found mashing up an egg for sandwiches for the children’s tiffin. If you think about it calmly, what a lovely thing to do for your spouse! You are with her after weeks, you know that she has been looking after the children single-handedly and you think, why don’t I take some of her work off her shoulder? I’ll pack the sandwiches today.

And my annoyance? It stemmed from the fact that I had a whole menu planned for the week, and gave substantial thought to every meal. It should be balanced, interesting, and in holistic synch with others before and after. I am a kind of maniac about this. (Just as I finished typing this, I went into a gentle daydream about our family’s current menu for the next two days).

So my bewitched self would take over and I’d scold poor Sombabu, explaining in tiresome ways where he had trespassed, and in general make a stupid fool of myself.

Another kind of ridiculous occasion could be when I would insist that we both must eat thus or consume such. Now, lest you think I wanted him to eat my way, let me hasten to correct that impression. I’d be angry with him because he was ready to eat his way alone instead of sharing with me, teaching me, waiting for me. He wanted rice and dal, or maybe rice and ghi and boiled potatoes. I had no idea of this kind of food. I was not willing to learn directly either. I wanted to enjoy it indirectly by having him feed me. He would do it. But after a tantrum or two by me demonstrating my utter lack of imagination or readiness to learn a new eating style. Not different to my toddler granddaughter who stamps her feet when we ask her to do something and insists, “No! You do it for me!”

A different kind of disagreement was when early on in our relationship we would have heated arguments about Marxism. As an economist and a Bengali, he had a different take on that very term than I, a newly returned student from Moscow had, in the heady days of Soviet communism in the early seventies. He didn’t know anything of the passionate ideology I nurtured in my breast. Worse, he didn’t care. I’d feel that we were actually in opposite camps. If there were to be a revolution…. ? Wouldn’t he fall with the bourgeoisie?

This did not last because our relationship came to stand firm on a shared ideology of humanism where he routinely gave away our prized possessions to the poor (and I had no grounds for protest), befriended the dregs of society (I could not withhold my admiration) and was so transparently innocent of any class prejudice that he put my whole lifestyle to shame.  On top of that, my father-in-law may have been gentry before 1947, but because of Partition, had lost his fiefdom, his zamindari, and been reduced to an impoverished refugee in Srirampur. He continued to be lax in providing for his family. Sombabu grew up in a childhood of part-scarcity. When I first visited them, I was delighted that my chosen partner came from such straitened circumstances.

Our relationship had an amazing weak link. I was aware of a severe personal handicap that, in my immaturity, I tried to overcome with attacking before I was attacked. I had no training in Indian classical music though I was familiar, with five years of piano under my belt, with Western classical music. But whatever I had learnt and could play or appreciate, I was not a musician. My husband not only was an expert in Indian classical music, he was a live exponent of it. He had appeared on television and on the stage. He was a child prodigy who had played several instruments to acclaim before he turned ten. When I got to know him, he carried his huge lumbering sitar on foreign trips. When I first met him he told me he was married to his sitar—and that created a seed of jealousy that left me curiously yearning for something unattainable. I could never be intimate enough with him. I was jealous of his musician friends, of the way in which they laughed together, of his tabla accompanist with whom he shared, pardon me, quasi-organisms, and of his audience with whom there was a little oasis of rapport that excluded me.

Ah well. If I had my bad and sad moments during my married life, they are nothing compared to when there is no married life any more and I am, of all things, “single.”

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 19, 2020

A Village Child

Utkarsh’s problem is only that he is frozen up inside. He knows perfectly well that soft means mulayam or naram. He knows perfectly well that mulayam means soft. When I say “find something soft/mulayam” he looks out into the distance or at the sky or clownishly scratches his head. Then I say, “Well, what’s the opposite of soft/mulayam/naram?” He again looks at the expanse, the sky, scratches his head. His way of expressing protest is to drag his feet and waste time. If you were to make the mistake of saying “Hurry up! Hurry, Utkarsh, hurry!” his tactic is to slow down further and seem as if he could not hear you.

