Ringside view: Muay Thai

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Karnataka State Muay Thai Championship 2018

Lean bodies, torsos, tattoos, the heavy footsteps pacing before combat, deep drawn breaths, jaws moving with last minute adjustment of the guard inside their mouth, tugs and loosening of arms, furtive dance-like movement of legs as a warm up in the few minutes leading up to the bell strike and the gaze. Every single contestant who got inside the ring had a unique combination of these. The ring is where the fighter unfolded and in the quick few rounds of combat either unleashed the self or got pounded by the opponent unleashing just the same, with greater force. What went on round after round in the confines of the ring was a fight that would never in daily life.  Never, because real world does not have referees nor rule following is binding. This combat is controlled, governed by rules, regulated and operates on mutual respect between the fighters. It can get dangerous nevertheless. The fighting ring makes a fascinating reading of human behaviour. On a Sunday morning, I sat watching Karnataka State Muay Thai Championship 2018, first ever in the city. I thought about these young men and women who were here to contest in a form of kickboxing that evolved in Thailand – Muay Thai. This form of kickboxing is fascinating to watch. It is punch-kick-elbow-knee vs punch-kick in the conventional kickboxing. Muay Thai is an ‘eight-point striking system’ which lets fighters use their elbows and knees in addition to punching and kicking as in conventional kickboxing. How do these additional two points of contact make a difference? One must watch it to know!

Age is visible and felt acutely here in the auditorium. The contestants are young, in 18-35 age group.  As an audience my winces are different from the mother who was watching her daughter fight it out in the ring. To say that these matches are enjoyable is to understand nothing of human beings. The fights here is feed-stock. It feeds a spectator’s urge to externalize difficulties and see oneself punching, kicking and tackling the hell out of it, in rounds of three minutes each. A full-some kick, leveraging a high amplitude swing fed by the slowness of the opponent lands hard on the soft looking girl’s crotch. The sound of the impact split the auditorium into a cheering lot and the other which grated their teeth as the girl collapsed on her knees pressing her hands in-between legs trying to absorb the kick, fist loosening into a sodden palm trying to hold the ground and tightening again in-vain. The ensuing seconds stretch into a fast pace yet frame by frame spectacle. Her eyes. The helmet highlighted those eyes, fading with pain and flight of spirit to tackle the aggressor. The match referee swoops in, beginning a count of ten right above her as the auditorium awaits next moves. Is she knocked-out? Will she stand up? A doc from the ringside gets in for a quick assessment. The girl is still drawing in, blowing out, wiry breaths that wouldn’t otherwise steady in whatever remained of the count of ten. These moments were the match. Were the earlier months of training which probably trained her to handle exactly this kind of a shattering kick, flashing by her? The arms tensed, and the auditorium saw her rise up. Legs had loosened their grip on the floor, one could see. But here was the birthing of a win! She rose, assumed her stance, even as the breaths were getting visibly harder. Before referee’s tenth she was good to go. To watch that debilitating kick and then see the girl standing there in her fighting stance, was disbelief being kicked in the gut. Here was a fine Muay Thai moment, unfolding and how raw in its looks and appearance.

Literature  on psychology of boxing and martial arts suggests that these forms of combat sport reduce aggression, teach self-control and aid emotional intelligence. It doesn’t quite dwell on the fact that these can be downright distressing to watch and traumatic for some. Self-control of the dominating opponent and emotional-intelligence in having landed hard blows on the opponent – both being enhanced – who can be sure of that? But one might feel glad that they are rule bound. Only the rules lie in between punching and punching someone to death. On the fringes of the rule-space, these fights attest to a possibility of human behaviour that expresses in varying degrees in all of us. Would I thump my feet and begin punching an opponent? Kick and punch rule-bound, yet make it hard wherever it is allowed.  It is hard to not think of one’s own behaviour and unknown possibilities that lie buried within. The last time they emerged as a response, I must confess that arms and legs went flying. The ring is an encounter with self if one’s up for investing a thought in these matches besides being a spectator.

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Karnataka State Muay Thai Championship 2018

Three rounds were up with the bell strike. The girl was still in pain. She shook hands with the opponent who was declared winner. They bowed out thanking their coaches. In a few minutes, the next round of contestants were in the ring. Men’s matches had begun. The participation from martial arts and fight schools was substantial enough to fill two long days of fights. After the early rounds of women’s matches things began getting louder, from the ring to the referee’s interjections and right up to the judges desk.

Every one is red or blue. A kick, a stoop, gasps, foiled bids, tackled attacks, swift hooks, the hurt, exhaling, inhaling, the eyes, hands firming, intent of a kick, an all ending lock, continuous punches, the charges, grimaces, shins dueling as though pieces of steel rods… all of it in three rounds of three minutes each. A whistle and a clap mark these. It is the same in varying degrees round after round. Sometimes there is cheer on one of the contestants sent rolling off the ring on to the side tables in the first round itself. At times the fighters learn the hard way – that premature charge leads to ones own fall. Most of them tended towards strategic play by the second round. A three minute learning curve can be seen remarkably close and in a felt manner here.

