Sunday, August 29, 2010

This is life!!

Suranga’s post on Pension Sarees and Security blankets took me back to the time when I actually thought that I lived in a country where hard work was rewarded. Oh yes it may fetch you a rank and a certificate that you can frame/laminate and place it in your show case but if you expect to be rewarded with a job, let me tell you that you live in the BC era. These days you need to do very well and come out in flying colors but the minute you get your well - deserved degree/diploma start putting away some amount that will come in handy at the appropriate time.

I may sound cynical but that is exactly what is happening. After the well and not so well qualified bridegrooms, jobs are also up for sale. At the cost of antagonizing my feminist friends I feel like taking up for dowry demanding parents of eligible bachelors. They have really raised their sons - fed, clothed and educated them as they claim – so they perhaps have the right to put them up for sale if they so wish. But these conniving politicians and other powers that be have nothing to do with the exorbitant amount of hard work that goes into obtaining a decent result and the preparation for one’s job interview, expect to be paid a hefty sum sometimes the equivalent of a whole year’s expected salary. They spare none –neither the peon nor the class I employee. Humiliating as well as depressing for those who believe that they have done their best and that God would do the rest. The Gods seem to be napping when interview panels are set up!

To be fair, I got my present job purely on merit and that too 10 years after I graduated and I was rather out of touch with my subject. My HOD later told me that she was impressed with my results and was confident that I would soon pick up from where I had left. I have written about it in this post.

I then thought of improving my qualifications and joined my Masters in a local college. And I really worked very hard. I’d leave early and return in evening after attending my classes. It helped that the college timings were different and the principal of our college allowed me leave college and attend classes during my free periods. I’d go to a class -mate’s house for combined study enjoying Gujrati food prepared by her mother. Then my results came. I had topped the batch and broken a 21 year old record to obtain nearly 74%. I was on cloud nine. I then decided to appear for the Eligibility Test for lectureship and cleared it in the first attempt. Only four of us from Jamshedpur qualified the exam in my subject and I saw that all of us were either batch or college toppers. I truly believed that all was not lost. Merit still held a place in society. There were whispers about results being bungled but we had proved that it did not happen in our case. Then came the interview. By then I was already 45 years old and would have to join as a fresher. I was worried if I’d be posted in my home - town or would have to go to some remote area. People advised me to join first and try for a transfer later. I need not have worried. I was not selected and the others who qualified the exam with me were also rejected. Those who were selected either had political/bureaucratic godfathers or had coughed up a year’s salary to grease those with itchy palms. I got my Certificate laminated and put it away in my locker. I attended three subsequent interviews but the outcome was pretty much the same. The rates were increased or so they said.

Then came my Ph.D saga. I worked on my thesis for five long years. I had to submit it for evaluation on or before the completion of 5 years from the date of registration. I had to go to Ranchi to submit 5 copies of the thesis. Before submission I had to get it signed by the Dean, Science faculty as well as HOD – PG department of Botany. On the first day the Dean was not available and I brought it back. Protocol was to be maintained and our HOD could not sign it before the Dean. The next time the Dean signed it but the HOD had left for Patna to attend a Seminar. I was to go a third time just a day before the deadline. My guide cum advisor was beginning to get worried. I went to his place where a colleague of his had dropped by. He advised me to meet the dispatching assistant and to request him to wait while I got the HOD to sign the thesis and paid my evaluation fee.

“The university functions in the morning in summer and by 12:30 in the afternoon these fellows pack up to leave. If you ask him to wait, he will.”

The colleague then lowered his voice and said, “Pay him 50 or 100 rupees for chai/paani he will dispatch your thesis fast.”

“How do I do it Sir?” I was almost in tears. The three trips I made to Ranchi seemed easy. The immense labor that went into my research work was easiest. How on earth does one offer bribe?

The next day I went to Ranchi and went to the dispatch clerk after getting the required signature and asked him to wait while I paid the evaluation fee at the bank and brought him the receipt. He agreed and offered to watch over my thesis while I went about doing my job. I was truly grateful to him but the thought of giving him a hundred rupee note without the others noticing it was disturbing. Anyway I paid the money and came back to him. By now a few of his colleagues who had wound up their work for the day had landed by his desk. I gave him the receipt and 5 copies of the thesis. He smiled and put them away.