You can only lose your temper. The temptation is strong. You try to justify doing so with a “It’s good for him to know I will tolerate no nonsense. He’s probably testing me.”

Another voice in your head tells you that this is gobblydook. You are making it up to justify the simple fact that you cannot keep your cool. You know the problem is that Utkarsh is frozen up inside. FUI. A common problem for village children and city children, poor children and rich children if they have, as Utkarsh has, been scolded and beaten as children for doing or not doing things that were never properly explained to them as to how to do. An FUI child cannot learn because the simplest thing told him which he knows well cognitively hits against the wall he has erected in his head and does not permeate into his consciousness.

So with Utkarsh you go back still further to the basics and adopt humour. Is a cow soft or hard? A house? A bottle? A river? His hair? You realise (a) this could be a game about anything. The game could be to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ every second time. The game could be to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at random times. Or to use the pattern “yes-yes-no” or “no-no-yes”; (b) there is ambiguity about this. It’s a great thing to learn to categorise. But what about hard hair versus soft hair? Water in a bottle versus water in a river? A quilted bag versus a bag made of hard materials?

Finally, Utkarsh chooses to write: The bag feels soft. The door feels hard. The paper feels smooth. The stone feels rough. With a streak of originality, he chooses, the magnet feels sticky. He enjoys drawing and colouring a lot, he can write words ten times each as I demand. What he has not learnt is the difference between hard and soft, smooth and rough, and sticky, as we saw, means for him the capacity of something like a magnet to stick.

So, you realise that all you have to do is teach the labels for everything. Thus-and-thus is soft, thus-and-thus is hard. For us adults. Children can get the hang of that. It’s sort of “Okay, I get it. That’s how you name things in the adult world and I can figure that out.”

The challenge tha an FUI mind presents is staggering. Utkarsh finishes all five hands with the five chosen nouns displaying the five qualities of the day. He is proud and happy. When he shows me what he thinks is the completed work, I drop the bombshell. “Read it,” I say. “Start from 1 and read to 5.”

Utkarsh’s first sentence, “Bag feels soft” is read by him, after struggling with the sky, the distant land, and his scratchy head, as “Soft soft soft.” He has learnt one word. But of course he has not learnt it. He does not know what it means, only that it is a word introduced into his consciousness. He cannot distinguish it from other words. Indeed, when I had asked him if his hair was hard or soft, he said enigmatically, “it’s garam (hot—he meant naram, soft)”.

Utkarsh has learnt how to read phonetically. If he can be forced to look at the words, and not at the sky and the fields, he can sound out each letter, join sounds, and even guess at the final word. The whole trick is to get him to look at the word and not elsewhere.

His second sentence, “Door feels hard” is also read by him as “Soft soft soft.”

By now, as you can guess, I have forced him to pay attention to letters and sound them out. He can get “The door feels hard”—but after fifteen times of going back to correct the initial “soft” that comes automatically to his mouth. After he reads sentence two, I ask him to repeat one. After three, to repeat two.

We have started at 10 and it’s 12.30.

Victory is ours. Utkarsh has drawn five palms holding five objects, coloured them beautifully, written five sentences, conceptualized hard, smooth, sticky etc. things, and practiced a lot of phonetic sounds.

Has it been worth it?

That depends totally on what the goal is. If the following are the goals, this is what has been achieved:

Utkarsh should learn some concepts of touching and feeling, or some similar “Environmental Studies” topic. No, this has not been achieved and this is not the way. The terms and the categories are too ambiguous. There is no humour or fun and no connection to anything in life.

Utkarsh should make connections between what he is learning and the world around him. This, as we just said, is not the way. The exercise is too abstract. I strove to make it relevant to him by making him run around to every door banging it and shouting “Door!” By discussing his hair. By bringing in cows and buffaloes.

Utkarsh should become fluent in oral English—yes, he is on the right track. In one year he could be fluent. But we could make it easier and quicker for him and definitely for ourselves by giving him more direct work: picture—word, picture—word. Cartoon—words. Activity—words.

