Thursday, August 28, 2008

Learning Unlearning and all that …..


The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
Alvin Toffler
Yesterday sitting in an interview board of Staff selection Commission I met with about a dozen such illiterates holding degrees from some of the well known Universities/colleges. How would you react if a first class masters’ degree holder from University of Delhi for English (hon) failed to recite a single poem of Shakespeare..or Keats…or Shelly ? The chairman of my board, a retired bureaucrat , was not much shocked with the blank and confused look of the interviewee . I am sure he must have seen a lot more such samples during his thirty odd years in the government. But with just 8 years of experience , I found it difficult to believe as among the interviewees we had History graduates unable to tell the significance of 1707 AD as the beginning year for –Modern Indian History. There were people working as tax assistants unable to distinguish between direct and indirect taxes and MBAs (shockingly from my own university) who could not explain two factor theory of motivation . Probably one can let go of ignorance about theoretical aspects of a subject studied but how do you ignore the poor language skills? Or ignorance about the world around us ? All candidates were using terms like naxalites, Maoists, insurgency, terrorism, fundamentalist organisation loosely. Neither they knew the difference between these nor were they aware of its correct usage. Another senior professor on the interview board informed me that the situation is almost similar even in Civil services interviews. His reading was that one can get most degrees without much knowledge of the subject or command over the medium of instruction . I can’t blame it to students. Most of them were from small towns and were trying hard to break the ceiling between Bharatand India . If some of my friends are to be believed , in corporate sector too there is acute shortage of qualified staff . My sister informs me that in big IT firms we have engineers on roll who don’t know even the most elementary logic and in my own office I find Hindi translators with abysmal knowledge of the language .
My first reaction was of disbelief followed by anger …..gradually I realised it is not surprising at all. Where is the scope for imagination? Of taking interest in a subject ? Of learning for learning sake ? It is simply a stepping stone to get into a secure livelihood . Don’t you come across students ‘preparing for competitions’ asking about which subjects are ‘in’ and are considered scoring these days . You get to meet parents of school going children inquiring about which branch has better chances of getting a job. We have our school boards making examination patterns more and more objective to ensure less stress , better marks and …err..poor language and expression skills for students . We also have our syllabus designed by barely eligible educationists. Years back I found a classic case in this regard when my father started teaching English to our Milkman’s son who was doing his 10th from UP Borad with Agriculture stream. The boy was totally disinterested in opening the book . My father diagnosed the problem after a while . The prose and poetry chosen for his compulsory English textbook was devoid of any sensitivity to his surroundings. A village boy of UP studying amidst poverty and illiteracy of elders was to go through essays about English Parishes, Wordsworth’s Lucy Grey and even ‘La belle dam sans merci’ to learn a language still foreign to him. Things and scenes explained there were so strange to him that they hardly made any sense to his mind. My father was so agitated that he started compiling a book for this boy’s reading which included stories by RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and poems of Sarojini Naidu. The boy found this interesting. But to pass his exam , he still had to mug up the ‘foren’ poems and texts with which he can’t relate to . The teacher of their school was also a fresh graduate quite uncomfortable in English and a product of the same system. Naturally like all other classmates he was keen to take refuge of ‘guidebooks’ written in awful language and ‘key books’ and guess papers . All his friends were just mugging up part of these booklets to ensure passing marks – for most of them no doors of jobs will open without mandatory school degrees and school degrees will not be obtained without resorting to these horrid keybooks and guessbooks. Many would not even buy the original textbook to save some money. What knowledge of subject we can expect from these kids in future?
This is not only for village students , even my colleagues complain that their kids studying in best public schools are discouraged to innovate while solving maths sum. They have to ‘learn by heart’ even the explanations of poems and steps of maths equations solving. No scope for expression even in literature subjects and no question of deviation in solving mathematics. On our word processors we have spell checks to ensure correct spellings and tools to ensure correct grammar. There are interactive TV channels to help them with homework and still the quality of education from school to college is nose-diving . Degrees like MBAs, MCAs and engineering are available from Never-Heard-Before institutes and hordes of our young men and women are making big with international companies. I am not for ridiculing these youngsters. They are simply a product of their education system and surroundings . It is the same culture that forces our young sales executives to speak in English and wear ties in the hot summer days to ‘make an impression’ while selling goods…however uncomfortable it makes them . But next time you found the call centre executive faltering on a well rehearsed sentence or speaking nonsense – think about it seriously. Its about time we take a serious note on our education system. We must take our kids out of the obsession for marks catching techniques and encourage them to the good old ways of learning rather than just acquiring paper degrees . Or else let us be prepared to face a situation (already there in many government sector offices) where we have workers incapable of understanding the work assigned to them for want of elementary knowledge of the field .

