Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mohan, my nephew and William, the Conqueror : On being an aunt

I became an aunt for the first time when I was just 6 years old. Within ten years from then, I got that honour three more times. By the time my nephew and nieces came down to India for their schooling, I was already in college. It was great fun watching them grow and feeling myself grow young with them.

Looking back, I feel foolish at the way I used to compete with them to lick the cake mixing bowl clean. When amma made cake, all of us – nephew, nieces and me – used to hover over her in order to grab the big but light vessel in which she mixed the ingredients into the cake batter. We would wait for her to transfer the batter into the last baking dish and then pounce on the vessel which would have the remnants of the cake batter. Amma always did things on a large scale; so we were glad that there would be plenty to attack, particularly when she saw to it that she left enough in the vessel for her drooling daughter and grandchildren.

Once I beat them to it. The minute I saw that amma was done with the vessel, I snatched it and ran with it, into the five acre compound. My nephew and nieces followed me, screaming, yelling and waving. Seeing that I couldn’t shake them off my trail, I gave up and dropped myself down on the grass, and the four of us fell to attacking the vessel. Wipe with the index finger, lick the finger. Wipe- lick, wipe-lick. That was me. They went at it with the whole hand and took longer time running the tongue over the hand. The fastest got the most. So we licked frantically.

We must have been quite a sight- one grown up and three children seven downwards in age, squatting in the grass, desperately licking our hands as though our lives depended on it! Believe it or not, I was already a graduate by then!

Poor kids, they used to be at the receiving end of my creative bouts. These kids were so credulous and uncritical that I could weave tales around them and watch as they looked at me with complete fascination at whatever I churned out. More often than not, my tales bore just the bare minimum similarity to the original. The rest was the product of my imagination which was always sensitive to the mood of the listeners and adjusted itself to suit the requirements of the moment. The whole exercise was a learning experience on how to customize my imagination and narrative skills. Sometimes my imagination would go berserk, and encouraged by the breathless attention of the kids, I would plunge into the wild jungle of my fancy and be carried away by my ability to fabricate details.

I remember telling Mohan the story of William the Conqueror. My little nephew had large beautiful eyes which grew larger and larger as he listened to that bit about William chopping off the hands of those who reminded him of his modest lineage. By the time I came to the end of the gruesome maiming episode, Mohan’s face was all eyes, filled with horror and sorrow and bitter anger and helplessness. The little fellow then plunged into a tirade against William the Conqueror, gesticulating savagely. The outburst must have lasted ten minutes, after which the seven year old angry young man shifted gear to become a brilliant inventor of torture techniques, devised specifically to deal with the brutal William of Normandy.

“When I get hold of him I’ll - - - “, and he’d go off into the minutiae of how he would inflict the worst possible pain on the brutal king. His descriptions were complete with the nature of the knives used, the concentration of chilly powder meant for the wounds and eyes, the size of the pieces into which the Conqueror would be chopped live - - - - - . His fury stretched over days and weeks and I began to wonder if he was losing sleep over it, for each day he would come up with new ideas regarding tools, techniques and methods of torture!

Wonder if my dear nephew remembers William the Conqueror!

Then there were those days when I was quarantined with chicken pox and put on an oil free diet. The three of them, like little monkeys, would clamber on to the window. The youngest one, being imperious by nature, would insist on being hoisted first so that she won’t be left out. The kids would pass on through the window banana chips, banana fry (pazham pori, as they called it) and whatever goodies they managed to pilfer from the kitchen. How I used to look forward to their clandestine visits through the window in those days of isolation!

My nephews and nieces – what a lot of fun they were! Recently, when I saw them, all grown up, taking in their stride the responsibilities of adults, my mind slid back to the days when the three little kuttichathans (little devils) brought such fun into my youthful days.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson :-(

Strange! The thought that Michael Jackson is no more fills me with this odd feeling of hollowness. I have never seen the man who inhabited a world not even remotely connected with mine. Yet, the sense of loss, the sadness is real – though I don’t quite understand it.

He entered the world of our imagination in the early seventies when I was a graduate student in St Teresa’s college, Ernakulam. The Jackson’s Five became a rage, and Michael Jackson, the youngest of the brothers,– everybody’s pet, tho he inspired in us a sense of awe. Little did we realize then that he would become what he did!