The wordlessness of it is striking. There is cheer and there are loud gasps. Very few words.  From preparation before a march to the fight and bowing out, having won or lost, not many words are exchanged. There doesn’t seem to be a need too. By the noon, auditorium appears seated. These are students of martial arts, coaches and their families. The afternoon matches comprise of heavyweights. Red and blue wearing contestants. In one of the most adrenaline filled  matches, fighter in red exhibited a terrifying yet remarkable poise. He observes opponent’s moves, foils them and then lands his heavy punches, as though a master punishing his student brutally for all the sloppy moves. There is a poise even in this adrenaline. Red begins charging in the third round, calmly, after exhausting him. Then begins a waspish float around the dissipating opponent.  The strategy is clear when one watches the rounds. Meanwhile, the noodles stall outside has turned into a hive of beaten out and victorious players getting their breakfast.

These men and women are identified and fielded by clubs. IMA Fighters, Kimura Martial Arts, Yodha Martial Arts, Institute of Eight Limbs and many more. The equipment is shared. One who goes up in the ring wears the only pair, and passes it on to the next in line. The shortage of gear and the basic nature of their kit is striking.  By late noon there is no roar in the auditorium. It is slow and low pitched. In the heavyweight rounds there is measure, there is calm and then there is a burst.  All of this is video recorded by a sea of mobile phones. There is no press covering it.

In the auditorium one gets to know and witness that defeat has a face . It shows itself up every tenth minute. One can see the energy draining out. The flailing hands, slowing feet work, draining out – right from the eyes down to feet, the defeated being helped out of the ring by the victor – all of it, match after match. The primal feel of every encounter
in rounds seems to stretch time.

As I walked out of the auditorium echoing with slaps, kicks and tensed subdued roar of the audience, sometimes cheering, often wincing, I scored of a to-do item from my list of 2014. That year, I spent a week in Thailand and one of the things I wanted to do was to watch a Muay Thai match in Bangkok. It was meant to be in Bangalore, and I am not complaining watching Indians clocking several years of training and organizing championships of this martial art. The trauma or joy of this kind of combat training, I do not know.

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How Long For Dar Es Salaam? : More, more, more

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Road to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. July, 2018

The specifics of travel in these times are standard. We know our way through the border controls, airports, transfers and how to arrive at hotels in new cities. In most parts of the world this is straightforward. The discomfort about the unknown begins beyond this point when the guidebook is not taken, travel forums are not searched for country threads and when flying is not chosen mode of transport. One begins to then touch, engage, feel and participate in the everyday rhythms of the place and its people. This participation comes about despite not knowing the language. This is the addictive feature of travel – that it satiates the desire to participate and temporarily be a part of life strikingly different from his own. Africa is a rhythm. Here, each country hums its own rhythm and dances to its own music, with highly original expression and lifestyle. It is refreshing, to say the least, in these times of homogeneity. This originality isn’t a romanticized reading of a traveler but appears a genuine aspect of daily life on this continent.

I traveled without a map in East Africa. I worked with the memory of how the countries in eastern region are arranged around a big lake. One moves east until Kenya and then southward to Tanzania. This was enough.  I wanted to navigate with bus routes, highways and names of places that I had heard of –  Kigali, Mbarara, Entebbe, Kampala, Jinja, Arusha, Dar Es Salaam…  I got on a bus that moved through these places and watched how life goes about, what’s sold, what’s eaten, what goes on… Then, reached the destination having learnt a few things about people, places, geography and languages encountered in between. The saturated blue colour of Nile’s water at Jinja, the landscapes of the Maara, the safari vans at Arusha, the rush of tourists around the little branch roads in Arusha and Ngorongoro, people along the highway from Kigali to Kampala, from Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam, the cargo moving through this region and the many men and women along the highway who tended to their herds of goat and cows, leaning on their long sticks.

It had to be done this way to experience moving through cities and countries of this continent. Roads are a lifeline and nothing drives this point well than dependency of African countries on the roads as elsewhere. It isn’t surprising to read of the enthusiasm that many governments have about the Chinese government building roads in their countries. In the two weeks that I had, only East Africa could be seen at the pace of road transport in the region. Within this time, a minimal exposure to the countries and their cities was all one could manage. By the end of this journey, what I have are mere impressions of what was seen – some off the mark, some commonplace and some emerging from a position of plain fascination. The fascination of watching people break into a spontaneous dance anywhere, absolutely anywhere – from police station to streets to the parliament hall.

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Kampala Bus Station, Uganda. July, 2018

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Nile river at Jinja, Uganda. July, 2018

Should the collective ‘Africa’ be used for such a diverse group of people and countries? African leaders, academics, people, diaspora and advertising agencies, all of them seem to use it. What besides the common continent and a brief slice of shared history of colonization does this collective refer to? The diversity encountered in just about five countries of east is substantial. I read Mandela, Wangari Mathai, Nyrere, Barak Obama and business leaders like Mo Ibrahim who refer to Africa. They know better. However, it seems to be flattening out so much about the region and specificities of its people, tribes and culture. The question is likely to remain not attempted even after several visits to the countries here, not just one. Until the start of this journey over land across four East African countries, I had no sense of distance, landscapes, people, cultures, diversity or pace of life and travel in this region.