“Madam, it was a good thing that you told me. It is well past one in the afternoon and I usually leave by 12:30. I smiled back and thanked him. I still hadn’t given him money. I wondered what I could tell him. I am usually talkative but this was one occasion when words failed me. I hoped that he would ask me for it. He didn’t. I turned around and started walking to the door.

“Madam”………. Someone called.

‘Aha!’ I thought. They are going to ask for money.

“Kya?”(What) I said from where I was.

“Kuch nahi” (Nothing) was his response. I proudly walked out happy to have thwarted his attempt to ask for and accept bribe.

Then trouble started. My thesis was not dispatched for 4 months since he had a lot of ‘important’ work to do. My advisor on one of his visits to Ranchi, took personal interest and dispatched it at his own expense. It cost Rs. 600 in all. Then I went thrice to find out if the examiner’s report had come. One of the evaluators had sent the report the other hadn’t. When contacted he said that he had not received a copy of the thesis yet. My husband and my advisor went personally to Bhuvaneshwar and gave him my personal copy. We waited for 2 more months and approached the dispatch clerk to ask if the report had come but it hadn’t. A whole year had lapsed. I stopped going to Ranchi but would ask anyone going to the University to find out. The answer would be a big ‘No’. Finally it was my HOD who went to the university and was directed to a different person who came back to say that the report from Bhuvaneshwar had come but the other one hadn’t. It so happened that being in a hurry she forgot to ask me for the clerk’s name and when she asked someone about the person who receives reports she was directed to a different person. I would approach a certain GT and she went to another US. I immediately sprang into action. The following day I went to US and collected the report and gave it to GT and requested him to send the file to the Registrar for his approval of a date for the viva-voce. He must have felt that I had been harassed enough and did the needful and nearly 15 months after the submission of the thesis I was awarded my Ph.D. degree. If it hadn’t been for my HOD who went to the wrong person (maybe he was the right person and I was approaching the wrong person) I might have had to wait for a longer period of time. It was however clear that the dispatch clerk had deliberately suppressed the report just because he was not treated to chai-paani by me. I do not rule out the possibility of the duo working in collaboration.

The experience however made me a true Doctor in Philosophy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Special and not so special children

Mythology mentions that when Markandeya’s mother was given the option of having a short lived but intelligent son or a son low on intelligence but blessed with a long life she preferred to have an intelligent son even if he was destined to live for just sixteen years. Thus was born Markandeya, an exemplary son who grew up to be a devotee of Lord Shiva. However, since Markandeya worshipped Lord Shiva, the God of death viz. Yama failed in his efforts to take him away when his time came because he clung to the Shivalingam that he worshipped. Yama threw the noose of death around Markandeya’s neck but it accidentally landed on the Shivalingam thereby enraging the lord. He attacked Yama and almost killed him. Yama was revived on condition that Markandeya would live on forever.

I’ve heard this story from my mother several times and as a child I often wondered if it would have been better for her to have opted for a less gifted son and saved herself and her son the trauma that followed. I also felt that as a mother she should have wanted her son to live long gifted or otherwise. I wish I had remained a child in her pre teens not exposed to the harsh realities of life.

Years went by and I have had the opportunity to witness and admired parents with mentally/physically handicapped children and have marveled at the patience with which they dealt with them. There have been others whose children may not have been bright sparks but were otherwise gifted and it required a lot of patience and understanding to deal with them in accordance to their needs. Is it therefore easier to bring up a bright and gifted child as compared to the average and below average ones? I am afraid not. Parenting/teaching a bright child poses challenges in ways unforeseen and one actually starts wishing that such children were easier to handle. My children were not out of the ordinary nor could they be called geniuses. However, I remember being upset when my older daughter and son were vocal and I would be equally upset when my second daughter would give me a strange look and walk away without saying a word. I could never decide which type of behavior was more preferable and today I do feel glad that my role as a parent is over and my children lead their own lives without my having to worry too much about them. Whether I may take credit for their success I would not know but I do like to believe that I played a role in making them what they are today.