Those were not the days of TV when we could get an occasional glimpse of the pop stars, or of the Internet and you tube when we could see them whenever we wanted. Facilities such as music downloads or copying into Cd's did not figure even in our wildest dreams. Radiogram and tape recorder were the only mode of listening to music. I am trying to recollect how we became so familiar with this prodigious singer, given the limited opportunities to get even a glimpse of his pictures, or listen to his compositions.

WE used to listen to Radio Ceylon which was the best radio station for western pop music. Also, The Voice of America Morning Show, which my friends and I listened to religiously, even on working days, was another source of information about the happenings in the music world. There were other stations too like radio Australia but the first two had the best reception.

I remember how, the minute a Jackson’s Five number was announced, I’d run to the telephone to ring up my friend - just in case she wasn’t tuned in. Mostly she’d be, and would be irritated by the distraction.

If I remember right, Looking through the Window by the Jackson’s Five consecutively topped the hit parade of Junior Statesman (popularly known as JS), a Magazine which gave news about the jet set crowd around the world, the Bollywood masala and news about the music world. It was a very popular magazine among my friends. The Jackson’s Five used to figure regularly in this magazine, and we got our first glimpse of the boy Michael Jackson from JS. For some reason, the magazine was wound up and we resented it intensely.

Strange that I should be talking about all this in a post dedicated to Michael Jackson. The news of his death took me back to those days when he entered our imaginary world of music as a sensational prodigy.

His gradual metamorphosis into an iconic figure was a big disillusionment for me. Here, I speak only for myself. A prude that I am, I saw it as an eventual loss of innocence. But, I felt relieved and vindicated (?) whenever he brought out his fabulous albums. When the charge of child abuse was slapped on him, I remained neutral – refused to feel, for Jackson’s personal life had already turned out to be a let down. But then, I wanted to believe that everyman is innocent till found guilty, and that there are a lot of people out there who’d go to any extent to extract money from celebrities.

I repeat. It is very strange that someone who had, has, or never will have anything to do, most remotely, with my world can affect me so much by his departure. In this context I am reminded of what my son told me how he felt when Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed.
“The same strange feeling I had when Pope John 11 passed away”, he said.

Needless to say I was scandalized that he could talk of the two in the same breath.

“But you were very distressed when the Pope died. Do you feel the same now?”

Then he explained.

“Distressed? Not the way i felt when the Pope died.Not at the rational level of consciousness. The sense of Good and Evil happens at that rational, conscious level. The same feeling I’m talking of happens at another level. It is a feeling of loss. These are people whom I have grown up with, they inhabit our consciousness as permanent residents. We unconsciously relate to them as people who’ll always be around. And when they disappear permanently, it is a strange feeling.”

How right he is! Good, bad or ugly belongs to the thinking, rational and conditioned level of human consciousness. At that level, we are judgmental; we are governed by a certain value system. But there is another level to our mind in which a world takes shape in ways unknown to us. Many of its inhabitants have nothing to do with the small physical world in which we function on a daily basis. The values that regulate our lives are not applicable there. In that world, we are more charitable human beings , willing to give the devil his due, and everyone the benefit of the doubt. The good and the bad coexist there, peacefully, for that world is free from moral compulsions.

I don’t know if this mind probe is making any sense. But I had to sort it out with myself why I felt this terrible sense of loss at the death of a pop musician who is so completely removed from my world in every sense of the word.

May his soul rest in peace.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


“Thank you” used to be a word hardly used in Kerala. I am not saying Kerlaites are an ungrateful lot. No. All I mean is we are not in the habit of saying thank you after we receive a service from, say, the sales persons in textile or grocery shops, the autorick driver, the cab driver, the vegetable vendor etc.

Nor do they expect a Thank you from the customer. On many an occasion, after a purchase from a textile shop, I have turned around to thank the salesperson who had tried every trick in the trade to sell things to me, and succeeded I doing so and carried my purchase to the billing counter. At the billing counter when I turn around to thank him, he’d have vanished – without a single word to me!

I have watched the way people alight from autos. They pay the driver and walk away without acknowledging him with a smile or even making eye contact with him. “I’m paying him for his services – so why should I thank him”, seems to be the attitude.

I once told my students that they should thank the auto driver after paying him or the bus conductor when he issues tickets. The girls went into peals of laughter. “Miss. they’ll think we are nuts if we do that”, was how they reacted!

