Saturday, April 28, 2012

Teaching and Learning

The Hindustan Times has launched a year long program ‘You Read and They learn’ with an intention of contributing 5 paise from every edition sold in Delhi Metro - NAC towards providing study material for 10,00,000 underprivileged children in Delhi. While I welcome the initiative I cannot help wondering whether children will derive any benefit by the initiative. No, I am not being cynical or pessimistic. I do not for a moment doubt the intention of those who thought of the scheme. My take on the matter is different. A lot of ground work needs to be done and the outcome of these findings need to be considered while planning such initiatives.

I’ve been in touch with teenagers for the past 32 years and I see a marked difference in the quality of students we get as finished goods from secondary school as compared to the time when I started my career. Earlier I’d begin my first class with intermediate students with an understanding that their school had taken care of the basics of the subject. Today I have to introduce the good ones to the different parts of a flower. The mediocre and below average students are not regular anyway so I am not including them at all.

The first thing that our school going children need are dedicated teachers. Teachers who can create a love for learning and exploring for themselves the joy of learning. They say schools have to promote students to the next class irrespective of their performance in the present class. Failing them and making them repeat a year may not be a solution but is promoting them a better alternative. If a student who has passed his 10th standard has to be taught the basics of science and/or the construction of a simple sentence who takes the responsibility? And how were students different 20 or even 15 years back?

I really wish the at least a few of my students had taken up teaching. I am sure they would have made good teachers and their students would have carried the torch forward. We’ve had students who would question the accuracy of the diagram in my record and point out that the specimen appeared different to them. I would have to explain that minor variation in shape was acceptable as part of the evolutionary process and parameters like leaf size varied according to the environmental factors like availability of sunlight and water. It was a pleasure teaching them. I wish we have more students questioning me and thinking for themselves.

That said, I must add that parents too are to blame. We did not have college educated mothers but they would not accept our excuses for poor performance. I remember an instance when I fared badly in a chemistry test and told my dad that I had trouble following the lesson. My dad came to school and met my teacher to discuss my problem area. The teacher did not take offence and took extra care for the next few weeks and left me alone only after making sure that I got my basics right and could manage on my own. I am not sure but from what I understand teachers are not as approachable these days.

The attitude of students is also a cause for concern. Soon after board results are announced we hear of teen age suicides, depression among students for not fulfilling parental ambition and what not. There is a need for open communication with children and an assurance that they will not be judged on the basis of board results or the better performance of a class mate or cousin.

These are just a few points I wish to make and start a healthy discussion on how our youngsters may be helped so that programs such as the one initiated by Hindustan Times may succeed. I will be coming up with more of my observations. Please feel free to join me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fake Baba

I came to hear of Nirmal Baba through my domestic help Baby who complained that her 65 year old mother woke the entire family up by switching on the TV and listening to Nirmal Baba’s discourses telecast at 5:00AM in the morning. She woke up at 4:00 in the morning, had a bath in cold water lit a lamp in front of the TV set and sat down to listen to him. She would have tea and a biscuit only after the discourse was over.

I was not impressed and advised my servant to stay away from god men and spiritual gurus. I felt that one ought to face challenges and find solutions instead of wasting time and money as suggested by these men who take advantage of the psychological pressure faced by those in distress. I never heard of Nirmal Baba again till news channels and local newspapers began to report that he had earned more than 109 crores in just 3 months. The money poured in from different sources. Devotees were charged Rs. 2000/- per person for being granted audience and he also asked them to deposit 10% of their salary as a solution to their problems. He maintained two accounts for this purpose. He claims to be paying tax for the amount thus received. Interviews with his one time devotees who now claim for action against him reveal that his solutions make no real sense. He just said whatever came out of his mouth. Like a woman was asked to keep her purse open at dusk while lighting a lamp at the altar in her house as a solution to her financial worries. When she came back to say that her problem persisted he asked her to put money into a costlier purse for better results. He asked some to distribute pencils to poor school going children for success in his examination. A person was asked consume and to distribute ‘kheer’ (Payasam) as a solution to persistent pain in his legs. He actually had blood sugar and his condition worsened. There seems to be no end to these stories. My husband loves watching the same news over and over again. I find it silly.

I now feel like defending these god men. Man claims to be capable of rational thinking. How then can a person lose all discretion and trust these swindlers? If changing one’s purse or distributing pencils was a solution wouldn’t we be a land of multi millionaires? The man was elevated to a divine level by the very same people who are hounding him and asking him to account for the money he collected. He has purchased a five star hotel and has planned to convert it to a chain of hotels, and why not? Money and power are intoxicating tools for corruption. Rare is the person who can resist temptation. For all the social service done by Satya Sai Baba with due respect to him one must say that he too had allowed people with vested interest to handle his money and upon his death people who tried to transport cash from his ashram were detained and questioned. I do not know if arrests were made. I have always respected Satya Sai Baba for his contribution to society. But beyond a point he too lost control or so it seems to me.

Stay away from such fake ‘babas’ is my advice. Life is full of unpredictable turns of fortune and one has to face them as best as one can. Superstitions have never benefitted anyone nor is there an easy way out from life’s woes. In my last post I forgot to wish you all a happy Tamil New Year. A very Happy Nandana year to all of you!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Adopted/Foster family bonds

There is a tele - serial that we watch regarding adopted children and the affection showered on them by the adopted father. It is a very touching story with the father fearing that the children may come to know of their adopted status and leave him forever. The children are also equally fond of the father but of course they do not know that he is the adopted father. What they would do when they learn the truth I often wonder. My husband however feels that the adopted status ought not to matter the affection he has showered on them will not allow the children to ever leave him. The question I ask is -Is there truth in the statement that blood is thicker than water? Will all the affection showered on an adopted child go waste when he/she realizes that the couple who brought them up are not biologically their own parents?

