Longing for those gone by

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This was in the making for several years. Subconsciously, I have been scripting words to remember Derek and the bitter sweet time spent with him, until the day he flew into England’s harsh winter with a promise to return and find his resting place here in India.

His endless craving for streets of Calcutta, the descriptions of Liluah, Park Street and its cemetery, Esplenade, New Market, Chowringhee… remembered on walks in small town Vellore, is the way I experience these places even after countless visits to Calcutta. Derek’s Calcutta was of the 1940s. The Calcutta I came to know of is six decades later than Derek’s. By his intense longing for the city of his childhood, I came to connect to it just the same, with the same intensity, not because I knew no other, but the fact that Derek’s city is where I loved walking. Derek’s city had these Bangla jingles that he would sing ever so often. It was the city that a man longed for and wanted to be buried in.

Until I met Derek, I had known of people craving for various things in life but not for a plot in Calcutta’s Park Street Cemetery. In his 70s, is when life brought us together on the same seat in a Vellore bound train. That is how we met. Derek was a boy with looks of a 70 year old, sitting in the overheated train coach, comfortable and watching everything happening around, fanning himself with his handkerchief. It wasn’t until the last quarter of our journey that we bothered about introducing ourselves. Why would we, when there was India of 1940s and 1950s to be known from someone who grew up in a boys’ home outside Calcutta. This was thought to be the best way to raise the boys after their father’s death. The adolescent boys would remember every bit of these years after their English mother emigrated with them to England. For Derek, the years were only ticking away to bring him back to India. By the time train rolled into Katpadi juntion, the distance from Bangalore was filled with descriptions of places I had known but from another time. This is where Derek preferred to live. The optimist in him wasn’t hoping for a good time ahead, but only of a desirable burial. It was mildly disconcerting for a man in his mid-twenties to hear that sort of a wish. We got off the train agreeing to meet again. And that is how one of the most remarkable friendship in my life began . It would come to an end in the next three years.

In these three years, I learnt to identify days when Derek would hit the absolute bottom of his spirits. Hopes of a man in late years of his life are emotionally distressful to hear. At least this is how it was with Derek. Some of those days would begin with Derek asking me to make dal-pooris for him. These lentil filled parathas is what he would buy off the streets in Calcutta whenever he was let out of the boys’ home. Since the day he figured I could prepare them, he had found a way to create his virtual reality of his childhood days in our town in South India. With the dal-pooris he’d ask me to play Robin Williams’ song “Better Man”. This became the soundtrack of our friendship. And as he took small bites of dal-pooris, with the song playing, his eyes would brim with tears. The song on those evenings would be on loop and his tears a constant stream. I’d put off the lights and mind my business. I’d never know what was it that he lived in his mind as this one song played. By by the looks of it, something deeply regrettable mixed with intense longing, is probably what he was going through. I would never know.

All of this came with a gush that I knew was how his tears flowed on some evenings. The time from seeing Don Bosco Boys’ Home in Vellore pass by from the bus window to thinking of days spent with Derek, all of it made me long for him. I wanted to see him one more time. It was October or November, when having overstayed his visa he left in panic after we helped him arrange for an exit visa. I didn’t know it then that this would be the last that I will see of Derek. In England, he stayed with his sister, who was ailing herself. His best buddy in a brief two sentence mail told me that Derek was sick. All these men – Derek and his friends that I knew of, appeared remarkably, terribly alone in the evening of their lives. May be it was their choice, but it sure wasn’t a happy experience to see them in their states. Derek would always be upset with his brother who always wanted to talk about his dogs even on those occasional calls that Derek made overseas. It has been seven years since then. Messages to him and his friends have gone unanswered. He isn’t in India for sure, because if he was, he knew the address of our house – which we shared for several months, way too well to walk down even on a dark night.

I remember him sing along Sinatra’s “My Way” whenever I played it. Often he would ask for it. This was his lighter mood. Pensive yet holding strong. He had an LP record of it which he treasured a lot. We would look at that and play the same track from my laptop.
Remembering Derek is to find those three years of my early youth, which offered an experience of friendship unlike any that I’ll ever possibly live again. The clasp of palms to tell me that I’ll do fine in life, whenever anxieties got better of me, that nudge to go ahead and do a thing, the affectionate looks… I missed all of it this afternoon on the streets of Vellore.

Is there a way that one can live to its experiential completeness, the pleasure of a person’s company? Or does a person’s going away makes it even more unbearable – the thought of times spent together? One of the abilities that one can never perhaps have in life is to be able to handle loss, longing and remembering those gone by.

The ordinariness of Indian boys

Manu Joseph’s recent piece on how boy really gets the girl in livemint has been on my mind because it was a rather unusual (and unpopular, if one might add) view on courtship, as it happens between boys and girls in India. This is likely to be a rant.

He was, perhaps, making a reason for himself, for why Badri gets the girl in the movie Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya. It isn’t new for Bollywood to portray such a thing – a deliberately funny boy, confused and well-off falling for a good-looking girl and the chase for her and how they end up together happily a dozen songs later. What caught my attention is this remark that he later makes, on love –

In the real world, love occurs for the simplest reason, that it is very desperate to happen, and because it cannot wait it tends to reward not the extraordinary but the available.