Having had all my education in convents, I’ve been a thank you person, much to the amusement of my friends. When I first started traveling in autos on my own in Kerala way back in late seventies, I remember how perplexed the auto drivers used to be when I thanked them.

“What did you say?”, one of them asked me once.
“I said thank you”, I replied. All on a sudden, he became shy.

“Did you say something?” another guy asked after I started walking away from the auto.
‘No”, I said. I didn’t remember having said anything to him at all.
“You said something. I heard you”. he seemed offended.
It was my turn to be perplexed.
“You muttered something after you paid me. I haven’t over charged you, So why do you mutter under your breath?” he asked looking quite peeved.
He sounded so upset that I tried to rewind the scene.
“I didn’t say anything other than thank you”, I said earnestly.
“Oh, that’s it. I didn’t quite catch what you said”, said he. Irritation was replaced by that shy? embarrassed? expression!

After that I made sure that I am loud and clear when I thank someone. This, I realized startle them. They appear to be caught unawares. They look up at you, surprise written large on their faces and then suddenly beam at us. “OK madam, thank you, thank you”, some would say.

Yesterday, I thanked the auto driver who brought me home from the church and he seemed to take it in his stride.

So I guess people who thank are increasing in number in Kerala.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Am A Malayalee

I’m a malayalee. Every drop of my blood is Malayalee. I’m proud of being one. I don’t feel happy as I am expected to feel when people look at me and tell me I don’t look like a malayalee (the permanent red bangle I wear, I guess, is the reason for this comment).

I’ve never been able to figure out what’s wrong with the way a malayalee looks? What is so undesirable about the ‘mallu look’?

I once quarreled with a very senior colleague, slated to be the next Principal. Though she hails from Kasargod, she couldn’t speak Malayalam.

“I take special care not to speak or learn to speak Malayalam. I’m afraid it’d affect the way I speak English.”. !!??!

I was shocked. I was not used to people making such downright rude and insensitive remarks. I felt insulted, being a malayalee and an English lecturer, with the onerous duty of teaching the angrezi language as though it was the most valued creation of God.

So I was shocked that such a senior person could make such a remark. It was so much in bad taste. Before I could recover from the shock, she went a step further.

“Molly, the minute you open your mouth, I know you are a malayalee”

Young and inexperienced that I was, I exploded. And chose to be insulting.

“Why”, I demanded gritting my teeth. “Do malayalees have a specific type of mouth odour”

“I meant your English. You talk just like a malayalee”.

Then I said something I should not have, considering her seniority and my juniority. I’d have behaved differently today, but those were the days when I was young and foolish enough to believe that I didn’t have to take any bullshit lying down. And so I said:

“The minute you open your mouth Mrs. G---, everybody’d know you come from the heart of rural Karnataka”.

The pin drop silence in the staff room told me I’d made a terrible mistake. The subsequent days in the college were very difficult. When I was hauled up, even the term insubordination was used!

But wait a minute, this post was not to be about that episode. Guess it is still rankling in my mind and so surfaced at the slightest provocation!

Like I said earlier, I have never felt apologetic about being a Malayalee. But, I must confess, I have been terribly embarrassed about the way some of my ‘country cousins” behave outside the state.

In a particular organization in a giant metro where I worked for sometime, there were a couple of malayalees who antagonized all the other employees. One was a very senior person. He was an arrogant Mr. Know-all who held the rest of his colleagues in supreme contempt. The other person was a junior who was being groomed by the senior malayalee to follow his footsteps. The younger person was born and brought up outside the enlightened state of Kerala, and so, one would expect him to be uncomfortable with the typical aggressive mode of a pure breed. But no. The senior, who took him under his wing, did such a thorough job of indoctrination that the apprentice quite out heroded Herod!

My very first encounter with the senior made me feel uncomfortable. I was having a cup of tea in the canteen when he drew up a chair, sat down at my table and introduced himself as my country cousin. In a matter of five minutes, his voice dropped into a conspiratorial tone with the observation, “You know, Molly, these people here are so superficial”. I was at a loss to understand what he meant, but before the conversation ended, I caught on to what he was trying to say, though not in so many words. Our colleagues were not hard core Marxists!

