Saturday, October 3, 2009


Isn’t is shameful that I, Siddharth Tyebji, son of a Muslim father and a Hindu Bengali mother, neither can speak Urdu nor Bengali?

- Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi

Though it’s hard to define the primary goal of education, the result of education should ideally lead to an enlightenment of the student towards the world outside, to provide him with a better understanding of things within him and without, so that he could use those skills in their betterment in some way or the other.

What shouldn’t it be? Most importantly, education should not solely be a means to livelihood, it should not only be the process one has to undergo to earn a living in this world, it should not only mean the passing of an exam or the stamp of a degree.

Unfortunately, it has become to mean exactly that. The idea of a holistic education meant to broaden the mind is almost non-existent today. We live in an era of ‘specialisation’, and it, by definition, demands a narrowing down of interests, a sort of isolation. Where the proliferation of choice is seen as the biggest positive development, it is not a surprise that the belief has percolated to the field of education as well. Education is the ice-cream parlour, the subjects are the various flavours on display. Take the one you like. No one’s better than the other. The vendor has no suggestions to make.


Take, for example, the schools under the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE). As early as Standard IX, students are required to select their ‘Second Language’ (it is named so as studying English is, of course, mandatory). The options available in my school were Sanskrit, Hindi, French and German.

While Sanskrit might look like a welcome inclusion in this list, anyone who has been at school knows that the picture isn’t so beautiful when it comes to its application. There are a very few students who take Sanskrit out of natural interest. Instead, most of the people who do are the ones who want to have it easy in their 10th Standard Board Exams. The fact that Sanskrit is a ‘scoring’ subject in which not too much hard work is necessary to get you a 95 out of 100 is known to all.

This has perverted the whole intention behind imparting knowledge about one of India’s ancient languages. A historically rich and beautiful form of communication has been reduced to becoming a way of acquiring numbers on a sheet of paper. A subject that can potentially open up one’s mind to a universe of knowledge is being mugged up mechanically by students, just as they had done for the multiplication tables in preparatory school.

On top of that, the options given to them are French and German. Now, for a child who has been familiar with phrases such as ‘the big, mean world’ and the ‘cut-throat competition’ outside, it is fairly easy to guess what language he or she will choose. In the new globalised India, where one might be involved in workforces constantly in interaction with foreign clients, a little knowledge of French or German is seen as an added ‘asset’. For the urban middle class India today, Sanskrit and elements such as that are part of the old India, the India gone by, and empowered by the chance at financial success and a superior quality of life 1991 has provided them, they are firm in their rejection for everything old. As if we there was actually a demarcation like such, where the old died and the new was born. But in their minds, it is clear.

I would like to iterate here that I have nothing against the teaching of foreign languages. The more appropriate way would to give students an option between Hindi and Sanskrit (and the local language of the place, if different from Hindi) and in addition, provide an optional Third Language option which facilitates the leaning of French, German and the like. The obvious argument to this would be that it’ll further increase the already immense workload the average school-goer suffers from. The obvious reply to this would be that perhaps languages are the only definable entity by which we stay connected to our culture, to the past. To subvert the study of the same for the sake of more ‘scientific’ education can be disastrous. In short, the study of history and culture, or in other words, what connects us to the past is of prime importance. The marginalisation of this defeats the very aim of education.

The underlying belief behind the existing state of affairs, though it might not be stated explicitly, is that education’s primary responsibility is to make products out of human beings. The phrase ‘duniya ke liye tayyar karna’ has taken a wholly absolute meaning today. Children have become raw materials, who are then processed with education, after which they are let out into the big, wide world as finished products. The system of examination prevalent today only furthers the extent and impact of the above style of thinking. We rely primarily on memory-based questioning which encourages students to stack up as much as they can within a period of time, just to vomit it all out on the day of the examination. There is very little emphasis given to imaginative or divergent learning, or to anything that falls beyond the scope of the textbooks.