Parenting has never been easy. Long back when my daughter was in Standard I the school did not rank their performance and gave them grades. I was curious to know where she stood in class. My curiosity took over and I asked her teacher, a fifty plus woman with years of experience to her credit, how my daughter fared in class and where she stood as compared to the others in her class.

“She is a promising child. That is all I can say for now.” Was the teacher’s response.

“Could you tell me how L has done in the terminal exam?” I persisted.

Now L was a very good student and had won several prizes the previous year. Somehow I wanted to know how my daughter had fared as compared to her.

That put the teacher off. During her long span as a teacher she must have dealt with many others like me.

“Mrs. R” she said “ why should I give you any information about another student? For you to compare notes and demoralize your daughter at every step? Is it not sufficient that your child is good and promising enough? You worry about your daughter but I am concerned about all forty of them. I want the weaker ones to improve. I’d rather identify their shortcomings and work on them. And do you know that it is the average student that does well in life? He/she can handle set backs better and is always willing to learn and take corrections. And for God’s sake, the child is just six years old. Why not let her learn at her own pace and enjoy her time in primary school? She has all the time in the world to take on a world full of competition.”

Teacher Huntley’s words have remained with me ever since. Shortly after our meeting I took up my present job. I try my best to accommodate the interest of students from the weaker sections of society – those who did not get the opportunity that my children got – and feel happy even if a few among them make it big.

Parenting is therefore a learning process. Each day teaches us a new lesson. More than other things parenting teaches us to tolerate and forgive. I have a friend who was a cleanliness freak and would criticize the parents of unruly children on their upbringing. Her children when they came were little charms and up to all sorts of pranks. These days she understands that children would be children and a messy house no longer upsets her. In fact she advises other parents to take it easy saying that children would soon grow up, leave home and one would have nothing but memories of their childhood to remember.

Finally parenting is a responsibility. I have a friend with a mentally retarded son who is now around 28 years of age. I’ve watched her taking care of him since the past twenty years. Her life simply centers round him. He has to be fed and is literally on her toes all day long. Yes, the boy keeps walking around the house every waking minute and she keeps walking behind him either with a bowl of food in hand or a towel to wipe his mouth. Otherwise she has to see to it that there is nothing obstructing his way. He will either trample the object or tumble and fall. She occasionally calls me up for a long chat. Ours is the only place she brings her son and that too very rarely. She does not complain but I understand how difficult it must be for her to look after the son who is now about 8 inches taller than her. I once remarked that she was god’s own choice for the boy. Anyone else in her place would have given up.

“I wish I had been less patient didi,” she said. “Had I been so I might have understood that all was not well with the boy and we could have taken him for treatment much earlier. He might never have been normal but at least as doctors say he could have been trained to do something making him self - reliant. I was young and na├»ve and failed to look for the milestones that mark a child’s growth and development. He was a fussy child always wanting to be carried. Physically he was a chubby child but would never make eye contact or show signs of recognition even when he was a year old. My mother in law would not hear of anything negative being said about him so when he did not try to talk and made strange sounds instead, she insisted that several children learnt to speak at the age of three and there was nothing unusual about it. When we finally sensed that something was wrong and took him to Vellore at the age of three, irrevocable damage to his brain had been done and the doctors could do nothing more.”

A final word. Nature and nurture are both responsible in shaping a person. The environment provided by society also matters. If the children become self reliant and responsible adults one need not worry. But, if god forbid, something goes wrong denial will not help. One should act fast and do whatever possible to help the child. I was surprised that under pressure many of our college going youngsters take anti depressant pills and regularly go for psychiatric counseling. Is this perhaps an indication that they are not comfortable turning to their parents or older siblings for help? Are they finding the competition in this world of ours too much to handle? I agree that a teenager tends to drift away from his/her parents and resists authority in whatever form. Is it not our duty to reach out to these youngsters in whatever little way and help them redeem themselves? Can we at least stop looking down upon parents with physically or mentally challenged children and/or those dealing with a troublesome teenager? They have enough to cope with without our probing eyes and wagging tongues adding to their misery.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Caree women and assertion-are they mutually inclusive?

