Learning with Tanzanite Group

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Today, we close our sociology classes for the academic year. The group of kids (13-14 year old) with whom I have shared classroom time over the year were introduced to ideas of society, groups, norms and rules, sociological perspectives and institutions in a society. This was meant to be an introductory course. In two sessions with one scheduled this afternoon, the students share their experience (or speak of any topic of their interest) with rest of the school during assembly hour at the end of the day. Two groups presented about their topics of interest last week – one spoke of “crime” in society and how might one understand crime. They ended with some statistics on rate of different types of crime. The other group presented their ideas on “media” – its purpose, types and an example of how opinions presented in the media are shaped.

The idea of a review and sharing session during assembly developed when the principal suggested that we might want to have a review on how a year of sociology curriculum was received by the students. I proposed that instead of a conventional writing based or test-based assessment it might be good to involve the whole school as well as let the students themselves have some reprieve from the test-based methods. Understandably, when I proposed this to students, they were enthusiastic about it. They formed groups on their own, selected topics, went ahead with research on the topic and developed their content for presentation. When I saw them present, I was thrilled with the speed at which they executed this. In the entire year, this was perhaps the most swift and complete participation shown by the group of nine students in the class.

This brings me to the first lesson from the year – work with what interests the students, at all times. And if required, wait, till the students show visible interest in the subject. In other words, coercion does not work if the intent is to drive learning. Simple as it sounds, it took me three years to understand this. The outcome of coercion-free learning is marvelous, if I can use that word. At times the enthusiasm of students has been so infectious that I have stayed high with it for days. This year, with Tanzanite group (Poorna has names for groups not numbers) I have had my dead-poets-society moments. I didn’t want to ride back home after school but get on the bus with them and continue living that teen environment. for the sheer freshness of what I heard from them – no stereotypes, every observation, every question so elemental in its form.

An academic year is such a short time when one is tuned-in so closely with the students. The second lesson has been about the extreme importance of introducing social science with an equal emphasis and rigor as other subjects in the middle school. I say extreme because of the shape in which our contemporary world is in. It is no longer easy to parse through facts, truths, values and opinions that each one of us comes across in our daily lives. Most often, the kids project what they have heard their parents discuss at home or what either of their parent seems to hold true and has at some point shared it with the child. I saw this happening when the class discussed food habits (vegetarian/non-vegetarian), when they investigated the effects of demonetisation in India through interviews and wrote about it and several such discussions. A favorite was discussing sociological perspectives with them and watch them try to get a grip of the idea. In the following weeks, I was told several of them were using perspective as a way of reasoning in their conversations in and outside the school. This was intriguing as well as scary. Intriguing – for the speed at which the understanding was mobilized outside classroom and scary because it becomes crucial that one who is introducing these ideas in classroom does a good job at it. One’s own biases can cause a serious damage to the understanding of young, impressionistic minds. And I grew very conscious of it. We discussed the Russian Revolution and the idea of revolution itself. In their minds it was about violence as a method to bring change. I had to make significant effort in busting that impression that revolution always means violence. I used ideas of Gandhi and Mandela to talk of how revolutionary changes were brought about without violence.

Third lesson was about the use of school as a space to shape and mend things that the collective conscience of the society has felt wrong or problematic. For instance, themes like intolerance, respecting alternative views and reasoning one’s choices. All these played out as we discussed themes from the curriculum. I noticed how kids brought their observations from their daily lives into the class and used it as their views. Sometimes, to make sense of their own experiences we read travelogues – Khushwant Singh’s writing on Delhi, we read ethnographies – Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and we tried discussing these first hand encounters to understand how one can go about making sense of daily experiences that stand out for an individual.

On this last day of the academic year, I think with a comfortable degree of confidence, I can say that the group I spent time with is a bit further up in their understanding of people’s lives and society, know how to be empathetic and are empathetic, and finally are able to think consciously (within their current cognitive abilities) of the choices they make at this stage in their lives.

I can’t thank these kids enough for helping me learn even as they trusted me with their learning. A satisfying year at school. I hope the kids also feel the same.

Roundup 2016

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At the end of 2015, I wrote about the unusual solitude I experienced that year. The Walden Pond spirit of that year dissipated in the activity of work, school, university and travel with 2016’s – the year soon filled with people, places and activities. It feels remarkable how one set of days can be very different from another even though not much might have changed in the immediate environment that one lives in. Obvious though, to some. But this obviousness isn’t quite the same to those arriving at it via a process of gradual discovery propelled by the course of life. The change it appears lay in mind and spirit helped a little with a good spell at work which pushes the worries of making a living off the table.

It has certainly been the best for running – finished four marathons and managed to complete my first 50 km ultra run. I hope to do at least one 100 kilometer ultra this year. Pushing it towards La Ultra 111 would be easier later. Cycling suffered tremendously, though. The only continuous bout of 40-45 kilometers cycling every evening was during the few weeks in Oslo. Back in Bangalore, I was clocking double this distance everyday on motorbike. The year almost had an even tenor with days spent equally at school, university and at work. And then the remaining outdoors which included over four weeks of time in Nepal. This year I also read more than the previous. If there was any semblance of balance (a balance that I’d like) in daily living, 2016 was it.

