Thursday, March 29, 2012

Minal and Metaphysics

When my daughters were young, they would often voice thoughts such as, “Why are we born?” “What is the purpose of life?” “Where do we come from?”

I remember trying to answer these complex questions but I cannot for the life of me, recall the exact content of my response. It is possible that I was either convincing enough or more likely, I did not make sense for it has been a while since these existential curiosities found expression, on the infrequent occasions the two are home.

Of one thing I am certain; my response would have arisen out of an incomplete perception absorbed and assimilated  from my infrequent reading of “self-help” books, and I did a lot of that while growing up. My first such book was probably digested in 1979. I remember reading “The Law of Success” elucidating the theory of the “master mind” by Napoleon Hill and Andrew Carnegie.

In 1992 while out on family outing in Jalandhar, I picked up a book called, “The Giant Book of The Supernatural”. Its jacket claimed the book had been edited by Colin Wilson, the phenomenological existentialist. “Many Lives, Many Masters” by Dr Brian Weiss followed as did the “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. And then of course, who has not read “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne.

Call it the paranormal, the spiritual, the less understood, the psychic, the Karmic…all these books were brushes at a second or a third level until today.

Minal Arora’s was a printed name scheduled on the school teachers’ seminar calendar against three words, “Past Life Regression”. I knew I was interested but was unprepared for the force with which the fascination came washing up as the session progressed. In an informal, informed, interesting delivery, Minal took us through a dialogue on healing and the soul’s journey. Yes, there was talk of soul clusters, spirit guides, karmic connections and their resolutions, the new age shift, spiritual regression, levels of evolution, significance of tough lifetimes, interpretations of hell, the final objective of a complete learning and the accompanying release from the cycle of birth and death.

To most of us, caught up in the routine roller coaster of everyday events, any talk of the extra-terrestrial planes elicits  a scoffing impatience but the signs are all around us.

I have, since the interaction, been feeling empowered, better equipped, soundly armed, if you will! It is as though I was handed a spanking, brand new, viewing lens today. I can’t wait to engage with my daughters on their metaphysical questions soon.

Minal’s several links:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I don't know

There is so great a store laid by what the teacher says that by logical extension, she is supposed to know it all. By common cultural consent, the three words absolutely blasphemous for a teacher to ever mouth are, “I don’t know.” The phrase is a real let-down to her students. There is the purest incredulity in their vexatious and spontaneous exclamation at her reluctant admission of ignorance, “Even Ma’am does not know!!”

Yes of course, the tribe of progressive pedagogues who are comfortable admitting they will have to check and get back, is growing. The majority however, still labour under the pressure to know with a dead certainty the apostrophe ‘s’ rule for instance. Leave alone their students; they have a phobia of admitting academic ambivalence to their colleagues as well. A teacher not sure of her facts is the equivalent of a cardinal not certain how to baptise a faithful.

Education in India is convulsing, going through a wringing of sorts; the field needs a cleansing fit desperately. While several crucial, policy related factors are beyond the immediate purview of the teachers, there is one factor they most definitely can and urgently need to reform. Attitude!

Students have transformed completely in their academic needs and expectations of the schools. They inhabit a world the current crop of teachers is partially in denial of. In this environment, charged with the urgency of technology and sensory overload, it would be negligent and criminal to hold on to the belief that admission of ignorance is a betrayal of knowledge?

A lot is afoot. Oxford University is setting out the red carpet for ISC and CBSE toppers. In an international comparative survey evaluating the performance of elementary education, India ranked 73rd rank out of a total of 74 nations, a whisker above Kyrgyztan.  My freshman daughter at Princeton University described the greatest challenge she faced at first as the acquisition of a most unfamiliar skill: thinking! While Kapil Sibal reworks educational reforms with a vengeance and Lovely Sweets goes from making ladoos to sprouting professional universities…we continue to pay what has been described as “the high cost of low educational performance.”,3400,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

At a seminar in school recently on, “Innovative Teaching Methods”, Prof. C. J. Daswani, Ph.D. Linguistics, Cornell University and former head of Non-Formal Education at the National Council on Educational Research and Training, New Delhi shared these gems with us: 
*Our job is to enlarge every child's unique universe of knowledge
*Innovation can be defined as any method that works
*Our students expect us to be their role models
*Arm yourselves with precise and exact information
*The text book is only a sample of what you need to teach in class
*A teacher who does not read every day is unsafe for her students

There are reasons I was struck by this presentation. Dr Daswani weighed every word he spoke, giving it the sanctity we do not, in the normal course of a day. He was 100% present in the class and he certainly had expectations of his audience!

