Sunday, July 2, 2017

Education - Back to the Basics (Part 1)

Education's important.  
That's a fact, not an opinion.  
Or so we've all been told. 
And so we take that importance as a given.  

All around,  
there are campaigns  
urging parents  
to send their children to school. 
Everywhere you look,  
advertisements of coaching centres  
offer you a glimmer of hope for a bright future,  
in exchange for a few years of your life.  

Anyone I meet,  
likes to proudly talk about  
the degrees attached to their name,  
or feels ashamed  
about the lack of them. 

Everywhere I read,  
are stories of parents  
who spend their life working excruciating hours  
just so their children  
can afford a good education  
and have a better life. 

Yet, at the same time: 
Every other day,  
a child commits suicide,  
succumbing to the pressure  
of exams, of marks, 
Of 'education'.  

In almost every classroom,  
scores of children sit quietly  
with glazed eyes,  
silently copying notes from the board. 

Each time 
A family celebrates the top rank of their child 
Is another student 
With shattered confidence 
From the public declaration 
That he stands at the bottom. 

Almost anyone I talk to  
points out that what they studied  
really has nothing to do with  
their work or life afterwards. 

Most importantly,  
anywhere you look,  
there are enough people  
with degrees attached to their names,  
People who we call  
who don't hesitate  
to hurt,  
to destroy,  
to discriminate, 
to rape,  
to kill. 

And so,  
I continued to wonder:  
what is the point of education?

It’s been six years since I entered the field of education (well, 28 actually, if I were to count my time as a student). I remember when I had joined the Teach for India fellowship, the general response from people around me was pride – pride that I had joined a sector as important as education. What I never said out loud to them, however, was that I wasn’t sure myself if education really is as important as it’s been made out to be.

As someone who had voluntarily chosen to join the education sector, I was expected to believe in its power. When I began my foray into this field through teaching, the thrust for getting all children in the country enrolled into schools was at its peak. I’d constantly come across campaigns talking about the importance of education. I’d pass by families living under flyovers getting their children ready for schools. And the whole time, I’d keep wondering – why?

Why is education so important? How is a lesson on phonics or place value or addition or EVS really going to change this child’s life? Sure, the skill of literacy would open doors to reading more books, but is that it? And numeracy – most kids would pick it up in their daily interactions even without schooling. So really, what was it about learning theorems and rules and formulas and spellings and dates and events and facts and piles and piles of information that would transform a child’s life?

What was the point of education?

I left my two years of teaching with this question reeling in my mind, and enrolled in an MA Education program hoping to find an answer to it. By the end of that program, I wasn’t even sure what we meant by the term ‘education’. Initially, I felt a bit ripped off, having paid for an education looking for some answers, only to be left with many more questions. But as time passed, I realized how important it was to really deconstruct everything that we’ve grown up with, question every single assumption we have, and really just begin from scratch – What. Is. Education.

Seriously, what is education?
  • Is it about going to school?
  • Is it about learning to read, write, and do maths?
  • Is it learning to be obedient and disciplined?
  • Is it learning? Period? Does it then need a school?
  • Is it about getting jobs? Can I actually do some of these high-end jobs without ever having gone to school?
  • Is it a way of preventing children from being forced into labour? Or is it another form of child labour itself, wherein children are forced to spend six hours each day in a confined space and obediently do tasks they have little interest in?
  • Is it about learning and remembering information?
  • Is it about learning the right ‘moral values’?
  • Is it about learning to behave like the so-called upper classes of society?
  • Is it about learning the basics of social interaction, and just providing a space for that?
  • Is it about learning everything we can to survive as a human? But if that were the case, shouldn’t our priorities be to learn how to grow food, build houses, make clothes, etc.?

I mean, really, think about it. How would you say when somebody is ‘educated’? Every other day, we hear stories of people being berated for not having the right educational qualifications. We look up to people with degrees, and look down at those without. What do we mean when we say someone ‘looks educated’? What are the qualities of someone who looks educated? Or someone who is educated? And is our education system really geared towards those qualities? 