My husband recalls the incident of a child Chinna who lost his mother when the family fled from Burma during World War II and was brought up by his maternal uncle and aunt in Jamshedpur for a while till his father found a job. In fact his older brother and sister also stayed at the uncle’s place but they were aware of a life they had spent in Burma while the youngest was a mere baby. When the children’s father found a job and was in a position to support his family he came to Jamshedpur and took them to Bombay where he worked. The older children had no problem but the youngest fell sick and had to be brought back. The aunt for her part would not touch food after he left and pleaded with her husband that the boy be brought back. Chinna loved his aunt dearly and would call her ‘amma’. She was an aunt by marriage but the bond was such that outsiders believed that he was her own child. He lived with them till their death loved and accepted by his cousins. Chinna was okay with his father too but could never consider moving in with him permanently. Chinna was in his twenties when I got married and I remember him bringing home Tamil magazines that I looked forward to. The family moved out of our township within a year of my marriage and we heard no more of them.

There is another case of a seven year old girl Ammu who came to work as a domestic help for a family known to me. A few years later she lost her eyesight partially following small pox. By then Ammu had become an indispensable member of the family and managed the running of the household and extraction of work from the servants. With her around one could stop worrying about routine matters. The children of the household loved her dearly and the master and mistress almost forgot that she was just a domestic help. Her own brother and sister in law found the arrangement suitable and led their own life peacefully. She would visit them occasionally but would return with a whole lot of complaints about them. She found her sister in law unrefined and her niece and nephew ill mannered.

It was then that differences cropped up. Ammu once took the liberty of approaching the master for spending money that the mistress normally gave her. This was unaccounted petty cash that was given to her to run the household. With this money she would buy vegetables and fruits from roadside vendors, pay for the gas cylinder and buy trinkets for herself and the master’s 11 year old daughter. It was her spending money and she used it prudently. She found nothing wrong in asking the master for money when she ran out of cash. She had lived with them for more than 20 years and had never felt that her role would ever be questioned. The mistress thought otherwise. She felt that Ammu ought to have approached her instead of the master.

“Even the children do not ask their father for money directly” she said. “How could you even think of doing so?”

Initially Ammu did not read much into her words but there was a subtle change in her attitude. She found fault with everything Ammu did and stopped talking unless absolutely necessary. Finally she packed Ammu off to her brother’s place saying that since two of her three children were married and a daughter in law had arrived on the scene, they could manage without her.

As expected Ammu did not get on well with her brother’s family and came back after a month. Things were never the same but considering her selfless service to the family they found her accommodation in a home for destitute women and I hear that she is happy over there.

This brings me back to the question I asked earlier. Chinna and Ammu were able to gel with their adopted families. May be not exactly adopted but both were treated well by the family they lived with. Chinna was loved by his foster family and so was Ammu. In Ammu’s case the difference could have been sorted out but it appeared that there was no real intention of resolving the issue. It was not as if her mistress felt threatened or insecure by her presence. The only reason I can think of is the class difference that marks out a servant from the master. Had she been a relative like Chinna her lapse may have been overlooked. I feel that treating a servant like a family member is not the same as accepting her as one.

I may be generalizing the issue and each case of adoption may be different. Like in a TV program where the real mother and adopted mother were fighting a custody battle, it was the adopted mother who said that it was well past the child’s ‘milk’ time and even if she did not get the child back she would request the real mother not to let the child go hungry.

“He cannot wait till I mix the milk powder in hot water, cool it and pour it into the bottle and give him. We can sort out our differences later. Please give him his milk first” she said.

And I was left wondering if it was fair to give the child for adoption and place a claim for the same child without a thought for the woman who brought him up like her own. Who was the real mother, I wondered? Was it the one who worried about the child’s hunger pangs or the one who was reclaiming the child after initially abandoning him?

I guess there is more than one correct response to this question.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


I can see it coming. My extension of service I mean. With a chance of my service being extended by 3 years (we will know in a month or two) I am in a terrible dilemma. Do I need to continue? Or should I quit? I am putting down the pro and cons with the hope that my readers will give their unbiased opinion.
When I started working I was impressed by the students in their undergrad and intermediate courses. Those were days when Biology was a preferred option and students may not have aspired for a great career but were nevertheless very focused in their lessons. Salary was less and I would be terminated during summer and Durga puja vacations. But my job was very satisfying. I cannot say the same now. With the IT boom came highly paid IT jobs and basic biological science is no longer preferred however much we talk about global warming and conservation of the ecosystem. I draw a decent salary and if the govt. wants to retain me for three more years should I stop worrying about a satisfying career and pocket the money that comes my way?
My children in foreign shores are looking forward to my retirement and hope that I would be able to spend some time with them without complaining about having no leave. Grandchildren are a treat to interact with right now. Three years from now they will outgrow this phase and may not even have time for me.
Husband is a home bird without a friend’s circle of his own. He is also looking forward to the day when we could have breakfast and lunch together.
What then is stopping me from putting in my papers?
I have a minor research project that will keep me engaged till Nov. 2013. I am the co-investigator and cannot run away from the responsibility I willingly took upon myself. Once that is over I have just 2 more years so I may as well continue.
My pension amount will be decided on my last drawn salary. And with the 6th pay yet to be implemented that is going to make a difference.
I have carved a niche for myself and quitting it may not be easy. I need to decide fast and prepare myself to face the consequences. I cannot help praying that the extension of service is either never announced or announced after Jan. 2013. Ideas???