I am the old guard, having studied Chemistry at Fergusson College, Pune even though I should have listened to my heart and pursued English Literature instead. It felt nice during the workshop to see an Indian ditch his traditional niceness for a change and make professional demands. I do believe we have not cultivated an academic culture yet that respects real awareness of knowledge and learning.

There is a growing feeling moreover that we are swinging the other extreme in our scramble to make learning child friendly. The question to ask therefore is, are our kids, beyond the high scores, able to comprehend, understand, evaluate, analyse and grow more competent for the real world?

Rather than the chaotic, confused, merry and misguided caravan that our education system is today, winding its  bumbling way through the maze that is the modern world, we need to put together our own educational Shinkansen, our national Bullet Train of learning and attitude. Not Kodama, nor Hikari but Nozomi, no less!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I work in the company of some remarkable women. Blessed with the gift of teaching, they are talented, driven, honest, the sorts to go the whole nine yards. Their students eat out of their hands and come back looking for them years later. These are teachers who work round the year with a group of children, investing their personal selves in huge,weighty chunks.

Their year goes by in a rush of competitions, exams, welfare events, exhibitions, school functions, seminars, result making. They keep at it, struggling to pack meaningful learning into thirty minute windows. Their special effort is visible, in polished cultural performances, in clear Maths concepts, in tastefully done soft boards, in the smart turnout of particular classes, in the unbiased and fair spotting of talent, in meticulously planned staff gatherings, in the quick adoption of new teaching ideas and practices… countless ways.

They labour over thermocol figures, report cards, registers, diaries, farewell notes to students, elaborate power point presentations, challenging question papers, vocabulary lists, exhaustive oral delivery instructions, spelling drills, parental communication……it goes on and on, extending to their own children in cases, who are without exception, all doing well for themselves.

One would think, this relentless band would be fired up with a sense of self-affirmation and cheer. Oddly enough, with all that they do, the one word beeping recurrently on their radar is, of the entire lexicon, believe it or not: sorry!

For some strange, incomprehensible reason, they apologise a lot. “I am sorry,” is their theme song. Wonder why?! And what for!


The two convicts in the Pune BPO employee rape-cum-murder case, Purshottam Borate and Pradip Komokate, have been sentenced to death, reported the today.

News of sexual violence against women sends me into an overdrive.I am approaching fifty but am as angry, as touchy about this business of the second sex as I was, thirty years ago. The reason is not far to see. I had liberal parents and was raised to like myself. My ultimate moment of empowerment came from my mother. She sat me down one day, as I was leaving for my married home and told me gravely, "Adjust and respect all but do not, do not ever, take nonsense from anyone. You deserve to be happy." 

Most Indian mothers are too deeply conditioned by centuries old mores to dole out this particular brand of advice to their daughters, as they embark on their adult pathways. Fortunately for me, I knew of another. This brave lady had packed her newly married daughter off to the US with a return ticket in an envelope. Her parting words were, "Should he so much as lay an abusive finger on you, board the first flight home."

Would you call this the ugly new face of feminism? Something Indian society is not ready for, just as it is coy over the extreme western attire on common display in our public spaces today. There are voices resonating that the Indian home is being torn asunder by feminist values. That women are rushing ahead too fast for our culture to stomach their rapid advance. There is a notion that perhaps the modern woman is inviting personal violence with her progressive attitude and western clothes.

Well, the unpalatable might as well be said that the current wisdom lays the onus for her own safety, squarely with the woman. The media keeps male hormones in a perpetual state of simmer, it is believed; the women walk around in minimal clothes, strutting their stuff so to say; they challenge the male ego with their brazenly independent attitude, what is the poor man to do? He can but wreak vengeance by raping and invading the teases who anyway, are only asking for what they deserve!

The tragedy with rape is manifold. Not many can see beyond the victim blaming and "men will be men" slant to the devastating and lifelong effect it has on the body, soul and spirit of the victim. Not for nothing has life after rape been called a "living death".

What kind of a cruel and ruthless society are we, to heap more guilt on the victim of a phenomenon known to breed self-blame as the one consistent long term symptom.

Monday, March 19, 2012


The three ruling BJP MLAs involved in the porn watching scandal have been let off.