Much as I hate to make such a remark, the fact remains that Marx has made such deep inroads into the malayalee soul, resulting in a deflection our thinking from the mainstream. This deviation is manifest in an intolerance of a high degree, blatant arrogance in our language, body language and the very thought process, and the absence of social graces. On top of all that, it has made us so judgmental. And we believe we are the last word on every issue under the sun.

We also believe we are way above the rest of creation. The Malayalam language has a great number of words which refer to the neighbouring states and its people in a highly derogatory manner.

Coming back to the two malayalee colleagues, I got tense every time there was a general body meeting of the employees. The two of them would take turns jumping up like belligerent jack-in-the-box and flinging objectionable (sometimes even personal) remarks and observations. The Chairperson and the rest of the colleagues never ever reacted. Initially, that surprised me. But soon I was told that these guys would go berserk if someone disagreed with them. “Better to keep out of the way of rabid dogs”, my friend who had been a witness to earlier disasters, told me.

When built-in corrective measures so necessary for the quality upkeep of an organization were discussed, the senior and his chela were unstoppable. “These are targeted at the two of us”, once the chela, on his feet, shouted. Yes, these guys suffered from persecution mania too. Every suggestion for streamlining the organization was misconstrued as a personal attack on them.

Once, again in the canteen, as I was having a cup of tea, the senior malayalee pulled up a chair and greeted me with that smile reserved only for malayalees. With great geniality which came quite naturally when he spoke to me, he tried to pick up a conversation. Somehow, without me quite realizing it, the conversation lead to the Left.

To my horror, I heard myself saying, “The leftists are the most undemocratic creatures on earth”. To date, I don’t know why I made that emphatic observation, or from where I got the courage to say that.

Our man’s face transformed. The grin became a near snarl. He plunged into a angry harangue on how the world goes round because of the left, the world has not plunged onto headlong disaster ‘cos of the Marxists, all pro people reforms have come from the Marxists bla bla bla - - .

When he stopped to gulp down some air and the tea that was going cold, I cut in. Taking a long breath I spoke rapidly:
“Listen sir, I work in the state of Kerala which is swarming with these so called saviours of mankind. The student body is infested with them. My university has these people crawling all over. You find them in the syllabus committee, examination committees, administrative offices – you name it. And with my very unpleasant experiences of having to rub shoulders with them, I emphatically repeat: the leftists are the most undemocratic creatures on earth.”

Then I got up and fled.

I avoided him like plague for a few weeks. Then one day, I ran into him. To my utter surprise, he was so sweet and pleasant and genial.

After all, I am a mallu, I thought. Perhaps he sees in me the potential to be developed into a cantankerous anti- estab!

Tell me, dear visitor. Am I prejudiced? Or wholly wrong?

Am I in the grip of the bourgeoisie mindset?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shashi Tharoor deals with the Heat and Dust of Indian Politics

He was a success in the UN but Shashi Tharoor, MP from Trivandrum, is beginning to realise that Indian politics is a totally different ball game.

His own party men are angry with him. He did the unthinkable - socialised with the friends of the Marxists !

His own community has rejected him; he is labelled "Delhi Nair", whatever that means.

But Tharoor seems to be quite unfazed by all this row.

His response to the ruckus has a flavour different from the politically correct but inane and evasive statements that our politicians excel in - you know that verbose equivocation that we are sick and tired of listening to.

Those dinner appointments were made long time back. I cannot cancel them, he told his party heavyweights.

Angry with this fresher who pays scant respect to their sentiments , the local Congressmen have threatened report him to the High Command.

Will Mr. Tharoor take on the disgruntled elements in his party with the suave bluntness( oxymoron?) that had caught the fancy of the voters?

My father was active in the NSS but I represented Trivandrum not as a Nair but as a secular congressman.

Not many congressmen would do such straight shooting, given the love hate and the interdependent relationship between the Congress and the NSS.

But Mr. Tharoor's words were music to the ears of those who wished to see decency and honesty in politics.

The question is, will Tharoor survive?

OR, will he change in order to survive.

I'd rather he didn't survive than change to survive.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Slice of Memory

‘Where are you going, amma?”

“To meet a big professor”.

“Its getting dark”, said my seven year old son, Mathew. “Shall I come with you?”

“Sure, if you can get ready in five minutes”. An instinctive gentleman, a truly chivalrous young man, I thought. Hope he remains that way always, I prayed ruefully.

“How big is this professor, amma?’?