Utkarsh should learn how to read and write English and take pleasure in doing so—yes, with some hard work on our part, he could do that. But, again, he could do it easier with more planned work that uses scaffolding patterns.

Utkarsh should develop self-confidence as a learner and know that he can tackle a variety of tasks—yes, in one month, he could learn that.

If one works with him.

Not 10 to 12.30 however.

We have to make slowness and stupidity the enemy, and studies the weapon that will defeat the enemy. As well as a lark that is incomparable fun. Then we can together march in this crusade.

 

 

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 19, 2020

Our Village Parents

Harshit and Harshita’s mother has a glowing complexion and soft brown eyes. She came dressed up as they all do, with Harshit in tow. They had been called regarding his online classes. He came with a roll of well-handled papers: his Holiday Homework of two months ago.

First I was regaled by a story of how Harshit was bitten by a sarp, a fancy name for a sanp or snake, how he was rushed to the hospital, how bottles of ‘water’ had been dripped into him, how his powerful medicines had made him drowsy so that back home in two days, he could only sleep and lie around. I had heard the story from her before since I bump into her regularly on my evening walks. She is always feeding and watering her cows. I had heard versions from Harshit’s teachers. I yawned. She was not succeeding in capturing my attention, leave aside my sympathy, since all the different version of the story of Harshit Bitten by The Snake contradicted each other.

Harshit sat there, prim and pretty, with long drooping eyelashes and a quiet, well-rested look. “See, see, how he has lost his looks,” worried his mother. I disagreed. Both mother and son radiated good health and charming looks.

I dragged them reluctantly to the issue of Harshit’s work. The snake story had preempted any other discussion so all I could do was look at his Holiday Homework. I made corrections in English and pointed out how the Hindi one was incomplete. He could not understand a particular task and of course he had not bothered to ask his teachers. The mother kept interjecting, “I am illiterate, you know, so I can’t help him. I tell him, beta, study and become something.”

“What do you do the whole day, Harshit?” I asked.

“Match.”

“Match?”

“I play a match.”

“Oh. Cricket.”

“Yes. I get up, brush my teeth, eat, play for two hours. Then I sleep. I eat. I do some

maths. I sleep. I play. I eat. I sleep.”

My ears had pricked up. “Maths? What Maths do you do?”

“From my book. Sawal lagate hain. (I solve sums).”

Harshit had a new liveliness. He was proud of his Maths.

Indeed, his Maths was all complete and correct in his Holiday Homework.

The mother told another extraordinary story. Harshit had forced her to not bring the little sister Harshita along when they came. Forced her? I was incredulous. She could not explain. He simply shrugged and said in a manly way—he is supposed to be around 12 years old—“I don’t go anywhere with my sister.”

I let them go with instructions to come back on Monday to pick up more work and to talk to their teachers every evening at 5 o’clock.

Then arrived the father of Aradhana and Prarthana. He is a Christian Priest of some sort and immediately plunged into a narration of how his daughters had gone to their grandparents in Sarnath and he was busy with his service work. I told him coldly that I was not interested in his work but the children’s. His face fell because he had little to tell me about the children who had gone to Sarnath a month back and he had fallen out of touch with them. “The Lockdown, you know,” he said wisely.

I hammered away telling him that his two choices were to either remove his children from the school or to be in touch with them, and either supply them with a phone so that teachers could teach them or to himself pick up work from school and ferry it to them and the completed work back from them to us. He was silent during my diatribe, said “All right Ma’am” and left.

Harshit came back, walking energetically as opposed to when he dragged his feet with his mother. “Harshita has come!” he announced from the door of the office. He looked pleased with himself as he sat down. I looked at Harshita’s rolled bundle of much-handled papers, her Holiday Homework from two months ago. She had done some and left out some. To the left-out parts, she said vaguely, “I’ve done that in my copy.”

Reading over the teacher’s instructions, I realised how difficult it would be for a village-based ten-year old to understand them, “Let’s observe….” began an exercise. That was fine for us adults but for a child who has never come across such an oblique construction, who can deal adequately with nouns and verbs, but hardly this conditional first person plural imperative…. She could only stammer when asked to read it.

