And we all fall down …

Remember the ‘ring a ring of roses, pocket full of …’ the jingle to which we fluttered about in circles of mirth. Ah those merry memories of childhood!

Now here we are exclaiming with a sigh, ‘My child doesn’t study’ ‘My child is a difficult teen’ ‘My child doesn’t listen’ and the bafflement of being a parent continues. It’s quite an endeared torture! one that we want to have and don’t want to have in equal measure. It’s an absent presence in the household. While we barely have the time or strength to deal with anything in the aftermath of work pressure and other mundane stresses of living, we continue to sigh and suffer as anxious parents.

Just wondering now, was I a perfect child? Did I always show interest in studies? Did I always listen? Did I question authority in sheer defiance? Well as for me, I just somehow scraped through school. By the time I developed interest in any subject, I had already passed the stage of learning the basics. I gathered, I suppose, as I went along. Life and career eventually turned out equitable. At each step along the way there were hurdles, challenges and misgivings. They may have been excruciatingly painful while each lasted. Some became stepping stones and some gruesome recollections. When I look back, they made for some interesting sequences in the drama of my life. I have ample stories to tell. Ample to brag and ample skeletons hidden in the secret cupboard.

Could my parents have protected me any better? They were always concerned and tried everything they could beyond the best. Our household always had the gloomy all-encompassing presence of worry for me and my brother’s education, our future. The constant struggle was always evident. Both of us had our goodness and our rough edges too. Inspite of all the love and guidance, we made our mistakes and lived through our share of troubles.

Nature gives us children, but not the ability to make their mistakes for them. We can talk, share, discuss, warn and encourage and most of all listen and love. We can cherish their dreams, rather than ours embossed on theirs. We can express the surge of emotions and let them have the free space to live and share their inner lives with us. But they will still make their own mistakes and learn their own way. They are here to live their life.

It’s sheer torture to see them making mistakes, we think we can stop them from; to feel helpless as they won’t listen, to feel disregarded as they stampede over our ideologies; to incessantly fight a loosing battle; to be resilient in the face of emotional upheaval; to feel most needed and no longer needed all at once… as we become an absent presence in the lives of our very own bundles of joy.

All religious scriptures preach, ‘Let go’ in some form or another. But oh the bane of attachment! It’s easier said than done. And yet, as parents our anxiety is not what helps. Our equanimity does. In multiple ways and for a multitude of reasons, we do need to learn to let go. To love and to let them live.

Don’t we all fall down… and rise again in the ring of roses?


EXAM Exam Examination…

We are a nation in love with examinations. Not exactly medical examination but school examinations. We have invented some medical requirements around it though, over the years. Exam fever, stress and anxiety disorders, suicide attempts are some of the side effects. These can affect children, as well as parents fighting for their rightful place in the convoluted social circuit.

Beware of the neighbour’s kids, the best friend’s kids and the entire range of in-law kids. They are some of the most potent opponents in the exam game. Life becomes hell if they beat us in the game. Motherhood’s success stands questioned and Mr. Guilt, woman’s worst foe and closest companion, takes over with immediate effect. Yes, I get it. We’ve got to be competitive. That’s survival. Isn’t it?

Thanks to Lord Macaulay’s incredible gift to the Indian Education system, one of the many legacies of the British empire, we the post colonials, love white skin and prefer the familiar traps. Sheer familiarity makes the traps comforting. We resist change. The traditional has always worked for us after all. Who questions ritual? Who questions tradition? Those are just supposed to be followed blindly and passed on to generations…

So with good reason, our Id is merrily sacrificed for the insatiable satisfaction of our Ego. Ego guised nevertheless as SuperEgo, for everyone’s benefit (that policy applies on moral grounds!). I am sure Sigmund Freud would love this application of his theory.

I still remember walking back from the school bus stand that morning. It had rained. My 6 year old sensory organs couldn’t resist the temptation of jumping in the puddles, chasing the frogs, catching the earthworms and screeching at the discovery of various new creatures crawling the ground. The rustle of leaves, the soothing smell of mud soaked in rain water, the riot of colour all around, the washed bright green, the pink orange and red of flowers in bloom… Ah the exam was over.

My world had an accentuated bliss, until I saw my mother. My anxious mother greeted me with her favourite question, “How was the exam?” Trying to avoid further probing, “good” I retorted. Since times immemorial, there has never been any stopping of mothers. I had to be interrogated question by question by question… listed in that wretched rolled question paper for the Hindi final exam. She had made me rote-learn every minute piece in the Hindi syllabus puzzle. I rambled on with applicable answers to all the questions.