That is an extremely interesting way to look at love and relationships. It is also less acknowledged. I see this happening ever so often – desperate people making hasty choices. Love is desperate to happen and that is why ordinariness works well. The exceptionally talented boy (or girl) doesn’t cut it because he is often not there to participate in the small and commonplace – daily things of life which sort of drive relationships. It is true in either direction. That walk in the park would be less preferred if any of them loves a good workout by running. The idle banter at a public place is likely to happen less if either of them is a voracious reader. These could be termed as personal preferences, but of course these are shaped by aspirations of the individual. One with the least, gets to make it to most of the mall hopping and ice-cream eating sessions late night or mid-day. And this ability to be there makes the ordinary win. Manu writes of this,

The regular guy is in the right place at the right time because he is up and about most times even as his formidable competition is hidden in solitary confinement working long hours on heroic dreams.

Whether heroic or not, those with a long list of things to-do, and which do not quite involve the partner, lose out on relationships often. Long working hours is a relationship killer. But wait, this may not be for all. Some people get along well, if they have to, but we’d be purists in assuming that love prevails over all odds. It doesn’t. It falls through, the moment either of the partner’s personal pursuits foreshadows the time that they can spend together.

It is a difficult terrain to write about as a man, although Manu’s piece appears to be from the male viewpoint. I am however of the opinion that the sense of ordinariness and being committed to a personal pursuit is true of both boys and girls. So, the issue can run in either direction. Also, that one’s own situation is likely to induce an analytical bias here. Being single, the piece looked like a compelling commentary on how relationships unfold, at least in urban settings. It could be seen differently by those who are married and that, after a long period of courtship. May be, it works differently for everyone, however, the observation that one is often surprised to see the choice of boy that a girl makes, hits home for me. And Badri… sort of portrays that well.

The odd thing here is that it is the ordinary which seems to have a rather nice and sorted life as far as relationship is concerned. The rest either have to make hard choices or fall by the side, sticking to their pursuits.

 

Written word in our times

This morning, I read a very tender story – of a woman named Lois who fell in love with Kerouac (story via Brain Pickings). Their relationship continued on and off for several years. After several years, when Lois was under depression and grief from losing her mother, Kerouac turns up at her doorstep only to play a song. He had walked five miles, after a long journey.

Lois penned this poem on what she lived that night when Kerouac turned up and played a song for her, spent time with her and perhaps left. The poem is called Universe – One Song

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

For those who value words, this is a moving gesture. I wonder if everyone who receives words as an expression of a moment spent together value it the same. At least, if not value, shouldn’t people not try to trade it away as though something shameful was written which must be known to rest of the world? It is appalling to see books and newspaper articles emerging from letters that were at some point too personal for individuals involved. Yet, either one of them or someone else grabs them and lays bare what was meant for only the two involved – sender and receiver. It is of course a different matter when he sender himself permits the use. So, I haven’t been an admirer of biographical accounts that rest on some ‘rare’ letters as one of them on Lady Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru which was published some years back.

On another front, it is crushing to see how in relationships, during estrangement, some people end up sharing letters (with others or make public) which were meant for them as individuals, only as an act of revealing something detestable. Why were those words not detestable when received? For all that one can do and must do, at least some dignity and respect to words that bring the writer’s truest self to the receiver, must be accorded.

I went on this tangent thinking about how people around me value words. There is this tendency to read what a ‘famous’ author writes and an effort to remember those to be later used in their own arguments. Yet, when someone else, not famous, nowhere near it in fact, writes something, it is not even granted the basic minimum dignity.

In these times, written words matter. They have mattered and perhaps will matter even more with the onslaught of communication technologies which favour a virtual presence and dispenses with real human interactions – the touch, the presence and the shared sense of the moment spent.

 

Reading Foucault & thinking college activism

This has been in the making for several years now – trying to identify the causal chain from ideas to action, especially since the first reading of Foucault. The ongoing trouble in colleges and universities of Delhi presents a case to reflect upon this causal chain.

There comes a phase in student life when encounters with different views and ideologies happens. These emerge not in the classroom but come in via campus gates, campus canteens, chai shops and similar such student watering holes. These are at times tensions in the real world, varieties of conflicts of interests and at times plain matters of ideological positions. All of these get overwhelming for a person who is a few years out of school and as a youngster. I remember my first experience of a political rally in a small town in Tamil Nadu. Then there were these trade union rallies (AITUC, INTUC and Mazdoor unions) that I got hooked on to. They were amazing sights and assemblies of people. As a youth this encounter – of the unfolding of ideas as action in real life, shapes one to either question what is happening and have an opinion, or walk away with an indifference altogether. These plain experiences seem to have a bearing on that student’s worldview in later years when he joins the workforce (like, sympathies to the causes of marginalized people and organized resistance as a recourse).

