In one of the most powerful scenes in the edu-documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen already, you absolutely must), a teacher trying out something new in a classroom is having a meeting with some of his students to talk about the new pedagogy he has introduced in class. Pedagogy that is intended help the students “learn” rather than just prepare them to ace tests. Some of the students (mostly the high-performing ones) are hesitant about these new methods he’s brought in. “Is it more important for you to learn or to do well in the tests?”, he asks, cautious hope in his eyes. “Do well in tests,” one student immediately responds. The others chime in almost instantly, agreeing. The look of confusion and concern that he has on his face after that summarises what a lot of us feel about our education system.
It got me to think about my own early experiences as a student. I wasn’t a bad student. I got decent grades, my teachers would call me a sincere student. Yet, despite the fact that I loved learning, studying (for exams – which I found out later wasn’t necessarily the same as learning) was hard. Even after I managed to find healthier educational opportunities, the same struggles followed me into the real world. My questions, stemming out of genuine curiosity, were often met with well-intentioned advice of “don’t complicate your life too much”.
In the past year, being encouraged to “complexify” my life, I have come to think about how we are taught about the “real world”. When a wiser person tells us there’s a certain way the real world works and certain ways that it doesn’t, our learnt default response is to believe in that, because experience is true, and if that were really how the “real world”- which is in any case too overwhelmingly massive and intricate for one person to fully understand – works, we don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of.
Our education system, I have come to believe, is one such system that is formed around such assumptions about what the real world need and values. Our schools and colleges work so hard to prepare us to do well in a system that we all know is messed up. Whether or not they succeed in doing even that is a whole other conversation.
These assumptions have been around for a while, and with history. At the risk of hyper-simplifying its nuances, the well-known story goes mostly like this:
Years ago, with the Industrial Revolution showing us dreams of a fancy new society, an era of moving from our agrarian/ artisan culture to that of professionalism, our metrics for measuring success changed. We now thought of productivity through the lens of efficiency – how much more can you produce in a shorter period of time, how fewer mistakes can you make while doing that, and can you be trusted to be consistently as accurate – measures that we inherited from the machines we created. Mass-production of goods led to a culture of mass-production of people and their skills – what we (currently) know as our educational system centered around exams and standardised tests. What was meant to measure learning became what learning focused towards. Our systems came to be designed so that we would memorise to prove our competencies – static knowledge of facts and procedures to do well in the industrialised marketplace, with rights and wrongs to be handed down by teachers who are considered authority. In industries, the employee was individually involved in a very small part of making the product, was easily replaceable and was thus supposed to be detached from the product – and slowly, these values came to also structure the qualities we hold as valuable in people. Values that are represented in our education system. Certainty, consistency, order and uniformity. Words that sound like music to the industrial companies.
Of course, there are several ways that this is changing with the advent of the Internet era; there is much that the Googles of the world are changing in the work marketplace and there are several schools, colleges and non-institutional settings that are doing phenomenal work to change that. Yet, we are largely still functioning in the same way; these versions of learning are being passed on across generations, setting the boundaries of what we call success even if we decide to challenge the ways we learn/ work for it. The square pegs-round hole analogy has in my head always been about cookies – the cookie boxes are round, so all our cookies need to be cut with round cookie-cutters, and the square ones need to be chipped off the edges to fit the boxes. Individuality then gets restricted to how many colours you can make these round cookies in, which is easier than changing the shape of the boxes to fit all kinds of cookies, including the ones that don’t have a perfect shape. Add to that the very real problems of lack of equal access and resources, and we have a nice little vicious cycle, a whole machine of faulty systemic gears. A cycle that continues to perpetuate, because those who come into power, very often if not always (thank god!), do so because of this system, and by the time they get power, might not have sufficient motivation and credibility to really change it as substantially as it deserves to be.
