Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’

 

 

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A four year story

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Sumavanam School

Madanapalle

This is a relationship that began with a term paper and turned into what seems to be a life long association with a duo who have helped an ignorant mind understand the fine print that life sometimes comes with and which some fail to grasp. Rode down to meet a couple who founded a school for kids in villages around Madanapalle over thirty five years back. The school shut down this year – no teachers to be had in this village. The city-dwelling find it too distant and remote to live on this farm cum school. The village-dwelling aren’t quite making it to higher education. So that rings in the closure.

Meanwhile, the couple lives on, amidst their farm, a dog, shut classrooms, late May rains and a stunning landscape. We share lunch, plenty of conversations and memories of years gone by. Every little instance from their past comes with a hook into the present. Their lives run like a constant background process in my head to score my life against and sometimes compare if I will ever experience the satisfaction and the sense of compose that comes from having lived for an idea. On that noon in Sumavanam I could only admire and feel a bit struck by the life these two chose to live and the sense of quiet that prevails in their minds and on the farm.

Far from it, I continue to dwell in my chaos and clutter.

Pace of things around

 

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In the distant horizon was a bullock-cart rolling away. On the straight road this distance was over a kilometer. Pace was on my mind this evening – of things around, of me running and of Scott’s during Sparthathlon. I was trying to think what a pace of 7 min per mile takes after having done 130 miles of a 160 mile race. It is clearly beyond me at the moment.

A flock of parrots sped past flying low. I counted ten of them. It was a marvelous site when in their high speed flight the group which flew in formation of an arrow head, split every so swiftly, negotiating a neem tree ahead on their flight path. Then they grouped as easily, all the while maintaining their pace. What a sight, it was!

By this time I was closing in on the bullock cart. Almost all the men driving these carts are old. There is hardly a young man or woman that I have seen driving bullock carts in these several years that I have seen them in different regions. Is it that a cart’s pace can no longer hold the young? Almost all of them are on some form of automobile. Perhaps, only the old timers can be at ease and be okay to move at that pace of bullock-carts. By now, I had crossed the cart which was about a kilometer ahead of me on the straight road. In the next few minutes I cross two more of them.

I thought of my slowed down Grandpa because this week they tried a new bone implant in his leg and removed it, for his bones have gone too weak for this. A railway man, who once used to walk down the length of entire freight rakes of fifty-four wagons, everyday. At ninety, he is slowed such that several minutes pass before he manages to muster strength to put one foot ahead of the other. Life has slowed down phenomenally for him. These days, his children and grandchildren often run out of patience with his pace.

On the return lap, a high speed train sped through the landscape knifing that space where the green of fields met the blue of horizon. Again a thrilling sight, unlike any other in the world. May be I am a biased to these Indian landscapes. But even those Dutch trains, rolling across the scenic landscapes of Harlem, on ward to Rotterdam, didn’t  appear as lovely. There was something sterile about them. May be it is the thrill of locomotive horn from a distance and the anticipation that it builds up on the level crossings where people and traffic wait for the speeding train.

Different paces were noted in a magnified sense on this evening’s run. Paces registered with a heightened sense of awareness almost anew.

And then, I began fretting over Ladakh Marathon next month where I might not be able to sustain any respectable pace at 4500 meter altitude. Four weeks to go. Hope I manage to put in enough number of runs before that. To Ladakh this season!

Reading Pirsig on road trips

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Ooty. August, 2013

It was a ride to Ooty in the monsoon of 2013. Being no good with dates, the ride registers a clear memory because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Pirsig was in the bag. At the breakfast table, hundred kilometers down on the road to Mysore, ZAMM was making partial sense. Details and descriptions of the road, landscapes and the bike were identifiable. The thoughtful bits didn’t quite register with the same intensity as in later years when its pages were sought in moments when one wanted to feel enthusiastic about road trips all over again. For someone reading this classic in India it wasn’t a kulturbarer as Pirsig described in the book’s afterword. It was partly about biking and the rest appeared to be about the lives we live and the character of these lived lives. The words “strange and beautiful” were stuck in mind from a NYT review about ZAMM when the buying decision was made. Years later and at a time when I hear the news of author passing away, it feels glad to have come across this book. Beyond the culturally specific notes on life in America, the human condition and people coping with it is perhaps a worldwide phenomenon now, at least in the cities.

This morning when Prisig’s obituary came up, the only mental picture that flashed was a highway, breakfast table with a plate of idlis and coffee, ZAMM in hand, hurriedly getting past two pages to get back on the road. There was a pillion rider and it must be left at saying that those rides were good together.

Bandipur’s forest was bursting with green with the rain as it has every year that I have rode on its narrow roads. On the hills beyond, Ooty appeared cloaked in clouds. That must be the best appearance of this hill town of ruthlessly gashed hill sides to fit in yet another hotel. Coonoor’s YMCA had no guests staying in. That large bedroom on the first floor was almost a time travel. On a small table by the wall, by the evening’s descending cold a diary entry remembering the day’s ride was made.

Pirsig was along on that ride. Understanding what he wanted to convey in ZAMM was a progressive discovery. Some more insights flowed in even as the obituary came in today. It is remarkable that the man took that ride with his son, to square off the events that had occupied his life at that time. I haven’t known of many who reconciled things in life by taking the highway (before it was made fashionable by Bollywood) and returning home with such words and reflection.

There is a section in the book where he writes of teaching. It was easy to relate to. That year, I was about to begin teaching at Poorna. He speaks of experiments that the teacher does with his class, where through assignments on writing the students and he (as a teacher) both figure some important lessons – in seeing and what schools teach.

He writes:

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

These lines are striking in their relevance to teaching and grading that we do in our school. At the same time, it also makes a teacher cautious about these biases creeping in.

However, it was the metaphor of motorcycle took a long time to hit home –

“The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

Pirsig’s writing appealed to the traveler within and still does. May be it is that zeal with which he writes that is sort of enviable. Or may be about riding and living with this brief sense of being free to ride, take whimsical detours, enjoy the sense of arriving in new places and call it a day when it feels like.

 

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!