Thursday, 22 December 2011

Even when no one is watching

by Vidya Jonnalagadda

We bemoan the rising lawlessness on our roads; if a traffic policeman is not in sight, every vehicle from a bicycle to a bus will run the red light. Is it that our society lives more by fear of penalty than by self-discipline and doing the right thing?

The incident I want to relate relates to awareness of ‘jootha’ (in Hindi), or ‘ushTa’ (in Marathi) and ‘engilee (in Telugu) – sadly there is no term in English to describe this ‘status’ of food and vessels. The closest term I could think of to explain this to my Jewish American son-in-law is ‘contaminated by spit’! Though in my grandfather’s orthodox household, it was not necessary for your saliva to come in direct contact with an item to make it ushTa; touching a container of rice, say, with your (clean and dry) left hand while eating from a plate with your right hand was enough to render the whole pot of rice ‘contaminated’!

But I am digressing – this post is not about how circuits are created to make objects ushTa. It is about the simple decency of common folk. We often buy provisions from a crowded little store in a very crowded big market (the well-known Monda market of Secunderabad), where one has to weave watchfully through cows and carts, people and parcels, and vendors and vehicles to cross a street. So, outside this modest grocery store is a rickety stool carrying a small water dispenser – a plastic jar with a tap. A small steel glass rests on the jar (not tied to it). As I was waiting in the shop for the girl at the counter to bring me the items on my list, I saw a young mother and child stop at the water dispenser. The child could not have been more than five. The mother carefully rinsed only the inside of the glass with a tablespoon or so of water, and filled it up for her child to drink. She poured small 'gulpfuls' of the water into the mouth of her child, taking care not to let the lips of the child touch the rim of the glass. She then refilled the glass and drank some water herself – pouring it down her throat – and put back the glass to continue along the street. She was unaware that I was watching her from the store.

I was moved by what I had seen. There was neither a person to monitor the ‘proper’ use of the glass, nor were there any written instructions posted nearby urging one to ‘maintain’ hygiene. She could have sipped water directly from the glass, and even walked away with it, or left the tap dripping. Treating the water dispenser with respect came from the strong cultural upbringing of that young mother, which she was imparting to her little child. I kept smiling to myself throughout the day, happy to see that there are still many simple decent honest people around.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Curbing crackers

by Vidya Jonnalagadda

We adults are it again – bulling the children, that is. During my recent visit to Mumbai, my young sisters-in-law, Smita and Gauri, both educationists, told me how effective the noise-pollution-free Diwali campaign was. They happily noted that there were much fewer firework booms and bangs in Mumbai this Diwali. Though, of course, global recession may have helped too.

I feel it is a shame that we bully our children to give up the 5-6 days they spend a year anticipating the dhadaams and wheees of crackers and rockets. I mean, how many Lakshmi bombs and ladees does each of us actually set off during our lifetime anyway? Why take away those few hours of joy from our children and teenagers? And say nothing when tons of fireworks are set off at gala events like T20 matches, Formula One Races, Inauguration Ceremonies for National and International Sporting Competitions, and swanky New Year Eve parties?

We adults are showing our double standards again: “Thou shall not create smoke and noise … unless you are the BCCI or their ilk!” It is fine for wealthy conglomerates to mark their mega events with mega bangs, but our little kids are made to feel the guilt for polluting the atmosphere if they set off a few dozen tiny crackers for a few days each year! So, are you interested to see how many people petition to exclude fireworks from London 2012 Olympics?

Friday, 2 December 2011

When is a vegetable not a “real” vegetable?

By Vidya Jonnalagadda

Fear not, gentle reader, this is not a test of botanical definitions, or even an argument about why plant organs that are actually roots (like carrots) and stems (like potatoes) and fruits (like tomatoes) are all clubbed under the generic term ‘vegetables’. What this blog is about is my friend Neetu’s young daughter, Nishtha’s homework for school.

