The cross seems heavy to bear

asterup_museum

A hyper modern museum space (Astrup Fearnley) right on the old harbour in Oslo. The landscape continues to change with high intensity construction activity.

In Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent six weeks in Scandinavia (Norway mostly) and in countries of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveler, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. Likewise with me! It was to do with Brexit, immigration crisis and the rise of nationalistic fervour above the super-nationalistic identity that EU tried to drive in all these decades.

In Norway, the human-nature relationship is said to be special (vs. other part of the world). The fact that Norwegians enjoy a very high standard of living and at the same time have managed to achieve a high degree of environmental conservation is always foregrounded in discussions. Norwegian values and its landscapes are also said to be a part of the inspiration that led Arne Naess to articulate his ideas in deep ecology. This meant that while I moved around Oslo and its suburbs, I was quite consciously looking for evidence of such a relationship. Oslo’s high number of electric cars and ubiquitous charging pods for these cars for sure was one. However, I wanted to know what kind of discourse on environment, nature and human relationship went on here. This is what I was after. And then perhaps, having identified it, contrast it with the Asian context. Is it some kind of enlightened thinking going on in other parts of the world that is amiss in the Asians or Indians in particular?

The intent is to talk of environmental thinking and the contemporary discourse on environment. Climate change negotiations at those high profile and widely televised COP meetings to me smack of a doublethink on the OECD nations’ part. It seems unfair ( coming from a region which loves ending its sentences with “… in all fairness.” & “To be fair…”) that the burden of environmental concern and therefore reduction in carbon footprint should fall on countries in Asia, primarily India and China.

To complete this twisted picture of an environmental values of the OECD countries, we have the activists in Indian metropolitan cities whose action and thought go as far as the city’s parks and town halls where they can either light candles or hold placards or arrange public talks against the latest proposed infrastructure ( a steel flyover lately, in Bengaluru). It appears incomplete – their variety of action.

The Cross Seems Heavy to Bear

There appears to be an undue burden placed on an average man on the streets of India, to think about environmental impact and the impending crises. What is she to do about it? Everyone seems to have a prescription. But is that practicable or should the action start with an individual first (followed by systemic measures) is a question which needs a thought. This has been a continuing frustration with the arguments and reasoning that the activists and some of the policy makers push forth.

An ecological consciousness which drives conduct from a mere instrumental relationship to a blend of altruistic and instrumental behaviour with nature has undergone a re-discovery in twenty-first century. India seemed to have locked up its ecological consciousness away in a chest which would later on be broken into by recurrent environmental crises – year on year drought, floods, loss of soil fertility etc. During the decades of Nehruvian push towards modernization of India through its modern ‘temples’ – industries, damns, power plants etc, ecology formed neither a consideration in public policy nor in scientific planning a worthy factor. Note that it was the modern Indian state making that decision. The citizenry followed along – some gained from the benefits that the projects had to offer, some who stood in the path of the big projects were relocated and some others found careers of a lifetime in those enterprises. What agency if any could have an individual exercised if she felt not in favour of these large projects of modernization?

Also, this was well within the paradigm of the times, wherein the countries of the West took the same path to development – by dispensing with considerations of ecological impact and pushing up the exploitation of natural resources to the advancement as well as fulfillment of human needs. Soon enough, the impacts of ecological recklessness were to be felt across countries, with each one facing consequences proportionate to their extent of exploitation. The cross of environmental degradation and resultant loss seems heavy to bear. What are the options then, that a way back to an ecologically sustainable way of life can be found? With whom and where must it start from?

A look at the current ecological discourse shows a resurgence of themes like ecological processes and their relationship with development. This was identified by thinkers like Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, E F Schumacher and within India, by Gandhi with his ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. Besides these, anthropologists have written about man and nature relationship in earlier societies which embodied this form of behaviour.[1] Among these, an idea which perhaps hold potential to provide a philosophical foundation to the thought on way ahead is Naess’ exhortation for an ‘enlargement of the ego-self to eco-self’. This, he argued, might result in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. While Naess’ gaze appears to be directed at the individual, I argue that the same thought must be first applied to nations and their governments. It is with the state’s apparatus which should move towards an eco-self – an ‘eco-self of the state’. A state’s eco-self is a better suited site of action than an individual who as a citizen may not have the same influence and power to negotiate with the state vis-à-vis other citizens. Partha Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil society and political society identifies this differential power equation and how the state deals with the two groups in accordance with their status.

