Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Impractical Education

This is the latest comic I wrote for the Mint.

I have been thinking for a while now about the inadequacy of our secondary and senior secondary school syllabi. As far as I can see, the syllabus informs teenagers about fairly complex natural, physical and chemical phenomena, formulae for equations and trignometric calculations that most of them will never use in their daily lives. But it leaves them totally unprepared for life.

The average school student is illiterate when it comes to survival skills, especially in urban areas where they do not have any opportunity to learn through direct observation.

The choice of studying Science, Arts, or Commerce is a significant life decision if we assume that this choice is to have a real bearing on how we live our lives, or how we can make a living. I took up Science and later, in undergraduate college, 'Arts' (which is really the Humanities and Social Sciences). But the curriculum told me nothing about how to live. All I had was an assortment of facts and formulations, decrees and interpretations. If I had not been lucky enough to have the money for a specialized degree afterwards, I would have floundered. If my family did not support me further, I would have sunk into poverty. At fifteen, I was being prepared for what could eventually be a career in, say, medicine or astronomy or biochemical engineering. But I was totally unprepared for supporting myself in case I did not have the resources or temperament to study towards the aforementioned careers.

A formal school education tells us very little about how to make a living from the land or how to actually - practically - tap into nature's resources. We grow up knowing nothing about sustaining life (or love, which is incredibly sad and goes a long way towards dehumanizing and de-sensitizing the populace). Why is this so?

I am starting to believe that a highly stratified (in India, this means stratified along class and caste lines) society has something to do with it. We take human labour and basic survival skills for granted because we expect someone else to do it for the higher ups, i.e. people who access to formal schooling.

This someone else would be a low-paid mazdoor, some unfortunate born with limited access to white collar schooling. Even if this someone wrangles some schooling out of the system, a secondary school certificate is not likely to lead to a white collar job. The only other way out of poverty would be entrepreneurship, which would mean a small investment of money or material assets. The poorest in India have been rendered landless either by the caste system or modern institutional 'development' leading to displacement. Worse, they often work under conditions that lead to health breakdowns with no compensating insurance or benefits.

The pool of labour might have shrunk, but it exists. And so, the rest of us survive without having any real survival skills. Growing hundreds of food crops, harvesting, cooking, cleaning, growing cotton, rearing silkworms, beekeepers, weaving, sewing, shoe-making, assembling machines, cutting wood, building houses, mining sand and stone, cutting and shaping metal, identifying medicinal herbs. We cannot do any of this.

Skills that define human civilization, skills without which we would not last a day, are denied to us. And we allow it because we see so little value attached to these skills in the current economic system.

I often wonder, what would it be like if we actually began to attach value to our own survival? Would we not be a different sort of India?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Still smouldering

The best thing about being able to look at a banned book in hindsight is that it also offers a kind of foresight.

The short stories – and a one-act play – that made up Angaaray are mundane stories in the literal sense. The book focussed on the everyday brutality suffered by millions of Indian Muslims in the early twentieth century. Economic despair, domestic enslavement, sexual oppression, hypocrisy practised under the guise of religion, the physical damage suffered by women who are not allowed to make childbirth choices – it is at the intersection of these truths that the four Angaaray writers placed this book.

What we have now is an English translation of the original Urdu manuscript that was published in 1932. There are five stories by Sajjad Zaheer, two by Ahmed Ali, a story and a play by Dr Rashid Jahan, and a story by Mahmud-uz-Zafar.  The saddest thing about reading the book today is that it remains relevant.

Read the rest of this review in TimeOut 

Monday, June 09, 2014

A bookish adventure

I stack books in double rows on each shelf so that an invisible row sits behind the visible row. Some shelves are three thick. I’ve also begun to stack books in horizontal piles on top of a row. Last year, I donated a boxful to a children’s library. But a donation cull is one thing; sentencing a book to death by drowning is another thing. To leave a book vulnerable is to say that the ideas it holds are insignificant. Which leads to a difficult question: what books are more significant than others?
There is no better time to evaluate a book than a physical crisis. A couple of years ago, the house was flooded again. As the water rose around my ankles, I decided to put on a pair of gum boots and get down to the dirty work of classifying books in descending order of ‘significance’. On the lowest shelf went the most ‘dispensable’ ones. I’m not naming names but...
Read the rest of the essay on trying to rescue books in a household flooding situation and thus assessing its importance, published in the new edition of Kindle mag. 
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