Monday, August 18, 2008

Yarrows forever ...

Its beautiful, its majestic and its charming ……and much better –its home. This place just declines to change ( and thank God for that!) . It’s a still moment in the river of time- a droplet that has frozen amidst the Shivalik ranges of Himalayas for ages to come and admire . Generations of my service officers have passed out of this place-Yarrows, our alma mater and much more .A place you can’t help falling in love at the first sight …and keep doing that again and again for after thousands sights too . I am here once again after 3 years of separation and this time I have a different role to play. But it was not the official work that was in my mind ever since this trip was scheduled. It was only and only , my memories of this place . Shimla –a city I love in all seasons and Yarrows- our royal home at Shimla. ­­­­
Its difficult to list out things and sights related to Yarrows, which I miss once I am out in the big bad world. I miss the serene smile of Buddha sitting calmly beneath the walnut tree, I miss the camellia shrub that will start blooming next month onwards, I miss the sunset behind the pines and I miss the chuk-chuk of the toy train passing from the glen valley. More that anything I miss the warm security I felt here during my probation days, the fun and gaiety of the place, the friends I made over here, my long walks to Annandale and to Viceregal Lodge and of course my very own room no.11 inside Yarrows.
When we came here first , some stories of sighting Mr. Jinnah’s ghost were passed on to us. Well, a ghost in a hill cottage is always welcome, it is almost a status symbol for any house worth its name in history books and most certainly Yarrows deserved one. Mr. Jinnah’s stature too is befitting our Yarrows’s glory but you may ask, why would Mr. Jinnah’s ghost would choose this far off place to haunt. Of course, this was once his summer house and it is said he spent his honeymoon with his beautiful wife Rati over here. But then, the late leader definitely inhabited many more beautiful houses in his lifetime. I guess his ghost would at best visit this place once in a while during summer months to refresh the memories of happy days associated with the place. It is more likely that there are ghosts of old boys and girls of my service visiting the place to relive the magic that once pervaded their lives.
And once in Yarrows what is one suppose to do but to take a seat behind the window and watch the beauty of deodars all around, the colourful play of sunrays and cloud formation and the gorgeousness of mountain flowers all around. If that is not enough for you the option of going out for a walk is always there (even in the midnight!). Yarrows is after all just 10 minutes away from ViceRegal Lodge the former residence of Viceroys. Another ritual marking my Yarrows-years is that of ‘mall-ing’.i.e. going to the mall. This we did religiously every other day. Mall, scandal point, the Ridge and the ever-beautiful Christ Church ……that was the pilgrim’s route. This was of course completed with mandatory stops at Baljees’ for hot Gulab Jamuns, Devicos’ for snacks and Beekays for soups and pizzas.
Its impossible not to feel nostalgic while in Shimla, each building has a history and a couple of stories linked with it. At every turn I feel the presence of Rudyard Kipling and his poetry …. and every sight seems to remind of a similar sight of a bygone age when India was ruled from this town. Almost half way from Yarrows to the mall stands the most impressive castle of the town(Ok…second most impressive…after Vice Regal Lodge) –Gortan Castle , the building that house our Shimla Office , looks like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle , It is a picture just out of a biscuit tin . Then there is the Retreat, Knockdrin, Kennedy House, the Observatory hill , Strawberry Hill and many more places to visit and admire. There is nothing more interesting than going out for a walk. Those of us who have read the wonderful book on Shimla written by Rajaa Bhasin can even relate the place with history. I can just go to the Viceregal Lodge and spent an evening admiring the place. Its a pity that till date they are unable to arrange a full fledged tour to the place for tourists. The place is choked with History’s mysteries-few true and few made up stories about the building are always in currency at Shimla. The romance of the place is magnified by the lovely weather. This place is beautiful in all seasons and in all months but I love it most when clouds surround the valley in a white robe. Except for few days in the winter, Shimla weather is always pleasant. No wonder the Britons felt at home over here. "Like meat, we keep better here [in the hills].", said Emily Eden about Shimla . I can paraphrase this for the Yarrows probationers –“Like Apple blossoms we bloom naturally over here.” The probationers-God bless them, they are always the same. It is such fun to meet these ‘owner-residents of yarrows’. It’s a pity that this air of confidence, this twinkle of intelligence in the eyes combined with a blessed ignorance towards the world outside would be lost once they are out of the place. But perhaps, that is life. We learn and unlearn traits to keep the fine balance. Today I heard a horrid suggestion that this place should be taken away from probationers. Some committee of architect/preservers found half the things in furnishing and structure, not gelling with the place . Who can explain it to them that this is not just any heritage building but our home? We love its imperfections as much as one loves one’s mother even if she has a buckteeth.
I always quote this Beatles’ song for expressing my feeling about Yarrows now….for want of better words, here I go again .
There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All this places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all"