All this is a result of a society which demands only concrete results. What you know and what you feel is immaterial to them. What matters is only the final number on your grade sheet. This is also a society that doesn’t permit failures. The emotional ostracisation that one has to undergo in case of the same is enormous. The numerous cases of suicides by students unsatisfied with their 10th and 12th grades are a big example of that. If that is not a cause of worry for us today, and if it doesn’t lead to radical change, it’s hard to say what will. The recent measures taken by the government to make the 10th board exams optional is a long-awaited step in the right direction.

Note: As I was writing this part of the piece, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal also came up with a proposal making the teaching of Hindi compulsory across all schools in the country. This, however, is ridiculous as imposing Hindi on a Tamilian is as unjust as imposing Tamil on someone from the Hindi belt.


Albeit, it is heartening to see Kapil Sibal eager to implement the suggestions made by the committee headed by the 82-year old Prof. Yash Pal (a full copy of the report can be found here). This report on higher education in India spells out the problems it is suffering from and also suggests policies and concrete steps the government should take to overcome the same.

As Mr. Sibal puts it, higher education today has become ‘compartmentalised’. That is not only to say that streams operate independently of each other, but also that research and education, which need to go hand in hand in order to produce quality teachers, are also seen as separate entities. Quoting the report:

It should be necessary for all research bodies to connect with universities in their vicinity and create teaching opportunities for their researchers and for all universities to be teaching and research universities.

While the report acknowledges the importance of imparting knowledge about a varied set of disciplines at least at the undergraduate level, it adds that there already are some current universities that offer such opportunities. For example, there are some engineering colleges today which offer courses on subjects such as history and philosophy. But even at those centres, they are very rarely taken seriously by the students. The report’s suggestion to counter this shortcoming:

One way of improving the quality of teaching of these additional disciplines and stimulating students’ interest is to allow students for whom a subject is additional to study along with those for whom the same subject is primary. For instance, a mathematics student should study and undergo evaluation in philosophy as an optional subject along with students for whom philosophy constitutes the primary subject.

The whole idea behind the report is to make education more inclusive by way of integration, be it in terms of disciplines such as science and humanities or fields such research and education itself. Should only a part of the suggestions mentioned in the report be implemented, it will lead to a significant positive change in the way education is perceived today.

The currently fashionable idea of ‘specialisation’ has taken a totally different form when it comes to universities. While schools, through electives, deprive the child of essential basic knowledge, universities, which are the last step for a student before starting on a job, work in near complete isolation with each other. The many engineering, management and medical colleges around the country have been lacking in this regard, and this does not exclude the much-aspired-for IITs and IIMs. An student who has taken admission into an engineering college is delivered education pertinent to his field of specialisation only; there are but very few colleges in India which encourage the study of subjects beyond its principal scope, depriving the student of exposure to innumerable possibilities where different fields of study interact and co-produce, leading to over-all, all-inclusive development. Development – this is one aspect of education very conveniently forgotten today. The Constitution is unclear about its regard for education as an agent of transformation or change. This spirit is lost when education starts to be seen as something that only ‘adds value’. The proliferation of private educational institutes offering higher education is a prime example of such change in view. Most of these institutions are nothing but money-minting ventures which take no responsibility for what their duty is towards the society at large. Rather than looking at the multi-national firms which recruit people from such places and the fat pay packages they give as criteria for judgement, universities should be judged by how much they have done to reduce disparities such as gender, class and caste.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Boring Road

He stepped down from the large autorickshaw, and his feet landed straight into a puddle. The autorickshaws running in Patna were different, not like the ones he hired in Delhi, with exclusive usage for the duration of the journey. He had had to share this one with around ten co-passengers, not to mention two others hanging precariously at the back. The rains had arrived and the air was humid. Amir’s shirt, soaked half with rain and half with sweat, still carried the smell of strangers.

He had been dropped at Hadtali Mod. Around him, the traffic went on with its usual business, cars honking and crawling past, the incessant rain just adding to the confusion. Sublime chaos, at three in the afternoon. The old temple on his right, the hoarding for Amrapali restaurant on the left, images from the past past. Still the same, this place, except for the new red lights which did not work.

The house wasn’t far from here. About a kilometre and a half. But it was still drizzling, and Amir called out a rickshaw-wala. Reluctantly (as afternoons were meant for siestas), the man agreed to take him to his destination. ‘Only 20 rupees’, is what the man asked in return for his sleep, and Amir found it hard to deny him that.