I got on a bus in Rwanda’s quiet and clean capital of Kigali. Uganda’s capital Kampala is about a ten hour drive. The vehicles drive on the right side of the road in Rwanda. Our bus crossed over the border into Uganda and switched to left side of the road, as one must in Uganda. After a day in Kampala, with the sole intention of changing buses to continue onward, I booked a bus from Kampala to Dar Es Salaam via Nairobi, where another bus change was scheduled. Seeing Kampala was kept for a later time. This first pass was all about cruising through. Over the next thirty five hours on the road to Dar Es Salaam the unraveling began, of ‘micro-nations’ as Wangari Mathai calls them. Africa as a land of micro-nations which ended up being packed into nation-states born out of hasty and absurd borders.

In her book The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Mathai writes:

The modern African state is a superficial creation: a loose collection of ethnic communities or micro-nations, brought together in a single entity, or micro-nations, by the colonial powers. Some countries include hundreds of micro-nations within their borders; others, only a few. Kenya has forty-two; Nigeria, two hundred and fifty; Cameroon, at least two hundred’ Mozambique, more than ten; Gabon more than forty’ Zimbabwe, fewer than ten; and Burundi and Rwanda, three. The largest of the micro-nations can have populations in the millions; the smallest usually number only in the thousands. With a few exceptions, it is these numbers that determine political power.

It isn’t the size alone that overwhelms a visitor. An Indian traveler is used to expansive land masses and to the enormity of the Indian subcontinent. This region was stretching that perception too. It is the political and cultural complexity of the region, and the manner in which religion, tribe, culture and lifestyle come together in these countries. All through my time here, the fact that African states have had several years of violence and civil war history was on my mind.

In the next 35 hours from Kampala to Dar Es Salaam, I was to get a crash course into Africa’s regional diversity, where a Ugandan from just over the border, struggled speaking to a Tanzanian and busting of all stereotypes about Africa. Flying in the region is expensive in comparison to Asia and Europe. Here, people take the road. Out of Kampala, through the town of Jinja where another marvelous journey of a river begins – Nile, the road is undivided double-lane and with heavy cargo traffic. This seems to be vital for Rwanda and Uganda which being landlocked countries, connect to the world through the port city of Mombasa in Kenya, besides other ports in Djibouti and Eritrea.

Those who choose to move between these countries tend to choose buses as it is cheaper than flying. This means that at any given time, there are nationals of at least four countries in a Dar Es Salam bound bus. This is a massive piece of land and long stretch of roads for buses to chew on. All day. Crossing borders and the many micro-nations.

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Over the border from Kenya into Tanzania. July, 2018

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Mombo, Tanzania. July, 2018

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Police check-post, Tanzania. July, 2018

We passed through the Kilimanjaro region at Moshi, the site of Ngorongoro crater around Arusha and the expansive Maara region. On the left was a long chain of Usambara mountains. In the constant slow movement of the bus, the passengers settle into a pensive, passive state of their own. It is quite a unique one. People gaze out. They show remarkable patience with everything. Nothing frenzied. Every action of people on the bus appears as though they have gone independent of time and the necessity of time keeping. People look out, close their eyes, recline, sit back up, gaze some more and the act continues. It is one long tunnel that we seem to have had entered.

‘Why cannot you believe in Jesus’, asked the Congolese passenger sitting by my side. This was during a spurt of conversation that the bus entered into, after a small town or stop had passed. He is heading to Congo, and will change for another bus from Dar Es Salaam, after taking rest for a night in the city. A day’s journey from there would take him into Congo. He adds that ‘there are many gold in Congo’ by the way of introducing his country to me. ‘Do you not want to?’, he continued, probing my faith. To him, the other alternative was to be a Muslim. After learning that in India one also has the possibility of being a Hindu, he asked about the red mark on forehead that men and women have. And what Hindu faith thinks of life after death. Is there a judgement day? I was not prepared for these questions.

We approached our first stop of the day since 6 AM, at Mombo in Tanzania. It is striking how the bus doesn’t stop for food breaks or any other break except taking on a few passengers from the towns on the way.

Standing outside the bus during the break, a Ugandan passenger speaks of these bus journeys. He takes the route often. He adds, ‘I like bus travel. It makes you venture out’. I agree with him without seeing a need to reason this view. He and his Ugandan friend struggled speaking to Tanzanian shopkeeper. Their languages were different. English wasn’t uniting them. The Congolese passenger spoke French at home. His English, he said, was bad. Yet we pursued a conversation about religion and faith in English.

Back inside the bus, the Congolese passenger asks, ‘Are you a tourist? That is your work? I have seen you take pictures.’ I am intrigued by these questions and the way people in the region think, understand and frame their sentences.  Or is it just limited skills in English language. I am not sure if he thinks to be a tourist is work. But I certainly fancied this kind of work – to be a tourist!

In what looked like a rather late round of introductions, the passengers spoke to each other as we all boarded, satisfied with our food. Fish and chips is popular here on the highway. We were twenty-four hours into the journey. People like to dress well here, unlike an average India who isn’t always well dressed. An old man sitting behind, smiled. He runs a telecom business and was traveling to Tanzania for work. It seemed that he was a regular too, on these marathon bus rides. He was home, so to speak. I asked, ‘How long for Dar Es Salaam, Sir’. He smiled, nodded his head and left me with these words for which I lacked a reference in Africa, ‘long, long, long’. This wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Happy in the realization I settled into my seat for more of the Tanzanian landscape passing by the window. From that moment, there were eleven hours more to go, as I figured after getting off in Dar.