What is the moral of the story?

That we are a nation that does not respect our work spaces. That we have been seeing such a soul scorching moral deficit in public life that incidents like these do not make our eyelids bat any more. That those in power can get away with anything. That our brazen leaders exist in bottomless pits, one can never tell the new low they will hit. Or that they are working such long hours, all needs have to perforce, be met at work!

Without going into the merit of evidence or the lack of it and the admission of guilt that followed, the story goes that there were at least eight to ten more MLAs watching adult content in the assembly that day.

It is an obscenity of the highest order. It is a let-down of the worst kind. Here we are, looking up to our representative houses as inspirational role models for our young, holding them up as the sacred spaces where democracy lives and breathes. Why; we have taken our Grade V several times on a hugely popular trip of the Parliament. It will most certainly give me a dirty, creepy and unclean feeling next time, knowing the extra-curricular activities the ‘honorable’ members of the house are capable of indulging in those aisles we shuffle past, in an awed hush.

I am the old school I am proud to admit, brought up to hold that work is worship. We were raised to believe that there is a certain decorum, a formal focus and an alert concentration associated with the place of business. Cell phones are barred in class rooms, are they not, just as alcohol is not permitted inside a surgical theatre. Fancy a pilot solving a crossword while flying or a chef who fiddled with Grooveshark on his I-Pad while the quiche smoked and cindered.

The Indian Porngate has been disastrous at several levels. It is a form of moral vandalism far deadlier than mere terrorism, striking at a community’s self-image and value system. With their putrid dismissiveness of their environment, these reckless human rhinos have dumped night soil on a shrine.

I wonder what their kids thought of their frisky fathers. And no, I do not think sex is dirty but porn has other dimensions  and placed in context, their lust-driven, out of place action speaks of outright disrespect for their country and her citizens. They do not deserve to be in India's highest place of work.

All pics by Aqseer.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Uniform

Narendra Kumar was mowed down by a tractor carting illegally quarried stones in Morena. 

He was an IPS officer, a man in uniform with an IAS officer for a wife.The dust on this brazen, open murder has settled somewhat with a CBI enquiry underway but the moral implication of the blood curdling incident stays and resonates.

This was a man doing his job. He wore a uniform representing the government, its rules and laws and authority. There was a special burden he carried, an alloy of responsibility and accountability made heavier by the obvious physical symbol he sported, the uniform. For any other non-uniformed person, it would have been easier to shrug off an inconvenient task but with the uniform as a constant nag, an ever present declaration and affirmation of where the wearer’s duty lay….oh no, that cannot, does not, ought not to happen.

I should know, surrounded as I am, by uniformed men. Dad used to acquire an entirely different persona as soon as he donned his uniform. It was subtle, the purposeful air, the all of a sudden watchful stance and a certain squareness of being that came with the brass. For the family, it meant he was off limits while in olive, his time and thoughts belonging to the state. There was a fuss over his uniform and constant spit and polish to keep it at its spunky best. A special and elaborate handling involving exclusive hangers, dust jackets and exhaustive instructions to the Sahayak on maintenance and upkeep was the norm.

I have seen the tradition duplicated, triplicated, and facsimiled in countless homes like ours where the head of the family wears a uniform to work. There is the same acknowledgement of the primary claim of the uniform on the wearer. It is understood that the uniform will come first, always. There are questions about work you do not ask. A lot is presumed and accepted in the context of “duty”.

Men and women wear this piece of cloth in the trust and belief that they represent a state that will stand by them. These are special people who could one day be called upon to pay with their lives in the course of a regular day at work. For the citizens of a nation, their uniformed brethren are a safety deposit to draw upon someday, God forbid. In a coalition democracy such as ours, they are the visible symbol of a civilized, law abiding, and orderly state.

A uniform is a point of privilege and an honour. But a state that does not protect her representatives is akin to a parent that abandons her child or a teacher who gives up on her student or a doctor who deserts his patient. It is called a moral washout! 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Brij Holi

It had been on my “to do” list for years. Aqseer’s presence provided the catalyst and we were off early morning on 8 March, in the direction of Mathura, eager to experience a genuine “Brij ki holi”. 

The biggest thing going for us was our blissful ignorance. Not counting a cursory run through the online data about“Baanke Bihari” temple, we pretty much were without a clue.