There are several people asking questions about this and finding fascinating ways to shift these gears – a task that, as you can well imagine, is rather tricky given that you need to change multiple gears while the machine is still in motion. But here’s the question that keeps me up at night – what can I, as an individual, subject to the risks that come with not “following this system”, do to change it?
Although far from having an answer, I do have a hypothesis that I am testing out right now. (I must state at this point that I fully recognise the privilege that underlies my ability to say this – the privilege that comes from having encouraging teachers, professional mentors, like-minded peers and supportive family along with access to opportunities that allows me to venture on this experiment). It was a thought that was planted in my head by a very enthusiastic Alfie Kohn dancing around our classroom stage, as he spoke about the “BGUTI culture” i.e. the “Better Get Used To It” culture that we are slowly hammered into. The culture of being told “that’s how the real world works, better get used to it” every time we question something that does not make sense. The culture where we are told that questioning and challenging and changing are privileges reserved for the “already successful” club, and we need to be successful within the system before we start to change it. A culture of keeping our head down, take only calculated risks, and continuing to believe that it is only a dog-eats-dog world out there, and the only way to survive it is to learn to be a part of it. I have no credibility to say that that is not true. I am just not sure that that is the only truth.
I have been wondering about the versions of the “real world” that we come to believe as true, and that has made me conscious of what my own versions are that I use to build my life in, and what I pass on and contribute to through the choices I make. Trying out what happens when I ask good questions, questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity, when something doesn’t make sense to me. Not rebelling, not challenging blindly, not being idealistic/ unrealistic, but questioning to understand, so I can know why and how I make choices, and thus make better ones.
So far, it’s served me well. It’s opened up opportunities and space for conversations. Conversations like the one I had with one of my professors when I spoke to him about my learning in his class. What I wanted to gain from that class was different from what the class’ learning goals were – and having a conversation asking him what his learning goals were and why, and defining the same for my goals, led to him helping me get to my goal, so long as I respected the criteria of the class in the assignments I submitted. This discussion itself brought to the forefront the learning that was happening from the class and gave me better focus, rather than the bitterness that I had begun to develop. Conversations like the ones I have with new people I meet when we realise that we are mutually baffled with small talk, and thus don’t need to work so hard at trying to do that at all – this one in fact has made parties so much more bearable for me. It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found
It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found good reason why things worked the way they did rather than the way I thought they should – and all of this allowed me to contribute better. There have been several days that not asking felt a lot more convenient and comfortable. Yet, the times that I did muster up the courage to ask questions, I have felt more empowered, as though I had more information on the map that I navigated through my world. I felt more a part of how things worked, than just an object to assumptions of it. It’s opened up space for more possibilities, opening me up from the binds of only one version of them. Kinda like the time someone said, wait a second, why did you say women can’t have the right to vote again?
I would like to invite you to try your own adventure of curiosity with some faith in the good in this world. Next time you find yourself craving into believing that the real world works in a certain way only, maybe stop and ask what proof you have of that, and if there are other possibilities you might imagine. Maybe, if you feel particularly daring, seek out and test out some of those possibilities. For the few times that they work out, let people know those possibilities can happen. And maybe, just maybe, we will all be able to put those possibilities together and create better versions of the “real world” we live in. If you do embark on this journey, I would love to know about what you learn so that I can add it to my repertoire of “tested assumptions of the real world”.
July 15, 2017. 10.00 am
Baby, i’m not complicated.
i’m the intricate art
collected from our complex world
as i embrace it
with open arms
letting it consume me,
and through it,
i’m not the complicated that you mean, the abstruse
It might just be your baffling you project, darling.
i am the elaborate beauty that has taken time to build
with meticulous interaction with the world
the esoteric mess of inclusiveness
a center to multiple viewpoints
that shines like sunshine.
i’m not complicated, love
i am work
reorganising the world
into inviting categories of meaning
by being embedded in it.
or maybe i am
a bundle of paradoxes
of mistakes that consciously lead to wisdom.
if that’s what that word means, anyway.
i simply no longer
use that as a disclaimer
to my being.