It has been an immensely instructive year. Of these, I think the following are to stay as a pursuit hereon,

  1. Being with people unlike myself: The trouble with earlier years has been that I spent time hanging out, meeting and working with people who were a lot like me. This grouping of likes happens in a natural way I suppose. I learnt to be conscious of it and move out of such groups which sometimes tend to become echo chambers. I am enriched a lot more from knowing people with different vocations and interests than mine. Associating with diverse range of people has helped immensely in my learning and outlook. Related to this is an insightful book that I read in December was Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. He lived an extraordinary life as a roadie, one time record holder in weightlifting, a neurologist by profession and an amazingly prolific writer.
  2. Realization that mental health is an extremely important aspect of life: State of mind has a tremendous bearing on day to day activities as well as one’s zeal for life. I wouldn’t have known this. It came to me in course of last year when I saw my own spirit fluctuating through weeks and later with a couple of individuals at Poorna. It was immensely revealing. A completely able body can be rendered useless with a mind that isn’t up to it. This year and further, it is a resolve to pay much greater attention to mental health of others (if I can help it) and to keep a good, vigorous and healthy state of mind myself. This reminds me of one of the most interesting books that I read last year – “Mind Readings” – a collection of essays about writers’ journeys through mental states. This realization was particularly stronger with a kid in school whom I taught for two years (and with whom I failed in my feeble abilities as a teacher) and couldn’t help with how he felt in school every day that he was being forced through the educational system and exams. And then watching Lars and the Real Girlan outstanding film on human condition and the lives that some live.
  3. Keep pushing myself: I feel more convinced about it than ever before. I reached the physical edge of it during CTM’s last eight kilometers of the fifty that I was running on that hot morning in Chennai. Never felt so exhausted yet not wanting to give it up. That experience has been subtly shaping me since then, I realized.

The thing with lists is that they develop fast and turn banal soon after the third point. Most of the other takeaways from the previous year are likely to fall in one of three above. So, I’d rather keep it at this.

The post is four days late. I had been in the practice of writing this on new year’s eve. But this is another break this year – impulsiveness over predictability. Took an impulsive bike ride to Madurai to visit friends from APU days and spend time chaffing around. As years get added to life I hope this impulsiveness maintains itself. Thurber wrote, “He (E B White) has steadfastly refused to learn to play bridge or take out life insurance.” I wish that such a spirit of adventurism and refusal to seek insurance against what life throws on the way stays with me too.

Bonne année everyone!

 

 

You must go to Berlin

 

 

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Living by the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-bahn, Berlin in November.

“You must go to Berlin” is a refrain we heard from Oslo to Budapest. Travelers and vagabonds swore by it. The itinerant European indicated a promise of a unique experience. The returning Israeli soldier insisted on how Berlin suited his travel (how its spirit suited him) in Europe hitting back after every leap out into the creases and frontiers of Europe. This time he was returning from Iceland, where we had met him a few weeks back. Another one insisted on joining her as she traveled to Berlin for a porn film festival. I didn’t know what to make of these until the evening I coursed through its multi-level underground metro and bahn system and surfaced above, on the massive Potsdamer Platz square. Larger still and standing in contrast is the Alexander Platz square which appears as though the city planners didn’t know what to do with the twenty acre plot. It is a gift of planning from the former East Germany. The strange looking  placement of Park Inn Hotel, the world clock and the shopping complex with confused looking trams and vehicles stopping across the the roads for signal.

Berlin is a restless city. Restless, not in an Asian-city sense and certainly not in its pace. It is restless in its production, its opinion, its taste and in its character. I say this from having spent time mostly in the East Berlin. For a visitor it is hard to characterize Berlin. It is a relief that such a place exists which has slipped out from the many attempts to stereotype it. Berlin’s hard to stereotype character is sensed when travelers – frequent or first timers like me, take a pause after the first “It is an interesting city” remark. Nothing follows by the way of explanation after that. The difficulty is then covered by the traveler recollecting her experiences or personal life stories that unfolded in the city but nothing that could explain why one found it ‘interesting’. Berlin renders clichés like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘rich’ hollow in their meaning. To a traveler who has been a reader of its history and spectator of its present the city is a stream of cultural, intellectual and political rapids with currents of every grade that occurred along the course of its history still whirling by. The traveler can begin rafting at any level and get washed away in the ensuing course.

As I arrived and got on to its dense network of U-bahn and tried in vain to make sense of the profusion of graffiti that covered every visible surface from foot level to the top of multistory buildings. The little buttons on the traffic signals too were in service of the graffiti messages. They displayed messages from chiding the reader of his bourgeois life to assertions of an independent taste and opinion on matters from artistic taste to sexuality. And unlike Oslo, the graffiti here dared with their placement and by their reach from the wagons of metro trains, sides of buildings and of course on the still remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. The city bursts with opinion on every issue – fringe or mainstream, big or small. I think every Berliner in his life must have had some paint on her and made a graffiti at least once in her life. That should perhaps be a more suitable definition of a Berliner than the beaten one that a Berliner crosses the road only when it is flashes green for the pedestrian.

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Sections of the Berlin Wall as seen at Potsdamer Platz. These were the L-shaped concrete blocks which were used to replace the conventional wall after a German soldier from East Berlin used an armoured vehicle to ram into the wall, break it and escape. 

On the political front, the city continues to nurture Marxist intellectualism and attracts scholars from the frontiers of communist thought and political action into spending some time exploring the tomes in its many archives and libraries. A mere walk around its main thoroughfares itself is an education in communist history – from Karl Marx allee to Rosa Lumxembourg Platz. Elsewhere, Lepizig renamed its Ho Chi Minh Strasse and back home Kolkata stayed with its Ho chi Minh Sarani. Berlin tried renaming in dozens, yet a fair deal remains. When it came to renaming Clara-Setkin Strasse which runs along the Reichstag, a leading Berlin feminist Marianne Kriszio is reported to have asked “Have we nothing better to do than to slander the memory of such women?” Evidently, renaming is a touchy subject. This is pretty much similar back home in India, from Delhi to Bengaluru. Renaming of streets can evoke public sentiments as fast as a monsoon roll over of dark clouds.