I’d meant important but if this is what he understood - - -Well. I’ll pull a fast one on him, I decided.

“He’s very tall, taller than Monichayan uncle”.

Mathew stopped in his tracks; his jaw dropped; eyes became the size of saucers and he breathed,”My God, Monichayan uncle is 6’3”. This professor is taller?"

I nodded in agreement.

“Oh my God’, muttered my son. His eyes still remained the saucer size.

A moment’s silence and then, “Is he fat?”

“You remember that fat man in the movie into whose backside Mohanlal poked an injection needle?”

He had stopped again and was looking up at me with bated breath, in utter amazement.

“Hna“, he grunted, his eyes fixed on my face, his breath suspended as he waited for me to continue.

“Well”, I said nonchalantly ‘He is fatter than him”

Mathew stood there absolutely immobile, looking up at me, his eyes growing larger still, his jaws almost hitting his knees. Then I noticed that his eyes were turning glassy, and as he turned to walk, his hand sneaked into mine.

“His voice is gruff”, I volunteered”Like a bear’s”

He nodded silently. I smiled to myself as I felt his grip tightening.

A dark blue Ambassador car went by. “And Mathew”, I said, “He is that colour”.


He didn’t speak a word till we reached the professor’s house.

I rang the door bell. Mathew’s face looked like he was about to enter a zoo which had a much publicized rare and dangerous animal.

The door opened and a little boy, a little bigger than Mathew, opened the door.

“Gurukal Sir here?” I asked the boy who apparently was his son.

“Please sit down. I’ll call him”, said the boy and went inside.

“Does he have lots of kurukkal (carbuncle) on his face?” Mathew whispered in my ear. Apparently, he hadn’t heard the name Gurukkal.

“SHHH”, I cautioned.

Both of us waited. I took a sidelong glance at him. His fists were clenching and unclenching... The eyes had returned to their normal size as he waited with bated breath.

The professor came in.

“Good evening sir", I said rising.

“Good Evening", he said in his soft, pleasant voice and lowered his 5ft 7inches, slim frame into the sofa.

“Who is this young man?” Dr. Gurukal asked, a smile spreading across his pleasant fair face.

"My son", I said looking at Mthew.

I then realized that my son was waiting for the “big" professor to make his appearance.

“Mathew", I said, “this is the Professor I was telling you about”.

Suddenly, Mathew’s jaw dropped. This time it nearly hit the floor. His eyes, which had abruptly reverted to the saucer size, darted from me to the prof, perhaps, 500 times in the space of a minute. The expression on his face – how does one describe it? Well, you can imagine what it’d be like when shock, disbelief, utter disappointment, amusement and anticlimactic feelings battle it out on a seven year old human face which is under the compulsion of appearing normal and polite and well behaved.

Did I see Dr. Gurukal looking at him in a puzzled manner? I can’t be sure.

I was in the Prof’s house for 10 minutes. Through the corner of my eyes, I could see Mathew’s small frame being shaken by occasional paroxysms of laughter which the marvelous boy kept under iron control.

As the door of his house shut behind us, my son doubled up and dissolved into a hysteria of merriment.

Ps. Dr. Rajan Gurukkal is the Vice Chancellor of MG University now. My son is in the final stage of his effort to earn the title of Doctor in his field of research.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's the Truth about Mullaperiyar, please?

Guess all human beings are parochial but it is perplexing how parochialism can so totally cloud judgment as it does in the case of the Mullaperiyar Dam dispute between Tamilnadu & Kerala.

The dam has a long history, going back to pre Independence days. It has a complex history of litigation and inter state wrangling in the post independence period. Wallowing in the mire of these histories, the most pressing problem is sidelined.

The present crisis between Kerala and Tamilnadu has all the ingredients of a water war. But my concern is with something more than that – something immediately more serious, namely, the humongous nature of the catastrophe if, as Kerala feels, the dam should break.

The projection is that the districts of Idukki, Kottayam and parts of Ernakulam districts will be inundated, leading to unprecedented loss of human lives.

Perhaps it is the height of naivety to ask: Doesn’t this - this feared loss of lives running into lakhs - matter to the leaders of Tamilnadu who have always tried to take political mileage out of the dam issue? The number of farmers affected by maintaining the level of the dam is flaunted to incite – what? Support in the form of violence? A token gesture to Kerala about what will happen if - - ?