15th Oct, 2016. 9.33 am EST.
We take our circumstances and beliefs, and find our choices within.
You, to the best of your ability, slightly enchanted by your needs of the moment.
Me, to the best of mine, finding my way amidst the sea of my wishes.
We, dancing our moves through this stage full of improvisers, occasionally swinging together.
Organising our circumstances into stories.
Somehow, through it all, orchestrating the rhythm that tunes our shared circumstance.
July 11, 2016. 4.14 pm
Two friends, perhaps in their early 30s, sit talking at the table in front of me. Their conversations are unapologetically loud, punctuated by lots of laughter and “are you f*cling kidding me?!”. Judging by their awkward but tight hug when they walked in, they probably haven’t met in a while.
I sit quietly reading my book, chuckling away to myself. I hear the words literature, theatre, Brecht and Neil Gaiman from the aforementioned table, and my mind automatically assumes I’m invited to the conversation.
In my zoning in and out of that conversation over the next hour, a conversation that began with “how do you get people to notice the literature part of your resume (which is pretty much all there is) as if it’s a real skill”, slowly becomes an entertaining people-mocking session about people I don’t know (I do, however, know much about their idiosyncracies by the end) as also some mentions about some people I think I know (enter comment about the world being too small). References to Victorian British literature and Chickflicks aplenty in the conversation while trying to make a point. As do some facial expressions that depict a whole different range of passion for disappointment in people.
At one point, the girl, heavily pregnant, stretches her neck, and with mannerisms that mimic someone going into a wrestling pit, she exclaims, “who else? Who else?”
I go back to the book. My attention is drawn to them again during their attempt to take a selfie. They cannot seem to be able to look at the screen at the same time. In a conversation about her nickname for him that ensues, I gather that the two of them used to be really close (probably even date) once upon a time, until he came out as gay (clearly, I seem to be surrounded by these men) and “got busy with his people”. She’s visibly livid that others use the unique name that she had for him. “Isn’t it an obvious abbreviation?”, he justifies. “Of course not. It’s so creative”, she argues, hitting him playfully. Thrice. “I can’t believe you have let your people replace me by letting them call you that”, she complains. He pulls her cheeks. She smiles. (How do men get away with that gesture, all the time? How??!)
I am finally called upon to click a picture. As I put my book down, she asks if she can look at it and tells me she’s been meaning to read it. We discuss it, briefly. Me sitting alone for so long surprises her. I laugh. I click their picture. They wave thank you-goodbye to me, hug each other and leave.
Another lady, sitting alone at the table beside them makes eye contact with me. She’s been eavesdropping too. We smile, like partners in this meddlesome form of guilty pleasure, and return to our books.
I think I see the waiters laugh too. Oh, the stories they could tell. I wonder if they compare notes, or if they would recognise the people mentioned in these stories, should they ever show up… or maybe they aren’t as easily distracted as I am?
July 1, 2016
The conversation turns to one about opportunities. If begging really is the only option. And who am I as a auto-affording citizen to comment on their opportunities, I mumble. Kisi ke chehre pe nahi likha hota unhone Kaise din dekhe hai (it isn’t written on anyone’s face what kind of days they have gone through), he tells me. Woh minute ke signal mein, aapko jo lagta hai, usi soch se paise dete ho. Agar aap ki shaadi nahi ho rahi, Aap chakke ki duaon ki bhi keemat karoge. Agar aap job karti ma hain, shaayad bacche ko dekhkar jyaada taras khaoge. (In that minute-long signal, each one makes snap decisions about what they are willing to pay. If you aren’t able to get married, you will value even the blessings of the eunuch. If you are a working mother, you would feel more empathy for the kids that beg)” We speak about the assumed hierarchies of what is considered under-privileged, and what, deserving.