I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote as I recollect losing our way finding the Berlin Philharmonic and later, the way to Rosa Luxembourg Platz on a late evening – “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”  It was November rain quite literally as I walked down from the skyscraper lined Bahnof Potsdamer Platz towards Brandenburg Gate and looked at remains of the wall all along. This arc of history on a single avenue is quite rare in metropolitans of our times, a sure sight to revel in. I imagined that a walk down this avenue on an afternoon can do the work of two weeks of world history classes for the students I teach here in school.

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The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

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The approach to Reichstag from Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s socialism, its workers’ unions and their almost militant activism to safeguard wages and its intellectualism in art, music, lifestyle, philosophy and political thought is unmatched. No other city perhaps exhibits such a wide spectrum. If there is the classic socialism, then there is also the new left and both challenged menacingly by the right wing conservatives like AfD.

While a fraction of young Berliners choose to propagate and be a part of the Identitarian Movement, spreading fast across Germany and France, there is the horde of bohemians and hipsters who confuse the identitarians with their disregard for nationalism and to rigid ideologies. The ideological inclinations of the Berlin hipsters appear to be as diverse as their facial hair styles and marked by as many different thoughts as their body piercings. That is the beauty of Berlin. It all comes together as a very busy, forever changing collage, where each piece is a history as well as a commentary on the contemporary at the same time. Berlin seems to vow to not let any new wall ever get erected!

To a traveler, I’d respond in the same eager tone – You must go to Berlin! This European capital is a river with rapids to be rafted by the visitor. Jack Lang’s words stringing the two cities in a single sentence sure seem apt, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”

Observations from parent-teacher meeting

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Last week at Poorna, we had parent-teacher meeting (PTM) spanning over two days. I was looking forward to this since the current academic year began. I wanted to see and get to know the parents of the kids I was spending time with in sociology classes. At Poorna these meetings have an unhurried and informal format void of any sort of tension that might ride over the kids. I have admired this quality in the school because when I was growing up, PTM in our school was an extremely tense affair. At least for me. However, I am also mindful of the distance between the format and regimentation heavy ways of Army  School which I attended, over a school like Poorna which completely breaks away from such an approach to education and raising children. Hell! The kids don’t even get the national anthem straight here, whereas, we would sing it like Hitler’s boys  – chin up, voices soaring etc.

The conversations with parents is in some ways deep sociological insights into the society, with us embedded in it. Three conversations have stayed with me from last week with parents who came in. I can understand the anxieties that they might be going through in raising their kids and the worries that take over as they think about the future in the world that is only getting more demanding. So, this is just meant to share with due recognition that these concerns are valid. However, they do tell us what we are probably putting our kids through.

One of the parents wanted to know if their child is at par with the children of other ‘conventional’ schools, as Poorna is an alternative school. This I felt was unusual because I assumed that parents are completely aware that they are in some ways choosing to drop out of the conventional education system and let their child learn in a different environment. The element of being competitive and the at par-ness doesn’t leave us Indians, I guess. The mother of the kid was concerned that the kid doesn’t know times tables in math and if that was okay. The teacher felt that it was great that the child could visualize numbers in her head and add up. However, the mother had a different view. She explains – ‘I see her working additions in her mind. Every time she does that she starts anew. This way she will make mistakes. If she knows tables, she will not make mistakes’ The focus as I see was on not making mistakes for the parent, whereas the teacher felt differently about it. There is no room to make mistakes, it appears. And our kids have to ensure that. Who knows… in the future we might have ISO ratings for kids – 1 mistake per million calculations or some such!

Another parent was so concerned that her son is always reading ‘these’ books which are so popular among kids and reading them he is always in an imaginary world. I am completely empathetic to that observation and do feel that a grounding with reality is as necessary. In fact, this was my concern (that kids do not know much of real world around them) when I taught A level sociology and the NIOS 12th standard course. However, I felt that in this case the parent was alarmed way too early and the move to keep the kid’s fiction books away will stifle his imagination instead of enhancing his grip of the real. The anxiety of the parent is sure very identifiable, but perhaps the answer is not to be concerned that the child is forever in an imaginary world. May be that is how he routes back to the real.

Last one is a telling commentary on how for families in India it is not enough to know the good. The paranoia of whats the bad side, the negative etc is ever so present. I do not know where do we get that baggage from. A parent sat through all that I had to say about his son’s performance and his classroom behaviour. The kid is highly engaged, articulate and observant. I had only positive remarks to make. There really wasn’t anything concerning to share. The parent said and I am paraphrasing – all this is fine, what are his negatives. I wasn’t expecting that and was stumped. Again, I think those are his concerns. But for a moment I felt if as a child wouldn’t I want a bit of recognition for the positives? I am not sure, but I began speaking to the kid directly and mentioned that I really do not have or see anything negative to speak of.

I had an exam to write (at the law school where I am doing a masters), later in the day. But some of these conversations remained in my head as I rode back. I felt that the parents are too distanced from their children. It just appears so, may be it is not true at all. And more so in urban settings. School was meant to be a secondary form of socialization, but in the current times it is mistaken as the primary. Look at how early kids are being sent to pre-schools, play schools and the likes. The order is reverse now – more time outside of home and with others who train, coach, mind, tend and shape kids, and less time with the parents themselves.

This must change.

Meanwhile, a million such stories will unfold on September 30, when Rajasthan government has arranged a statewide parent-teacher meeting in all the government schools.

First 50 KM Ultra Run – CTM

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Chennai Trail Marathon – 2016. Pic – Dilip Srinivasan (via FB)

This year has been good for running. I started with a full at Auroville Marathon. Then in July did the Raramuri run (TRORT-08) where I finished full marathon with a personal best. Fueled by these, last weekend I ran my first ultra run of 50 km. I sat over the experience of it for a week before I could gather my thoughts about it.