Among other things, it included an essay on the Cow, our sacred animal (a bit beyond sacred these days). I had learnt it with spellings and punctuation, all intact. Yes, I had been able to blurt it out on the answer scripts too. Only some pieces shifted places to my peril! My kiddo brain, fried in the oil of limited time left for the last question, mixed up the order. So the first sentence I could pen to paper turned out to be as follows, “Gae gobar deti hai.”

The rest of the sentences came back to me albeit in random order. My rote-learnt essay lost its organised structure. Holding a heavy head in her hands, “ab Teacher bhi number gobar hi Degi,” reverted my desolate mother. It was so simple she said, “why couldn’t you remember, Gae hamari mata hai…” She was clearly tortured to bits. She had worked really hard for my exam. I had let her down! For a few moments, the wonder of rain, the comfort of end to an ordeal, lost all its sheen. Despair took over, filling the air with guilt and self-doubt. Little did I understand the working of the human brain back then. My 6 year old sensibilities simply felt good for nothing.

Thankfully, I soon found my own ways to deal with the perennial exam struggle. Some things were taken for granted, some motherly and teacherly dramatics ignored, some anger absorbed, some rules adhered and some not. The creative curious being inside me found ways to explore learning on my own, while barely managing to sail through the school examinations. There were many allies in this beautiful journey. One of our favourite quotes became,

Gae hamaari Mata hai,

humko kuch nahi aata hai.”


Those Piercing Eyes and Sharp Tongues

The school bag, latched to my shoulders, weighed painfully on my back like a heavy sack of rice on a frail frame. Fixing the tiffin box into one of its pockets, my mother’s sharp tongue rambled on, “Don’t write too slowly…revise properly before you submit the sheet…avoid careless mistakes…don’t waste time sharpening those pencils…eat your tiffin… don’t keep pulling at that cardigan… no playing in the mud… you collect filth on your clothes everyday…stop pulling at your hair…” I rushed out to quench the auto-rickshaw drivers’ honks at our gate. My ears were used to the unstoppable music of my mother’s tongue. That cacophony of commandments didn’t really expect much of a response anyway. It made for some foreground music to our morning routines.

School days are filled with routines and commandments, I suppose. Adults reign over our childhood lives with an unquestioned authority to command immediate obedience, dictate terms, pass judgements, often adding to the melodrama with scathing sarcasm. Our lives are quite literally governed by their approvals and disapprovals! Oh that sounds almost like slavery in the name of parenting a child! On the flip side, as a mother today, I don’t know who is the slave here? Unlike the slave, the child doesn’t always obey. Unlike the master, the mother is perennially guilty of not doing enough well enough. In this osmotic relationship, the overwhelming ingredient is love, thoroughly pure unconditional love. It transforms everything and this slavery to the child or slavery to the parent metamorphoses into a labour of love. No matter how sharp, irritating and nonsensical, the mother’s chiding commandments still form the music notes of childhood.

There is a similar slavery to be lived at the School as well. Commandments, rules and routines prepare us, quite adequately perhaps, for a work-life filled to the brim with the same. The survival rat-race leaves little room for anything else.

Yet, what still thrives, peering through the chinks in the routine, is the sweet rhythm of life itself. The attachment and sensitivity of an emotional life within us. The eternal yearning soul within us. It provides the balance, the sedimentary mix that blurs all the sundry segments of laughter and tears… Well, in gross terms, the flesh and blood to the bare bones of existence.

Thus, we make friends, we connect and we feel. I have often wondered, why school friends last forever. There is a raw innocence to those connections and I think that lasts forever. We learnt it all together. Back in school, when piercing eyes of parents and teachers and a variety of sharp tongues lashed out at us, we faced the brunt together. Our unity was exemplary as partners in crime. We possessed the precious diamond of prankster trust. We knew none would ever spill the beans of our forays into the forbidden.

As a little girl in Grade IV, I knew I could bare my heart and soul to Nirjhar. She would never judge me. I could slap her lovingly and expect sheer laughter in response. We could spend hours on end hanging half-strung on the branches of guava trees in Allahabad, chattering away in competition with birds. She was special. Simple and carefree.