The fact is, we've grown up being told that education is important, and were never really encouraged to ask why. So we joined the race. Of going to school. Of sitting at our desk. Of listening quietly. Of memorizing. Of going for tuitions. Of competing in exams. Of getting degrees. Of getting certified (of what, I'm not quite sure).

And yet, somewhere, there remained an underlying feeling that never quite got squashed - why are we doing all this? Is this really what education is all about? And if yes, why is this important? 


I don't have answers in this post. But perhaps this is one of those situations where the questions are more important than the answers. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017


For the love of dialogue and conversations...

I think you should get a haircut soon.
What?! I just had one a few days ago.
That was a few months ago!
Yea but, I don’t think I need one as yet.
Look at your hair. It’s almost below your neck.
So, it’s too long. You should cut it.
But why? What’s the problem if it’s too long?
It’s not supposed to be that long.
Her hair is so long!
She’s your sister.
Thanks, I didn’t know.
Don’t take that tone with me…
Sorry mum. But so what if she’s my sister?
I meant, she’s a girl. She’s supposed to have long hair. You’re a boy. You’re supposed to have short hair.
But why?
Enough with the ‘why’s!
I’m serious. Why can’t boys have long hair?
It doesn’t look good.
Says who?
Says everyone.
But I think it looks good.
Well, it doesn’t.
But if it’s my hair, and I think it looks good when long, isn’t that all that should matter?
If you were stranded alone on an island, then yes.
I mean, if you lived entirely alone, it wouldn’t matter. You’re part of a society. And the society’s opinion matters.
You mean the people in our building?
No, I mean society at large. All the people!
All the people as in…all the people?!
Including all the people I’ve never met?
I said all the people.
Why do I have to care about the opinions of 6 billion people who I’ve never met about the length of my hair?!
It’s not just about the length of your hair!
Then what is it about?!
It’s just that, the society has some rules. If we want to be part of this society, we need to follow those rules. And the length of hair for boys and girls happens to be one of those rules.
Look, mum, why does the society have rules?
What do you mean?
I mean, rules exist for a reason. What is that?
Rules are there to ensure that everything functions smoothly, right? To make sure people don’t end up harming each other? We have traffic rules and signals to make sure we don’t have accidents. In the same way, we have rules in society like don’t kill each other or don’t steal from each other to make sure that we don’t harm each other. In a way, the rules tell us to consider other people around us, and not just think about ourselves, right?
With me so far?
Yes, that makes sense.
So you agree that people should follow the rules of society to prevent themselves from harming each other, right?
Okay, then who am I harming by growing my hair?
Well……maybe it’s not just about harm. Many rules came up for practical reasons as well.
What do you mean?
Historically, men were supposed to fight or work in the fields and things. It would have made practical sense to keep their hair short. It wasn’t about preventing harm to others, like some of the other rules.
That makes sense.
Thank you.
I mean, it makes sense if I were going to fight. Do you see me prepping for war right now?
I didn’t say that’s the reason for it now!
Then what is the reason for it now?
It’s just a practice that has continued.
Even when the reason is no longer valid?
It’s become a norm now, hasn’t it? That’s how most things around us work. I don’t really see the point in challenging the rules.