Tamilnadul’s attitude seems to be like: We have followed the directives of the Supreme Court and strengthened the dam. Now raise the water level for our farmers. If the dam bursts and lakhs of your people die, well, too bad. Your tough luck! Anyway, cross the bridge when you come to it. Go ask the Supreme Court then.

Can irrigation issue be bracketed with human lives?

Of course, irrigation is important. It’s a matter of livelihood for tens of thousands of farmers. No doubt about that. But surely it is callous to insist on a solution which, experts say, can cause a terrible human catastrophe?

Or is the Kerala govt bluffing? Is Kerala worried about electricity production if the dam is raised? Does Tamilnadu have any proof that Mullaperiyar is just a bogey raised for some reason known only to Kerala?

If Kerala government is not bluffing, can we afford to wait for the Supreme Court ruling to divert a catastrophe?

I’m sure disasters are not going to be restrained or delayed by their respect for the apex court.

Like an ignoramus who hardly understands the nuances of the issue, I ask:

Why is Tamilnadu objecting to underwater mapping of the dam using cameras to ascertain its safety?

Why is Tamilnadu objecting to the construction of a new dam, a solution mooted by Kerala government to protect the thickly populated downstream?

It is so difficult to digest that the politicians of any state can be so impervious to the fact that not thousands but lakhs of lives of Indian citizens might be lost if the dam gives away.

Or is it that they have some knowledge about foul play in the Mullperiyar discourse emanating from Kerala?

What is the central government doing? Why is there no sense of urgency? Does it not know this is an issue that does not provide the luxury of waiting for court verdicts? This wait and watch policy of the Centre and the just- another- litigation attitude of the Supreme Court is most incomprehensible.

Can we not approach a totally neutral expert committee of international repute to assess the condition of the dam?

The helpless readers who are fed constantly by conflicting media reports can only hope and pray that the dam remains intact till the issue is sorted out.

My earlier post on Mullaperiyar:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

An Open Letter to Obama : Temper your Rhetoric with Discretion, Please, Mr. President!

"We have got to pick up pace because the World has gotten competitive. The Chinese and the Indians are coming at us and they are coming at us hard, and they are hungry and really buckling down”, said Obama at a town hall meeting in Wisconsin.

Oh my God! What a shameful statement from the President of the United States of America!!

What a dangerous idea to be sold to a people who are reeling under recession and its fallout!

What a provocative thing to do - pointing out to Asians as potential job snatchers in a country which welcomes them with open arms and uses them as techno coolies or researchers!

Have you, Mr President, forgotten that thousands of Indian and Chinese students are in the Universities of the United States of America? Don’t you realize that, at the slightest provocation, the racial violence in Australia can be encored in the USA?

Don’t you realize that all this sound and fury against Indians and Chinese can create a climate of intolerance in the USA?

Are you trying to break the melting pot?

“The Chinese and Indians are coming at us” – an invasion?

“And they are hungry and really buckling down” – Shame, Mr. Obama! Sowing seeds of fear for the hungry mob in the minds of your people.

Surely there are better ways of urging your people to watch less TV and go to schools!

Your anxiety about the inadequacies of the education system and the tough competition from outside is understandable. Equally understandable is the picture of you Mr. Barrack Obama, the father, impressing upon your children in the cozy warmth of the fireplace to give priority to their studies. But, Sir, as the President of the United States of America, it’s a deadly statement to make!

You sound almost racial!

A reminder Mr. President. These Chinese and Indians are not mendicants. They are inheritors of a legacy of culture, learning and civilization dating back to prehistoric times, to times when America in its present form was not even remotely thought of.

Mr.President, you seem to be getting more and more enamoured of your own voice and rhetorical skills that you pay scant attention to the ramifications of your irresponsible proclamations.

