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 !

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Man’s search

photo

This month feels as though an overloaded truck of lessons has just showed up in my life and unloading its cargo at the doorstep. There is a speed at which events happen and the days vaporize. Somewhere in between school, work and university lies the meaning of it all, I’d like to think. But what that meaning might be or how will all of these things that I am trying to pack in a day, every single day add up, I am not sure. Two weeks went by in confusion. Last week in catching a breath, housekeeping and spending with people who matter. And this week I am just rafting in the daily rapids.

Tonight, in the university library, I was delighted to spot a familiar book. A book that has been tremendously inspiring ever since I read it – Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And this was strangely tucked in a shelf of public policy books. What a little gem. Being unreasonable, I’d like to think that its being in that shelf is a message of sorts. For, it makes me stop and look back at the infectiously hopeful prose with which Frankl manages to convey that human spirit is indeed indomitable.

The book takes me back to these lines where Frankl speaks of success and happiness –

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

It amazes me to imagine how he lived his days in the concentration camps and what sort of will power saw him through the end of each day in those terribly hopeless places. Reading his memoir is to calibrate ones own life and its situations and realize that one can get through in a nicer, livelier and positive way. For, every situation is transient.

Roundup 2014

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Writing suffered in the second half of 2014. This has been an overriding concern. But at its cost I could give a start to my teaching career. It gives me a mild kick every time I think of myself as a high school teacher. Teaching sociology and economics to high school kids for the past six months has been a very satisfying experience. I now teach three days a week in an alternative school. The students I teach will appear for their senior secondary exam – NIOS board of India and the British IGCSE A Levels.

As a rookie teacher I have had a good deal of adventure trying to introduce specialized subjects (sociology & economics) to learners who have chosen to study these right in the high school. While it presents a big canvas to experiment and design interesting lesson plans with the students, it is also a fair deal of responsibility to do it well, so that the learning experience doesn’t leave them bored, disinterested or harassed and which might have a bearing on their choice of subjects when they reach university. We have been on metro rides in the city doing unstructured observations, gone around modern art gallery exhibitions, conducted small consumption surveys and similar such exercises which helps in connecting with daily life unfolding of the social and the economic realms. With them, I am watching the world in a slightly different way than I am used to as an adult.

I started the sociology introductory class by a reading of two unusual thinkers – M N Srinivas (Introduction chapter from his book The Remembered Village) and Margaret Mead’s fieldnotes from the Samoan Islands. In retrospect, they appear a decent choice because launching off from written works in sociology, the students could associate keen (and structured) observation of things and people around them a key aspect of sociology. I could see them applying this in their written assignments. The other thing which is remarkable about teaching sociology and economics at high school level is that at this level the students are not prisoners of theories. Neither are they writing to please the reader. They write what occurs to them. This I strongly feel is the first step towards original thinking. During my grad program, I could see many students slapping theories left and right into their essays and thesis. Often, it felt as though they have nothing to say, report or talk about from their field research if one restricts them to say it without aligning or locating themselves within an existing theory. What I see in written works of the high school kids is pure observation and their own subjective response, which is a good start in social sciences. Theories and awareness about various thinkers and their ideas can now follow.

Besides teaching, work in our company has been growing at a tremendous pace. In consulting, as I write this, we are finishing two project assessments and another small research in behaviour change in hygiene practices. These assignments are driving the realization further – of the necessity of high quality and relevant research in development sector. A handful of companies do this as outsourced contract research. Much of it is still done by academics who are a fair distance away from realizing that their research work lacks touch with ground situation – where information/insights that can be applied  to improve development projects/programs (how they are conceptualized, implemented and monitored) is of critical importance. The ivory towers exist. And so does irrelevant research which guzzle in research grants which are already so limited in this country.