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Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. July, 2018

We enter Dar Es Salaam a little after midnight. By this time, the hours had ceased to register. Fatigued yet excited, I notice the first advertisement in the city, ‘Bet now. Best odds guaranteed.’. The framing. One is urged to bet yet odds are guaranteed. I take in the midnight look of Dar Es Salaam, the city by the sea. The city that my geography textbook indicated on the map of Africa. Of which I knew nothing, besides the Persian sounding name and its meaning. I was finally there, living my geography textbook!

A term as Teaching Assistant

In June, 2018 I finished assisting on a course on Public Finance for master degree students at my home institution – National Law School. Time spent on delivering this course has been a useful opportunity to observe higher education learning and teaching. This post is to gather key takeaways from this engagement. Moreover, it seems that we have a persistence of a set of legacy problems with higher education in India which the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) Bill, 2018 attempts to tackle. For instance, lack of credit based system for the award of degrees. In the MPP program at NLS, we observe the enormous difference it makes to students who are working on the side or have other interests to pursue. It cuts the crap of having a student to repeat an entire year if she fails in even one subject.

A takeaway from Public Finance course is that students respond positively – almost always – to instructor enthusiasm and effort. This seems to be an obvious point about learning, however, it appears that many instructors seem to overlook how crucial this is. Often times, their lack of energy turns detrimental to learning outcome and they do not even realise. Course faculty in public finance course is a former civil servant with several years of teaching experience as well. Students responded well to the commitment and energy he brought to the class. It mattered that he was genuinely driven by a desire to help students learn the finer details of theory and practice of public finance, often times drawing from his extensive experience in the government. For other areas of the discipline he plugged in practitioner’s perspective by inviting relevant people to speak to the class.

In India, we bemoan the lack of good teachers and that such teachers are hard to retain. The perception is that they leave for better opportunities in universities and research institutions abroad. What we do still have are committed teachers who are trying to improve learning outcomes in higher education, one batch at a time. Facilitating their work and the courses is the least that university administrators can do. At NLS, I see this shift happening. The program in public policy is improving its course quality by complementing instructors by the way of resource and managerial support. In the classroom, improvisation and moving with the times seems to be necessary. Learners now respond instantly and often times very well to technology mediated processes. This is where Indian universities seem to have fallen behind.

As I write this, I am back from a week at Oslo Metropolitan University, where with a team, we are developing courses for the years ahead. This muti-national, multi-university effort is to develop courses relevant to contemporary global themes like work inclusion, employment, urbanisation and urban poverty. These courses will be taught at the participating universities as well as offered as a MOOC also. The idea is to move to next generation of teaching and learning at these universities than finding these institutions losing out or becoming irrelevant with their stand alone, silo-like classroom programs which tend to get limited in their worldview and content. We see that across participating universities, a key determinant of learning outcome has been instructor involvement. It is her energy that the course rides on. Admittedly, this also gets demanding on all those responsible for delivering the course.

So, while we continue to look at infrastructure deficit in Indian universities and underfunded research in various areas of STEM and liberal arts, I’d want to record this note for one thing that does seem to be going well for India – teacher commitment, across all levels of education. From K-12 to university.

 

A travel note from East Africa

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Rwanda – Uganda Border, July 2018

9/7/2018

Kampala

Arrived in Kampala after a twelve-hour bus ride from Kigali. Through the bus window, one gets a slow and close introduction to the landscapes, life and people outside of the capital cities.

Kampala’s playlist goes on until early hours, uninterrupted and loud. Sleep if one must, enveloped by sound. Travelers join in, linger, drop out, sleep, get back… Hordes continue this way, as though some sort of natural order among backpackers. The residents speak of the city’s nightlife. One notices it – the music, people milling about, cars, walkers and the general loud cheer, often of young, youthful voices. They behave as if time is running out on them. And perhaps it is. On all of us. Some feel it, some dread it and some take these backpacker routes. These are the modern pilgrims. On travel routes. Discussing fact-of-the-day. “Do you know the word  for a herd of zebras? It is called a dazzle.”. “You know what daisies are?”.  “Anyway… lets connect on insta and facebook”. New connections made, travel continues.

On the breakfast table, the talk is about how everyone is ‘discovering’ Africa. I realize I am too, by having my textbook idea of the continent busted. The discovery of Africa is by all means and for all matters a discovery of one’s own miserably narrow worldview and understanding. Beyond the fascination of wildlife on this gorgeous piece of planet, everything else is traveler’s own ignorance about people, cultures, living and thriving in societies outside of their own.

Possibilities in forgiveness and healing: Rwanda

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Kigali, July 2018

Kigali smiles generously. There is intrigue, amusement or a smile on most faces that a visitor crosses on the streets here.  and kind to each other in numerous small ways. Elsewhere, we spent time discussing conflict, peace and post-conflict societies. This elsewhere was a classroom several years back, in Bangalore. We were high on ideas of justice. Violence wasn’t quite unknown, but neither known in the severity that Rwanda experienced. To most visitors for the brief time they spend in Kigali and one imagines even to Rwandans the traumatic experience of violence and genocide sits in the daily consciousness. Although, in different ways.

Visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali has been an intense experience. The time here completes an arc of the quest to understand what forgiveness means. And if indeed one can truly forgive. I have been gripped by it since the time I read about the details of violent acts and the community justice approach through Gacaca system that Rwanda practiced in its efforts towards justice and achieve a kind of closure on the trauma that the country lived. The need to know forgiveness emerged in a personal experience. After time here, it appears as though individual and collective are deeply enmeshed. I observe an extreme level of forgiveness that the Rwandan people have demonstrated, lived and continue to practice. It is extraordinary in its quality because this exhibits a possibility of human capacity that is hard to even touch within oneself, leave alone the ability to tap it as a vital source.

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Genocide Memorial, Kigali, July 2018

The hours spent at Genocide Memorial can be intense and unsettling. The memorial and the museum are a great asset to the world. Walking through one gets as gentle introduction to a political, social, personal and a human horror story as can be possible. It isn’t easy. And the museum curators have done a great job of it. As I walked through the space, I noted a few quotes which hit a personal note. Felicien Ntagengwa survived the genocide. Her words, “if you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me” appear at the beginning of the gallery spaces. It is stirring to dwell upon the import of it. Will man ever get to know oneself well enough to act reasonably at all times? How do these ruptures in human behaviour happen? There is another gripping instance, in Father Seromba, who, to quote the exhibition, “murdered his own congregants in his own church”. He led the Nyange parish.

The exhibition depicts development of differences among social groups in Rwanda since colonial years, post-colonial intensification of the differences, the horrid inclusion of social group on citizens’ identification cards and the post-colonial political trajectory that precipitated into the genocide.

Looking at the pictures of today’s Kigali, a friend writes back saying, ‘sounds like heaven’. This heaven, or ‘Singapore of Africa’ that Rwanda’s government aspires the country to be, has been a walk through untold pain and nurturing hope even when every reason to hope has been brutally taken away. A sliver of this hope is seen when students who are taught about Rwanda’s past, share their opinion. One of them, which to my school-teacher eye seems revealing is from a participant of Peace Dialogue Club. Callixte from Ecole Secondaire Magi, Gisagara district says “I used to hear that Tutsi were the cause of the genocide. but after learning and discussing, I decided that what I heard was not true . Now I look for my own truth.”  For a student to suggest that she looks for her own truth, is a sure sign of efforts beginning right.

Along the walls, I pick up another quote. This time from the Rwandan writer, Yolande Mukagasana. With Greek-Belgian photographer Alain Kazinierakis she produced the travelling exhibition Les Blessures du silence, witness accounts of the genocide. She writes, “There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. But justice will be impossible without humanity.”

What is remarkable about this memorial is that this is arguably the only place in the world that gathers together, in a small way, all the genocides of the world until recent years. From Herero people of Namib desert, to Holocaust, Bosnia, Cambodia and their own country’s. This is tremendously effective in understanding humanity, peace, conflict and violence. For it to ‘hit’ home, this exhibition proves useful.

On law and indigenous people, I take home this extraordinary and simple message that Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi sends to Major Leutwein to inform him that the local people would no longer tolerate the behaviour of invading German forces and settlers:

“he (the colonist) introduced laws… which are entirely impossible, untenable, unbelievable , unbearable, unmerciful and unfeeling. he punishes our people… and has already beaten people to death for debt. he thinks we are stupid and unintelligent people, but we have never yet punished people in the cruel and improper way that he does”

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The afterword. Genocide Memorial, Kigali, 2018

As a prelude to the exhibition, visitors are advised to watch a 10 minute clip with genocide survivors speaking of their experience. After one walks through the gallery spaces, they are led to another room to watch a video, which the visitor learns is a sequel or an afterword, on the exhibition. “We are here and we are at peace” says one of the survivors in the afterword video. It ends with these two short sentences from another survivor. These were stirring and show the possibility of hope, in real, perceivable form – “You felt the cost at all times.” It closes with “I am still here standing strong.”

For other times in the city, I play Kigali’s favourite, Kiss FM and in the cheerful songs, I think of human beings making that necessary effort to forgive, hope and move on, when necessary.

Hate Cleaning? I love it! – Scraping through in Oslo

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Oslo, June 2018

The city is cold. This is not a statement on weather here. Even on weather’s count, cold season of cities in lower latitudes is Oslo’s summer. It manages to keep an attractive and highly refined façade of affluence and lifestyle that unfurls into layers of nuances only on repeat visits. Parts of the city that face the world arriving at its fjord doorstep, and parts of the city that visitors’ see are those that lead to a compelling desire in them to imagine a comfortable and secure life far from the brokenness of the known cities of the world. Irrespective of a visitor’s own city of residence – New York, Mumbai, Cape Town, Shanghai or any other; Oslo’s sense of orderliness and ideal setting that grips most people. The trams work like a bug free program. The shiny red buses arrive on time. The train system, NSB and its state of the art airport train, Flytoget; can be planned up to the last minute and connect seamlessly to flight departures. This near overlap of intent, plan and actual events cast a spell on the visitor. Then the warmth of harbour side cafes and restaurants, town hall’s ringing bell and Oslo residents walking brisk in their sharp clothing are a sight which is hard to find fault with. All this set under a clean, crisp air on most days and as clean outdoors as the world can offer today, in highly urbanised settings. In one evening of arrival, all of these stir up a longing to live in such a city. On and on, I have seen visitors go weak on their love for hometowns, having experienced half a day’s clockwork in this half a metropolitan high up in north of the world.