By that logic, we’d never challenge any rule. Nothing would ever change.
That’s a little extreme…
Seriously, do you actually believe that we should continue to follow society’s rules just because that’s the way things have always been done? That the rules should never be challenged?
I’m not saying that all the rules of society are great. Some are already harmful, and they need to change. But there needs to be a proper reason to change it.
For example?
Well, take dowry. It’s been a societal practice for many generations, and has led to the abuse and death of so many women. So that seems like a very good reason to challenge this rule and to push for a change.
But growing out your hair – what reason is there to do it?
I want to do it.
That’s not a reason.
Of course it is. Being told that I have to keep my hair short makes me unhappy. Growing my hair will make me happy. Why isn’t my happiness a good enough reason to go against a rule?
That’s hardly the same thing.
I’m not saying it is. But at the end of the day, if a rule makes someone unhappy, isn’t that enough of a reason to change it?
Perhaps, if everyone felt that way, then yes. But I don’t see all the other boys in your class trying to grow their hair.
That’s like saying if one woman was abused because of dowry, but others’ weren’t, she shouldn’t push for any change.
The two situations are completely different.
In the extent of happiness and misery, yes. But they are both still about happiness and misery.
Misery is a strong word for a haircut.
Fine, unhappiness. How does that change anything?
Look, you keep talking about change, but it’s not an easy thing. You think the first push to challenge dowry would have been simple? There would have been a lot of resistance, people pushing back, even adding on to the abuse. But that cause was strong enough for people to continue taking a stand against it. Now, if you were to grow out your hair, you’d face a lot of resistance too. Of a different kind, yes, but it would be there. Everyone would make a big deal out of it. The school would not allow it. Your classmates would ridicule you. Is the length of your hair really worth all that?
If I said yes, would I then be justified in growing it?
Really?! You’re telling me that having short hair is making you so miserable that you would rather be a laughing stock or a thing for everyone to point at and comment upon – just to be able to grow it?
Exactly. That’s what I thought.
I’m saying that I see no reason why I should not be allowed to grow MY hair, when it will make me happy, but would bring absolutely no harm to others.
I just told you the reason. Everyone around will make your life that much harder.
That’s a reason for why it would be difficult for me to do so. Not why I shouldn’t do it at all.
I feel like you’re starting a revolution in this house.
It does feel like it, doesn’t it?
A revolution for hair. If only Gandhi could see you right now.
Correction: A revolution for personal choice.
Fine. Do what you want.
Well, in another few weeks, your school is going to call you up to have this exact same conversation. So we’re really just talking about a few centimeters of hair then. I can live with that.
What makes you think I won’t be able to convince the school?
You know what? You actually might. Now that would be a conversation worth getting a front row seat for.
Thanks mum. I can just picture you sitting there in the parent-teacher meeting with some popcorn, enjoying the show!
Just let me know the date and time!
So we’re good here?
I think so. Wow. I can’t believe we spent all this time arguing about the length of your hair.
My thoughts exactly.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Time to Pray