There were others too. Richa, the tall girl in our class, permanently cautious, never seemed to agree with our carefree attitude. Nirjhar and I were often subjected to lunch-break lectures from Richa. I am sure Sir Francis Bacon would have named them, ‘On consciousness’. We needed to be conscious of our surroundings, conscious of what others thought about us, of how we were perceived by the senior students, of how to fold our legs to sit like elegant girls, how to respond and walk gracefully… I am still indebted to Richa’s lessons in umpteen ways. Back then, she was a pain of a friend with perennially judgemental eyes. Nirjhar and I hardly ever shared our little secrets with her. We wondered why she couldn’t be simpler, while she seemed to take pride in her maturity. Richa was the favourite with our mothers. That only made it worse. I think I finally understand you now Richa! The friend I still miss though, is Nirjhar.

Mother to a brat of a teenager now, I am still blessed with the commandments from my own mother. My disheveled hair still remains a case in point. So does every aspect of my lifestyle. This morning the phone rang at 7:00 am. There she was saying morning walks are good, one should rise early and so what if it’s Sunday… 😇😅


New girl on the block

Thousands of feet tapping to guided movement, discipline chants in teacher voices, involuntary chuckles and unstoppable laughter breaking through hushed jokes, random tunes playing on little tape recorders and trendy walk-men (yes that’s what they were called! Who knew we were soon to have walk phones transforming our world?) and the continuous chatter, all of it made for a rather mysterious cacophony in the sunny school corridors.

Yet, we were expected to magically listen to detailed nuances of music notations and synchronise taught steps to those. Yes we did. Perhaps all generations of children often manage the unthinkable during school days. The scorching hot wind gushing through our veins in the july summer afternoon only made for a comforting breeze cooling off the sweat. There were no fans in the corridors.

There was a lot more to be heard amidst the cacophony though. The tones of excitement and many muted disappointments. The latter were mostly ignored. Who had time to deal with the sulking souls amidst preparations for the annual concert? They were left to sort themselves out… Some could and learnt useful life lessons in the process. Some could not.

Well, the schools hardly ever seemed to have time for these. The schedule always seemed too tight and a bit too matter-of-fact to accommodate the emotional vagaries of the human mind. Each time my father got a new posting, I found myself amidst strangers in an unknown territory. I found myself in an unfamiliar city, in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar neighbourhood, an unfamiliar school trying to find my way in the hearts of strange unwelcoming classmates and unreachable teachers. Education somewhere meant trying to eek out the unknown from the unknown and making sense out of it. Now that’s quite a definition. Isn’t it? It was my constant rigorous training into the art of fitting in, the art of finding my tribe, perhaps finally belonging.

Amidst concert rehearsals in this school corridor cacophony, I heard an unfamiliar teacher voice say, “Hey there, Vaishali, that girl is out of sync. I don’t think she can dance. Tell her to leave the show.” They were both staring at me. So they were talking about me. Oh no!

Two things were clarified in that moment. First, Vaishali was the invincible favourite student and the de facto director of the show. Second, I was being thrown out on the first day of rehearsals. They all thought I was incapable. Was I? But, I loved dancing. Didn’t I? They had always appreciated my performances at the previous school! Didn’t they? I needed to begin again. I had to find my place here.

This was my epiphany. Dance was my calling. I pestered my mother to make me join classical training in Bharatnatyam outside School. I envied Vaishali’s special place with the teachers. I had to be better than her. There is a raw hunger in comparison with others. I think I was guilty of it in those initial months at the dance school. My feet tapped on and my body swirled effortlessly filled with an unquenchable passion to be called better than Vaishali. My riaz went on for hours on end fed by that raw passion.

The passion bore fruit just two months later when the same teacher told Vaishali to let me take the centre stage instead of her. “There is such grace in your movements. Are you learning classical dance?” This time Vaishali heard the teacher say it to me! I had managed to find my place. Perhaps my gain was Vaishali’s loss. It hits me with guilt today, but back then I was too immersed in the new-found glory to comprehend it. For 10 year old girls, this was much more complicated. I needed friends. She had snubbed me earlier. She was the leader of the tribe and clearly it had a guarded territory. Once again, I extended my friendship and this time she finally accepted it. I suddenly had an upper hand! We went in to do various stage performances together thereafter and her friendship was a blessing.

Comparison with others may make for a beginning. It’s a fleeting passion at best. Continuous unbridled meditative effort, the real riaz, as we call it in our classical art forms, makes for excellence. What followed was incessant comparison with myself and sheer love for the art form. Bharatnatyam is an inseparable instinct of my being. It flows through the rhythms of living and growing. It manifests itself in my body’s expressions, my mind’s discipline, my powerful emotions, my resilience…

Teachers’ statements and decisions rule our lives in multilateral ways. Perhaps Mrs. Rosalind, our dance teacher in school, who always had a beautiful red rose bud sticking out of the tight bun on her nape, never realised her contribution to my classical training or my sense of belongingness in the school.