Most leave within days and without staying long enough to see their impressions get dented, on the ferries and planes they arrived on, bound by their itinerary’s timeliness. The prices of the city on the first night, second and the third are a matter of choosing cheaper over expensive, or vice-versa. It is only when the stays expand to a week or longer, do explanations roll in, for scenes lodged in the visitor’s tourist eye. Food prices follows close. More than a couple of meals in restaurants can make even the most loaded traveller beat a hasty retreat. But, enough of the prices. The whole city deals with it. Some fix meals out of the cheapest food from its convenience stores. Some struggle. One doesn’t know how many perish in this attempt.

There is struggle in Oslo just as other cities of the world. The only difference is that it is cloaked. When this struggle – of poor residents, immigrants and homeless people – reveals itself through the very few cracks that the city allows for, the details of it can be a crushing read. The contrast is also striking. The residents of Oslo love to keep to themselves. Sharing is an idea that perhaps means sharing public spaces and transport. Beyond that, one stays quiet and avert eyes from all visual discomfort that the resident might get waylaid with.

A suitable place to watch people and their situations unfold is Oslo Sentral. This the point of arrival in Oslo for all, except those arriving by the ferry. This is also the place where the racial, social and economic diversity of this city-town decants. I watch the pleas unfold here, on some evenings. This is where a visitor is likely to find homeless people begging for alms and hustlers trying to get by their days in this expensive city. The space around Oslo S is perhaps the most fascinating spot. Along the walls of tram stops and bus stops one gets a glimpse of a struggling bunch of people. Those resigned hold up placards asking for money in the name of their god, which is interesting when one knows that church attendance in this country has hit rock bottom. The young print out their intents and pleas for work – “Hate Cleaning? I love it!”, announces one. The self-advertising ad ends with a pitch, that the person can make “your home more beautiful. :).” In my time here, these are the little instances which speak of a hard life for those who have come in search of work and life. It seems as though the city ignores them and with this indifference, frustrate them into checking out. Only the Roma faces seem familiar year on year, and the juggler – a talkative and sassy young man of African descent, who puts up shows on juggling six basketballs, on Karl Johan’s street. Watching his show on the street is a practice in confidence building. He talks, calls out and heckles those standing by, as though he has resolved to go back home that evening making that exact amount of money that he set out thinking of. I stay away from him, lest he calls out in my direction and asks me for a 10 kroner tip.  This would make a substantial sum to be given away in Indian Rupees for a street performance, which Indians have taken for granted and deem as close to natural phenomenon in everyday life.

Meanwhile, the cyclists of a food delivery company make rounds around town. Young men and women, in good shape riding cycle through the streets of Oslo with a big box of a bag strapped on their shoulders. I am keen on knowing them. Who are they and did anyone of them get here after pasting self-advertising printouts of their cleaning skills on the tram stop walls for years? What intrigues is that Oslo residents do not talk about any of these kinds of work and workers. When the academicians at Norwegian universities do think of workers and their conditions, they make way to the southern hemisphere mostly, and speak of informal labour. In the meantime, informal work trickles into Norway’s daily life, wetting their boots, as they keep themselves busy studying the world.

 

 

They know it better

There is a subcontinental society that we form – of material status, skills, nationality and race, in countries where South Asians gather. Among those living in economically prosperous parts of the world, whether temporary or for long term, this pattern can be recognized. It doesn’t matter how skilled an immigrant from this region is. It takes him a long time to be confident about it and behave confident.  A Pakistani engineer working for a European telecom takes a longer time to get comfortable in his skin. It takes a much higher level of education for the South Asian to feel even partially confident to sit by a technician making a point, who might at best would have attended a vocational school and perhaps has not seen the inside of a university. I notice the striking difference in years of education and training that immigrants have compared to the residents, in Europe and the US.  What the resident has is perhaps not the right university degree but certainly the right nationality and a right passport to go with it. And, he can teach English!

On brief work visits to Europe, this contrast is striking. Possibly, the resident European (plug any Western or Scandinavian nationality) has a different view on it, as he goes about serving coffee at a local cafes or work the checkout counters in departmental store or be a cyclist for a food delivery company. But this is about a visitor’s experience and what meets his eye. We are all only degrees apart in latitude – the countries, but in confidence we are a world apart, especially on the world stage. A Bangladeshi, a Pakistani, a Nepali and an Indian (and perhaps Sri Lankan) might take several years and repeated assurances of his excellence before believing in it. It doesn’t come easy to them that they can be good at their work or in what they know. This could be partly conditioned by the Asian families that they come from and the legendary ethic of proving oneself. In the process the Asian strives too hard.