A professor once told us that if we want to be sure we've understood a concept, we should try explaining it to a little kid. This post sort of took off from that idea...

“Where are we going?” the boy asked, holding on to his father’s hand as they walked.
We’re going to pray.
What’s pray?
Pray is…when we ask for blessings.
What are blessings?
Blessings are good wishes.
You mean how people wish me on my birthday?
Well…something like that.
But why would I ask for wishes? Don’t people wish us when they want to?
This is different. We’re not asking people for blessings. We’re asking God.
Who is God?
God is the one who made all of us.
Huh? He makes things like the carpenter made the table for us?
I don’t mean things. He made all of us human beings. Me. You.
But I thought mamma made me.
Well, yes.
So what did god do?
I don’t mean you alone. I mean all people. This entire world.
Is god a very rich person?
He is not a person!
So…what is he?
He is…it’s hard to explain. Just think of him as someone who is much bigger than all of us people.
Is he a giant?
Listen, you will understand God better when you grow older.
So we’re going to p…pay God now?
Pray! Pray to God.
Yes, pray. So we’re going to ask God to wish us?
Well, we’re going to first say thank you to God.
Thank you for what?
Thank you for everything that he has given us.
What has he given us?
Well, our family, our house, our friends.
I don’t have that many friends…
Don’t worry, you will. You just need to talk more to the other boys. You’ll make friends.
But you just said God gives us our friends.
You won’t get friends just like that. You have to do something about it.
But then what is God’s job if I have to go making my own friends?
He…well…you’ll understand some day. He does a lot for us.
Does he do a lot for everyone?
Of course. He takes care of this whole world.
That’s so many people!
Yes, God has special powers. He can take care of everyone.
So after I say thank you to god, I can ask him for whatever I want?
And he’ll give it to me?
Can I ask him for a toy?
No, you should ask him to keep everyone happy and safe. Ask him for good wishes.
But I wanted a toy.
God doesn’t give toys. He gives good wishes.
So he gives good wishes to everyone?
Yes. To all the good people.
What about the bad people?
You don’t want him to give good wishes to bad people, do you?
What happened?
Nothing…it’s just that…yesterday I forgot to do my homework.
That’s okay. Just remember the next time.
My teacher said I was a bad person.
Oh! No, I didn’t mean that way. Of course you’re not a bad person!
But my teacher says I am.
Listen, that’s just because of one thing.
So if I do one only one bad thing, I don’t become a bad person?
Depends on the thing you do.
What do you mean?
I mean, look, not doing your homework, that’s not so bad. But things like stealing or hurting others are bad.
But my teacher thinks I’m a bad person.
She doesn’t think that. She must have said that because she was angry. Besides, everyone else thinks you’re a good person.
So if someone thinks I’m bad, and someone else thinks I’m good, who would God listen to?
The good ones of course!
What are you thinking?
You remember that man on the news who went to jail? You said he was a bad person. But his parents were saying he is a good person. So will god listen to them?
No, that’s not what I meant.
What did you mean?
Look, God knows everything. He knows who are the good people, and who are the bad people. He will take care of the good people, and punish the bad people.
So God doesn’t need us to tell him who is good or bad?
What if God makes a mistake and punishes a good person?
God doesn’t make mistakes.
But if he does?
Then he will make sure the bad people are punished after their death.
He will send the bad people to a bad place where they will be punished.
And the good people? What will happen to them?
They will go to a good place – the place where God stays.
Where does God stay?
No one really knows.
But then…how do we know that the good people go there?
We just know.
How does God punish the bad people if he doesn’t stay in the bad place?
God doesn’t need to stay there. He is everywhere.
You just said you don’t know where God stays.
What I meant was that we don’t know where the good people go exactly. But we do know that God is everywhere.
How can he be everywhere?
He is God. He has special powers.
So you mean he is here also?
Absolutely. He’s always with us.
I’ve never seen him.
You can’t see God. But he is always watching us.
Isn’t that a bad thing? To follow people around?
It’s a bad thing when people do it. But God is special.
How do we know God is here if we can’t see him?
We just…know.
But how?
You’ll understand when you’re older.
I’m tired.
Just a little bit further.
But where are we going?
I told you. We’re going to pray.
But where?
To the house of God.
We’re going to meet God?!
Uh…no. We’re going to a place where everyone goes to pray to God.
Does God live there?
Does God visit there?
I don’t know.
You said God is everywhere.
Well, yes.
Then why do people go to this place to pray?
It’s a special place.
That’s where the priests are.
Who are priests?
They are people who serve God.
They serve God food?
No! I mean, they…work for God.
God is their boss?
No no. They are important people who help us connect with God.
Well….they show us how to pray.
What do you mean? I thought we just say thank you and ask for wishes.
There are some other things also that we do to make sure God gives us our wishes.
What things?
You’ll see.
So everyone has to pray in the same way?
Well, everyone in our religion. People of different religions pray in different ways.
And which way does God like more?
He likes all ways. It doesn’t matter to him how we pray.
So then why do priests make us pray in this way?
That’s just the way it’s always been done!
What do you mean?
I mean that some things are done because they have always been done that way.
I don’t understand…
Don’t worry. You’ll understand –
- When I’m older?
Yes! Now enough questions.
I said no more questions!
Can I ask one last question?
Fine. What is it?
What is religion?