“We hear of men abusing their wives all the time. Putting her down as being ignorant and stupid is quite common even among the educated men even if they know the truth to be quite the opposite. They feel threatened and inadequate by such a wife particularly in the in the presence of their friends and would prefer to have decked up dumb dolls rather than have a wife who can observe and understand whatever goes on in the world around her”.

This was an observation made by a friend and I was not sure as to whether I should agree with her or not. My own life was quite different and the encouragement I got from my husband to improve my qualifications could not be denied or ignored. But there were others in my circle who required their husband’s help to fill up income tax return forms or to apply for schemes that offered tax benefits. I often wondered why they chose not to try and do these things themselves. We have friends from another local college who would not be able to tell us whether they had received the increased DA allowance as promised by the government or not. They plead ignorance when asked if a particular circular from the university had reached their college saying that it was their husband that took care of their salary accounts and that their pass books had not been updated for months so they would not know if the increased DA had been paid to them or not. We sometimes checked with them to make sure whether such notifications had been issued but had not reached our college for whatever reason and I really feel annoyed and unable to take such answers to my queries. I sometimes wonder if it actually suits these women to remain ignorant. It has been three years since I started collecting tax return forms from friends to submit them in the IT office some 2 kilometers from our college. I heard that they earlier gave it to a peon who charged them Rs.100/- per form saying that the queue was long and that he had to take leave from work submit them. It took me less than thirty minutes, even on the last day, although forms had to be submitted in alphabetical order in three different counters. There was no separate queue for women but the employees were quick and did their job pretty efficiently. I did not mind doing it since the IT office is on my way home but I did feel pained that not one of my friends offered to give me company. If educated women want to act helpless do we have the right to blame our men folk for not according our job and career the importance that it deserved? It does not matter if you are a home- maker or a career woman it is important to carry yourself with dignity and make sure that your job cannot be brushed off as unimportant. Unless a woman learns to respect her work - even if it is just an honorary service – no one else will.

Having said this I want to mention the case of a relative of mine. Let me call her Veena. She was bubbly teen - aged girl when I first met her some 25 years back. She was a college student and had come over to my sister in law’s place during her vacations. I admired her for the manner in which she made herself useful. She entertained my sister in law’s kids then aged 6 and 2, helped her out with house work and was very pleasant to me although it was the first time she met me. Neither talkative nor withdrawn, she was the kind of person anyone would like to have for company.

As luck would have it Veena had a failed marriage that ended in a divorce. Her husband was having an affair with a colleague and all that her parents could do was to ask her to be patient and wait for God to bring about a change in the heart of her cheating husband. They asked to fast on certain days and pray to different gods at different times of the year in the hope that he would return to her. Even when she had no option but to divorce him after the other woman moved in to their house, her family did not offer her food and board. Parents were not willing to support her out of fear that their son and daughter in law may not like it. Veena took up a job in Bangalore and stayed in a working women’s hostel making herself available to her family when they needed help. However, her own brothers and sister would consider her presence inauspicious during family functions and her mother would not protest. She got married to a kind hearted man, two years younger to her, but his family refused to accept or bless the alliance. Finally when she felt that she had been at the receiving end for long enough she withdrew herself from her family. She stopped attending family functions. The couple moved to a smaller town in Karnataka where he does some consultancy work for an American firm and she spends her time teaching yoga and meditation to school children. Her husband visits his parents once a month, takes them to the doctor stocks up their kitchen and gives them money for their upkeep. He refuses to take her along since they never ask for her. They have decided against having children. He respects her for the person she happens to be and she finds solace in the love and affection he bestows on her. They do not complain or crib and would rather forget their painful past. She still feels responsible for her parents and says that the only time when she would want to go to them would be when their health failed and they needed someone to look after them.