Why does this matter – this lack of confidence? This leads to stifled state of innovation, risk taking and leadership roles in multinational teams as well as in their home countries when some of them return. Asians, and Indians in particular, become proficient at working on assigned tasks than leading teams. This may not be true of Indians in Silicon Valley, but I have only secondary information and no first hand experience. It appears as though this lack of confidence makes Indians come into themselves quite late in their careers, when they could have been in driving roles much earlier. The lost years, is my concern. Moreover, this under-confident behaviour in multinational settings, seeps into successive generation of professionals who take after them. The next in line, go about experiencing the world already defined and conditioned by their less confident elders.

I am not sure what the remedy for under-confidence is. However, it is one of the reasons that there is a perceived disparity between perception of ‘expertise’ and the reality of it. Expertise seems to be almost always available in the West and is their forte. It must be imported as tech, consultants or other forms of knowledge products. How do we change this? There seems to be a relationship between an individual’s nationality and in the confidence he carries while working in multinational settings. This shapes the individual and his country’s perception, although in a subtle manner. May be, by being conscious of it can help a bit in avoiding this behaviour.

Update: 

Devesh Kapur has moved from CASI at UPenn to Johns Hopkins University. In a recent piece (H/T Amol Agarwal) he writes the following, which also serves a case in point –

While there are notable exceptions, in many large data projects, India-based personnel are the intellectual equivalent of coolie labor—they do the grunt work, leaving the thinking to Boston Brahmins, so to speak. An intellectual hierarchy has been created between the haves and have nots wherein the funding channels reinforce the model of fly-in-fly-out academia that professes that it is doing all this work to help India.

India has largely itself to blame for this state of affairs, having done so much to undermine its universities and intellectual culture over the past few decades. Indeed one personally knows of cases of government departments denying data access to Indian graduate students even while they give the same data to foreign researchers—a bizarre interpretation of a level playing field.

Further, a slightly different issue but no less pertinent –

When asked how many of these expensive RCTs had moved the policy needle in India, Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, was hard pressed to find a single one that had been helpful to him in addressing the dozens of pressing policy questions that came across his table. By contrast, the compiling of just some key facts on learning outcomes by Indian NGO, Pratham, has had a big impact on policy discussions in education, because it is backed by a degree of specific knowledge and engagement that is more credible and persuasive. One could question whether “relevance” or “timeliness” are a valid standard for good research—yes they are, when those are precisely the reasons given to funders for these projects. 

 

It is not what you think is wrong with ‘education in India’

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Mr. Bhagawan a teacher of English language and his students, as he is leaves school premises. (Image Courtesy: The News Minute and PTTV)

Writing this in a haste, with an urge to put down what I feel about this piece that Scroll published a few hours back about a government school teacher who was mobbed by his students and urged to not leave, when he was transferred from the school. The students and teacher are visibly moved and emotional in the photograph that is being shared. This is real! It does happen. Students do get attached to teachers for a variety of reasons. Does this mean that there is something systemic to be said about it? How do we want to see it or read opinions on it? Media in this country is in the business of passing its ill-thought, half-baked and pathetically ill-informed opinion on absolutely anything and they go for such low-hanging incidents. It is sickening to read the views of this journalist someone who felt it would be opportune to extrapolate it and speak of what is wrong with ‘education in India’, beginning and ending with only one photograph flashing on her screen.

I am a bit enraged at this piece for several reasons. The tone of writing is high handed – “It seems Bhagawan did what good teachers do.” Another one that this writer wants us to believe – “This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India. ” Sure. This school teacher now goes on trial for his work by a writer who most likely has seen far less of classrooms, teaching and days at a government school in a village. This isn’t my immediate problem.  The real one is that this piece insults, demotivates and discredits several hundreds of teachers who work in the system and try to do their best, with resources, abilities and opportunities that their contexts have to offer them. Why is this not being regarded? This is upsetting! Why is it that these writers are so brazen and lack even the faintest humility to consider that they might be reading the situation wrong? Teacher and student affection can be a lot more than this myopic reading of it.

The writer introduces a grand sounding sub-heading ‘Impediments to public education’ and fills it up with careless, ill-informed observations about education system. It is enraging that instead of substantive arguments it is filled with ad hominem remarks. This I find are insensitive, flawed and of course uncharitable. I can’t imagine how did this pass the editor’s desk. She writes –

The first impediment concerns teacher competence. Bhagawan, an English teacher, is not fluent in the language. In a short comment he made on TV, he was unable to form grammatical sentences or find the right words to explain his situation. It is possible that he has bookish knowledge and is able to teach his students the rules of grammar and prepare them for simple writing exercises that they need to pass their exams. Because he has the instincts of a good teacher, he will undoubtedly contribute to the overall growth of his students. He may, however, not have the tools to make them learn the language he is employed to teach them. This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India.

Here is someone passing comments on an English teacher’s competence to teach by watching him on TV. Beat this! Moreover, this is deemed acceptable by the editor. I am compelled to ask if this writer ever stepped into a school of the variety that concerns this event or pursued a closer reading of situations from other sources. This isn’t ‘lack of mastery’. It is a lack of commonsense and even the most basic exposure to teaching and learning in India’s government schools. Do you imagine that the best education systems in the world are run by masters of subjects? This says nothing about education in India. Instead, it speaks a lot about how people with no clue about education, teaching, learning and challenges there in, write with impunity and reckless confidence in this country. And god forbid, if they end up changing public opinion.