Puku, the old housemaid recognised him at once, and came almost running to the gate, mumbling something beneath her breath. She was visibly happy to see Amir, and perhaps, as Amir thought, couldn’t think of the right words to greet him with after all these years.

‘How are you, Puku mausi?’, said Amir, not knowing how else to start. Having opened the gate, she now reached down for his feet. He dismissed her with a couple of embarrassed utterings.

‘Is Nani at home?’, he now asked her.

‘Where else will she be? She’s here only....come come’, Puku replied, and signalled him to follow her.


The room, silent, orderly, unchanged. On the bed lay his Nani, his grandmother’s sister, sleeping, with her head turned away from the door. The fan went about its work slowly, as if it too had given in to the inviting afternoon. On a table alongside the bed – tablets, small bottles of medicine, a water flask and a glass, and an empty cup of tea. The table was the only new entrant since he had been here last, almost nine years ago; even the little sofa set and the paintings on the wall had remained as they were before.

‘Nani...nani’, Amir pronounced in a low voice, touching her feet gently. She turned to look, and for an unreal second or two, kept gazing at him.

‘Amir....amir...arey such a long time!’, she cried, and reached out for his face, covering it with both her hands. She looked at him closely now, and Amir wondered whether there was already a hint of moisture in her eyes. As a child, he’d always wondered how grandmothers could cry almost at will, or to put it more mildly - how easy tears were to them.

‘Nani, how are you?’, said Amir, caressing her hands and then taking them into his own. He looked at her hands, the wrinkles jutting out like cracks in a famine-struck land. Her nails, like his grandmother’s, curled completely in a perfect semi-circle. He had never seen a more abnormal pair of hands, and never a pair that was so beautiful.

‘How will I be, beta?’, is all she said in reply, and then asked, ‘How are you here?’

‘One of my friends is getting married. I was in I thought I’ll meet you’, said Amir, and they exchanged a smile.

She called out for Puku now, in a volume so low that it could only have been meant for Amir. He relayed the call, and Puku came, hunching, eager. She was asked to get another cup of tea, and she walked away, nodding.


‘What can I do, beta? It’s only these four walls for me now. Even to go to the toilet, I have to call Puku. Poor woman, she’s still here after all this....’

The rain had resumed full service. Amir sipped on the tea, nodding slowly from time to time. The saucer now had a small ring of brown in the centre, tea which had fallen down from the cup, and he watched this circle form and un-form as he picked up or placed down the cup. Everything was so slow, relaxed; he wished he could lie down on the bed too, in this peace broken only by his grandmother’s voice, and the soft tip-tip of the rain outside.

‘Time has come to a standstill for me. Days pass and I don’t even remember what date it is...I read sometimes, but even that is difficult to do for long when you are always lying down, no? Everything is so monotonous but what can one do?’

‘Why don’t you change things around in this room, Nani? A little change here might help...why don’t you replace these old paintings for one?’

She only smiled at Amir, said nothing. The smile made him feel uncomfortable, he wondered whether he had hurt her in some way, and lowered his eyes. There was silence for a minute or two. How distant they had grown, thought Amir, in their own worlds now, separated by time, space, memory. And still, everything on the outside had remained the same, the gate outside the house, the room with its old structure intact, the two beautiful hands, the semi-circular nails, her voice.

‘I’m so happy to see you. At this age, what else do we have to live for? Not just me, but anyone. To see you again after so many years, to hear your voice, that’s enough. Otherwise, what is there to look forward to? Just two lonely women living out their respective lives. ’


On his way out, Puku had handed him one of his grandmother’s umbrellas. When he refused saying that he wouldn’t need it, she thrust it into his hand, adding that it was of no use to the house anyway. It was still raining, in fact more heavily than before. But Amir had decided to walk to the Mod, and he ambled along slowly.

Half-way, he paused to look at the scene around him. The rain had cast a white shadow over everything. So much so, that it seemed to him that even the early evening traffic chaos looked beautiful. A stupid, dangerous thought, he then reminded himself, shook his head, and walked on.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Death of Familiarity

“Why don’t we ever learn that all changes of place are for the worse? It’s not love for the place; it’s the familiarity, like old winter clothes.”