Impatient with the car parking logistics, I just wanted to set foot on Krishna’s earth. They were all there, the cows, the monkeys, the saffron clad mendicants, the tourists in search of transcendental knowledge, the devotees and the colour merchants. And there was us; a family head feeling protective in face of the obvious gaiety and abandon, a young person thrust into a cultural assault of sorts and an impatient woman wanting to taste, smell, and absorb it all.

Enough and more information is available on the celebration of the festival of colours in Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon. It was the contagious dynamics of the space that was reaching me. What I was taken up with was the spirit, the energy, the fervour, the charged atmosphere of the place.

Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see. It is likely that my rose coloured spectacles were firmly in place. I feel a bit out of place with my soulful pronouncements in the face of the cynical, all prevalent, pragmatic air around but the truth is, I came back wholly energized and uplifted by the experience. The “aloo kachori”, “Radhey Radhey saffron scarves,” “pale mauve abir”, “peda prasad”, “free parking zone”…these were only the embellishments. At the heart of it all was the palpable, human oneness, crackling through the air, as we made our way with the throng, towards the temple.

Sure, there were misdirected missiles of colour, heading towards the eyes, ears and mouth. Some hyper energetic youngsters danced electric and jerky routines, barely able to contain their ardour and zeal. The crush got tighter as we neared the holy precincts. It was clear as we shuffled along that slippers should have been off and dark glasses on. We were grateful we had carried a change each but beyond all this, there was the faith in the air, the concern as people suggested ways to minimize colour damage, the sideways smiles, the confident invasion of personal space, the community accord if you will, the joint reliving of an ancient, timeless tradition, the sight of children and women enthusiastically participating from the safety of their balconies and doorways, along the narrow lane! 

My heart was adrenalized, the blood was yodeling and I was on a high. Never mind the fact that my camera got an abrasive douse and there was green powder floating in my cardamom tea.
Aqseer concluded, “We are a crazy country and that is why I love India so!” 

It is true. The proof was all around.Our national religiosity makes us a happier nation. The associated charity, the free and dutifully consumed prasad, the unquestioning spaces, the comforting rituals, and the group connection...these are features that keep millions of Indians alive in a contentious, corrosive, combative cosmos.

For a glimpse of the “Brij ki Holi”

Note: There is a generic fear of stepping out on Holi in India but at Vrindavan, I have to say, neither I nor Aqseer experienced fear nor a personal threat of any nature. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Force of change

It is a sign of India’s coming of age.

More and more, I come across young people who are secure enough in their hearts and minds, to dive into circles of larger influence. These are children opting for roads less travelled, out of choice. They could have had it easier but are choosing to chase a personal fulfilment of the kind, my generation only dreamed of. They are the face of the new human evolution; they are a determined push for equity, equality and engagement in the truest sense of the words.

Undoubtedly, social commitment looks great on a CV drafted for grad school, but that would be too linear and cynical a view. And even if it be so, no harm that future leaders go to grad school with more than a whiff of poverty in their nostrils. Who is to benefit, if those sitting on crucial negotiating tables hear the voices of the underprovided for, whispering in their ears?  Is a larger good not feasible when those who aid formulation of wide ranging policies do so against a personal experience of the world, beyond their walls of security?

Too often, we as parents, envision a picture perfect post card life for our children. Adequate money, an appropriate life partner, a smart house, a decent car, a great job…all neatly slotted for the family portrait. But what if the kids hear a different note in their heads? What if they nurse ambitions of changing the world, of making a difference, of influencing the larger good, of making this a better place for all?

I grew up on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of rational self-interest but over the years, I have come to see that there are segments of society, it does not, cannot apply to. And therefore, it stands to reason that businesses have to be run in a socially responsible way. The products created must come out of processes that show respect for social and environmental issues. For far too long, the herd has given to the goatherd; it is time for him in turn, to assume some responsibility. This is the time for ethical banking, ethical lawyering, ethical teaching, ethical doctoring and ethical writing. The warning bell has long been sounded, with spring in New York and snowfall in Pathankot.

Corporate philanthropy, personal charity or social leadership of the young, there has to be a force of change. I am glad our educated youth feel secure enough to explore the potential of their social conscience.
May India’s social policy begin to stir in real earnest, under watchful and angry young eyes ! After all, not apathy but empathy and sympathy are the defining features of a robust democracy.  

Current points of interest:

Pics by Aqseer

Friday, March 2, 2012

Strength bonds

I would be dead without them.