My partners and I hope to do more assignments where we can help improve the outcome of projects that our clients are doing. In the instruments and lab infrastructure business we continue to push our efforts to build a strong homegrown company which is committed to relevant and applied research in lifescience and healthcare industry. With the new government at the center, the government funded labs in the country are likely to enter a spate of new projects fueled by increased funding. This might make them receptive to small companies like ours, which often get crowded out by the big dealers and MNCs with Indian operations.

And finally, last year was good for running too. The first marathon of 2015 happens next month and I hope to keep the pace.

Meanwhile, for my comrades I share this Why I Yate New Year’s Day opinion of Antonio Gramsci which packs in a good punch and undeniably worthy of thought –

Every morn­ing, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day. (…)

That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morn­ing to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the inten­sity of life and I want to plunge into ani­mal­ity to draw from it new vigour.

No spir­i­tual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though con­nected to the ones that have passed. No day of cel­e­bra­tion with its manda­tory col­lec­tive rhythms, to share with all the strangers I don’t care about. Because our grand­fa­thers’ grand­fa­thers, and so on, cel­e­brated, we too should feel the urge to cel­e­brate. That is nauseating

The long breaks from blogging, I realize, can leave so much unsaid and un-reflected. I hope to keep pace here too. The number of stories have only increased after joining a school.  

Insights at the edge

Also known as the Tiger's Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

A recent trip to Bhutan only affirms how amazingly insular one can be. A world of possibilities exist, unfold and play themselves across the world yet we seem to believe that the world order as we know it is the only one which works. This was the a strand of thought as I spent my first night in the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing. That the country has a functioning monarchy was on my mind as I crossed the gates into the kingdom of Bhutan. The other was a sense of excitement to experience this country of happiness firsthand. This country was to impress me, surprise me and overwhelm me every single day that I spent here. From a chance encounter with a forest services officer while waiting outside the Taktsang monastery to a dinner table conversation with a family of Tibetan refugees to walking down the streets of Paro on a full moon night, I experienced a world unlike any other  that I am aware of.

Taktsang Monastery's dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

Taktsang Monastery’s dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

A year back, I chanced upon a picture of this great monastery which is also said to be an important center for those of the Buddhist faith. This was the Taktsang Monastery (or the Tiger’s Nest) towards which I was instinctively drawn, located on a cliff in the Paro valley. I didn’t care to ascertain why. The setting was so dramatic that I felt I must see it and trek up its holy steps. I had seen documentaries where people cried like babies as they entered these sacred buddhist complexes. There was the Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis crying inconsolably in one of the monasteries that he visits and then Pico Iyer writing about experiences in the company of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Open Road. I felt an urge to subject myself to such an experience and see some of these monasteries for real. As a Hindu, the belief system and the religious values that I was accustomed to offered no such mild yet profound experience which is not terrifying and which is not transactional in its nature. Deliverance for the Hindu (as I see it) is always a transaction with the higher powers. There is a vow and there is a bargain and there are ways to negotiate in case you find that vow a bit too difficult to keep. Buddhism isn’t so, as I read it in contrast. Not a very elegant way to look at it but works for me. The decision to head in Taktsang’s direction too, was as unconscious. It seemed as if there was an inner program unfolding in which I held the role of only performing the action. The rest was determined on a plane of which I knew little about.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

This monastery is an important center for those of the buddhist faith. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava who is said to have brought Buddism to Bhutan had meditated in this place. “Takstang” means a tiger’s liar and he had flown to this location on the back of a flying tigress. For a moment this and other versions of the legend consumed me as I started from Kolkata on a bus run by the royal government of Bhutan. It took me to Phuentsholing from where Paro is about six hours drive. The entry into this fascinating kingdom was  a gradual lesson in politeness and a zen like patience. To my incessantly stereotyping mind, every Bhutanese looked like a zen monk to whom I must talk to with a slight bow borne out of admiration. The men and women almost everywhere wore their traditional dress. The men in gho and the women in that gorgeous kira.