I’ve known of runners who have written about their experiences after finishing runs that they aspired for, prepared for or simply wanted to run. It is amazing to read their experiences as they put themselves through the challenge that they have set themselves against. It is remarkable that a part of what all the runners go through during a run is the same -mental ups and downs, doubts and the love-hate conversation about running.

At the same time it is an immensely calming experience. On the other side of the finish line my mind was void of thoughts. It wasn’t the stress of running that led to it. It was something simpler. I have noticed that running long distances helps in clearing up mind, even if that state of mind is short lived. On the face of it, it appears paradoxical – one drains himself out physically and feels a sense of mental calm. There were no thoughts running through my head as I finished the last 2 km of the 50k. I finished, checked the time and moved on to have some food and cold water pads on head. The rest of the day, I cruised through the southern landscapes on a train to Bangalore.

Running the 50k at Chennai Trail Marathon (CTM) was unintended. I wanted to finish the year with at least one ultra run, though I was unsure of which one and where in India I might want to do that. Haven’t been a very planned person. Running on the other hand is gently nudging me towards having at least a semblance of a plan, which I now figure is necessary to do those distances or even to make it to some runs.

CTM has a lovely trail around a huge lake on the outskirts of Chennai and I enjoyed running the trail for its scenery and silence. This was also my first time running in Chennai. I was expecting the heat to put me down which it sure did. Running in Bangalore for most of the year doesn’t build much capacity in a runner to endure the tropical heat of the Indian subcontinent. Last year, running in Nagpur at 6 in the morning drained the life out of me in a mere 10 km.

I was sick for a week before the run and hadn’t ran for over two weeks leading up to CTM. Even as I took the late evening flight to Chennai after work, getting off there I was unsure whether I wanted to run. I pushed along and reached the venue at midnight. The lovely folks at CTM let the runners sleep at the venue for no charge. And I was hoping to catch some sleep. By the time I slept it was 1.30 AM and the lineup started at 3.30 AM. I had the crappiest of the sleep that night. Woke up, collected my bib from the organizers and got ready. I was kind of okay doing the dark hours from 4 AM until the sunrise because the headlamp only illuminates a few meters of the trail. So it is literally a step at a time, by design. One doesn’t get to see how the trail ahead is. Also, the wee hours are usually quiet.On one side of the lake, the trail went on the raised bund of the lake and into the distance was a roaring four-lane national highway. Except the occasional roar from a passing trailer truck, it was only the footsteps of runners ahead which could be heard. Everyone ran in silence. It was surreal, the two hours until the sun came up. David Laney recently wrote of his experience of running the UTMB – a mile by mile account.  Here are some of the moments that I recall from the run:

KM1 18- I do not want to do this. I want to fly back home. There is no way I am finishing the 42, fuck 50!

KM 20 – Sun rises over Cholavaram lake. The trail ran through a mud flat along the shores of the lake and it was splendid to live that moment in which the entire landscape was getting gradually illuminated. Surreal! Wasn’t worried about finishing at that moment.

KM  39 – Again on the mud flats across a cross-section of the lake. It runs for 2.5 km. With this distance I would finish a full marathon distance. Was glad to be back at that stretch again. Exhausted. Seriously considered dropping out as the full marathon finish line was up ahead. I do not have to do this, I kept thinking.

KM 41 – Fuck! I have spent five hours saying I do not want to run and I finished full. Coughed hard. Chest congestion built up. Took the  U-turn. Ate a sandwich at the aid station. The aid station volunteer called out my name and asked if I need any assistance. It startled me! I was alone and someone calling out my name felt so damn different. Felt good! Thanked him. Decided to go for the last 8 km. There were no cramps, no pains. Only a near complete state of exhaustion. Ran out again for the last 8.

KM 44 – Got on to the raised trail along the lake side. Looked at the horizon and the lake again. Though how remarkably it has changed in its feel and appearance from 4 AM to now at 9 AM. In the next few meters sun made itself felt. Couldn’t put one foot after the other. I only wanted to make it to the next aid station. The run from here on was aid station to aid station.

KM 45 – Joined another runner for the next kilometer. He was in a very uniform clip and his sandal’s sound gave a sort of rhythm. I wanted to keep up with him. We did, till the U-turn at 46th. I couldn’t resume after that. It was early to think that I will complete it.

KM 46 – Most excruciating. Disoriented. Felt that sun was hard. Started walking. Sat on the raised side of the lake twice. Everything around felt like it has paused. As though someone took the remote and paused the video.

KM 48 – Hallucinated about the aid station a good 100 meters or more ahead of where it actually  was. Took two cold water mops. The volunteers were amazing. I thought how much I wanted to be like them. Help and cheer even as someone completely unrelated is attempting his own goal. Realized I was too hungry. Wolfed down peanut-jaggery chikkis and two bananas. The certainty that I will complete kicked it. Was sure I can run the last two. Broke into a trot which I maintained till the 50th KM.

KM 50 – Finish line in sight. Only for a moment thought about how this has all been a mental chaos. Even at that moment I was perfect – no cramps, no pains. It was a mental battle.

Finish line – A tranquil sense prevails over me. I photographed myself with a friend, thanked the volunteers and went to collect the bag and leave.

It was all a constant state of mind – void, peaceful. Flying back was expensive, so took the train instead. Slept in bouts along the 7 hour journey. It was so damn peaceful. I felt as though I was returning from a vacation. Felt mentally strengthened after the run. And I continue to be in that state of mind.

Running an ultra has been a unique experience. I am sure that I am running longer distances.