With all the wisdom expounded in the piece, the writer finishes with sentences like “India needs to think about its schools and its teachers differently if its intention is to educate its massive school-going population.”  and offers little about what this thinking might entail! May be the writer needs to think if ad hominem remarks against a school teacher’s competence and ability to teach is a wise way to clock articles.

The art of preface: Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India

For two days a week that I spend working at a university, I spend a part of my time reading preface of books and digging archives. If a preface gets my attention and is compelling enough, the book gets read for sure. Jyoti Puri’s Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India (Routledge) is one such. The label post-colonial has sounded uneasy in this brief period of academic pursuit. However, when some thinkers, authors and researchers use it, in their hands, it seems worth a thought. The idea of women, body and desire isn’t as appealing as the context in which Puri sets it. The author’s preface reads a fine piece in a researcher’s personal ethics, honesty and humility with which the research framework and material is presented. She writes,

Despite the personal and cohort-based experiences of middle-class womanhood in post-colonial India that I bring to my work, this book is not about me or a narrowly defined peer group. Specifically, it is about the 54 middle and upper-class women who took the time to speak with me about various aspects of their lives. More broadly, this book delves into the tensions of female bodies, desire, womanhood, and social class, and the kinds of hegemonic codes that regulate these aspects of the 54 women’s lives.

This clarity of motivation appears remarkable for my inexperienced eye. Perhaps this is how it is supposed to be written.

It has been difficult to agree to claims of authors in women studies (or writing in feminism) because of the biases that the authors tend begin with, some of which consistently places women as the oppressed and that as a universal truth. As I write this, I am conscious that taking names or citing works can be problematic. The observations that feminist literature makes on women and their subjective experiences can be valid and for authors’ to make. However, the transition from those observations to claims is where discontent lies. Puri’s book is noteworthy and makes me write about it because this is the kind of writing that I think can do a lot of good for the cause of feminism and to the discipline of women’s studies. For instance, Puri writes,

This book is about understanding these categories of experience and self-definition from the viewpoint of women’s reality.

The categories in context are female bodies, desire, womanhood and social class. She closes the preface with –

I hope that this book will be of use to an audience interested in issues of womanhood in contemporary India but also to an audience interested in grappling with the tensions of gender and sexuality across diverse social settings.

The tensions of gender and sexuality has been a continuing interest, which perhaps originated in personal experience. In contemporary feminist writing anger comes across as the most immediate motivation. This can be a genuine starting point. But I have felt that it clouds perspective, as much as the ability to reason. And therefore, emotive feminist literature hasn’t been able to set forth coherent thought as much as they have weaponized anger and rage. This position to write from isn’t productive at all, if not destructive. The point of this post is to keep, for a later reference, the writing style and presentation of ideas, which convey a tempered position than a reactive one, as well as a kind of humility and refined reason that is hard to find in feminist literature published since 2010.

Ooty Ultra 60K

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Two Sundays back I ran a 60 KM ultra run in Ooty. This was the year’s first ultra. Though labeled 60K actual course distance of 62K. Every time I mention 62, instead of 60, I am reminded of a fellow runner who insisted that every additional 100 meters matter when running long distance. However, I am inclined to think that it matters less, these little additions. It gets difficult for sure. But at the same time mind is too tired to fuss over the distance, unless the runner is competitive.

The course is across a large swath of hilly terrain around Ooty. It had an overall gain of 6300 ft and loss of 5700 ft. This appeared quite unusual for the distance. First 10 KM climbs up to Dodabetta Peak, the highest point in Ooty, rolls down for the next 15 KM and begins climbing up again. The last 10 KM is again a difficult road climb up several hairpin loops, up to Ooty. This last 10 KM was a laborious climb, taking away all the energy I had for running the last two easy kilometers to finish line. Over seven and a half hours, I coasted through half a dozen tea factories, tea plantations and several villages of the Nilgiris district. For its beauty and freshness, I would highly recommend this run. It requires a serious thought for those who haven’t done hill ultras, because hill running is a different game from running in plains. I had my initiation a couple of years back in Nepal and that kept me in good spirit for this one.

In this ultra, I let the course run through me. It felt better this way than to think of me running the course. The thought of every passing kilometer floats right on top of mind when I track the distance covered. When I think of only the finish line and to get there, without tracking time or distance, I have had a better experience. Ooty was also a faster and better run compared to all the other times. This seems like an ‘approach’ to running long distance that is shaping up lately. I haven’t been driven by metrics, though I do take a good look at splits and timing after finishing courses. This minimal approach has translated into better run experiences and has brought in a certain lightness within me. I anticipate that this may need a revision when I take on 100 KM runs. Over the years, it sure feels stronger as a runner and especially in this ultra, there was no despair that tends to take over on sighting hard sections of the course. I could take them on calmly.

These years of running have been a process of ‘becoming’. Becoming what, is hard to get a finger on. It certainly feels so. There are changes and subtle transformations, physical and mental. These post-run posts helps track this change. After Ooty Ultra, there is a mental strengthening that has happened. There is a force with which pursuits of uphill sections was done. And that, in retrospect, has been the most delightful part of the run.