- English, August
Upamanyu Chatterjee

How does he start?

It was like being in the presence of an old lover, there was familiarity but also the knowledge that he didn’t belong here anymore, that it belonged or was going to belong to someone else very soon. Yet, everything was there as he had left it, books and papers strewn on the table, the almirah wide open with some leftover clothes, some leftover books and CDs. Even the graffiti on the wall, and the little Mao Zedong mask, hanging rather precariously.

He had only a few hours to himself. His last few hours as the owner of this hostel room, one that he had inhabited for four long years, his territory. He had to check if anything worth of value was still left to be taken away, throw out the remaining garbage and pass on the room possession to the supervisor.

The place almost felt eerie, naked and abandoned. To think that not so long back, this place had been full with conversation, laughter, Floyd and Morrison, was unimaginable. He felt heavy with feeling, something that was hard to explain, even to himself.

How does he start?

He looked into his drawer. It was quite a melange, from everything like newspaper contacts to received rakhis on display. There were also a broken nail-cutter, some shampoo pouches , fee receipts as old as four years and keys for which he had now lost the locks.

He picked up the rakhis; they could not be thrown away like that. The shampoo pouches – they could still be used. And what about the newspaper contacts? Couldn’t they be of use later?

Suddenly, he felt tired, physically and mentally. He closed the drawer and lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Was it possible for him to take away everything? Was it even desirable? Was it correct wanting to create an exact replica of this room, with its drawers, racks and closets, wherever he was headed next? Is it right to carry memory as baggage and not leave behind things knowing that they didn’t belong to you anymore, and indeed weren’t even needed?

With some effort, he got up again and headed for the almirah. It had been wide open for the last couple of years, in the exact position as it was now, owing to his lethargy and near aversion to cleanliness. There were cobwebs and dust all around, and retrieving things felt like digging up stuff from debris. There was not much to take really; the few t-shirts, socks and handkerchiefs littered weren’t fit for public consumption anymore, and he let them remain where they were. There were a few assorted CDs too, perhaps the only thing worth taking away, and he pulled them up.

He felt rather exhausted. There was dust on his hands and his whole body was soaked in sweat. Why, he thought to himself. What’s all this for?

It was over. Whatever remained would be thrown away. He walked to the door and looked at the room one last time. He tried to sum everything up – the room and him, but his thoughts failed him, or his intelligence did. Irritated, he switched off the power, walked out and locked the room.

Ready to walk away, all of a sudden, he felt the urge to see the place once more, now for the last, last time. He opened the door again, switched on the lights and had another look. Unanticipated, a wild surge of emotion ran through him.

Why, why does he even have to leave this place? Why can’t he live here forever? Why do we ever move away? Why do we ever leave our homes?

He felt angry, repulsed – whether by himself or the room, it was hard for him to say. He walked out finally, locked the door and walked away, without looking back, with as much confidence as he could possibly fake.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


He looks into the mirror and asks - 'Do you wish to become a monster?'

The mirror pauses for a moment and then says - 'No, I'd rather remain a human being.'

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ignorance, Kundera

I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That's where the misunderstanding starts: they don't have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don't intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals, but also because they don't hold the same importance for each other.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


You will read the words on a cloudy August morning.

The smells of rain of the night gone by would slowly reach your nostrils. You would wake up, reluctantly, and the first thing you’d see would be drops falling down from the tin roof outside your window. The drizzle falling on the roof itself would make soft, pleasing sounds, and for some time, you will lie there, just listening. You will pull the blanket up to your neck, and contemplate going to sleep again. In a while, you will get up and look out of the window you had left half-open last night. The sky would be an all-white, and the air would be filled with a strange drowsy innocence.

The words, wrapped in paper, would lie on your desk, unattended, almost washed with the rain that had managed its way in through the window. You would pick them up, tear open the envelope. Some of the letters would have lost shape and form, smudged.

Yes, you will read those words on such a cloudy August morning.

