Sunday, March 27, 2005

Education and literacy

They were all silent, even those who had not committed the sins I had attributed to them. I dismissed the class early, although the culprits and a few others stayed back to plead their case. They were docile even in their pleas: they wanted to be forgiven, they did not know any better, this was what most professors expected. Two were in tears. What could they do? They had never learned any better. From the first day they had set foot in elementary school, they had been told to memorize. They had been told that their own opinions counted for nothing.

- Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

How does it feel when you have ideas and thoughts simmering inside you, but you never have the encouragement or the platform to give vent to them? I know what it feels like. In school, when I was mesmerized by the beauty of billowing clouds on a sun-drenched day, or the romance of the pearl-grey sky throwing forth pricks of happy moisture on a hot evening, I often felt privileged and lonely at the same time. Privileged because as anyone with the ‘heart of a poet’ will understand (as years later a friend from college put it), those fleeting moments when Nature is at her resplendent best are genuinely special, and lonely because at the time, poetry to most in my school meant unwelcome lines that you had to mug up to get extra marks in exams. We were never asked to comment on anything, argue or even paraphrase. It went to the extent that Maths – MATHS for heaven’s sake – was sometime learnt by rote. Today when my 16-year-old cousin tells me that mugging is the only way to get marks in exams – and marks are ultimately the deciding factor for admission to college – I start off arguing forcefully about the need for him to actually understand what he is learning, but slowly my energy peters out. Because he is right. I went through the rigmarole of Indian education and he is still at it, years later, and nothing has changed. I have nothing to support my point of view, apart from my passion for what I call ‘real’ education, as opposed to ‘engineered’ literacy.

The Indian education system – and by that I mean primarily Indian state examination boards, because I don’t have the experience of anything else – are seriously flawed. I certainly don’t remember very much of what I studied in school, and I was a pretty good student all through. What is the point of this education then? It doesn’t teach confidence or encourage innovation or talent. It creates factory-moulded robots – and when you hear about the saffronisation of education, that is even scarier. George Orwell’s ‘1984’, anyone?

Today the stress placed on students during exams leads them to take their lives, and nowadays parents are turning to that as a solution to their wards’ problems as well. Arjun Singh’s HRD Ministry convened a meeting with representatives from the IIM’s, IIT’s, NGO’s and other institutes last week in New Delhi to debate the issue. Lots of solutions are being bandied about – from doing away with exams till Class 8, to introducing a grading system. Whether mere discussions will translate into effective action remains to be seen, but till then ‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance’ could be written by Mark Twain for all anyone cared.

And years down the lane, another person like me will feel forcefully angry and hopelessly sad at the same time, for growing years having gone un-nurtured.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Wah Wagah

I visited the Wagah border between India and Pakistan today. I’ve wanted to for a while, and it didn’t disappoint. Located on the straight Attari Road about 30 kilometres from Amritsar, the Wagah border consists of two huge walled gates, one on either side of the evocatively green, vast farmland of the state of Punjab. But wait – a description like that is simplifying the whole experience. The energy (of full-blooded Indians, especially Punjabis), curiosity (of a host of foreigners and NRIs, and then people born curious like me), excitement (of school children herded along by protective teachers, and everyone else in general) has to be seen to be believed. The ‘event’ as I call it, starts as soon as you step out of your car, as you wait in a crowd to start walking the half-kilometre to the gate. People young and old, of all colours and sizes, try to walk fast, jog and run to make sure they get a good place to view the goings-on. I got there about half an hour early, and we were strictly made to wait by the side of the road till we were let in at about 5 p.m. Anyone who is out of line is herded back by smartly-dressed Indian soldiers, with red and gold turbans sitting majestically on their heads.

The lowering-of-flags ceremony starts at 5.30 and till then the crowd on either side (the Pakistanis have filled up their viewing arena by then as well) shouts and cheers for their respective countries. An officious-looking gentleman warned the Indian crowd not to say anything against ‘them’. The only permitted slogans, apparently, were ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’, ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ and ‘Vande Mataram’. I don’t agree with the ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ part as I believe that India comprises of much more than just Hindus, but I got caught up in the atmosphere and shouted lustily with the rest of the crowd. It reminded me of my college days, but this was much better. I had a more heightened awareness of what was happening around me – and I think time plays a part in this. I hadn’t lost any of my ‘josh’ though, thankfully!