I do agree that I am quoting two extreme examples. The former group of working women got support where they did not need but the girl Veena mentioned later was shunned by her own family using social pressure as an excuse. I do not for a moment believe that her parents did not love her but being orthodox they perhaps believe that it was against the prevailing custom to support the daughter and antagonize their son. They could not bring themselves to stand up for their daughter when she needed them the most. But I feel glad that she could at least gain the love and respect of the man she married. Were it not for him her story may have been different.

Now I come back to the point I started with. Is being assertive a positive or negative quality? According to the friend I quoted in the beginning men feel threatened by such a woman. So many of our educated young women would prefer to play a sub ordinate role in the family even if only to pamper the misplaced ego of their spouses. But Veena’s story gives an entirely different picture. She is neither dominating nor submissive. She is just the cool and balanced person that she always was. But, to my mind, she commands more respect than many others with notable careers and a six digit income per annum.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Teaching/learning process

An old student (let me call her K) paid us a call last week saying that she planned to join a post graduate course and needed to apply for a college leaving certificate. It was actually 10 years since she passed out and she was currently employed as a teacher in a local school. Since we had some free time and, being a Saturday, it was her day off we started discussing the scenario in schools and dealing with adolescents in senior school. Ours is an all girl’s college but the school she worked in was co-ed. We dealt with girls from the lower rung of society or those from families that had just realized the importance of educating the girl child. Many of these girls came to college because this was the only time they got to leave home on their own. K on the other hand was dealing with boys and girls from a privileged background with adequate exposure to career options and were supported by parents who would willingly see to it that they got the best opportunity available for landing in prestigious colleges in India or abroad. Despite the socio-economic disparity in the two groups it was evident that both of us were dealing with an energetic group and the teaching/learning process that we followed was getting outdated.
“No student would be interested in a monologue delivered by the teacher unless it has some application to real life situations” said K. “If you wish to tell them about the working of the brain you have to begin with an accident on the road that knocked a passerby senseless. They get involved and before long you find them eager to know about nerve cells and neurons and the messages transmitted by the brain. Alternatively, you can draw a beautiful diagram on the board and start explaining the theory straight away. You will soon have the whole lot of them yawning or throwing darts at each other.”
We dealt with girls from a less privileged background so we expected them to be more open to the age old tried and tested method of teaching and learning. The syllabus was outdated as well as the tools for communication. The chalk, blackboard and charts were still being used. The computer/internet, as an essential tool for accessing information, had only been made available to us since a year but in most departments students were not allowed to use it fearing that they may mishandle it and getting it repaired would be difficult since the college management was not sure as to where the money for its maintenance and repair would come from. Moreover most of our students did not have a computer at home so it really did not matter whether they were allowed to access it in college or not. But were we able to ensure the interest of our students in the subject by our age old methods? Unfortunately not. The number of students opting to study basic sciences has dropped and those who do take up these courses are either a highly de-motivated lot or are here because obtaining a degree is a pre requisite for admission to MBA/MCA courses. They also need to be graduates to be able to apply for entrance exams for bank jobs and administrative posts. No course is sought after unless it has some application in their lives by way of a high paying job. Education also improves the marriage prospects of a girl and a girl who has never read or appreciated Shakespeare’s work may insist on doing an Honors course in English. It would encourage the boy’s family to think that she would be able to guide her children and coach them at home better if she had a degree in English as compared to other subjects. Practical applications are important and marriage is market in itself.

What then is the solution? Who would understand it better than me that the applied aspects of a subject come later but basics are equally important? Should a system that allows a student to be promoted to the next level without having understood the previous level of a subject be called student friendly? Failing a student or making him/her repeat a year may not be the solution. But shouldn’t the planners of a syllabus think of what ought to be done to ensure that a student who passes the 10th grade knows the basics of a subject that he/she opts for in college? Why not make teachers accountable? No one questions a child’s right to education but is our education translating into knowledge of the right kind?

I would like to know from those dealing with young minds either as parents or teachers to let me know their perception of the education that is being imparted to their children. My opinion in the matter may be outdated. However, I am willing to learn and would be glad to take a lesson or two from anyone willing to teach me.