Teaching – Year 3

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This isn’t how it was supposed to be! Two years of teaching sociology and economics to senior secondary students was to end this year. The students have graduated and most of them are looking forward to the university now. I thought I have had enough of those everyday realizations of my ineffectiveness in classroom and that constant fear of not doing enough to help the kids with their subjects. In the school administration’s view though, it was a satisfactory performance. Personally, teaching has been a great experience for me as well. I have certainly lived some of the most satisfying days of my life in these two years at Poorna. But I have remained conflicted about my ability to teach and whether I should continue doing this.

I visited the school last month after it reopened for the new academic year since I hadn’t returned the library books and not said a good-bye to the teachers. It was not easy. I had gotten used to the football sessions with middle school kids during lunch time. I was addicted to watching the five year olds figuring out stories from illustrated books. It was exciting to be with the high school kids and help them figure out concepts. All of this as well as sharing the anxiety of board exams with the students I taught! It was great to be a part of this school where I was learning (more than teaching) every single day. So, I knew I was vulnerable to even a slight insistence by the principal to continue teaching.

At the university, the master’s program I am pursuing has entered a slightly easier phase. The classroom load is less and the lectures to attend also few. More importantly, on work front I have a year’s contract with an agency to work on their India projects. Both these parts of my daily routine seemed clear enough to commit to another year of school when the principal pitched the idea of teaching sociology to students opting for O level. To take decisions so quick is unusual for me. However, I was sure that being at Poorna has been responsible for one of the most concentrated phase of learning of my life. I agreed!

Tomorrow, I begin the third year of my teaching attempt. I am a rookie and likely to remain so for long. I am reminded of all those books I read which inspired me to consider being a part of a school. Over four years back I read Hemraj Bhatt’s (a teacher in government primary school) The Diary of a School Teacher . Hemraj’s diary was a daily chronicle of sincere efforts of a teacher trying to make learning better in the little school that he was a part of, in a nondescript town in Uttarakhand. His challenges, how he dealt with them, the children who attended that school and their social contexts, the satisfying moments and little successes that came along… all of these made a lasting impression. Hemraj’s diary is probably the first book that made me  interested in the idea of teaching and in a school at that.

Though I like reading about education and expositions on it, I do not think that they can inspire many to give teaching a shot. Those dense writings by Dewey, Krishnamurti and Friere are helpful for sure. But it needs popular writings – honest, sincere and direct from the classrooms to get people closer to the excitement and satisfaction of teaching. This is why Hemraj Bhatt’s diary and John Holt’s How Children Fail made such an impression on me. Besides these, writings from people at the university I attended – Rohit Dhankar and Anurag Behar  kept me hooked to the reflexive process of teaching and learning. I owe it to all of them.

As I start the new academic year, I feel that I have been lucky enough to get this opportunity to be a part of a school and am slightly unnerved at the thought of the responsibility that comes along with it – to help learners on their path to knowledge. It carries a kind of responsibility that I haven’t been very good at shouldering. On the other side of this thought, lies an excitement to explore, experiment and figure out the world around us with an energetic bunch of students and teachers at Poorna all over again!

 

 

Freedom of a real education

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It has been a month since I left my teaching job at school. Since, this move was to make more time for other things I was doing, instead of a sense of relief, a constant sense of loss has prevailed over the last several weeks as I finished classes and bid farewell to the kids and colleagues at school. In the two years as a high school teacher, I tried making sense of what education might mean in our lives and what is it that differentiates the proverbial ‘real’ education from the other varieties. The reality bit of this other kind of education professed by some, I have not quite known. I remember listening with serious attention when this Prof of Education at the former university whenever he spoke of purpose of education and what is wrong with the current system in India. I have figured this for sure – that simple it may seem, it is not easy to think about this area of human existence and daily life. If it was, we wouldn’t have so many grownups thinking that something was wrong with the education they received in school and at the university. I find the number of such people increasing around me.

While the school and the life-changing opportunity that it gave me is still a long piece being written in my head, I continue to dive into writings on education. This has been no less thrilling. Also, it sits in such a contrast with my experience at the university I am attending lately. If one wants to understand what is wrong with higher education in this country, this university would be a fitting place to do an ethnographic study. The tyranny of unconscious, hard-headed and impervious professors is unleashed daily on the sponge like minds who are processing their first experiences of a place of higher learning and forms of intellectual inquiry. Their sense of the world is being formed by these professors. This repeatedly foregrounds the question – what is real education? For an academia which has a scorn for Humanities, this question, shall remain beyond the grasp, forever perhaps!

We are led to believe that pursuit of knowledge is what education is about. Skills is what it is about. A skill with which one can make a living and satisfy the wants of life with the money earned through that skill. This is what it is about. Indeed, but this is half the truth. I am glad to discover that there are thoughts beyond this myopia. Among the thinkers that I have been reading on purpose, significance, role and forms of education, I was surprised to find David Foster Wallace delving into this subject in a remarkable commencement speech.

As I read Wallace’s speech I could help but see the simple, yet valuable insight that he is driving all so lightly and that too through a college address. I can trust it to come only after long years of experience… because that is just what it takes to see things this way! He tackles the role of subjectivity in perspectives on life with an unseen clarity. Wallace says –

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Freedom of real education is to decide for yourself what you think has meaning in life and what doesn’t. Last year, in class with high school students, I remember insisting to the students that – you decide what you want to do and what should be your grades in the board exams. It doesn’t matter what I expect or what your parents expect. Unconsciously and in a cruder form I was walking along this thought of freedom. I wanted to let students know that they are free to decide.

On the kinds of freedom, he goes on –

the kind (of freedom) that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Personally, this real freedom he mentions has been difficult for me to be mindful of and practice. Every once in a while, it becomes so natural to join the race for better jobs, higher salaries, more things to make life better and similar such things that are regarded as natural and justifiable pursuits. Nothing short of amazing that we sometimes point complaining fingers at it and sleep, only to wake up and do the same. Wallace is affirming the same difficulty in a stronger tone as he concludes with this –

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

Every few weeks I sort of lose the plot and begin getting worked up about the little things that demand attention and time. Then, readings likes these bring it all back and sort of insist that the daily is important, but larger picture of what is the meaning of all the pursuits that we fill life with, is necessary.