Monday, October 17, 2016


I stared at the bowl
At the many tiny creatures crawling over it
Realizing, a little late
My own idiocy
Of having left it over night with dessert crumbs

And I stared
Wondering what to do
Knowing fully well what I would do
Yet wondering, nonetheless

Coming to a decision
I picked up the bowl
From the edge that was free
And quickly moved it into the sink
And before I could change my mind
Turned on the tap

And I stared
As dozens of ants scattered
Most, unable to flee
Dragged under by the pull of the water
While the others scrambled
As fast as they could
Wherever they could
Doing whatever they could to survive
Knowing, that they wouldn't

And I stood there
Feeling that tiny twinge I didn't want to feel
Telling myself it had to be done
If not now, then later
If not this way, then another
If not by me, then by someone else

I reminded myself
That this wasn't the first time
Every step I've taken till date
Has probably led to many deaths
That they are inevitable
That this is the way of life

And yet I knew
That this one was different
This one was was intentional
This one was chosen
And that made a big difference

And as I stood there
Contemplating life and death
I heard a familiar buzz
A buzz that grew stronger
Breaking my contemplation

Annoyed, I turned towards the interruption
And without a pause
Reached out and clapped it in my hands
Feeling a sense of satisfaction as the silence returned
Leaving me in peace to turn back to the sink

And continue my contemplation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

That Thing Called Nationalism

People often ask why we study history. Of the many reasons, one is that it has a way of creeping back into our present lives in the strangest of ways.

They called us terrorists; we called ourselves freedom fighters
They called it a mutiny; we called it a war for independence
They jailed us for sedition; we proudly called it our right
They shut down our press; we called out their fear of the truth
They massacred us in our gatherings; we learnt to make bombs
They killed our citizens; we killed their soldiers and officials
They hanged our leaders; we praised them as martyrs
They said we were part of them; we said we wanted nothing to do with them
They said we were divided on what we wanted; we agreed, but knew that we didn't want things as they were
They said we couldn't survive on our own; we asked for the right to try
They asked for obedience; we asked for freedom;
They called us terrorists; we called them oppressors.

We call you terrorists; you call yourselves freedom fighters
We call it an act of terrorism; you call it a war for independence
We jail you for sedition; you proudly call it your right
We shut down your press; you call out our fear of the truth
We kill you in your homes; you learn to use guns
We kill your people; you kill our soldiers
We shoot your leaders; you praise them as martyrs
We say you are a part of us; you say you want nothing to do with us
We say you are divided on what you want; you agree, but know that you don't want things as they are
We say you couldn't survive without us; you ask for the right to try
We ask for obedience; you ask for freedom
We call you terrorists; you call us oppressors.

100 years have passed
They have changed
You have changed
We remain the same
I'm not quite sure who we are anymore.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

That thing called failure

Do you ever imagine a version of yourself that's different - better - than the current you? The one that confidently talks in front of massive crowds to resounding applause. The one that writes stories that'd make J.K. Rowling proud, or even envious. The one that travels across the world and records their experiences in a blog that millions of unknown individuals follow. The one that plants thousands of trees, cleans up an entire lake, cuts up a mountain, and goes down in history (or at least, on Facebook) as one of those inspiring tales that people read about. The one that takes risks, tries new things, puts themselves out there, fails, succeeds, experiences life in that crazy exhausting way that you repeatedly tell yourself you want - all the while as you sit in front of the TV and watch the rerun of that Friends' episode for the twentieth time, taking the much needed time for relaxation after that hour-long ride home from that job you've now become comfortable with?

If your response to any of these questions was yes, then here's something I'd love to know: what do you actually do about it?

Recently, I sat with a friend at a familiar bar, with a lime juice, water and pizza between us (de-perks of driving), and had my entire life analyzed and deconstructed bit by bit. Said friend also happens to be that critical feedback buddy I had mentioned in the last post (let's call her J), and given my wonderful relationship with vulnerability, this clearly was a conversation that in hindsight should have begun with a few glasses of vodka.

The conversation ranged from where we are in life right now, the things we want to do, the things we hesitate in doing, the reasons for that hesitation, and other such happy topics. And a basic question that we kept coming back to was: what's stopping me from doing all the crazy and not-so-crazy things I want to do?