Well, not lifeless but with a whole lot less of a life than I have today.  

They are my family in absentia and I hesitate to even name them because they are so much their own people, they would be embarrassed at being acknowledged. The strange thing is that I don’t meet them regularly; in fact with some, the twinkling moments have been merely digital in nature; the commonality however, has been the role they have played in my life during vital phases.

Perhaps their appearance and presence in my scheme of things has been proof of my abiding belief that life conspires to give you what you want, if you set out on the path with clarity and resolve enough. This conviction that I often share with my girls, springs from personal experience. Every time I have stuck my neck out and called into the ether, a voice has bounced back. I have reached out, only to find a strong and sure grip waiting. Just the mere hint of a cloud, a fog, a smog, and there have been these people, dissolving the blur with perceptive words of wisdom.

No, they do not wear wings, nor are they dreamy apparitions. They are travellers on their own paths and happened to be in positions to facilitate my own journey. Forthcoming with their insights and views, they were empathetic and generous with their responses. They  answered, clarified, assured and gave me of their trust and open friendship. And it is amazing how keen and quick they were to grasp what I needed to hear, instantly connecting without fear and judgement.

Not in this but perhaps in another space and time, we were a regular family, I am certain. Who is to say? I am just so glad to have had them touch my life thus. 

Salad carving by a Sangini and pics by author

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pink bubble

There is something palpable and alien, rearing and growing up in our schools.
It is the increasingly acknowledged phenomenon of dating.  An entirely new and unfamiliar frontier for all concerned, this high school culture is cocking a huge snook at the hitherto acceptable definitions and parameters of teen discipline, safety and security.  

What used to be spoken of in hushed undertones gets progressively audible as teachers, parents and staff members watch young people pushing the envelope, literally. Coming upon unexpected incidents of intimacy do not shock anymore and it is fairly de rigueur to have the educational spaces populated by dopey looking couples, shuffling in an invisible pink bubble, wearing school uniforms. It is as though the entire dynamics of the school system has swung from performance based self-worth to relationships oriented wellbeing. Watch that awkward spring to their steps and a shy voltage around them, you can’t miss it.

There used to be such a stigma attached to even a hint of these engagements in the past that one has to stop and wonder at the currently charged academic environment. What do these relationships signify in a time and space that is primarily earmarked for learning and value addition? How is this emotional maze impacting one of the most impressionable and vulnerable segments of our population? At a phase in life when they should be completely focused on their own development and growth, is it doing them any good to draw their self-esteem from amorous equations with other young people as wet behind the ears as they themselves?

I feel concern at this new-fangled world of relationships where closeness is illusory, based as it is on instant communication powered by text messaging and Google talk. There is no distance or breathing space to reflect on the friendship as the young lurch from one emotional strife to another, hanging out or hooking up. There is a real danger of jealous and controlling behavior being mistaken for love. And how about the other, gender based issues of unrealistic demands being made on either or partner?  With the adolescent's need for autonomy and high dependence on peers, dating violence and sexual assault go unreported for the most part. As of now, there seems to be nothing in the way of their first line of defense moreover. Truth be told, we are all in a blissful state of denial, shaking our heads and saying that this problem is exaggerated.

It is not. There is a real, clear and present world of sexual hostility out there in our schools. It ought to be addressed with a stated policy on gender discrimination and sexual assault by individual institutions. We are not talking statistics and case histories here, these are real people, our friends, students, acquaintances and family members who are struggling with overwhelming emotions and pressures.  The first thing to do is to call attention to it, to report it so that it does not go unpunished or unnoticed.

Too many young people are thrashing about in whirlpools of confusing signals with no clear roadmaps from adults who refuse to look their way from their spots in the sand. Schools have an obligation to promulgate policy, related handling procedures and necessary disciplinary action to deal with such incidents. Mere standing guard and physical vigilance is not good enough just as it does not help to call parents and engage in mutual blaming. These are civil rights we are talking about, the right of a student to receive instruction in a safe, comfortable and non-threatening space. Adults in charge of the young cannot use the excuse of having no knowledge of their adventurism to escape accountability.  

Sexual harassment starts with standing in the basket ball grounds and rating the other gender on a scale of ten. Let’s acknowledge its existence and educate students on what is healthy and what is not;what is safe and what is not; what is empowering and what will damage them for life. 

We have a new epidemic on our hands: the MYDS or the Modern Young’s Dating Syndrome!!