Harshita is as bright as a button and as bright as Harshit. But both are being ill-served by our school. Teachers are not on their back to draw out their intelligence and harness their energy. They could be learning ten times as much at ten times the speed they are doing. They have themselves become lazy, cocooned by their mother and their home.

“What do you do the whole day?” I asked her.

“I brush, go to the bathroom, have my tea, go downstairs.”

“Downstairs?”

“Yes, I play with my chachi’s children. Then I come to school….”

I interrupted to say, “But that’s only today. What do you do everyday?”

“I play with my chachi’s children. I sleep, I eat, I go out for a walk.”

“How old are your chachi’s children?”

She gestured to a place rather close to the ground.

“They are small!” I exclaimed. “Can you play with such small children?”

“Small children are the best to play with!” Harshita and Harshita both chorused.

Chinta had meanwhile been waiting. I said to her, “We think your son Kishan is very bright and very sincere. He can study and do well in school. You seem to think the opposite and that he is good only for grazing cows in the field. There’s a gap between your and our thinking. What do you want to do—educate him or have him graze cows all his life?”

Chinta looked thunderstruck. It pained my anthropologist’s heart and troubled my humanist’s brain to have to make such a stark contrast almost in the language of the coloniser or the missionary, and perhaps for the first time in my life, not preface it with a gentle reminder to her of who she was, what was the Indian state and its modernity, what children were capable of, and how she and we must work together. Perhaps it’s because I have seen Chinta now for ten years or so and repetition reaches a limit. Mostly it was because, having met two other parents and understood of their negligence of their children, I also understood that we, the school, had to be over-strict to compensate. Otherwise getting the children out of their sticky mud and cowdung existence would be impossible.

Chinta started speaking, more or less a litany of self-justification. “I gave him a mobile. I don’t know what he has done with it. [as if that’s possible.] I told him to go upstairs to study. We have this room upstairs you know. [I must go to their house and see for myself. Little rooms upstairs are magical.] Now I am not literate, so I don’t know what he does. He is supposed to be reading and writing. He does not listen to me….”

At this point, I interrupted her. I did not need to hear any more. Why did Sherlock Holmes decide that Chinta was telling a lie?

I told her I did not need her version. I asked her to bring Kishan and come so that I could understand what was going on for myself.

The final parent for the day was Manoj who has two sons Akash and Pranjal, in class 6 and 4 respectively. He insisted they both study. The message from their teachers stared me in the face. They have not been doing their work. We have not been able to talk to them at all.

Manoj said the older child had broken the phone. He was still able to do his work with the broken phone but the younger one was not.

I did not get into many details. Mostly I just put the fear of god in Manoj’s head: get them to do their work or have them leave the school.

Meanwhile, Chinta came back with Kishan. Poor Kishan. He had dull eyes, a tired look—did he have fever? Yes, I was told. Chinta did not realise the strange contrast she presented between her twinkling, chirruping zari-clad self and the faded, unsmiling boy with her. I sent them home for him to rest. Chinta sparkled on.

On a hunch, I opened Kishan’s notebook. He had done some work almost every day, and it was real work. My eyes almost fell out. I had the impression from Chinta on her first visit that he was a liar and a lazybones. I was reminded again of the discrepant version of parents and children and how parents were often the liars.

One day, one day, I will be able to visit them all again and get more insights. I need some desperately…..

Posted by: Nita Kumar | July 16, 2020

Saira Bano

That’s not her name—it’s just Saira. I am evoking the film star Saira Bano who made a huge buzz with her beauty in the sixties. I watched her in several films, especially in Junglee and Padosan several times over, and wondered at the over-estimation of the beauty. She had a moustache. She had heavy make-up trying to disguise a pimply skin. She had knots of fat in odd places. Then there was the scandal of Dilip Kumar divorcing his wife and marrying Saira Bano. How could such a wonderful, correct man do that?

