If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Quaint portraits of an enchanting city

I would say Paul Fernandes is to Bangalore what Desmond Doig is to Calcutta and Mario Miranda to Bombay. Like them, Paul too has drawn intimate pictures of the city he loves. And he's drawn them with some brio. Bangalore is fortunate to have someone like him to record its moods for posterity. Stylistically, Paul is closer to Mario than to Doig and although he hardly enjoys their kind of fame, he too has an artist's insight and a superb grip on his pen.

I heard Fernandes’s name and saw his cartoons only a few days ago, thanks to Yahoo.com.  It was love at first sight for me. Paul has captured the languid spirit of what used to be Bangalore in the 1960s and 70s. His cartoons remind me of a time when I was in college and used to visit Bangalore to spend time with my dad who lived there alone. 

This Coffee House was a favourite joint for my old man. Many a time we had coffee, toast, and an omelette at this place. The present Coffee House in a narrow street parallel to MG Road is an apology of its past. And I am sure there you won’t find a waiter carrying a huge dosa, two chutney bowls, and a pyramid of coffee cups for an off-site customer.

Here is another lovely cartoon by Paul Fernandes.

I think this picture vividly captures Bangalore streets forty or fifty years ago. A snoring potbellied cinema watchman against the backdrop of Clark Gable kissing Vivian Leigh, and a thief rolling tyres with the careless abandon of a frolicking child, with no one around to witness this bizarre crime actually bring alive the loneliness of Bangalore streets of the time. I remember, many a late evening when I walked from Cubbon Park to Shampanghi Tank Road, where dad had his digs, through a steady drizzle – it it used to drizzle all the time – not a soul would be on the road some days. A few cars would occasionally whoosh past only to accentuate the sparseness of the scene. 

To bring out that loneliness through the antics of a comical watchman and an adorable outlaw requires the sensitivity and imagination of a top artist.

The South of India is essentially a conservative place. Those days, it was much more hidebound and so was Bangalore. One would rarely come across women in anything other than the traditional sari. Premarital – no I am not talking about sex – relationships were possibly less common than extra-marital liaisons. Heterosexual interactions were restricted to cousins within families. I guess there was a lot of suppressed libido underneath the genteel veneer of the city. No wonder that Tokyo by Night would run to full houses for three weeks or more in Bangalore, despite the smallish town having as many as seventy movie theatres. I wonder if this carefully-hidden-but-known-to-everyone fact could be expressed more brilliantly than what Paul has done in the cartoon below! And if you click on the picture to get a better view, you won’t miss the disgust writ large on the face of the only lady in the picture. Her husband  who is equally aghast – is holding her head to make sure she doesn't get a glimpse of what happens in Tokyo by night! 

The police constable in bell-bottom half pants with a protruding paunch was a cartoonist’s delight since the beginning of history. Sad was the day when he started wearing trousers. Paul too takes a keen interest in him. In the picture below, the caption reads: Potential guest at Cubbon Park Police Station. I can’t remember if I saw the police station, although I used to walk or jog in the Park almost every day during my short stays there. Looking back, Bangalore in general and Cubbon Park in particular was such a peaceful and tranquil place those days! It does seem the policemen posted there had no more serious business than dealing with delinquent kids. This picture indeed says a lot about the peace and quiet of the city of yore.

It used to rain throughout the year in Bangalore and it was a place where I felt sleepy all the time. The people were exceedingly gentlemanly and rather laid back. Through Paul’s paintings, the quaint past of the city seems to be winking at its feverish present.

Kolkata, Thursday, 31 May 2012

If you are from Bangalore, you can see the pictures at aPaulogy, which is open from 11 am to 7.30 pm on weekdays and Saturdays. The address is: 15 Clarke Road (Opp. Au Bon Pain), Richards Park Entrance, Richards Town, Bangalore - 560 005.

The pictures are courtesy yahoo.com. To see more of Paul Fernandes's pictures on line, please copy-paste this URL: http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/photos/apaulogy-where-art-meets-cartoon-slideshow/

Friday, 25 May 2012

Growing young

I’ve been feeling younger since I turned sixty. And this is not another glib sentence I’ve made up as an opening line for a work of fiction. It’s a bare, unadorned fact. But why do I feel young when I ought to feel oldish? I had been pondering over this riddle for some time, and this morning, the answer flashed before me while I was crossing the grey, utterly lonely no-man’s land between sleep and wakefulness.

Turning sixty means you have attained the socially accepted retirement age in our country. Once you have crossed the magic line, even if you don’t have a steady job like yours truly, your friends no longer gives you a miss because you are “unemployed”. No one looks down upon you because your picture never came on Page 3 of any newspaper. Rather, people think that somehow, you have earned your right to sit back and relax under the sun. In other words, the society writes you off as a stick-in-the-mud oldie and stops expecting anything from you. And that, Dear Reader, is the biggest advantage you gain after toiling hard for six decades. I reckon it makes you feel good!