Travelogue School

The kids were all over the place, running amok in glee. Well, that’s what was apparent to fellow travellers staring at us, askance expressions on their faces! We teachers, smiled back at them, beaming with our all-knowing demeanours. We knew the method to the madness. We had created it. To us the madness indicated the levels of engagement, the depth of learning.

This was in Amber Fort, Jaipur. More than 100 primary and middle school students were working in explorer groups to unravel the secrets of history, geography, mathematics, architecture and politics ensconced in this epoch of a building. They had half an hour to run around, find information, places, justifications, rationales and possibilities to answer the set of thinking questions assigned to each group. Each little discovery was a little victory of team work. Within their teams, they distributed areas of work, defined timelines, planned circle-back discussions and brainstormed conclusions based on analyses of evidence collected. Can learning be better achieved in a 30 minute lesson?

And yet, all that is but a trickle in the stream of true learning that naturally gets integrated with travelling. The planning of a journey, backpacking for survival in unknown territory, often with unfamiliar companions, dealing with an array of deranged deep emotions, exploring, navigating, improvising to make it all work out better… it’s a simulation of life, a simulation of growing up and becoming. Each journey is a piece in the Bildungsroman.

To the educator, travelling with children is an opportunity to create a multi-level and thoroughly inclusive classroom. Toto Chan’s classrooms made out of converted railway coaches metaphorically capture the essence. The child’s eyes, wistfully peering out of the classroom window, stand for the innate desire to break the shingles and learn from the world out there. Birds frolicking to create their nest in the tree trunk outside the class window, are bound to be more interesting than black and white boards filled with semantic symbols. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre too looks at the horizon from the castle’s daunting walls. Freedom lures and yet we have our innate fears of freedom to tackle as well! Human existence is quite a paradox. Yet, for better or worse, we are changing, evolving from Man to Superman, or should I say Superhuman (to satisfy my gender-sensitive self).

If I had my way as a teacher, schools would be a series of journeys, curriculum a travelogue…planned like lessons, but not to the ‘t’, leaving room for unpredictability, students’ ideas, creativity, inquiry. Virtual reality is making some things come alive but it’s still far from my dream Travelogue School. Nevertheless, some of my most memorable experiences as a teacher have been journeys with children. From learning King Fu at the Shaolin temple in China, wielding the veils with my skimpily clad girls (by some cultural standards) at the Grand mosque in Dubai, making castles on the beach to excavating deserts and brazing the heights of Himalayan ranges, these journeys have charted my life as a teacher. Perhaps, more apt terminology would be a learner, an explorer. Observing my spirited young globe trotters navigating their way through cultures, cuisines, arts, history and languages of human civilisations in varied geographies, I have often admired the merging of dissimilarities, the acceptance of the ‘Other’, an effortless sensitivity to global concerns emerging naturally. This is global citizenship moving beyond the here and now, to much larger paradigms.

Perhaps nothing motivates a teacher more than the joyous sense of achievement on a child’s face, the unadulterated hunger for knowledge, the right questions… It’s our manna in the incessant journey of learning. The destination is for our students to reach. We take pride in them when they do, but our bliss is in the quest itself.


‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’

On a usual July summer morning, flushed faces soaked in sweat and generous sunshine moved about their business like honey bees. Wielding colourful pictures and print material, little hands worked dextrously to design classroom soft boards. One small box of board pins, one large card sheet and two pairs of scissors were being shared between 50 girls. We had 20 minutes to complete the task. If video-tapped, it could have been used as an excellent example of seamless teamwork. I think every teacher has known the unbridled vibrance, the sheer energy, the collaborative enthusiasm of primary school children.

This victory was crucial. A large chunk of our house points depended on it. We were a wild focused army of Gorkhas fighting for a cause… the first cause known to our innocent human existence in Grade 4. We could have given our lives for those Red, Blue, Green and Yellow houses. Mocking slogans mercilessly filled the school air. ‘Yellow yellows, the dirty fellows’ , ‘Blue blues, mend your shoes’… Yes, I was in the Blue house. (Perhaps, that explains my pure love for Indigo to this day.)