The climate change negotiations at the Climate Change summits are unlikely to work with technological and monetary interventions which are forever sharpened as though someday it would reach a state of perfection where the inter-nation differences over environmental impact and conservation would suddenly cease to exist. It needs a combination of these approaches with a direction for governments which face the crisis of venturing forth into imagining an ecological-self that does not call upon them to sacrifice their lifestyles and neither impinges on their future desires of consumption, material comfort and aspiration. This is the real challenge that domestic as well as global public policy is set against. These might manifest as conflict of interests, however, the underlying cause is a deadlock in being able to think about how one might conceptualize a path which lessens the human impact on environment and at the same time makes the inevitable cross a bit easier to bear.

[1] See Martinez Alier on Environmentalism of the Poor, Jared Diamond on collapse of societies and Rev John Malthus on overpopulation.

You must go to Berlin

 

 

rosaluxembourg_edit

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.

berlinwall

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.

bund_edit

The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

reichstag_edit

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!”

Paris, in full faith

hoteldeville

Paris, November 2016

Paris was up next when Berlin’s time was up on this tour of the European capitals. Then,  the bus turned to Leipzig and onward to Amsterdam through the night until the morning broke over the Dutch landscapes and the autobahn cooling it off as it  entered the Netherlands. The night was frantic on the  German side with its super large trailers bellowing  through on the road network in many directions. Paris would rise on the horizon after a day long bus ride over the Flanders and across Belgium, the country known as the Battleground of Europe.

Paris of November, 2016 – the very real would keep  punching the Paris of literary imagination in its face over the next week. Literary Paris, which those outside France have read about and imagined. The ‘lost generation’ and its many writers were cradled by the streets and spaces and pubs of this beautiful city. Shakespeare and Co, the  legendary bookstore wasn’t any better than the good old Bangalore bookshop which has supplied its readers with serendipitous finds buried in the several book racks over three floors. The only difference was that Shakespeare and Co had a legend behind it and travelers like me walking through its doors everyday trying to catch hold of at least an iota of that legendary space that the writers of yore from Paris have written about. One imagines if there would be any significant difference between the cemetery close by at Montparnasse and this bookstore besides the books and a live person sitting by the counter.

By the way of confession, I must write that I was digging this bookstore’s pics and the many bits of references about Paris in writings for long before I walked this city’s streets. The full faith lived as long as the first twenty four hours. After that it was a pack of butter carried across on a tropical journey.

shakespeareandco

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris

This isn’t about my disappointment with the city. Neither am I undergoing the proverbial Syndrome de Paris or Pari shōkōgun as the Japanese call it. It is by any measure a very fine city and capital. No complaints with its people either. The acts of restraint and a weak sense of willingness to help visitors is not just Parisian. It is a malice of the metropolis and likely to be seen in any large city of the world. Try stopping anyone in Mumbai hurrying past during the rush hour.

It is about the misplaced emphasis. It is also about trying to find life and requisite words to describe them in dead places and empty structures. The Paris of today is coming to life in its many levels of metro trains and RERS underground. It is unfolding in the trams snaking through the familiar boulevards into the suburbs which are coloured red, green and yellows signboards of Doner Kebabs, Vietnamese food and the Bombay restaurants.

The Afro sporting heads are far too many in the sea of heads that emerge from the Gare Du Nord and dissolve away on the several streets that branch out. The small framed Asians hustle through in the Parisian rain having made peace with the European weather. Then there are those milling in the crowd practicing the right pronunciation of Champs Elysees.

An evening of Open Mic at Spoken Word revealed somewhat different face of the city. An intereting picture of the city was seen in that basement at Au Chat Noir where the poems were being read. The ones who signed up to read their works or of others, were as much immigrant in their origins as the ones that the city is seeking to resist at its borders.

spokenword

Open Mic at Spoken Word, Au Chat Noir, Paris

Proust’s, Baudelaire’s or Gertrude Stein’s Paris appears changed way beyond its character of those decades. The borders are more visible and the paranoia of terror more felt than ever. Amidst this, what writing can do is to try recognizing the appearance of the city as it stands today. Only the gaze of the Gargoyle that sits on Notre Dame Cathedral remains the same. In its form and content the writing of today needs to see Paris as it is today, if it ever intends to help Paris syndrome from affecting travelers. The syndrome afflicting Parisians might also get worked upon when contemporary writing holds up the mirror to them.