When Nishtha was in first grade, her Hindi teacher assigned the homework of writing names of five vegetables (sabziyaan). After consulting with her mother, Nishtha wrote simple words like aalu, matar, shalajam, and tamaatar. The next day, however, Nishtha returned from school angry and tearful, “aap ko kuch bhi nahin aataa Mummy, teacher ne teen sabziyon ko wrong diya!” A little investigation by Neetu revealed that three vegetables on Nishtha’s homework had been marked wrong because had not been taught by the teacher in class!

This was a couple of years ago. When I called Neetu today to ask if I could write about this incident on this blog, she had all but forgotten about it. Like her, you too might say that it was a small matter after all, no lasting harm done. But I  have thought often about this incident; perhaps it affected me so much because I am upset to see that we are teaching our children that what they see and eat are not “real” vegetables unless they are on the teacher’s list (or in the textbook)!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Poverty of the spirit

By Gauri Hardikar

Poverty of the spirit

“Ouch!” I cry out, as my husband swiftly kicks me under the table.”Don’t stare”, he hisses back. I use every ounce of my will power to reluctantly stop staring at a man, of undeterminable age, flashing all the right symbols of a successful life, right from a haughty nonchalant expression, to   branded accessories, while he starts eating his dinner of vada pao. You must be thinking,”Hmpf, so, what’s the big deal? Someone is eating vada pao, hello, this is Mumbai, vada pao is our staple food!” . Let me explain.
We (hubby and I) are having dinner at one of the classiest restaurants in town, and needless to say one of the pricier ones too. We chose the place, because this dinner is a celebration, of many events clubbed together. E.g A recently acquired promotion, not so recent Valentine’s day, actually last year’s Valentine’s day too, and the year before last (did we celebrate that one?!),assorted birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and other significant occasions not celebrated. But actually we both know that we are celebrating togetherness, the wonderful fact that in spite of having a fairly uneventful long married life, and very eventful career lives, both of us want to still spend time with each other dawdling over dinner that stretches over  three hours. Hence the extravagance. But that’s beside the point.

The restaurant offers a la carte option and also a buffet. After one glance at the a la carte menu, we roll our eyes, and settle on the buffet. Its not a difficult choice. The buffet with almost 70 dishes costs only 4 times more than the cost of a vada pao. Its actually the price of the Mumbai Special Vada pao that makes both of us almost hyperventilate. In Mumbai Nagari, the place of origin of the Vada Pao, or the humble Indian version of a burger, with prices that range from 5 Rs to, hold Ur breath, 500 hundred rupees, plus taxes ! I blink my eyes and wonder whether I am seeing things. Hubby and I confer and agree that the Vada pao in this swanky place indeed costs 100 times more than what it does at the tapari around the corner. Both of us wonder about people who placed it on the menu and more about whether anyone has ever ordered it?Or has it been cremated with due honors in the restaurant incinerator?

Imagine our excitement when we actually see a waiter carrying two pieces of the stuff to a table behind us. We blink our eyes again; this is the 2nd shock in the same evening. Tell me then; do you blame me for wanting to have a good look at the man who has ordered vada pao which costs only Rs.560? And to answer an obvious question in your minds, he is an Indian.

This gives both of us a lot of food for thought and a lively discussion ensues, which continues, till we leave and wait in the foyer for the valet to get our car. An angry voice interrupts our conversation. We turn around to see the same man, yelling at the doorman, he seems to be in a hurry to leave. Hubby ever fond of gangster movies, has a theory that he is a ‘bhai’ who cannot eat the food that he grew up on, because it’s too dangerous for him. Hence the five star snack, and now the mad hurry to leave. Since there is a crowd of people waiting for their cars, our man strides out to stand near the gate. A motley group of street kids have clustered there, hoping to get the left overs that guests may hand over. As the other kids stare fearfully at the man, a dark, perky little girl, wearing a tattered dress, stretches out a grubby hand to touch the man, big round eyes appealing to his altruistic nature. No sooner does she do so, all hell breaks loose. The man screams every kind of expletive imaginable at her and the rest of the kids, slaps the girl so hard that she falls down, and chases the other kids who rush to help her. While the kid cowers in fright he continues the tirade while we watch in stunned silence. Fortunately, a Mercedes rolls up, the driver runs out to pacify the Sahib, who gets into the car still shaking his fists at the child who is now sitting up and wailing for all she is worth. The kids watching from a safe distance run back to her, the doorman also rushes to help her stand up. I move closer, wanting to offer some sympathy and may be some money to buy dinner. But the kids beat me to it. One hands the girl a half eaten chocolate, the other one opens a carry away box, to reveal some other food stuff, while the third one, removes her own colorful bangles and holds them out to the sobbing child.

