Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Legacy (Fiction)

“I am Napoleon!”

Arupa Basu looked up. There was something about the volume and pitch; a shade of surety she did not associate with ten year olds. Her eyes locked on him briefly before turning back to the admission forms on the worn table, faintly irritated at the hot blast from the window. The Resource Center was on the top floor, a sauna in summers and a cellar in winters! Lunch was an hour away and she was only half way through the first day.

She furrowed her shapely brows, “Tell me YOUR name. Your full name!”
“N-a-p-o-l-e-o-n. Just Napoleon,” the young voice enunciated deliberately. She snapped him off, shaking her head and muttering darkly, “Parents!”

In her thirty years at this highly selective school, Arupa had seen the gamut of student body. She did not expect to be surprised any more. There may have been a time, during her first few years of teaching, that the uniform subjugation of free wills called education bothered her but twenty years of having taught the same syllabi, over and over, had put her in a pleasant stupor, primed for an equally long and predictable cruise ahead.

“Napoleon!” What kind of a name was that?! It grated on her ears. She tried curling her lips around the nomen. “This kid is a loser with that title. What a pretentious moniker! People will dismiss him at hello,” she told herself, turning the ignition key of her Sunlight Orange diesel Micra. A mere fifteen minutes later, she was letting herself into the quiet home, glancing at her husband’s garlanded portrait in the hallway as she slit open the envelope she had pulled out of the mailbox. It was a fund request from her son’s Ivy League school. ”Why would they bother sending these to parents of students on financial aid?” she pondered.

Arupa suffered fatigue nowadays. The government’s child friendly policies had turned the teachers powerless to check truancy. In any misjudgement, both the management and the parents stood firmly by the children. From an authoritative delivery of bookish knowledge, the school day had become about staying safe. It was important to be popular with the students. But with Napoleon, no way! What a name! “I must remember to air it in the staff room,” she turned in, reaching to switch on the air conditioner.

Teachers all over were struggling with an evolving role. In addition to the challenges posed by technology, the modern teacher was doing a lot more than teach. The relentless roulette of correction work, record maintenance, continuous evaluations, secondary duties and lesson preparation paused only for some moments of dark humour, invariably at the expense of students or the establishment. And with a name like Napoleon?!

Her reaction was barely logical, she knew. But the name put her teeth on edge. She declared to her colleagues in the corridor at work, “India ought to have baby naming rules just as Denmark so no name becomes a burden to the bearer.”

Days melded into months and the year avalanched on; the calendar term chock-a-block. It was during an inter school event that Napoleon beeped on her radar again. Their school registration was due that day and with all the noise in the classroom, Arupa was struggling to be heard at the other end. “Tanmay, Rishi, Priyanshu and Napoleon…yes, yes…it is Napoleon. N-a-p-o-l-e-o-n….you heard right. Napoleon as in Napoleon Bonaparte,” she glared at him, standing still by her side. “Why did your father name you Napoleon?” she demanded in the brusque tone of a veteran teacher, swiping her phone off. “I will ask him,” the boy stated gravely.

Before long, the march of the wall calendar swallowed up Napoleon. He moved to the senior wing, dropping entirely out of sight. Leaves continued to turn relentlessly until the day of Arupa’s retirement party, a decade and more later. It was attended by an uninvited guest.
“I am Napoleon’s father,” he was holding out a book to her. She squinted at the transparent cling wrap uncertainly.

The jacket read:
The other Napoleon
How my name shaped my destiny
Winner of the Man Booker Prize

She tried to focus on the echoing voice; the room felt oxygen-less, “I did not want my kid to fit in. I wanted him to stand out. It was my idea to give him a unique google legacy.”

Driving off, for the last time, from the black iron gates, the words rang in Basu’s ears, “Imagination rules the world,” Napoleon Bonaparte.

Note: Pics by author; art by students of AFBBS Jr. Wing

Monday, January 21, 2013

New Gender Values

Teachers are human. They need periodic nudges to remind them how powerful they are.

The demands of a regular school day tends to lull them into thinking an efficient run through has been good enough. But every teaching day gone by without having inspired a child or forced them to think has been a monumental, criminal waste.  It is one more day of abandonment; another 24 hours we have left them at the mercy of the Radio FM blaring its Fevicol song, the late night serial eulogizing weeping women or a facebook update celebrating risky behavior.

For all the bluster of India’s economic forges, equality is struggling to happen here. There is a swelling unease at the widening chasms: Indo-Pak, VIP-Aam Aadmi, Police-Citizen, Traditionalist-Progressive, Dalit-Brahmin, Penthouse class-Basement underclass…all brewing under the dark shadow of corruption, a hazed out bureaucracy and our dyslexic government. Watching this national hutspot going bad is the mushrooming middle class, nursing its heartburn and fighting down a reflux.

The regular textbook can hardly justify and limit knowledge exchange taking place in the classroom under these circumstances. Students need help, more than at any other time in Indian history, to make sense of their environment. Indian ionosphere is sick with toxin. There are dishonest advertisements, sexually charged songs, irresponsible messages of pornography, pressures of competition and the constant struggle for acceptance and a dignified existence.

Parents are just about able to keep the physical nurture of their progeny going in a system that will not guarantee them efficiency nor safety and certainly not any facility. That leaves the teachers with class rooms that have become the new ground zero, the only spaces with a semblance of sanctity, authority and naivety conducive to instilling healthy beliefs. The software wiring of young minds has to happen in schools while the students are young enough to harbour an inherent sense of right and wrong, fair and unjust.