Even as the immigrant camp in Paris was being erased and the migrants forced to move on, it failed to realize that it were the very same immigrants that made Paris in its cultural and knowledge production. If it were not for them perhaps twentieth century in France would have been a blank page.

James Thurber saw Paris as a post-graduate course in everything. He wrote, “The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in everything.”. And this to me stands as the most appropriate quote about Paris from the pile of mush that writers have said of it.

Without a doubt Paris is a beautiful city with original tastes and adorable, idiosyncratic ways. However, to soak in this alone would be delusional. Much violence happens underneath it which the blinds of literature, culture and fashion doesn’t make visible.

Observations from parent-teacher meeting

poorna_staffroom

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.

The Middle Path to Development: Lessons from Bhutan’s environment policy

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Paro valley as seen from Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

If there is a place which can make a traveler feel intimate with it in the shortest time since her arrival, Paro would be it. A gushing river of clear water and a fort marks the entrance to the town. The air is an invitation to inhale deep and a reminder that this is not usual for a traveler from any other part of the world – to breathe deep! Two main thoroughfares encompass the town- its houses, shops, parks and public spaces. Sitting on a ledge at the Taktsang Monastery waiting for the monastery to re-open after lunch break, a chance conversation with an officer of Bhutan’s Forest Services served as the early hints of ‘the middle path’. The place couldn’t have been any more momentous. The ‘middle path’ in Buddhism is described as the path of moderation. To Buddhists, it signifies a path of wisdom which strikes a balance between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Path is also how the environmental policy of Bhutan articulates the way forward.
High in these mountains of Eastern Himalayas, the remarkability lies in the relationship between the people and environment. Does it hit the sweet spot of ‘sustainability’? Not quite. Yet, there is something of great value that the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan offers in thinking about the environment. The National Environment Commission of Bhutan was born in this town after the 1990 Paro Workshop on Environment and Sustainable Development. The NEC’s responsibility was to draw up a ‘national strategy to ensure that environmental concerns become an integral part of the development agenda’. The ultimate goal of the National Environment Strategy (NES), a report of the Commission explains, is to ‘minimise or mitigate the impacts that are likely to result from the development process’. This is where Bhutan’s remarkability lies. The NES, which is a policy document, articulates, with remarkable honesty, the kind of challenge the country is likely to face in the future.
The following quotes from the NES document of 1998 illustrate the environmental potential of a political system. Formally, this system is a constitutional monarchy currently, although at the time NES document of 1998 was written Bhutan was a monarchy. The democratic reforms are of very recent origin. The members of the National Assembly have mandated the country to maintain a forest cover of more than 60% (National Forest Policy, 1974) at all times. Forest cover stands at more than 72.5% of the country. The document on NES, 1998 states,

The Middle Path-National Environment Strategy for Bhutan aims to highlight issues, potential problems and constraints, and choices that our country has to make in order to ensure the conservation of our natural resources while pursuing economic development.

There is a certain kind of policy thinking that this statement reflects – one in which problems are articulated and acknowledged in the barest form of honesty. Problem recognition in policy making is regarded as the first step towards effective policy making. Further, examine the questions that the NES, 1998 posits to itself and seeks to remedy,

Can we adopt modern development while still maintaining our traditional values?
Can we accept the need to develop industries, social infrastructure and markets, while still recognising that development is not material development alone, but the enhancement of knowledge, spiritual and cultural development? Can we maintain our traditional values and sustainable livelihoods in a changing global environment? Can we raise the living standards of the present population without compromising the country’s cultural integrity, historical heritage or the quality of life for future generations?

These questions reflect a searching intent in the policy thinking of Bhutan’s political system. Another instance is use of the word ‘spiritual’ in a policy document which stands at odds with the positivist and objective traditions of policy science. This is the variety of progressiveness which is yet to be seen as a norm in policy thinking. The intent of this piece has been to highlight how political systems do hold potential for environmental consciousness and factor in sustainability in their development process. Does Bhutan have these answers? Why don’t we see political contestations in Bhutan over different interests as one might see in India? Ethnic homogeneity in the Bhutanese society seems to be advantageous on this front. In addition to it, democracy is nascent in Bhutan and this perhaps explains the absence of dissenting voices.