Long distance running – a step at a time

auroville_marathon

This is about running. I write this because it is not every week that limits are pushed to a delirious state. On Sunday, I completed my first organized and timed full marathon. I ran the Auroville Marathon in Pondicherry. This makes it the first long run of the year. I’ve been running 30km, 35km and lesser distances all through the last year. Never managed to attend organized runs for a variety of reasons. Had registered for Auroville Marathon -2015 and didn’t go for it. Regret that for the amazingly serene and runner friendly trail that it is. This year’s too would have met the same fate had it not been for an evening run at NLS which found me elated back at my desk and I registered for Auroville’s. In the next two months since registration, preparation for the 42 km run nosedived. In all, I managed to do 6 20 km+ runs as prep. And nothing else. Most of the evenings found me wrestling other personal and work related affairs with a terrible state of mind. I wasn’t sure that I’ll survive these 42 km on Sunday and even at dinner table on Saturday. I sat over a bowl of pasta in a restaurant and watched people pass by, from the balcony. I contemplated taking a bus back to Bangalore after dinner.

On Sunday, first 10 km saw me confident. The next 10 saw me sure-footed. The next 5 km wrecked me. A complete bonking out happened somewhere after 25 km. I stopped for a piss and lost orientation. I didn’t know the treeline from the trail and trail from the sky. It all circled around as though I was in a tin can which was given a vigorous shake. Found my footing till the next aid station and took in several cups of electrolyte. Having finished it, I guess it wasn’t so much physical exhaustion as it was the state of mind that did me in. Because physically, I finished strong. I was dreading it and it hit me! The 30s were the toughest because of a nasty knee cramp. I was hobbling through several stretches. Those were the moments which saw me laughing out loud for what I signed up for, for being stupid to be there without prep and similar such things. A short distance later I wasn’t even sure what was I doing, or what was I there for. The last 4 km is when the spirits bounced back. By then I had learnt to ignore the knee pain and keep myself running at a consistent pace with short steps. I knew I was going to complete it and make it within a decent time limit. By 4 hrs 50 mins I was done with the 42 km trail. With this finish, came a good deal of lessons too. Pursuits like these were clearly not what I am naturally predisposed to. I did it because I liked attempting it. But am I predisposed to such exercises? I think, no. It was the same when I did a brevet ride of 100 km last year. It was to explore how I take situations of stress. Nothing else.

Having completed the run, it amazes me how an unknown side of me was playing itself out – raw and hard at me. I was running 20+ distances. What I didn’t realize was that those distances I did every evening were well within my comfort zone. I didn’t know that I should have ventured out. Sunday morning was doing that. I was revolting against that. This duel, I was living in fits of hysterical laughter mixed with bursts of determination and topped with tons of lack of confidence. If I was filming myself, sitting this evening I can’t look at that recording without being surprised and embarrassed at myself. This is because with the run I witnessed how I respond to situations (and challenges) outside of my physical and mental comfort zones. It wasn’t a happy sight. But like other runners and endurance sports enthusiasts I can say that all that pain was well worth it.

This run also came at a time when I am facing a fair amount of difficulty at work and other things that I do for a living. It is amazing how all of it connects with each other. A positive mental state does a great deal to a run and it is the same with one’s profession. I am more effective in an optimistic state of mind. That has been hard lately.

The other thing I learnt is the necessity of a certain discipline in pursuits. I say certain because the form and intensity of it can be different for individuals. But having some degree of discipline is absolutely necessary. I could have fared much better if I had the discipline to train or say, be regular with my runs during the preceding months. I wasn’t ! It takes the same intensity of intent to get through work as well, especially when self-employed and in consulting. Many of the contracts that I undertake do not have demanding skills but they are demanding in time and rigour. This is where the problem begins. Not having enough of either of the two. I am capable of procrastinating endlessly.

For all these reasons, it was great to see that I ran past the finish line feeling strong. It sort of bridged a bit of that gap between the known and the unknown selves. At one point when I had stalled completely on the trail I found myself repeating the number of kilometers left. It was almost a chant. That was probably the last desperate measure I tried until I regained the pace.

Finally, it was Andy, a runner over 70 years old who crossed me at around 38th kilometer, cantering like a fine bred horse. Can’t forget the sight – he was on a consistent, confident stride and his wife rode along by his side on a cycle, supporting him. Hell of a partnership there! One of those points in the woods where I squatted on the ground, another old dude, Kumar, passes by urging me not to stop – walk, if you have to, but don’t stop. He played old Hindi songs on his phone, rather loud. That was unusual. How did he find pace with that kind of music. For his comment, I thought, don’t I know this already? There was something very inspiring when I saw him do that, right ahead of me. That is the only thing I did there onward. I can’t thank Kumar enough, for that one line. I found him doing the same all through. He is probably over 50 years old. I watched him ahead of me, behind me and alongside for the last 8 km of the trail. He never did stop! I shall never forget this.

For the last kilometer, the organizers had arranged for pacers. I had two lovely people who paced me just when I was living terrible troughs. I am incredibly thankful to both. Naveen, for the last km. I knew he was lying about the distance remaining. But I did speed up. At 42 km I was at a pace similar to the first five. It was courtesy his pacing.

I told one of my friend who also runs long distance that I do not prefer organized runs. I still don’t, especially the ones with sponsors plastering every little space with ads. But marathons like these, I will always run. They are a huge bundle of learning. A senior lady who wore a starched saree and canvas shoes and was attempting 10k. Such a pretty sight! I am full of admiration for such folks. Another family, was cheering on a particularly isolated stretch where they found me walking, visibly in pain. Such encouraging environment does a great deal of help. This is another thing I learn, and I am sure to follow this at school. To encourage kids to do things. To ‘go for it’. I do not think I do it enough.