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Story of Stuff

It was nothing less than a paradigm shift for us. We entered our Kolkata home with just 2 chairs , 3 what-nots and 3 book racks in it . We left it yesterday with only these articles….and before I forget to mention, in between there were 56 cartons of what can generally termed as ‘stuff’ created in last 4 years and which was sent with movers and packers yesterday morning. It was unbelievable. How and when we managed to surround ourselves with so much clutter. While packing I found half a dozen picture frames of all sizes , about 10 pen set (never used) , bed sheets we didn’t recall buying, books we never read and even cutlery sets and silver bowls for which we have no use in decades . To begin with we had a big house and nothing to fill it with and today we desperately hope to get a bigger house to fit in our ‘stuff’ . The best part about this stuff is that one never realizes when it is growing around you and one fine day, when you feel it is time to clear up the clutter , each article looks so useful and so beautiful.
Inspired by a very thought provoking documentary narrated by Anne Leonard called ‘The story of Stuff’ my friend Rani has stopped buying things…specially clothes. I admire her determination but feel weak at heart whenever I find myself surrounded by beautiful things in a store. My wishlist of articles to get never gets smaller. In fact I thank God that I don’t have enough money to buy all the things I desire to get or else the situation would have been worse. Shopping undoubtedly is a panacea for many a ills . It can cure boredom, depression and even anger . It calms down the mind and distract attention like magic. But the outcome of such shopping sprees is disastrous. I always end up buying things I don’t need . Long back my former boss gave us the a sane advice of not buying books to read them. He gave example of his own life where he has so far donated about 10000 books as he was unable to carry the load from one transfer to another. But with transfer veterans like me this sounds rather funny. Well, if you count all the times I had to shift my belongings since childhood , it would be not less than 12. And we really liked ‘to carry our world with us’ on these transfers. Papa’s favorite cacti and mummy’s carefully grown pots included. I recall these incidents (much to the amusement of my husband) that truck was stopped midway to water the plants . We did manage well despite absence of professional movers and packers in those days. Since packing was mostly done by either family members or by domestic helps, it was an arduous exercise involving decision of what to go where , making lists(in two copies) for each box and numbering of boxes. For all you know the unpacking may take a while(due to non availability of Government quarters) and you may have to hunt for one particular item in between. But despite these precautions , true to the Murphy’s law of Packing , the item you need most urgently was always in the last box in the most inaccessible corner. These boxes(mostly wooden) were a permanent feature of our garages during the period of our stay at a place. They will be again called for when the next transfer was announced . But even with those amateur techniques there were very few casualties of packing-unpacking . Now imagine,talking of leaving books behind....I still have my comics in tact with me after 7-8 shifting since the days I read them last . Even the china and ceramics in my parents house are transfer veterans …and still in tact .
The story of our stuff in this present transfer episode is still only half told. The unpacking is yet to start and I can foresee all the vacant corners and the shining floor tiles disappearing under the furniture .But then this is the fun of transfers- it gives you an opportunity to rearrange your world .