It’s an unforgettable sight, these kids may need my money, but they certainly are rich, in spirit, definitely wealthier than me and the vada pao eating man in the shiny Merc put together.

Judgment Day

I must confess, much as I enjoy appreciating creativity and hard work, I passionately hate judging anything. So, it is with a heavy heart that I step into the exhibit room of the Science exhibition that I am invited to judge, to undertake the task at hand. The category that I am to judge is the teacher’s projects on Population education and continuing education. And after seeing the projects, the following questions still trouble me:

  • ·       How will “Increasing substance of women” help curb population?
  • ·    Likewise, apart from the really obvious reason, how will enforcing a joint family system help? Maybe people will get so stressed out that they will murder each other??
  • ·      Why is a game, where the only reward the child gets is a lecture from the teacher, called Fun and Learn??
  • ·      In a remote area, where there are no roads, no transport and no school, and no teacher can reach, how high speed Internet, and laptops be available for using Skype and Whiteboard?
  • ·      Likewise, how did showing a 10 min video recorded lecture, given to slum children actually increase the quality of their life?
  • ·      In Continuing education, why will adults happily “learn with fun”, using letter blocks and other kinder garden teaching aids? (It will awaken the child in them, was the answer given to my question.)
  • ·      Why are these leaders of the young harping on about controlling the population, while the whole world is terrified that God forbid, if India and China put their act together and train the vast multitudes, nobody can stop these countries that have the most valuable resource in the world, “Man Power”?

Just when my head started reeling, listening to lectures deliver with strong conviction on how bleak the world scenario is due to population, and when I am almost apologetic that I am living, and healthy, the following incident occurs.

When we are listening, to a very pretty young teacher, droning endlessly about literacy, reeling off statistics on the population of the various Indian states, my co judge asks,” And what is the role of the climate?” It takes a while for me to understand the point that he is making, which is that cold climate equals to less population. The young teacher stops midspeech, as if the Pause button is pressed, gives both of us a blank look. Swallows twice, looks at the ceiling, and the walls, and then magically, as if the Play button is now pressed, resumes her sermon on the literacy. I earnestly explain to her the gentleman’s question, and point out that if literacy is so imp. then why according to the statistics displayed by her, is Kerala still not low in terms of population, whereas Mizoram and Shillong are, which may have something to do with the climate. Again we get a blank look, I start wondering whether she has also practiced ‘the blank look’ along with rote memorizing rest of her presentation. She swallows twice this time and then gives up, and tries to show us a slide show, which has the same pictures that she has displayed on the first slide. Well, maybe it was a brilliant presentation, but we will never know as she keeps pressing F5 instead of moving to the next slide, and the ppt stalls at the 1st slide. Lacking the desire to help her, we move on.

We somehow get through the all the exhibit and escape from the film set school, safely.

As I head home, I cannot get the teachers out of my head, dogmatic, authoritarian, and totally closed to learning per se. They are the ones I loved to hate in school. And they dominate the system. How will our kids learn? How will they retain their creativity and the spark to be different and flexible? How will we use the vast reserves of our people power to become a world economy?

And while these thoughts flood my mind, I recall the bright faces of the students who assisted the teachers in these projects. I remember their quiet confidence as they perform for us, their strong voices, and excited eyes. I remember the kids mouthing silently the lines of the skit that the teacher is supposed to say and prompt her gently when she forgets. And I know, that no matter what, these kids will learn, in spite of their teachers and the system

And I remember, some of the teacher participants presenting, their creativity, logic, and strong conviction in their work. I see talent, perseverance, and the will to do their best, in spite of the system.

And, then I know. The future of India and the world, safe in the hands of these bright kids and sincere teachers, is truly Shining.