I remember the indistinct pre-dawn sky when I started. I remember the bright and deep blue typical of Pondicherry sky at 9.30 am when I was nearing completion. It was almost metaphorical, I felt. What it takes is – a step at a time. And to be at it!

The after effect of this finish is that I am considering a 200 km brevet ride and signed up for the Ramanagara Half Marathon two weeks from now. I hope the streak continues and I finish the year with at least one ultrarun.

Roundup 2015

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In what appears to have become customary  here on Contested Realities, the annual roundup post follows. The new year’s eve post I realize is a good opportunity to take a moment and look back at the days spent in the rush of daily living. As I begin writing this one for 2015, I re-read the roundup posts I wrote at the end of 2012, 2013 and 2014. These posts are the trails that were made journeying through time.

This year was lived overwhelmingly solo. This is the first observation that comes to my mind as I think of 2015. Even as I write this the pressure cooker steams the rice for dinner and I type away before I get back to the kitchen to prepare the curry.  It has been exhilarating and frustrating in parts but certainly liberating. I would be lying if I said that those lonely evenings on some weekends didn’t get me occasionally. But besides those, it has been a time when the proverbial ‘self’ unraveled. It is a rather unusual Indian lifestyle to experience. I have been living single since 2008, the spells were interrupted with my co-founders joining in on and off. For almost two years I lived with a former partner of our company. This year tops all of the single-living years. I watched plays alone. I rode long distances on motorcycle alone. I went to movies alone and I cooked all my meals for one person only. I went to the late night movie shows where couples gave quizzing looks to the empty seat besides me, watch me sit through the film alone and walk down into the parking lot alone. In Bangalore, as I notice, one can always spot that lone ranger at the movies because there aren’t too may who hang out alone here.

The obvious consequence of living solo was long conversations with the self. I’d say, ain’t no hermitage on the mountain top needed for self-reflection! (Pico Iyer never ceases to write about such hermitages in his pieces). Try living solo in a city and one can get the same conditions sans the pervasive silence. Traffic is for real and machines of all kinds fill every passing minute of the day.

The year was very productive in the number of books I managed to read. A long lasting urge to read works of Marxist thinkers could start this year and I managed to read a fair number of them – Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich, Michael Watts, Gramsci, Heidegger, Habermas and very less of the great man Marx himself. Ideas of de-schooling and pedagogy of the oppressed made tremendous sense. These explorations have begun my lean to the left, I figure. Finding one’s own thought through an ideology laden world appears tedious.

The second observation is that this is  also the year in which technological pervasiveness climaxes in my personal life. Phone, computer and the internet took charge of my daily life, travel, education, profession and leisure such that it went out of my control even as I used more and more of it to exercise control on things in life.  In what I do, people I talk to and places I want to be were all being governed by devices.  Every evening’s run was mapped and recorded by a Nike app, a sight from the trail shared on Tumblr, activities and interaction shaped by Twitter and similar such things. The ultimate however, without me realizing it, was when personal relationships were formed, lived and driven by Whatsapp and Skype. It was me urging people I cared for and loved, to come over on Skype and let me see them. This, in a naive way, felt was making up for their physical absence. Early morning and frequent messages on Whatsapp throughout the day felt like creating an experience equivalent to shared living.  By the end of these twelve months, I went through the entire journey from urging family and friends for to be more connected through devices, thereby making up for their absence.  In the developed parts of the world, digital pundits and sociologists might remark that what I am experiencing is what the societies there have experienced half a dozen years back. I find it remarkable because this lifestyle wouldn’t possibly take roots in an Indian societal setting. The many festivals, the social obligations, parental pressures, the web of social relationships… all of these make it difficult, if not impossible, to live a solo life in India.

In a spirit of self-reflection at this new year’s eve, I think it is time to make a conscious and informed withdrawal from the overwhelming grip of digital devices. A very close friend with whom I have spent more time in a year chatting on Whatsapp and Skype than spend a handful of days together in real, remarked how different and profuse it felt to spend time together. The connect between us when in person was stirring. We experienced the joy of being together and spending time in each other’s real presence in an overwhelming manner. It wasn’t a pent-up affection over time spent in different cities bursting through when we met in person, it was merely what should have happened had I been really prioritizing people’s presence with all their heart and mind as much as mine, over digital connections.

I am reminded of Sherry Turkle’s remark that “the devices in our pockets are psychologically powerful. They don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.” I have been changing in the past year with digital devices enabling me to create a customized idea of self and project it than the spontaneous formation of the self that could have happened.

In the year ahead, I am intend to pursue a lifestyle which unfolds less in the digital world but rather gushes forth spontaneously, in a felt and real manner. Ironically, I commit to this idea on a blog! This is just the kind of situation that Contested Realities  was meant to capture – the contests. Of ideas and values and preferences in our lives.

2015 saw a lot happening in my personal life. As for the professional, this year I joined a university again. I started a graduate program in public policy at the National Law School in Bangalore. How or why of this decision is still vague in my mind. I could fit in a university program and gain a specialization along with teaching in school and the company, so went ahead and applied. This has had my leisure and travel taking a huge hit this year. No long trips to speak of!

Teaching in the school however, has been an exhilarating journey. Among other things, this has made me come close and appreciate how amazingly capable human mind is. How children progressively make use of or lose the ability of using their creativity as they go along the years in school. I am not sure of my students, but I have felt enormously privileged to be with them and helping them along the high school journey that they have been making. I once ridiculed a professor in my former university of being too idealistic in his outlook during his lectures in development studies. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I stand changed now and realize the absolute necessity of such a worldview. Otherwise what have we got to share with the young men and women who come after us, in this world and to those whom we are charged with teaching?