To be more charitable to you, did the teleprompter malfunction at the Wisconsin Town hall ?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bloggers from the Third World - For your Information

The excerpt given below is from LIVE, a pull-out of CHICAGO TRIBUNE OF June 3, 2009. The article titled I'M CREEPED OUT . . . GET ME OUT OF HERE by STEVE DAHl is about Patti Blogojevich, wife of Rod Blogojevich, former Governor of Illinois, snacking on a tarantula during the show "I'm a celebrity---get me out of here"
Dahl writes:
As I was watching Patti Blogojevich eat a tarantula on Monday night's premier of " I'm a celebrity...get me out of here!". I was wondering what the rest of the country - and the world, for that matter - thinks of us here in Illinois. I mean, she was the first lady of Illinois for more than five years, and now she is chowing down on an arachnid to allegedly support her family. At best, it gave Illinois a Hollywood feel; at worst, it made us look THRID WORLDISH!!!!!!???? (punctuation and emphasis mine).
And then he goes on:
The producers of "Celebrity " are quite emphatic about proclaiming that all of this JUNGLE STUPIDITY (emphasis mine) is going on in the name of charity etc etc etc
Regular readers of the paper say that such remarks are frequent, and cause no eyebrows to be raised, even among Indians.
So, the Third World comprising snake charmers and mahouts, drug peddlers and hungry mouths has a new attribute too. Tarantula eaters!
I remember, in the high school (in Pondicherry), we had a lesson titled " The Treemen of Travancore", written by a European tourist. These tree men ate tadpoles, and my classmates asked me if 'd ever lived in a tree house and eaten tadpoles. How exciting, they thought! Some, however, asked me if all that was real or the figment of some tourist's imagination.
Coming back to the CT paper. Am I over reacting, making a blog out of this?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What ails Higher Education in India. - A Wholly Inadequate Answer!

My previous post suggesting that the govt of India invest heavily in education in order to provide internationally competitive higher education in India set me thinking about the issue.

Brace yourself. This is a long post, but straight from the heart.

The issue is not a simple one. At the micro level too there are serious problems to be surmounted. I guess this can be best explained by relating a couple of experiences as a teacher in the existing system.

After completing my research, I rejoined my college. I had to teach Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey Lines to the Final year BA English major students. With the recently acquired knowledge of the research methodology and tools that enabled one to break free of structured thinking, I tried to introduce a novel approach to the poem which for decades had been doled out to students in the same stereotyped and over simplified manner through the end number of cheap (in terms of price and quality) guides that were available a dime a dozen in the market. I gave a couple of titles which provided a different reading of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. I was a fool not to have noticed the skepticism in the eyes of the students, even in the brilliant ones’. In a week’s time, a colleague told me confidentially that the students were complaining to the Head about my unconventional approach. Before the HOD pulled me up, I went back to age old interpretation of Tintern Abbey Lines, gave the probable essay questions and brief notes and gave the answers based on the most popular guide available in the market.

What my colleague told me quite unsettled me. I understand they complained to the HOD that if Miss Molly teaches the way she is doing, they’d all fail in the exams.

I’ll be eternally grateful to that lone student who came to me after I reverted to the accepted stereotyped style of teaching. She wanted me to go ahead with the way I’d started. She was amazed that there were other ways of looking at so canonical a poem as Tintern Abbey lines.

“The standard interpretation, we can get from any guide”, she had told me.

It was truly a vindication of what I believed but could not translate into practice on account of a systemic flaw in imparting education in our state.

These happened18 years back.

Just five years back, I ran into trouble again with my effort to update students’ learning process. I asked for an assignment to be done by the students themselves (and not by some typist) in the Microsoft Word. I insisted on bibliography and footnotes. I told them it did not matter how much cut & paste they did so long as they acknowledged it. I assured them if the entire work is cut and paste, I’d still give them marks for their skill in selecting and organizing facts in a coherent, logical manner. But I also told them(that was my undoing), that I’d give them only the marks they deserve, and that I’d fail them if they deserved to, and they would have to redo the assignment to my satisfaction if I were to give them pass mark. In other words, they had to EARN their marks.

I wasn’t aware of the seismic under currents triggered off by the project I gave them, till, the head of the institution who was a well wisher of mine called me quietly into the office and told me that there were complaints that I was harassing the students! I told her all I wanted was to give them a taste of doing an assignment using internet information in a sensible manner.

“You mean well. Our students are not ready for it (!!!!!!!!??????), she told me. ‘They feel this might affect their internal marks and put them at a disadvantage WITH the students of other colleges. Besides, they find it involved too much expense”!!!?

Once again I backtracked. Once again, I failed.

I can give you any number of such failures. Sometimes I wonder if I lacked conviction myself. That could be why I didn’t have the guts to pursue a task well begun.

But I console myself with the thought that I was fighting something much bigger than myself and did not possess the muscles for a one man army.