The parade itself is quite good to watch. On the Pakistani side of the gate, I could see the Pakistani soldiers in their navy-blue Pathani salwar kurtas and turbaned heads performing the same actions as their Indian counterparts. After a few minutes of ceremonious marching, the Indian and Pakistani flags, flying high on their masts till then, crossed as they were lowered. They were then folded perfectly (the Indian flag was chakra-side-up) and carried away in a line by their soldiers.

On one hand, it was a pretty simple event, but on the other, with its open-to-public viewing policy, hearty cheering and the lowering of flags in perfect tandem, there is something intensely patriotic about the whole experience.

I made a quick stop at Attari on the way back – its just a couple of kilometers away from the border. Having grown up on a diet of Hindi movies, I wanted to see where one of Bollywood’s latest blockbusters, Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (and I haven’t even watched the complete movie) was shot. Attari is a small station through which the train from India to Pakistan passes. The station was dark and sleepy, apart from a few porters and watchmen hanging around. It was quite a change from the hustle-bustle of other Indian stations. I must have looked quite silly, taking pictures on the overbridge on which Preity Zinta and Shah Rukh Khan stood in a particular scene (not that I think they are luminaries of Indian cinema or anything!), and the porters were looking at me quite amused. A typical crazy Anjali-type thing to do, but it's my life after all, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Thoughts on corruption

I was watching the news and there was a piece of what I call investigative journalism being profiled. You can read some more about it here. A reporter from a TV news channel had masqueraded as a member of the public and went to the Sales Tax office in Delhi to get some information. No less than 82 government officials were caught accepting bribes by a hidden camera somewhere on the reporter’s person. The Sales Tax office is bang next to the headquarters of – get this – the Delhi Police. Whether by chance or not, the names of the only two officers that blinked across the TV screen were of female officials. I don’t attach much significance to it but it certainly does away with any small idea I had that women are less corruptible (is there a word like that?) than men. Ironically, March 8th was International Women’s Day. A day to celebrate women and their achievements, a day to celebrate women achievers across the world and across work categories.

Don’t get me wrong here. While a lot of people in the past have actually called me feminist in the past, I’m not, really. (I am reminded suddenly of Vivek Oberoi who I noticed on TV on March 8th, saying very poignantly that he does not believe men and women are equal, because women are simply much superior, and that’s why when God had to give the job of child-bearing to man or woman, he chose the woman, because she’s stronger. Go Vivek!)

Anyway, so a) as a woman, b) as a conscientious resident of India, I was, to put in succinctly, flabbergasted at that piece of news. I shouldn’t have been – I mean – Tehelka is not really all that old yet, but something about the news made me feel very disheartened. I mean, these are educated people (forget the gender now), working for the government, the provider of facilities to the general public like you and me, and these people don’t think twice before accepting bribes. I think it was the manner in which they did it that got me down:

Reporter: How much do I have to pay?
Official: You know about these things, give me as much as you give others
Reporter: I can give you Rs.2000
Official: 2000 is not enough, at least give me 3000
Reporter: But I had to pay someone else to get some other papers, this is all I can give now.
(Official quietly takes the money

In the night, I was calculating how much these officials must have made over the years. Let’s say, at a conservative estimate, that they deal with 20 people in one day. If they take an average of Rs.5000 from each (I’m sure bigger concerns must be paying way more to bypass government tax rules, and there is a lot of money in sales), that’s Rs. 1,00,000 a day. For a 5-day working week, that’s Rs. 5 lakhs a week, which is Rs.20 lakhs a month. So we’re talking Rs.20 lakhs per person per month in BRIBES. Money hidden under the carpet. Don’t forget as government ‘servants’, these people get a regular salary also.

Most of the 82 people who were caught have been suspended. But with some ridiculous sum of money stashed away in a multiple number of bank accounts, I don’t think they will need a job for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps its not so untrue (though I keep trying to be optimistic because of some of my friends who call me a ‘foreigner’ living in India, when I comment on corruption in this country) that along with the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, India, projected as a global super-power by 2020, is one of the most corrupt nations in the world.