And maybe then, if never else, they would make sense.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dark Man IV

The near-darkness to which the brown curtains subjected the room was making Amir almost feel drowsy. The heavy thick piece of cloth had something resembling flowers stitched on it. He ran his hand on the contours, absentmindedly, not knowing how really to spend time. It was a holiday, and an afternoon, and with Papa asleep and Maa busy with chores, there wasn’t much to keep himself busy at.

The eyes were slowly giving way now. He was almost half-asleep.

Just then, the door bell rang. Far from being irritated to be disturbed when just about to doze off, Amir felt rather excited. Activity was activity. And on an afternoon with nothing to do, even to open the door for the maid or the dhobi was an event, an occurrence that gave the passing time some shape, some meaning. So before his mother could even call out to him to answer the bell, he was almost there, ready to finally let some sunlight in.

Through the netted door, Amir saw a man, dark, spectacled, slightly bending forward with a beaming smile on his face. Even he, as little as he was, could see that the smile was fake, forced and rather shaky, that of a man eager to please. On his shoulder, he carried a thaila, and in his hand was what looked like a box wrapped in plastic. Before he could ask the man anything, he himself spoke.

Bete, mummy ghar pe hain?

Haan hain….kya kaam hai?

Unko jaa ke bulao…

He had ignored Amir’s little query. Children have to get used to their little queries being ignored.

He gave the man a momentary stare and then rushed inside. Maa was in her bedroom, recording expenses in her diary, the one household task she seemed to enjoy most. Looking at Amir entering the room now, she gave her writing hand a pause.

Kya hua? Kaun hai?’, she asked.

Again, before Amir could speak, a question had been thrown at him.

Koi aadmi hai. Bola ‘mummy’ ko bulao’, replied Amir, then eager to provide some extra useful information, ‘Lagta hai kuchh bechne aaya hai…

Bolo woh ghar mein nahi hain.

Lekin hum bol chuke hain ki who ghar mein hain’, Amir lied.

His mother looked up from her diary now. For a moment or two, she looked at Amir, wondering whether she should get angry at him, and then decided against it. Instead, she clicked her tongue, threw the diary on the bed and stormed out of the room.

Kya hai?’, she shouted at the man outside. She stood in the dining room, in the darkness. The man couldn’t sight her, and as he hadn’t really seen her coming, he took a little while to reply.

Didi zaraa idhar aake dekh to lijiye…AquaGuard Zero-B sab bhool jayiyega!’, he finally did, holding something he had just taken out of the box.

Nahi chahiye!’ is all she said in reply and then stormed back into the bedroom. The man kept pleading behind her, begging her to give the machine just one single look, offering her the world’s cleanest water, and even free installation of the contraption in the household kitchen.

Amir looked at the man closely from behind the netted door. He appeared exhausted, if anything. Mentally and physically. Sweat poured down from his forehead, pure transparent drops of crystal, like the clean water he promised. The flat was on the 3rd floor. God knows how many such he had visited this afternoon, Amir thought, and how many steps he had had to climb, only to be snubbed at the doorway.

After this latest unsuccessful attempt, the man prepared to pack up and leave. When just about to turn back, he looked at the door and saw the kid gazing at him.

Bete…ek glass paani pila doge?’, he asked in a low tone.

Haan, ek minute rukiye…’, replied Amir, without even a moment’s hesitation and ran to the kitchen. He didn’t need his mother’s permission. You never deny a thirsty man water if he has asked for some, he remembered having been told by his elders many a time. Surely, Maa doesn’t need to be bothered for this.

He filled a glass with water and walked back to the door. Silently, trying not to attract his mother's attention, he kept the glass down, unlatched the netted door (something that required both his hands), lifted the glass and placed it into the man’s extended hand. He did it all almost like a ritual and it gave him an immense sense of satisfaction. Why, his little mind wasn’t quite disposed to fathom yet.

The man drank the entire glass and gave it back to Amir, saying ‘Thank You’. He himself replied with a neat ‘Welcome’ and closed the door again. He then watched the man pick up his thaila and walk down the stairs, to ring the bell for another potential customer, to sell the world’s cleanest water.