The lack of societal expectancy is reflected in you too. You stop bothering about many things that you worried about earlier. You realise that you didn’t really have to please your boss, if you still had one. Or your spouse, for that matter. If you managed to reach this stage with your wife still being your wife, both of you would be so utterly inter-dependent that you would have realised there was no escape. And you had better accept the truth. Keep fighting, but make merry too, until the winter breeze starts blowing in.

Turning sixty also means you pay less on income tax and for boarding trains. But those are minor benefits. The real thing is that you are spared of the challenges of handling the latest fancy gadget that allows you to kiss someone on the other side of the planet. Even if you had a Facebook account, you wouldn’t really know what to do with it. And you wonder to what use you could put the information where Stefanie Graff or Sreetama Guha partied last night.

Being sixty means you still send those old-fashioned emails and drink your beer from a mug. And you don’t give a damn if it was politically incorrect! If this is not freedom, what is?
Monday, 30 April 2012 / Kolkata

Sunday, 20 May 2012

They didn’t have the green thing back then …

Author unknown

[I am copy-pasting this from Gaasedal’s Weblog, a WordPress.com Blog. Gaasedal writes that he copied it from a friend status on Facebook. I am happy to share this brilliant piece with you. And I bow to the unknown author.]

Checking out at the supermarket recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. I apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.”

The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”

She was right about one thing – our generation didn’t have the green thing in “our” day. So what did we have back then? After some reflection and soul-searching on “our” day, here’s what I remembered we did have ….

Back then, we returned milk bottles, pop bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby’s nappies because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 240 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of Wales. In the kitchen, we blended & stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn petrol just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then.

We drank from a water fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their mums into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?

Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation can add to theirs.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Higher education off the shelf

[This is in continuation of my previous post, "What ails our education system". I would request you to read that article, if you haven't already done so, before you read this.]

It has been heartening to see some thought-provoking comments in response to the blog post of 4 May: What ails our education system. I am quoting two of them here. The first one, written by Indrani, is:

Single child is the norm in today's world. Most children are not even taught the basic duties of caring for their near ones. Parents send their kids to distant schools and when they grow up, to distant cities to give them a wider and better exposure. Rich parents pay huge sums of money to get their kids admitted to foreign universities. In most cases these kids are pretty average and completely confused and selfish lot. It is high time we revamp our education systems.

A friend of mine who doesn’t want to share his name wrote:

[When we were young,] education meant much more than scoring high marks in the exams. We were taught to be decent, selfless, helpful, compassionate and loving human beings. It wasn't just the teachers who “educated” us. Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and even neighbours too played a crucial role in shaping us.

This “education” that we received is etched in stone in our hearts and minds. Our teachers ... had a gift that seems to be pitifully lacking in teachers these days. I'm talking of the sheer love and passion to teach! Our teachers went beyond our textbooks to enrich our young minds. 

At home, our parents guided us by imparting high moral values for us to emulate. 

I finished my schooling in 1966. Yet, forty six long years later, I still remember the names of EVERY teacher who taught me. I just have to shut my eyes and think of them for the faces of these noble souls to appear in front of me.

Do the students these days even bother to remember the names of the previous year's teachers? Having said that, it may not be the fault of the children alone. The fault lies with the teachers! What is the calibre of the average teacher in a school these days? Apart from “finishing the portions” in time for the exams, what do they teach?

… With teachers who are only bothered about their paycheque and the parents placing the onus on the schools and teachers, what we see today is a generation totally devoid of any social skills. 

Their parents are probably very thrilled that they're scoring the expected high marks. What sort of human beings will they grow up to be? Who cares!

I couldn’t agree with them more. We have conveniently accepted a narrow definition of the word “education”. And the problems of our education system stems from that basic sin. It would be wrong to blame students for what’s gone wrong. They are following a path shown by their parents. They are both beneficiaries and victims of the system.

What do middleclass and richer parents want their offspring to become? Better human beings or someone with a comfortable job with a fat pay-packet? Although the two are not mutually exclusive, the question is relevant. And we all know the answer. Commodification of education that began in the 1990s suits them fine. If I have money, I can BUY a comfortable future for my son or daughter. It doesn’t matter whether they are intelligent or mediocre, hardworking or lazy. This has been a fact of life in some countries like the USA for long. Otherwise George W Bush wouldn’t have become a President of a country that has produced hundreds of Nobel Laureates. In India, this is a recent phenomenon. How will this work in the long run?

My peripheral connection with two engineering colleges convinces me that nowadays, education is indeed available to the highest bidder. Students with bare pass marks in school leaving exams can enrol in an engineering (or medical) college!. And there is an unwritten agreement between the college and the parents that none will fail. Teachers have become education vendors rather than teachers. Consequently, they deserve and receive as much respect as shop assistants do. But that is only collateral damage.

