Social History and the City: A guided tour of Avenue Road

Avenue Road, Bengaluru. This crossroad is said to the spot from where Kempegowda sent out four oxes to mark the frontiers of this city.

Heterodox is flavour of the season. This encourages me to make transgression into history, a discipline where I can only be described as a consumer of texts and accounts of places and events. Hobsbawm’s collection of essays Uncommon People and his endearing essay on jazz music remains a favourite reading in history. I have enjoyed Tony Judt’s Post War although I can’t seem to agree with his rather condescending views on social history that I discovered later. But this post is about a guided tour along one of the oldest roads in Bangalore. This walk was an opportunity to think about writing history and methods of this discipline. I walked down Avenue Road led by my friend Srikara, on whom I have relied on over the years to know Bangalore better. We walked a whole afternoon and evening, with him speaking of the settlements, monuments, events and major developments around this old and very busy part of the city. It is anything but forgotten. Avenue Road is like those Angkor temples, which are engulfed by massive growth of tree roots all around. Avenue Road, much the same is enmeshed into the everyday life of this city and people instead of just trees. The throng of people on Avenue Road is perhaps the same as in earlier centuries, only a bit more dense with an expansive variety of goods traded in its bylanes.

A walk down Avenue Road is to take a break from the stiffness of history that holds structuralism and determinism with an unquestioning faith and from historians of that ilk. This road and the space around it, affirms the relevance of social history. To understand the transformation of this city social history presents a method that yields a nuanced picture of the city and its historical transformation. From this walk with Srikara, I return with a firm intent to venture into history as discipline because of dissatisfaction with political history based narratives of the city and its spaces. They are plainly inadequate in identifying the cultural and social richness of the past of a city. It is a transgression because I am neither a historian nor an architect. These are the two varieties of professionals that one comes across when it comes to writing, speaking and researching history of cities in India. Chronology is important. But with that chronological movement there is often a story told through lives and work of well-known personalities or story that is hero-led (think of the Dewan of Mysore, or Chief Engineer of the Presidency etc). This is the kind of history that is insular to everyday life. On heritage walks, one is likely to hear this variety of historical narratives. I am tired of them. The everydayness of life and spaces, which is situated at a distance from the day’s politics, holds as much potential in revealing a past that, if not better, can illuminate the present just the same as other methods. I was on this tour to know about this everydayness of life and people on Avenue Road.

Srikara explaining a beautiful series of motifs depicting Parvati and Shiva’s wedding ceremony, on the walls of sanctorum of Kote Venkateshwara Temple. It is located next to Tipu’s Palace in Bengaluru.

We walk along one of the roads that was once the center of the city. Bangalore expanded much beyond this old center, not forgetting, but shifting out into adjacent areas. The sprawl wasn’t expanding due to political reasons or changes in production relationships. This is where deterministic historical analysis is likely to run out of steam. Here is a city expanding, less due to politics or economic drivers but out of other reasons, one of them being poor hygiene and sanitary conditions in the old quarters. This could be a one-off event. These reasons don’t lend themselves well to the determinism that one would want to read in the expansion. Moreover, it isn’t that the settlements of artisans, textile workers (in Cottonpet), salt workers (in Upparapet) and others shifted out once new housing locations developed. Many preferred the congested and tight spaces of this old center then and in future. In fact, embedded deep in the bylanes running perpendicular to Avenue Road one finds the city’s oldest mosque, from a time the area was called ‘Taramandal’ during Tipu Sultan’s reign, one of the oldest chapel and several Hindu temples that are centuries old. All of these continue to be visited. It turns out spatial re-arrangements and civic engineering are not sufficient reasons for people to move out to where the engineered intent of the administrators might wish them to go. Instead, they stay. Their reasons often slip out of the grasp of a political historian.

The imposing wall is of Bangalore Fort and the space next to it, of scores of hawkers. This contrast and interaction with historical monuments has been fascinating to see in cities and towns across India. It is interesting to compare this with the sterilization that monuments undergo with conservation projects.

This is why I love guided walks. In all these years that I have ridden past the flyover in front of this shrine, I failed to notice this. This shrine, Dargah Hazrath Meer Bahadur Shah, is built over the grave of Bahadur Shah a fallen military commandant during the siege of Bangalore Fort in 1791.