I was fighting to improve an educational system evolved to deal with astronomical numbers of students (unlike in the US or Britain or Australia). I was trying to beat a system which had to resort to and continue to follow the colonial legacy of the affiliatory system, in order to keep track of and control the management of the Himalayan task of subsidizing and educating the huge number of students who flooded into colleges after Independence. The ideal thing at that point of time was to dismantle the exiting system which was meant to produce good and obedient servants of the empire, and evolve a new system more suited to the post colonial India. But we chose to continue the existing one which by the time independent India took over had become fossilized into a partially effective system. Renovation of a structure is more difficult than building a new one. The ad hoc improvements and improvisation did not really make much of a difference for the better.

To make matters worse, in the post colonial era, in Kerala state, people became so intensely conscious of their rights that the universities and colleges became the hotbed of union activities - a fact which tied the hands of successive governments in bringing about changes, particularly in the examination /evaluation system, which I honestly believe is to be blamed in a major way for the failure of our education.

My shameful failures in the episodes I mentioned earlier too were on account of the examination system we have in place in the colleges today.

The examination system in most universities and their affiliated colleges is flawed. It doesn’t really test the quality and learning of the students. The absolute predictability of the question papers is the villain of the piece. The students seem to think that it is their right to be tested by a given pattern year after year. This is how it works:

The university designs syllabus for a course. Within a month’s time, the market becomes flooded with guides which identify all probable questions and gives answers – for essays \ brief notes.

Then at the end of the year, the appointed paper setters for university exams make questions as per the universities prescribed question paper pattern. These paper setters, I am sad to say, have in their possession all the popular guides from which they, more often than not, choose questions. Any question that requires intelligent use of knowledge acquired during the course of study would instantly raise a hue and cry from the students, teachers, parents and unions. The university then gives instruction to examiners to go lenient on that particular question. The leniency is usually in the form of minimum pass mark for that particular question.

Predictable question, predictable answers. These are the rights of the students respected by all universities. The system is such that the intelligent student can pass with flying colours with minimum learning. Originality in answers is dangerous. So teachers – both in science and humanities – teach from “the examination point of view”. Everybody is happy with this teaching. Students, because there is no demand on their intellects or skills and the effort they need to put in is minimum; teachers ‘cos readymade material is available and the examination results enhance their egos; colleges because their students produce good results and the credibility and rating of the college go up.

The spoon feeding method suits all.

The casualty, of course, is education, one purpose of which is to inculcate that grand passion for research and knowledge.

A decade back, the universities introduced the internal assessment practice by which 20-25 % marks was given by continuous assessment through the year. The intentions were good. It was an effort to give room and importance to original work, performance of student in the course of the year and to make up for the flaw in the existing examination system. But now this has become the biggest hoax. In addition to adding to the teachers ‘workload for no good purpose, it contributes to lowering standards in a big way. Every college issues a fatwa to its teachers to give minimum pass mark to all students and not to fail them at any cost. If one college decides to follow the spirit of Internal Assessment system, it will reflect on the overall examination results of the college. Students from that college who deserve “UNIVERSITY RANKS’ (indicators of the quality of the college) will have to make way to less deserving ones from other colleges on account of the conscientious policy of the college.

So the entire process of internal assessment is a huge farce, whereby substandard submissions and test papers ultimately earn the student a minimum of 12/20. Another 20 marks in the university exams and the student passes! Border line cases enjoy moderation as a matter of policy. It brings credit to the state government that so many pass percentages are registered every year during its term.

I have heard stories of student union leaders threatening teachers who wish to mark fairly for internal assessments!

This is only one millionth of the tip of the iceberg of flaws that beleaguers the Indian Universities. As I mentioned earlier, the difficulty of dealing with huge numbers and the burden of subsidizing education in the country has watered down the system of education.

Despite this, our graduates fare exceedingly well in non Indian universities.

Perhaps, the system has inculcated a never say die attitude and a capacity to learn in our youngsters that make them fare well outside.

We need to investigate and find out what it is that makes our students tick outside India, and build on our strengths.

The infrastructure, though flawed, is there. We need to fine tune it, up grade it so that our graduates will not have to leave the country to seek higher education in countries where they become victims of racial discrimination.

Only a commitment, political will and depoliticisation of educational field can enable the government of India to address this issue effectively.