I hope the year ahead is as satisfying as this one and those before this have been. Good health and good spirits is all I would wish for. For me and for those reading this.

 

Luang Prabang: 25 years since Benedict Anderson’s visit

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Tucked deep along the popular and wildly promising backpacker routes of South East Asia lies Luang Prabang. This tiny capital of a former princely state which merged with two other little kingdoms to form Laos opens itself unconditionally to the backpacker, the tourist and the fantasy seeker, all alike. No questions asked, beyond the necessary ones at the immigration. The thrill for the backpacker and the rich tourist perhaps lies in being able to walk over and taking for granted this little nation’s sovereignty, its own voice. The traveler with his stash of dollars can get away with anything – ride motorbikes without driving license, move about brazenly in utter disregard for people’s customs, practices or legal regulations and any go forth with any imaginable activity that might promise an inexperienced thrill which the tourist wouldn’t have dared to think of in his own country or traveling in the more prosperous and developed countries of the world. But in Luang Prabang, just go ahead and do it. Here, the weight of a dollar is more than people’s words. The tourist’s fantasies of every variety can be realized here for a pittance, until the pleasure seeker drops out satiated or bored.

Historian Benedict Anderson passed away last week. One of his books Imagined communities was a part of reading in grad school. Curiosity made me look up his other writings and I realized that he wrote of his trip to Luang Prabang during the Songkhran Festival in 1998. ( The excerpts in this post are from the essay published in LRB here.) Reading that I realized that it was twenty five years since his trip that I crossed the Mekong river and into its border town of Huay Xai. Three hundred kilometers up, through the lush mountains of this former Lan Xang kingdom, on the bend of the Mekong lay the endearing Luang Prabang town, home to Prabang Buddha and to some of the most affable people of the subcontinent.

Back to Anderson’s account, it appears that he was a keen eyed traveler more than a historian. His travel accounts tend to be mischievous, sarcastic and incisive in parts. In 1994 Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In the four years since then, Anderson notes the changes.

In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

This absence of a Hilton, Hyatt, Burger King, McDonald’s etc is remarkable. The town’s remote location is evident in the fact that even twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, there still are none of these monuments of globalized existence and faux-modernity. The absence of west-styled fast food restaurants and five-start hotels is the exact reason why my friend and I felt a helpless attraction to this town and its homely feel. As Asian travelers with our own countries run over by the global food and hospitality chains, which are constantly road-rolling the peculiar and characteristic identity of the places, we felt Luang Prabang was indeed one of the last remaining places yet to be conquered by this homogenizing force.

street_rick_luang

Luang Prabang comes off as an easy paced town with not much to see but to lounge and soak up the pace of this town by the Mekong river

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Back to Anderson’s piece, he examines the ‘preservation’ effort of Luang Prabang’s culture and lifestyle with the World Heritage status. The following lines make for a remarkable critique which in retrospect do seem apt –

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

Through the course of history, Laos seems to be a country pushed and shoved by its neighbours as well as powerful nations. Now, the baton seems to have passed on to the backpackers and tourists to do the same. However, the place still manages to stand apart as a very different experience – culturally and geographically. The mighty Mekong is an overbearing presence. The Buddhist monks still on their early morning walk to receive alms from the townsfolk. The barges ferrying people and vehicles across the river. High school kids volunteering at the National Museum to inform visitors about the artifacts, folktales and the Ramayana stories in English. They are absolutely adorable.

Luang Prabang’s riverfront is one of the prettiest to spend a leisure evening tucked in a small corner of the world. With its setting, it does seem to drive this literal feeling of being far out in the world. Especially, with the time it takes to reach this place. With the absence of factories, heavy machinery, high-rise buildings, large automobiles, mass transport systems and especially high human density, the place manages to immediately make an impression of being in a place which is out of the usual, fast paced cities that the global traveler has routed himself through, to reach here.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

The fate of the royalty of Luang Prabang seems like typical of the colonial era. Either the King becomes a vassal or banished from his land if he tends to be assertive. Rest of the royal family especially the Princes are groomed in the colonizer’s capital abroad, in this case, the royalty being groomed in France. King Sisavangvong gets the nickname of being the ‘playboy King’ perhaps because of his fifty children and fifteen wives. His palace, which was once a French chateau is now the national museum. The night market on the boulevard in front of the palace is a truer picture of the modern day Luang Prabang and not the uninspiring and somewhat oddly cobbled artifacts at the museum.

Laos and Luang Prabang is best seen in its night market in my opinion. It is where the common Laotian surfaces, who lives a life in the countryside perhaps and turns up at the market to make a buck out of the souvenir hunting tourist. Reading Anderson’s account from 1998, his description of the night market reads as a very fine prose and stays remarkably unchanged to my eyes twenty five years since –

The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face.

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

High colonialism looms large on several of the former colonies. I see it unfolding every time a tourist treats the country as his ancestral property and brazenly goes about town with a sense of entitlement as though the people are obliged to serve him. It only feels sad that there is little being done to  by the way of the tourist’s own sensitivity as well as from the international multi-lateral organizations which can assist Laos in developing a sharp and sensitive tourism policy similar to the one which helps European countries to keep the visitor subjected to their conditions and not the other way around.

Twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, Luang Prabang does manage to retain the charm that he spoke of. It also appears to have come further down along the road which threatens its unique culture and lifestyle that Anderson pointed to. The value of such travel pieces I realize is immense in creating reference points in the history to at least be cognizant of what we will lose or have lost along the decades.

Meanwhile, I hope Benedict Anderson rests in peace.