I had heard it from a dozen people that morning, about how fortunate I am to be visiting Taktsang on the day of the vesak . It was a full moon night that day, also known as buddha purnima . This day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the death of Buddha and is one of the most auspicious day around the world for all the people of this faith. It was good to take the steps towards this monastery with this feeling of having being called to this place on such a day. It was a solemn morning. The pine trees made it even more intense. It got surreal as I trekked those eight kilometers to the monastery. It was much like that moment when Frederick, that character in Herman Hesse’s story Within and Without comes across the words “Nothing is without, nothing is within; for what is without is within” in his friend Erwin’s beautiful hand. He doesn’t know it. Yet he is sure that these words would soon torment him to be not able to know why they hold his attention and why should they matter to him. They appear to be casting a magic spell on him. Just as this place and the surroundings that day were playing on me.

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

It is interesting how some of these places where you travel end up altering and shaping a person. And perhaps a traveler is a consequence of several such experiences. I loved the place and its people right from the point of entry into this lovely country and until that third day when I was in Paro, I was much at peace and content with each moment. Not much to worry about, nothing to take care of when I get back and thoughts like these. Every moment felt complete. This probably was heightening what I was experiencing on that trek and then further into the temple complex. I found happy, smiling faces all around. There were Bhutanese men and women, youngsters and children who had come in groups to offer their prayers at Taktsang on this day of vesak which was also a national holiday. Yet they appeared so few that the press of crowd that is typically felt in Indian temples or holy places was absent. What was without, I longed for becoming so within. It is one of the few places where I could hit a consonance between the outer and the inner states. Of being!

Categories of Art (1) – Primitive, Classical, Vernacular, Modern, Contemporary and More

A painted Shiva in a house, Jamui, Bihar

A painted Shiva on the wall of a house in Jamui, Bihar

Categories of Art is a 6 months course in arts that I begin this month. My earlier training is in biotechnology and that has always left me feeling a bit deficient in my understanding of arts. This course as I see it might help me in identifying and articulating my perception and experience of art forms. Plus, it just complements my travel in many interesting ways.

This post is from the first session of this course where we fill in a self assessment form. The contents of this form is supposed to help instructor gain a sense of understanding of the backgrounds that the participants come from. Also, it sort of helps one get a flavour of what the class’ perception of self, modern, art etc is. The questions ask for simple information about one’s family and structure. The information is a proxy to know the participants and in a very generic sense estimate how they identify themselves with society, gender, art and abstract ideas like modernity. It also would offer a probable explanation of why they believe the way they do. As the instructor suggests, “you are taught (usually) to look at other people. This presents an opportunity for reflecting upon yourselves.” As for that question exploring the language of instruction of the participant she argues that the English world offers a different kind of intellectual and creative space and the vernacular offers a different one. One needs to be cognizant of this.

The questions of the form are shared below, including my responses to them. It would be interesting to see it again when I finish the program. It would sure reflect the distance that I am likely to cover during this engagement with art and its categories.

1. Do you know your caste? Does your name reflect your caste?

Yes. Yes.

2.  Are you from a village, town or city?

Town

3. Have you ever been to a village, town or city before joining the university?

Yes

4. In which language medium were you educated?

English

5. Write a sentence in English about the class structure of your family.

My family is characterized by a migration from practicing priests as an occupational class to a family of professionals employed in various services (or service class?) in the government, over a period of five generations (with me as fifth).

6. Write the same sentence in a vernacular language.

7. Do you cook?

Yes

8. Who cooks food in your home?

Mom

9. Does your mother work outside the house?

No

10. Does your father do housework?

Yes

11. Which classical art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Carnatic and Western classical music

12. Which folk art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Hindi Poetry of the rural variety

13. Which popular art form, if any, do you engage with on a regular basis?

Graffiti

14. What does modern mean to you?

Modern to me is an expression of self and the manner of relating to contemporary processes which construct a sense of identity in an individual (or groups).

15. Do you read books for pleasure? How many a year? In what languages?

Yes. About 45 a year. English (very few Hindi)