In Social History and Its Critics published (1980) Louise Tilly provides a back-to-the-basics kind of explanation of the project of social history to its detractors and its utility,

One of the key impulses of social history’s development is (was) a populist vision that aims (aimed) to seek out how ordinary people lived and acted in the past. That these people seldom appear by name in the political narrative of events is another way of saying it is hard to discern their individual or collective consciousness in the narrow political sense, or that discernable collective consciousness is expressed episodically.

Avenue Road should be of interest to those seeking lives of ordinary people and a sense of what the collective lives of various social groups was like, over the centuries. It offers an enriching experience, with possibilities of finding narratives beyond the predictable ones of politics, architecture and urban design. For instance, in the motifs of temples, old stables for horses and elephants, cavalries and hubs of goods trading one finds glimpses of continuities to present day.
From this walk emerged glimpses of a city’s social past. I am intrigued and fascinated at the same time. Avenue Road is also rich in a kind of aesthetics which needs some time to sink in. Beyond the chaos of pedestrians, pushcarts and scores of hawkers, this aesthetics emerges in the temple motifs, in the shrines for fallen heroes and in dozens of minor ways that people go about tending to their trade or craft. Or one can just find a corner to imagine the visuals of stories that are told today, of events in the city. Either way, it appears a great way to explore the city, especially, for those interested in history. I could make a laundry list of observations, but I’d rather let Avenue Road work on the visitor in its own way. And for the rest, I am thankful to Srikara for the tour.

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Some trails

​Bangalore Mountain Festival

29/1/2017

This was a short ride and a short run combo. Rode out this morning for a trail  run outside the city. Early hours, the yellow of the city roads and the engine’s rhythm worked up nostalgia of a dozen road trips.

Reached the venue after overshooting some 20  km in the pre-dawn darkness. Losing way is a smooth experience these days. That may be age’s doing. Rolled into the venue and changed. Paced around a bit and got on to the starting line. After Mumbai, this was to be a recovery run. So didnt bother tracking time or pace.

A sweet and simple start and we were off into the many spaces between the ranges around Nandi hill. The peak was still covered in fog but the many couples and groups of people were already flocking it like maggots. Hated the number of cars and rash riders all around. Feels sorry for the villages around. 

Two laps of 10 km were to be done and the bunch of Kenyans and Ethioians were already pounding it. They are the new variety of money chasers. likeable sorts though. Run races to win the prize money and repeat this all year. Such a livelihood doesnt quite come with a retirement plan. I was bombing down all the dowhills and loving it. Pissed too on the trail.There was one toilet at the start and ladies were already chatting for long in the long queue. So kept it for the trail.

Kept a good clip all the way and enjoyed the sight of hills around. One uphill stretch got me pushing myself but the downhill was like catching a flight for the next 2 km. A curious guy on one of the farms wanted to know the distance the runners do in an hour. 

By the second lap sun worked up the temperature. But Bangalore sun is no match to Chennai’s. Kept on. Bach’s symphony played on the phone. The last 4 kms were sure a symphony – a beautiful trail, good physical form, a decent pace and the morning. 

Through the last stretch of casurina plantation, emerged on to the timing mat at the finish line wishing for another lap. Some runs perk up the spirit like that of a lark’s – excited to fly, wanting not to perch! 

I’d recommend Bangalore Mountain Festival’s trail. Tasks the runner just a little beyond the usual endurance required for a half marathon.

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!

 

 

The best blah blee of the country

From the notice board of the university. Those who share this, perhaps are content with only reading it.

From the notice board of the university. Those who shared it, perhaps are content with only reading it.

“You are in the best *** school of the country” is the most frequent starting line in this university, when the key guys address their flock of sheep students (I am attending a university for a master degree in public policy. This is my second masters.). I wonder if boys and girls also use some version of this as a pick up line. Because, I do see them carrying the “best school…” kind of gloss on their nose tips.

This is quite a rant, but feels necessary because I have never been to any “best school” of the country ever in my life. I have been the one who went to all things average in India. A regular middle rung school, a private university for first degree, another private university for masters and then when it came to career, I was again lost in the sea of average-ness starting a company when that was not quite the thing to do.