Now, I pride myself on being rather self-aware: I'm always thinking about the reasons I do what I do, and the things I wish I were doing but am scared to. I already knew the answer to this question. I know how this tiny thing called fear has permeated in bits and pieces into almost every aspect of my life, clawing its way out in the most random situations. It's not something I'm proud of, but it is something I'm aware of. So, at the very least, the conversation was fairly amusing as J struck upon a series of earth-shattering realizations about me (with all the fervor of a psychologist finally arriving at the actual diagnosis), only to have me nod along and say, "Yep, that's the case. I'm glad you finally got there!"

I don't think psychologists like it when you tell them you've diagnosed your problem before them.

And then came the much anticipated question: what exactly was I afraid of? Judgment? Failure? A bit of both, I think. In school, I never joined my classmates in basketball despite loving the game because I didn't want to make a fool of myself. Till date, I've avoided presentations with a fervor to not have to put my limited public speaking skills out for the scrutiny of others. Perhaps (though I'm not sure of this one), I haven't signed up for a 10K (or even a 5K) run because I'm not sure I'd make it across the finish line (despite being told by enough runners that this is one of the best ways to push my running). And while I'm very vocal in my campaign against educational assessments and the irrelevance of grades in our lives, I have been known to feel rather bummed when I got a low grade on an assignment.

Do I think failure is bad? In theory, no. In my head, I know failure isn't the end of the world. Hell, I'm pretty sure I even agree with those typical quotes like "Failure is a stepping stone to success." As a teacher, I constantly pushed my students to not worry about making mistakes and to try out the things that scared them. Yet all along, I couldn't get myself to do the same.

I know, the hypocrisy is deafening.

So the next question thrown at me was: What's the worst that'll happen if you fail?

R: Huh? What do you mean? I'll fail!
J : Yes, what?
R: So what means what? It's failing. It doesn't need a 'so what'.
J : Of course it does. Seriously, think about it.
R: Fine...I guess...I'll end up making a fool of myself in front of others...I'll be shattered...Lose confidence in myself and my abilities...Be too scared to try it again...Happy?
J : Or...maybe you'd learn how not to do something and actually improve your skill in it...?
R: ...
J : ...
R: Nope. I'm pretty sure it's the former.

Cheekiness aside, I get it. I get what J was saying. It's same stuff I used to tell my kids. In my head, I know that I can't really learn something without being open to the idea of failing at it. And that's the hard part, isn't it? The idea of working hard on something, and putting it out there for the inspection and scrutiny of others, only to have them tell you that your work is terrible. The struggle of separating criticism of your work from criticism of yourself. The sense that all the effort was for nothing - though deep deep deep down, you know that's not true, that you did learn something from the process of doing and failing, and that the next time, you probably would do a better job of it - if only you can get yourself to try it again.

And that isn't easy. At least, it doesn't seem to be. One of the biggest, scariest things I ever did was join the Teach for India Fellowship. But it wasn't a typical movie-like situation where I rose to the occasion. Hell, I crash landed. All the time. To the extent that when I walked out after two years, I looked back at a lot of those moments and just cringed. The result of this failure was that I actively avoided teaching in any form over the next few years, and it has taken three years of passively studying education to make me want to even consider going back into that arena.

Did I mention that I'm not great at dealing with failure?

In this regard, J is an inspiration. J actively seeks out feedback and criticism in the attempt to get better, and doesn't expect others to mince their words in the process. For J, putting yourself out there and trying out the things you think you're terrible at is the only way to learn and improve, and if the thing standing in your way is the fear of looking like an idiot, then, well, you're giving far too much importance to yourself (there's a reason I call her my critical feedback buddy!). So it's rather flabbergasting to her that someone can be so aware of their weaknesses and fears, and not do anything about it.

Basically, J is that breath of fresh, annoying perspective that constantly tries to prod, nudge, push and downright tackle me out of my comfort zone.

And continuing with that tradition, when J realized that I haven't failed enough in life because I haven't tried enough things, she ended our conversation by declaring that the only way for me to deal with this is to fail at many more things.

Subsequently, this person I call a friend proudly and excitedly began coming up with a list of things for me to fail at.