We have our own Saira, who does not call herself Bano and has possibly never heard of her namesake in the Bombay film industry. She doesn’t need to have. She has enough histrionic talents of her own. She is also more beautiful than the famous actress.

We first heard of Saira some twelve years ago. She was in her early twenties and already the mother of three children. She was keen to educate them. She wanted work so that she could earn and pay their fees. We gave her three children scholarships that amounted to 18,000 over the school year, or one lakh eighty thousand over the child’s school career, and this was each, so five lakhs fifty four thousand altogether. She does not know this. Or let me put it differently.

Saira swerves between not being able to calculate the scholarships her children are being given lest they make her unduly obligated, and being able to calculate perfectly to the last rupee how much has been deducted from her salary against an advance taken by her. Just as she swerves between not knowing that it’s time for her morning tea so that she can be ready to take her ward to pre-school and knowing on the dot of six that it’s six and picking up her bag to depart.

Saira is an intriguing and annoying blend of the honest and duplicitous. Before her almost all the cleaning women I had ever seen sought to miss corners, sweep around objects rather than under them, and even steal or at least make you take care not to leave valuables around. The one immediately before her only talked on the phone while we were away, and the one before that only slept. So, Saira is terribly honest in that she keeps, literally, her nose to the ground, and scrubs and polishes everything she sees. We have to beg her to please, clean less. The ground is too wet, the wrong clothes have been washed, my desk has been re-arranged to my dismay.

And at the same time, honest as she is, Saira can lie through her teeth. She used to go every afternoon, when her son arrived on a bus, to drop him off either home or part of the distance home. She not only told us she did not do this, but tried desperately to cover up her daily absence with odd stories. One day she’d had a headache and had dashed out to get some pills. Another day she was overcome with the desire to eat a bhutta and had run out after a hawker to buy one (she whisked it out to prove it). A third day it was bananas that she craved. Often it was ice cream. And so on. Many times she had just been in the toilet a really long time, or “Me? Gone somewhere? No, I had not gone anywhere. I swear I was right here.” We could only shake our heads and mutter, “Saira, Saira.” This was repeated for many different actions. She was never contrite. Her defiance, or belief in her right to do whatever the thing in question was, negated any judgement she might have had regarding what was a lie and what the truth.

This, when we would of course have not stopped her from dropping her son off, or doing any of the many things she routinely lied about. We give her the main thing she wants—support for her children, plus a job with benefits, plus occasional help whenever she needs. We show her respect—she is called ap—and we treat her with equality. But all that is not the point. The point for Saira is to assert her active agency and her independent self. She could be regarded as a lesson in self-respect.

Her religious affiliations are a matter of wonder to me. At first she had stood out as a person who could challenge the patriarchy in her community. She spoke volubly against women’s rights being trampled by mullahs and religious leaders, and the hypocrisy of considering menstruation a stigma. I was delighted with her honest, from the guts, responses to most religiously coloured social taboos that most women found it impossible to challenge but she could just knock down with an argument. She became my model indigenous Muslim feminist.

More recently I have been engaged daily in a dispute with her over a certain scarf that she wears. “It’s dirty,” I say. “Don’t wear it.” It looks awful and she wears it day in and day out, on and off dust-ridden germ-infested streets. I’ve given her several suits of clothes. She prefers what I call her “wedding outfits”—zari-bordered saris with low-cut matching blouses, enough jangling bangles to scare off an army, and—the dirty scarf. “Be smart, be professional,” I say. “Keep your arms free.” When Saira wears the scarf, she droops one end over her head, the other winningly over her shoulder, and one full arm is needed to balance this particular draping-effect.

I taunt her, I scold her, I bribe and blackmail her—all to no effect. She must wear the scarf.

Why ever?

Now, there has been an Islamicisation of sorts all over. I may be wrong but it seems to me that Saira has been persuade by some maulvi or speaker with a lot of charisma, “Whatever you do, Saira, don’t forget your honour and your principles. You must keep your head covered at all times. You must wear your scarf always. All kind of people will try to tempt you to remove it, but remember—that’s your test. Do not listen to the devil.”

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