Two weeks into the program, the Vice Chancellor walks straight into the class, in between a lecture of a professor, takes the center place and urges students to participate in an essay contest “My first day in law school”. The face breaks into a strange smile which I found hard to read. I wouldn’t have cared, but for the extreme high headed, patronizing and appallingly meritocratic feel of this place. It sets quite an adversarial and unhealthy competitive environment in the institution. For graduate students who spend just two years in the campus, this is okay and they can be indifferent to it. But for the integrated law program where 18-19 year old enter the institution and will be spending the next five years this can mean a serious impact of the institution which is likely to shape them as individuals. Certainly, there is something right that this university is doing which produces some of the most well trained and capable lawyers in the country, but as individuals who are also something besides their professions, I feel that the university ends up having a rather questionable effect.

Some of the students on campus and alumni of this university I have met, plainly said, lack a humane attitude. They are outright patronizing and carry a frightening belief that they know it all. The humility that must come along with a good education, is missing.

There is no intention to find faults with this university or with its students, it is only that the place does not quite have a spirit (of compassion, of humility) as necessary of a university excelling in legal and social sciences education.

My first day at law school, honestly, was rife with anxiety. One was constantly made aware of “not getting into trouble” and “authorities”.  It sure is not a good start if one is considering to stay or to leave on the first day at a place of learning. I was doing that constantly! The display of “shields, medals and cups” in the VC’s office were referred to and the new students were urged to win more of those!

Ironically, as a high school teacher, that very morning when one of the guys was urging the newly admitted students to get more of those medals, in the high school where I teach we were discussing the  consequences of a meritocratic education system and what kind of effects it has on the students and society. The students instinctively agreed that it puts tremendous pressure on them. One student said that his Mom would often fuss about the rank that he would get in the final exam. As long as he was in the first five it was okay, but then as he moved past rank 10 and beyond, he was pressurized and urged to get a better rank. In our school, students are not ranked on their performance, nor are they compared with their peers. It is a very learner centered, learner oriented system where each student is assessed only on his own abilities with his own performance over the year. This student then remarked that it was much better that our school (Poorna) doesn’t do this ranking thing.

That same day, in the afternoon, I was to start my master program in the university where there was this call for “become the best”, “you are the chosen few…” kind of public addresses were being made.

So, back to the point… being best is no big deal if all you produce are super sharp minds with no hearts that can feel. And the best institutions of the country should understand this very simple point. Do not carry this attitude. Your competitive entrance exams are a form of violence. They are sheer violence on students from across the length and breadth of the country who can’t get through because the odds are so unfairly stacked against them. They do not have as many sources of information to know or understand that which you test them on, before admitting them. They also do not probably have the proficiency in English language which you use in such fine measure in the entrance exams. And finally, for just over 50 seats a whole mass of them enter into this mindless game of proving themselves worth of one of the spots. It goes down heavy on those who don’t get through. The dejection is carried in the hearts for a long time in their lives. Not every youth in this country is capable of taking failure easily. Societal baggage perhaps, but it is real.

So, even if you do have to keep those competitive entrance exams which sure are a practical necessity, do not keep touting or more importantly believing that what you have admitted is the absolute best. Of what good is this discrimination? It is a plain elitist practice, in a country where there are millions of people are equally capable if given a chance, trying desperately hard to enter the universities and work their way to a better career, a better life.

My first day in law school could have been an inspiring and much joyous occasion for the promise of personal development and opportunities in life that the institution holds (and genuinely offers to those who are admitted to it) but those who run it, ruined it !

Flight Plan: Lessons from Insects , Cafe Scientifique Bangalore, Talk-2

Cafe Scientifique Bangalore is a new venture by a group of researchers in the city. This evening, I attended the second talk since its beginning. It aims to be a hub bridging science and public perception in its own small way of facilitating public lectures and discussions by scientists/researchers from a wide range of disciplines.

Sanjay Sane presenting on Insect Behaviour at #csblr, NCBS, Bangalore

Sanjay Sane presenting on Insect Behaviour at #csblr, NCBS, Bangalore

Sanjay Sane, a researcher at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore presented his work on studying insect behaviour and their flight in particular. I was fascinated by the extent to which this simple question of how do insects fly has been explored by his team and other scientists worldwide. Cafe Scientifique as a venture sure appears to be serving a purpose to a generalist like me who is pursuing an arts program and has lost touch with whatever little biology that was done in undergraduate degree. I was particularly happy to see a 12/13 year old kid putting up a question to Sanjay.

I tweeted some of the questions & ideas that he talked about. Here is a storify collection of them.

Storify page for tweets from #csblr

Storify page for tweets from #csblr