In 2012, Bhutan announced its decision to become a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The country has been known as a model for proactive conservation initiatives and has received international acclaim for its commitment to its biodiversity. This is a testimony to the fact that Bhutan’s policy thinking is in a direction that other countries can take a leaf from.

Quick Take: Policy as the new law

Is policy the new law? The quick take here pursues this question.

The observation appears to hold ground considering the manner in which important decisions are made and implemented by governments worldwide, although this applies more to democracies than other forms of political systems. There is an increasing preference to policy making over law making. This shift in a way marks a weakening of constitutionalism as the traditionalists knew it. The shift was subtle to begin with in post World War – II era and became a rapid transformation after the emergence of structural reforms and new public management.  Newly independent countries  either accepted the structural reforms which basically made countries change their governance style via policy than law making or had to forego development aid and loans. The preference for policy making in such a context is evident.

The policy route to change is probably due to a shorter path to implementing a new order and significantly less public resistance and scrutiny that policy making involves. Making laws is slower and fraught with public scrutiny and interference. Policy making tends to happen in a government space which is deeply embedded and is far higher in reach and access to citizenry in comparison to law making. This procedural and structural advantage is likely cause for the safety and ease that policy making provides to governments.

Moreover, the legitimacy to such a style of governance (by policy making) is given by global pressures of trade, globalized economic processes and inter-dependencies. Domestically, it is the political demands which make governments opt for policy route, as this delivers well to satisfy popular demands. Policy is a faster and comparatively obstacle free solution of a modern democracy’s problems. Take for instance the regulation that defines use of coastal zones in India. As a policy it caters to the demands of the market as well as the state itself. This also gets legitimized by the fact that the guideline document is issued by the legislature itself (in this case Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change).

It is likely that the most important precedent for greater preference of policy over law was set by the economic reforms of 1991. While that yielded on the intended outcome of jump-starting economic growth, it was also in a way a signal to subversion of democratic process. Most certainly, it was the beginning of end of constitutionalism as a cornerstone. Policy process is seen to be at odds with constitutional values at times. However, contemporary policy process is a mix of desirable and undesirable consequences. Economic policy which led to liberalization of Indian economy has been regarded as a desirable change whereas environmental policies have largely failed in being inclusive and has consistently been violent in its impact on marginalized groups.

With emergence of regulatory governance we see that preference of policy route to governance has increased further. Independent regulatory authorities which have near complete autonomy over controlling key government sectors have achieved success through policy making. The RBI and TRAI are fitting examples of the trend. With mainstreaming of regulatory governance as a practice, policy’s position as the new law will only strengthen.

The space (policy and law and things in-between) is getting complicated to understand, navigate through and study. We are likely to see more policy think-tanks setting up and public policy programs being offered by top institutions in India. While this take is about governments’ preference to policy making as a procedural ease, a much broader take on public policy and its relevance was pursued by Shiv Visvanathan  in this editorial.

 

 

First 50 KM Ultra Run – CTM

ctm_dilip_srinivasan

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

poorna_assembly.jpg

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!

 

 

Who is a hippie?

beatlescafe_pokhara

A lakeside cafe in Pokhara

Enthusiasm for the unseen, unfamiliar and unheard ties the hippies of the 1960s and hippies of the new millennium. Not hashish. The urge to travel, and travel irrespective of the how much is in the pocket is the spirit that bridges the two eras of this group of insufferable travelers. This bunch, moreover, travels overland compulsively.

I began reading accounts of this variety of globetrotters from the period 1960-1990 on idle days in Pokhara. I spent over three weeks last month in Nepal beginning with Kathmandu, then in the Himalayan trekking mecca of Annapurna region (a trek to Annapurna Base Camp) and the rest lounging in the legendary lakeside town of Pokhara. This was a trip done overland and slow. A ‘dirt-bag trip’as I call it – enough money for food, accommodation, transport and tea. The rest ceasing to matter.