Teachers have to remind themselves often of the huge investments they are making in their students. Their children listen to them. Classes have to be told that the human reality is changing and that we need new recipes for survival. They have to be spoken to of the skewed gender ration that is threatening peace and democracy in the nation. It must be explained how we are creating bare branches on family trees by killing baby girls before they are born. What are the surplus men going to do? They will live and roam in loose groups of unattached, unemployable cess pools of anger, with a nil stake in societal order; all the time blaming successful women for their own failures.

This generation must not grow up thinking that girls are fairy tale characters, and boys prince charming on horseback. Let them appreciate that the two genders are real people with real problems. They will see that the roles that worked when we were a farming community no longer apply in our modern, industrialized, information driven democracy. Girls deserve permission to be as naughty as boys who in turn ought to feel free to use their tear ducts! Boys should be able to study psychology and girls should be able to join the National Defence Academy. Far more than femininity or masculinity, it is humanity that our survival needs cultivating today.

In time, the young will grow up to realize the challenges ahead; the immutable but bitter truth that whenever a power equation is threatened, balance has to be wrested; it has never been given on a platter. For this, they have to develop an ease with discourse, debate, dissent. The current rigid hierarchical structures employed in most schools heap shame upon them. They need liberation to follow their hearts and listen to their own voices so they can grow up with a strong sense of self-esteem. It will be the modern young’s duty to contest and protest.  Every word, every thought, every gesture counts. Fundamental rights for all, irrespective of caste, colour, creed, gender, status, religion is the goal we are staring at and these are not just western values; they are universal, humane values.

The human race is in a process of evolution, of evening out power. The rich have fortressed themselves, much like the Ostrich. While the rest of us wait for speedy justice, accountable leaders and a protective police force, we can embrace gender sensitization. We can change our behavior, beginning with an empathy with our own and the other gender. It is time to examine long held beliefs and question the realities everyone thought they knew.

A very close, inter dependent and transparent world is growing around us. No one can survive in this spacecraft like claustrophobic closeness unless they are good human beings. Gender sensitization is a step in that direction. There is a call for systemic changes.  If we do not alter our ways, we are going to leave behind a terrifying world for our children. We owe our young the space and freedom to achieve their highest potential.

Teachers are not merely uniquely placed or wholly equipped to prevent gender becoming their students’ destinies; they in fact are the only ones in any position to do so.

Note: With cerebral inputs from Aqseer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Buck

Damini. Amanat. Nirbhaya. And now Jyoti Singh Pandey.

India’s airwaves are thick with comments and critiques and that generic canard.   
Just as soon as her friend appeared on TV, a virtual electronic frenzy broke out.  I first caught news of the interview on Facebook. It was late night. The laden air sagged under the chill outside and sobering thoughts of the daughter leaving home the morning after made the barrenness of his narration even more despondent, sucking the air out of my lungs. It all hit together. The shame, the regret and the unbearable bareness of his pain. The only edge of annoyance was with the cameraman. Where was the need to zoom in onto his nostrils, watering eyes and the dry lips? His burden was writ large on the screen, screaming agony for all to see.

This was the “aam aadmi”, the “ordinary citizen”, the “regular folk”. This was you and me, I thought.

I watched and heard him, unmoving  and what I really registered was his non-verbal cues. In his tone and pitch and volume was that defeated resignation, almost a dignified acceptance that defines us ordinary citizens.  He was oddly apologetic about expressing any hope. There were no histrionics, no playing to the gallery. He was matter of fact. I did not hear any peppering of bitterness or expectations. He did not dramatize, did not glorify, did not embellish. He skirted the gory details with socially acceptable words. He described it skeletally, exactly as it had unfolded.

A regular Indian citizen was out with a friend, there was no safe transport and when the two came to be assaulted, there was no system in place to alleviate their misery. The structure that should have been their safety net presented itself as a useless goulash of bickering police vans, impotent onlookers and inefficient hospitals. Their horrific experience followed a predictable path ending in loss of life and limb. Their fault?!  Bad timing?  Wrong country? Ill informed decision? Or an outright immorality?!

These questions beg answers for now. It is the hot air balloon however, that has been set afloat by some in the aftermath that I find the most astonishing.

I am being told it is us, you and me, the junta that has blood on their hands. There were people around who stood gawking at their naked, wounded bodies on the cold, hard road, we are being told. Vehicles slowed down, took it all in and throttled away. The citizens of this modern democracy who cry themselves hoarse demanding professionalism from their state failed the most basic test of humanity. Like faithful mirror images, they reflected their leaders’ narcissistic dismissiveness of another’s pain.

So there is this talk of finding us, the ordinary citizens, punishing us, hanging us and castrating us!

And I am wondering! When did we come into this power to influence events? We have been invisible so long, I barely know me. I am the aam aadmi with my cyclic, one day ballot power. For the rest of the year, I remain dormant, rendered impotent by the corrupt inefficiency and toxic politics of my government. I am the product of a system that has banished the word “integrity” from its lexicon. I have grown up believing you either need money or contacts to breathe easy in the country I was born in. I truly believe that an honest, hardworking, tax paying Indian citizen does not count for much. Have you not seen my tribe on Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) or Satyam-eva-Jayate (SMJ)?  Those are the only two forums that have bothered with me. And for all their smart marketing, I have laid bare my soul to them, sharing my life’s experiences with that same hallmark decency I show every place else.

But the din in the air continues to credit me with far more. Perhaps the term “ordinary citizen” is a misnomer in that case. Before I accept the guilt of inaction that the powers that be are trying to heap on me, I am trying to decide where in our modern democracy the buck really gets to rest.

Does it come to a stop at all?