The theme assigned by our class teacher was, ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.’ We had collected relevant materials for the soft boards with much ado. In those days bereft of the World Wide Web, it meant rummaging for ideas and meanings in the school library, sifting through piles of old magazines and newspapers, coaxing parents and neighbours and whoever you will into answering endless questions… One week of preparation and here we were. Books had convinced me and my fellow house mates that physical beauty was just one superficial aspect and the idiom meant that beauty could go beyond skin deep, that beauty was subjective, that the beholder’s perspective made all the difference.

Phew! it’s done, dot on the clock. Time to stand back and marvel at our creation, our very own rather wistful representation of beauty. We were proud of it and smirked at the other soft boards that were filled with pictures of models representing the standard conformist definition of beauty. Quite evidently, we were the unrivalled winners!

Nope. Our teacher did not think so! She was expecting good-looking boards and the models from latest advertisements of beauty products did it for her. A debate ensued, as a bunch of little girls suddenly turned into unstoppable crusaders of the feminist brigade. We certainly had a good library! Mrs. Srivastava perhaps cursed the moment she had chosen this theme and ended the discussion with a curt, ‘-5 to Blue house for questioning my decision. Yellow house has put the heading very clearly in bold letters. They are the winners and get 20 house points.’

Disappointment. Yes, and injustice. It was a regular feature of school days and contributed to many lifelong lessons…

The Score card lies in the hands of the teacher. I learnt it that day. For every assignment thereafter, I asked as many questions as I was allowed. I had to gauge the teacher’s understanding and expectations from the task assigned. I gave them what they wanted. I learnt and read what I wanted and thus loved leisure reading and hated school work.

That’s exactly how the subverted class develops intuitive abilities. I read this theory years later in a book about the psychology of women.

Photo Credits- VA. Theme- against the tide.


Newton’s Third Law of Motion..

Mrs. Subramaniam, our rather boring History teacher, rambled on… her sing-song voice devoid of emotion filled the air with sleep molecules. The resultant yawning faces struggled to stifle the forbidden yawn. She was reading to us from the text book and we had to ‘Pay attention in Pindrop silence.’ Offending her meant standard 10 minutes of humiliation and two giant hands knocking your cheeks apart in two head-splitting thunderous thuds.

Looking sleepy was potentially dangerous. We had mastered the art of looking busy taking notes while she read on. There was nothing to note though, so we busied ourselves with the infinite Mathematics or Science homework, hidden half-baked under the History text book. My two buddies, Shivani Saxena and Anjan Roy, our class toppers since times immemorial, were busy completing Physics. Wow, Mrs. Subramaniam could make even convoluted Physics look interesting by inverse proportions.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I whispered, reading from Anjan’s textbook. “What does that mean? If I hit you, you’ll hit me back, right?” I asked looking unbearably serious.

“No” retorted Shivani, “It means Mrs. Subramaniam will hit him back!” Irresistible smiles breaking through our innocent demeanours. Who hasn’t known the guilty pleasure of seeing a friend in trouble with a teacher? Childhood is cruelly innocent. “Arre tum log chup raho!” Anjan sensed trouble. There we go. “Anjan Roy!” we heard our teacher’s ear-piercing tone and poor Anjan was summoned to her desk for the standard humiliation routine.

Sorry buddy, I never wanted to see you go through that. More than 25 years now, but the guilt still hasn’t stopped gnawing at me.

Did our teachers draw some guilty pleasure out of this discipline formula? In these scenarios, Newton’s third law failed us quite evidently! The giant hand or the narrow end of the wooden ruler hit you hard on your cheeks, knuckles or shins but you had to react with sheer silence. Earth-shattering pindrop silence, heart-wrenching pindrop silence, blood-curdling pindrop silence…

Explanations were demanded and demanded in a variety of tones while the sing-song teacher’s voice transformed into a bag of dramatic raging emotions. The fervently demanded explanations were certainly not to be given though. They were demanded and not called for simultaneously. Explain that one to us please Newton.

Responding, in fact had magnanimous implicit connotations. From disrespecting the teacher to not being attentive in class to being careless to being immoral… actually explaining could mean anything. Silence was the only safe response, even as one was chided to speak up through the beating retreat.

Newton’s law succeeded nevertheless. We still loved the teachers and they loved us back. We fondly remember and laugh at those memories now. School meant life’s grey lessons in so many ways. The secret of golden silence, the simplicity of acceptance, the transience of difficult moments and pain all mixed into the laws of motion and theories of relativity.