As I read accounts from the 1960-1990 period and thought about the ‘hippies’ I felt that the pre-1990 travelers who would be labelled hippies weren’t very different from the post-2000 travelers – the millennials. I was wondering if the hippie spirit is dead and if, all we have now is what is derisively known as pseudo-hippies. I wouldn’t want to use that label though. This makes it sound like there exists a definite hippie way and that only a select few know it. This is absurd. There neither was one nor will be one stock definition and pageantry to go along with it. Being a hippie is not just a peculiar way of dressing or conduct. It is a state of mind sometimes and preference to do things in one’s own peculiar way which might be ill-fitting with the known and the established norms. Long hair, pyjamas and a bandana with a loosely hanging ukulele doesn’t make one hippie nor they are essential. It is more than just the attire. It is perhaps a manner of conduct and thought than just the appearance. There are people dropping out of the established systems of education, careers, lifestyles etc and trying to exist outside of it. Those are hippies for me. This combined with an urge to get out of the familiar and the known society into distant lands where every single day is filled with discovering language, words, ways and whats on the table to eat… life gets a jump start. For instance, the horde of Israelis in India, many making way here after finishing their service in the army.  The chatter on the streets from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Pokhara still maintains itself decade after decade. The urge to drop out and live differently keeps surfacing in every generation. It stays the same! As Richard Gregory puts it, ‘hedonism was the primary aim’ for many.

The change though has been in the direction of travel and what was sought. While it was from Europe to Asia earlier, it is in the reverse direction as well. Asians are thronging the capitals of Europe to attain their own salvation on the streets of Paris, Milan and San Francisco. In terms of what was sought, the proverbial ‘mystic East’ has been replaced by a mysticism borne out of a capitalist order – one fueled by significantly high incomes at young age, the promise of faster travel and possibility of ‘fitting in’ overseas trips over a long weekend.

Back to Pokhara and its hippies, this is where the broke traveler came to rest, luxuriating in its cheap lodges and satiating pent up hunger in the many ‘maancha ghars’ and ‘khaja ghars’ which offer heaps of food for little money, if you can take it, that is. A statistic I read on tourism in Nepal is that the country saw a little over 6,000 tourists in 1960.

The travel accounts from 1960s and 70s describe the overland crossings and relatively free (though perilous) border crossings which could let one travel from London to India and beyond, if one had the energy to rough it out. Iran those days had secular Shahs ruling it and Afghanistan welcomed travelers like no other country. In these times, the geopolitics of the new world has literally made it impossible to cross borders without great risk to life. Many borders are literal dead-ends. Try India – Pakistan border crossing for instance or Pakistan-Afghanistan across the Durand line or Khyber pass.

Among the lot which took the overland journey (in part or whole) were the political scientists – Rudolph couple, many anthropologists, writes (Paul Theorux, Vikram Seth ) and students who’d later get back to academia as researchers and professors. These weren’t ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies’ in the conventional sense (used for those in search of cheap destinations to live and smoke marijuana) but people who nevertheless shared the same enthusiasm for east and for travel. They made better of these experiences in their later lives as I figure.

Living amidst the average travelers in the cheap backpacker hostels and traveling with them on those typical shared taxis in the many Asian cities I find that in many respects the hippies, the vagrants, the vagabonds and the freaks of the world haven’t been any different from what I read about a similar traveling lot from earlier centuries. For instance, John Lang in India. Or Freya Stark in Middle East. Or even this writer in Hindi literature I read often – Agyey. These are the same men and women from different generations. Each facilitated by the communications and transportation progress of their times. One rode a bus from Delhi for days together to reach Pokhara, while another in these times takes the cheap Yeti Air flight to Pokhara and walks through the mountains as though in a garden back home, with a porter managing the bags.

I thought of deliberating on the idea of a hippie when in Nepal because I didn’t quite appreciate the snobbery of some who labeled the place as full of ‘pseudo-hippies’. This would have meant that there probably exists this elite bunch who believes that their definition of a hippie holds and they decide if others are or not. It would be so much cool if these travelers with peculiar ways and style are left alone as long as they don’t trespass and harm the local people and their values by their choices. These cities of the world where some can live cheap and do whatever on earth they want to do with their lives, is a useful safety valve for societies across the world. This is not romanticizing the traveler, but suggesting that if not useful, this sort of traveler isn’t harmful either – pseudo or real or whatever else you want to call her!

 

 

 

Freedom of a real education

assembly_poorna

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the kinds of freedom, he goes on –

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

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

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

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