In this process, I find that readings can help a great deal in shaping early views which might enable a student to make, perhaps, a slightly better sense of the encounters that he is likely to have. Political events – rallies, meetings, protests, clashes etc, are referred to as “encounters” because in a student’s life in India these typically have no precedence. Often, the student has seen an action but has not known the idea that inform that action. Towards this, I recall my experience reading thinkers like Foucault and how the use of “power” began pervading my arguments and consequent formation of opinion.

August, 2012 is when I first encountered his article in – Governmentality, in Colin Gordon (ed), (University of Chicago Press, 1991). Since then, the frequency with which Foucault’s writings have ambushed me, became alarmingly high. He died in Paris in the year I was born. That somehow felt like Foucault’s experiences that inform his ideas might be a bit reachable in their nature. However, it was difficult to discern the plane at which his thought-process worked. I wasn’t quite getting a hang of the range of his engagement. Over time, I began sampling excerpts from various themes that he engaged with. The man looked fascinating to begin with and having read a bit more of him I can say that his writings can serve as an armory which can effectively enable thinkers and actors alike for the battle of ideas that rages in our contemporary society. Take for instance, the university and college campus clashes happening in India this week – Ramjas, JNU and the fight for turf. As an unconditioned student in these or any other educational institution, how does one navigate the variety of opinions that seem to be leading up to these clashes? This question seems important now because having attended two universities (which are strikingly different in their institutional values and student body) I see that the ways and means that shape student opinion in these campuses do not have a space for a student’s own reasoned choice which builds organically over time. A student today is drawn by factions and he either tunes in with them or tunes out and stays home, out of “politics” as some label it.

A reading of ideas and examination of arguments made by either sides during historic events can, in a subtle and slow manner, shape (not indoctrinate) opinion-making process in students. Back in school where I was teaching a group of 16 year old students, I tried this out. After a series of classes in “argument and reason” which were driven with thinkers like W E B Dubois, Gandhi and Robespierre (of French Revolution) we examined how these men stood for causes and defended their reasons. These were a random set of thinkers chosen only because the curriculum until then had a mention of them. Over the course of following months, I noticed the students using the methods of reasoning of these men in some of the discussions in classroom and outside. This was a useful insight.

At the same time, in those teaching years, I was also attending a full-time masters at a university where I’d be on the other side – as a student. In that classroom however, the difference was stark. The student discussions invariably escalated into arguments which were fueled with emotions than substantive reason. I tried probing into some of my classmates’ education and work trajectories. And hardly a few reported having had any systematic or coherent engagement with ideas, thinkers or seminal works. Without an intention to offend, this appeared to be an impoverished education. This lack of tradition of reading and informed debates at intermediate and university level of education, appears to be a contributing factor to the rather ugly clashes in Ramjas college and universities like JNU. One might allege that this is an oversimplified take on the events. I’d like to argue that it is not when viewed systemically. The students’ own lack of engagement (due to a variety of reasons) has amounted to this violent and unproductive environment.

I began with Foucault. So let me recall an interview that Foucault gave to Christian Delacampagne in 1980 – published as The Masked Philosopher in a volume of his collected writings. This relates to the case I am making for role of knowledge by the way of reading.

CD : Let’s risk a few concrete propositions. If everything is going badly, where do we make a start?

MF: But everything isn’t going badly. In any case, I believe we shouldn’t confuse useful criticism of things with repetitive jeremiads against people. As for concrete propositions, they can’t just make an appearance like gadgets, unless certain general principals are accepted first. And the first of such general principles should be that the right to knowledge (droit au savoir) must not be reserved to a particular age group or to certain categories of people, but that one must be able to exercise it constantly and in many different ways.

Responding to the above, CD asks the following question, which reveals Foucault’s clarity of thought as well as seems instructive to the case for reading that I am making .

CD: Isn’t this desire for knowledge (envie de savoir) somewhat ambiguous? What, in fact, are people to do with all that knowledge that they are going to acquire? What use will it be to them?

MF: One of the main functions of teaching was the training of the individual should be accompanied by his being situated in the society. We should now see teaching in such a way that it allows the individual to change at will, which is possible only on the condition that teaching is a possibility always being offered.

So, does that mean we are envisioning a society of scholars? Foucault’s reply again seems useful to our case.

CD: Are you in fact for a society of scholars (societe savante)?

MF: I’m saying that people must be constant able to plug into culture and in as many ways as possible. There ought not to be, on the one hand, this education to which one is subjected to and, on the other, this information one is fed.

Shiv Vishvanathan in a recent piece on the moral economy of a university speaks of the problem from a different end – that of the university. He reasons that the university’s “role as a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, and for dissenting imaginations, is under threat.” In a partial sense, this piece also speaks to the gap in reading and engagement with ideas and thinkers that I have spoken of above.

Bottom-line: A part of the fault lies in the disharmony between information (which emerges in the real world) and education (which is situated in a classroom) that the students in India have been living through. This is amounting to phenomenal amount of ignorance and naive behaviour among the student body.

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!