The main issue is that in the present scenario, rich people’s kids are cornering all the opportunities while the doors are being shut on the faces of the poor. Parts of India like Bangalore and Noida are first-worldly glitzy, while more and more people are being pushed to the margins. The India where I was born was much poorer, but the difference between the rich and the poor was never so obscenely stark. Neither was greed the force that ran everything. A cash-and-carry higher education system will perpetuate the present situation. Already, it is making the odds impossibly high for a vast majority of our people. If APJ Abdul Kalam were to be born today, he wouldn’t possibly become a scientist or the President of India.

Every Indian should demand two things from our government: (a) make primary education available and compulsory for all, and (b) fund the higher education of every student that qualifies for admission to government run and other reputed institutions of higher education. Funding shouldn’t cover only the tuition fees, but all other expenses as well.

The government of course has no money to meet either of the demands. But if you buy a Mitsubisi Pajero for Rs.25 lakh, or some other fancy vehicle, our government will give you about Rs.10 for every litre of the diesel you buy. How much money does it cost the exchequer to subsidise owners of private vehicles by way of cheaper petrol and diesel?

But should we complain? Doesn’t the government run for people like you and me, who own computers, drive cars, and holiday abroad?

Friday, 4 May 2012

What ails our education system?

A recent article in the Guardian[1] on what works and what doesn't to improve exam performance of school children discusses some research findings that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The research was conducted by Durham University. The issues are worth considering because the research deals with problems that are universal. The main findings are as follows:

Reducing class sizes and setting homework for primary school children are among the least effective ways to raise standards. The benefits of reducing class sizes “are not particularly large or clear, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15”.

Secondly, the benefits of homework are modest. The optimum time spent doing homework for secondary school children is one to two hours per school day, but the benefits tail off as the amount of time increases, and there is little benefit in primary school pupils doing homework.

Thirdly, one of the most effective uses of a teacher's time is in giving good feedback – which should be sparing, specific and encouraging. It is "more important to give feedback about what is right than what is wrong," researchers say. It is also best to praise a particular task that has been accomplished well rather than praise a pupil with phrases like "good girl".

Finally, Students should be encouraged to develop independent "learning strategies" and to learn from each other. Teachers should encourage pupils to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning.

While this report focuses on schools, let me enlarge the context and include the parents’ role too, with a particular reference to India. Let’s recall the incontrovertible fact that education, like charity, begins at home. If parents mismanage the early childhood training of their offspring, it is difficult to undo the damage later. 

Bringing up children is one of the most complex tasks humans perform. But a lot of parents have not the vaguest idea about how to go about it and in fact, just sleepwalk through this onerous task. Let me share a personal experience. One afternoon, I was on a crowded public bus. A boy of about ten in school uniform sat splay-legged on a seat. His mother stood by his side, although there was enough room for her to share the seat. She was even carrying his bag! A little later, an elderly woman approached the boy and requested him to move aside and make room for her. Son didn’t budge, and mother shouted, ‘It’s my seat. I have left it for him!’ This scene was repeated several times as new unsuspecting people – mostly women – got onto the bus and approached the child.

Although such insensitivity is rare, the general standard of parenting is not much better. In my city, parents often enroll their children in presumably good schools far away from their homes. It is a common practice among young mothers to accompany the offspring to school, spend the entire school hours hanging around and gossiping with other moms, and return home in the evening. In the process, the child – s/he is more likely to be a single child – learns that s/he is the fulcrum around which the family revolves. It won’t be their fault if they grow up into selfish and cussed individuals.

If we may move over from ethical training to academic training, many Indian parents – from Kolkata to Kochi – would be scandalized if their secondary school children were not allowed to do more than “one to two hours” of homework. For us, the motto seems to be: the more the merrier. And what matters are grades, not education. The goal is not learning, but enrolment in premier colleges. Dependence on “private tuition”, the most pernicious system invented to kill the student’s initiative, follows naturally. Every evening, one sees children carrying heavy bags scurrying from one tuition centre to another, at a time when they ought be in a playground. In the process, the child loses two things.

The twenty-first century Indian child does not know much of the fun and frolic of childhood, and as they grow up, their faculty to think independently atrophies through lack of use. Once I asked my first year students at an engineering college to write down their personal strategies about how to improve their English. The first assignment that I read was by a student with limited English competency. But the language of his submission was impeccable; it had been written by his private tutor! So much for students “planning, monitoring, and evaluating” their own learning! You may say that one cannot generalize a specific experience. But if you talk with college teachers in india, you will realize that a majority of students just cannot “think”. The situation is bad, and our planners and administrators do not seem to be aware of the problem. Therefore, there is no reason to hope that the situation will change for the better in the foreseeable future.

Imagine a situation when secondary school students will not focus on solving innumerable problems of mathematics or physics in milliseconds, and instead will focus on the concepts behind the problems … when students, instead of “learning” a language, will focus on “using” the language creatively.  Imagine a situation when the best of our graduate students who wish to do research are not selected through a test that asks inane multiple-choice questions, but based on evaluation of real merit. It may never happen, but if it did, a necessary precondition would be that students were “encouraged to develop independent learning strategies and to learn from each other”.

You may say I am a dreamer, but hopefully, I am not the only one.

[1] 21 June 2012