Sunday, October 10, 2010

Magic Realism: how a teacher can make all the difference.

If you were to drive down Jawaharlal Nehru Road, past Raja Bazaar, take a right turn a little ahead of Jagdeo Path, then follow the twists and turns of the street , you will finally arrive at the site of a silent social and educational revolution.

Two identical-looking buildings house the Soshit Samadan Kendra, a fully free English medium residential school for Musahar children. This community is possibly the state’s most oppressed and disprivileged community of rat-eaters who have been living in conditions of abysmal and degrading poverty. Most work as bonded labourers and live at the edge of villages defined by demeaning social cartography.

Soshit Seva Sangh is the brainchild of its founder and Chairman, Mr. J.K. Sinha, who after a long and distinguished career in the Indian Police service, returned to Bihar to make a difference to this uneven state. SSS in partnership with Samadhan, a Delhi based NGO established Shoshit Samadhan Kendra that provides students education, boarding, lodging, clothes and healthcare to the two hundred and twenty students. Aside of the school curriculum, there are other activities that define the transformative miracle of this project.

An economist by training, Mrs. Geetha Prasad volunteered to teach communication skills to a group of students drawn from the sixth to the ninth grade and this is what she has been pursuing with meticulous determination for twenty months. Both Mr. J.K. Sinha and Mrs. Geetha Prasad had invited me to visit the school over some months. Mrs. Prasad wished that I could evaluate the work that her students had done and the progress they had made. On the 6th of October, a day that turned out to be unusually busy for me, I decided to put my conscience to rest and visit the school. Mrs. Prasad very graciously picked me up from home and explained the kind of language exercises that she had devised for the children while we drove to school. On our arrival, I was taken to a room with many computers, an LCD projector, a white laminated board and paste-boards that displayed charts with phonemic symbols. Here I was greeted with choric cheer ‘good-afternoon Sir’. I greeted them in turn and told them by way of an introduction that I taught at the university and that I had come to learn what they had learnt. Once the ice was broken, I was amazed at the confidence with which they spoke during a communications exercise, the kind of vocabulary they used, the logical sequence of thoughts they were able to articulate and their desire to learn.
Many of the university students I know would come a distant second to their skills and we must bear in mind that twenty months ago they knew no English.

We in India, most ironically, have been gifted with an accessory of colonialism: the English language. For Macaulay, it was an instrument of subordinate recruitment to aid colonial governance. Today it is an instrument of empowerment; of liberation; of global access to knowledge and technology. Sadly our politicians in the name of linguistic chauvinism have equated English with colonialism and sought its ouster because of the fatuous belief that it had compromised national pride. Aijaz Ahmad most appropriately questions the propriety of some of the other things that came along with colonial rule such as the Indian Railways. Should we throw that out as well? I knew that the children of SSK were beneficiaries of a very special gift. However it ought not to silence the cultural traditions of their unique experience. And so I told the children that the next time I came, I would listen to all their folk tales. Time seemed to race by and the session of fun learning came to an end. I shook hands with each of the students and left the room to the choric resonance of ‘thank you Sir’.

As we sat in the library leafing through books and flip-charts, I said to Mrs. Geetha Prasad, ‘you have worked magic’.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sense and Sensibility

I had always thought that there are some questions whose answers are likely to be: hey, hey hey. You know questions such as 'Did Adam have a navel?' or 'Was Lord Ram born under the central dome of what was once the Babri Masjid?' Ever since Nietzsche's famous proclamation 'there are no facts only interpretations' it has become increasingly more difficult to come to a single, unalloyed, unambiguous point of view. Law is after all a verbal discipline.

When the country, paralyzed with bated breath, on the afternoon of the 30th of September, switched channels to catch the first reports of the Ayodhya title suit judgment, I went to play a round of golf. By getting the news at the dot of 4p.m. I could not have altered the course of India's history. And nobody invited me to the television studios for my opinion. I am told that all those who's opinions truly matter in India are located in metros. When I returned home and gathered the different strands that constituted the larger picture, my response was one of disbelief. The setting was Shakespearean with the foregrounding of the numeral three. And out of the cauldron emerged a pronouncement that endorsed a three-way division of the land under dispute. I know little about law although many among my friends and family have attained positions of eminence in that field. But the one thing that I do know is that a decision in a title suit would mean deciding to whom a piece of land under dispute belongs by way of legitimate title, not the parties that may be given the land by a conciliatory verdict. I had always thought that the practice of law depended on the material facts and evidence that is conclusively put forth within the ambit of public legal procedures rather than private spiritual matters. But this judgment seems to have given a new dimension to jurisprudence.

When the Supreme Court dismissed the petition for deferment of the verdict, it established the superiority of constitutional democracy over contracted populism. Sadly, Thursday's decision partially undid those gains. To live in a modern, resurgent India does not mean to resurrect the ghosts from the past but to bury them and move on. To those that are religious, please build as many places of worship on the places you own directly, but please stay out of the public spaces. These are meant for the vibrant, energetic youth of our country: our hope for the future. History, Baudrillard says is often the source of humankind's problems rather than its site. Let us use history to understand our present and transform our future. And if we must be spiritual, then remember the lines of Harivansh Rai Bacchan and do the needful. That order could also have been passed.