We arrive at my destination. I pay him in notes of Rs. 10; there is a gap of Rs.5 that neither of us have the change for. We look around for shops to get change, while I search frantically through my purse. He knows that I’m late because of the last 2 phonecalls through the trip that he heard. I tell him to keep the change. “Rehne dijiye (let it be)”, he tells me instead. “Aur agli baar langde ko de dena (next time, give it to a cripple)”. Smiles. Waves. Leaves (Me thinking.)
29th May, 2016. 1.30 pm
I find my seat in the flight. 3 kids and 2 infants in a 2 row radius. Check the battery of my ipod; gonna need that. A newly wed couple arrives on the other side of my row. And a gorgeous gentleman takes the seat beside mine. Light teal blue shirt, jeans, octagonal jaw and just the right amount of stubble. And a warm full smile.
Food is exchanged, kids are threatened and bribed around me. Families returning from a summer trip to the north exchange mundane information across the plane. Phone calls that suddenly seem more urgent are returned.
The gorgeous man takes out a book and puts his bag in the shelf above. Chronicles of Narnia. I smile. He notices the smile, and smiles back, sheepishly. Or charmingly. I can’t really tell.
I realise there are cookie crumbs on my shirt. No idea how, since I haven’t had any cookies all day. As I dust it off, he points out an insect in my hair. A live big insect. I gotta have set some kind of a record for awkward introductions.
The plane takes off. The man really is reading the Chronicles intensely. (I’m totally thinking Hot Dudes Reading)
Electronic devices are now allowed to be used. The couple plays a game together on their phones. A grown man in the seat diagonally behind me plays candy crush rather competitively. Sounds on.
A father and his 5ish year old son in the row diagonally in front take turns playing a video game and exchanging tips and reactions, complete with sound effects. The mother, when not distributing biscuits to the family (2 kinds, brought along in jars) cajoles her other baby son with rhymes on her phone, playing at full volume, her singing along with it.
The kid sitting in front of her stands up on the seat to watch. His mother keeps tugging at his shirt to make him sit. While trying not to wake up her toddler.
Another father in the seat right in front of me is helping his 11ish year old daughter with hangman, which she explains quite succinctly to him. After a while, he takes the phone and starts playing it himself, promising the daughter to give it back after yet another one. When the daughter gets angry, he gives her his phone. Meanwhile, this mother has joined the father in playing hangman. The daughter cannot find any interesting game on the father’s phone, so threatens him by trying to read his messages. He locks the phone. Her phone gets locked meanwhile, and now she refuses to give him the password till she has the phone back. Finally, the negotiations end with the three of them now playing together.
Another man sitting on my other side has just asked for his 9th glass of water,each time only getting ruder.
I turn my attention to the Narnia man. He’s still reading as he sips his coffee. Notices I’m looking and responds with an explanation. He can’t remember reading it as a child. So he’s catching up. Why? I ask. Why not, he says. Also reads adult books though, he clarifies. The last fiction book he read was Kafka. I now realise I’m staring. Probably blushing. There has to be a catch. And then it comes. His boyfriend introduced him to Existentialist literature.
The kid in the row in front screams. The one in front of him joins in the symphony. Another from somewhere else in the plane adds his high pitch little person voice. The kid behind me wakes up and takes his place in the orchestra. The 5ish year old brother screams “shhhhhhh”, echoing sentiments of the plane. Some kid gets thwacked somewhere in the front. Loud crying. Slowly all of tiny lungs do get tired. Takes a few minutes for the plane to quiet down.
A few minutes later, a man (presumably a relative) comes strolling to the family in the row in front. “I knew it had to be you”, he says to the baby in Gujju. Laughs. Asks the father if he has Rs. 50 change. The mother, now trying to put the child to sleep, gives it to him. Along with a biscuit. The man wants another one.
I return to my book on the business and politics of AIDS and its research. Titled “Wisdom of whores”. It suddenly seems too adult.
The flight is now landing. The very thirsty man beside me, now down 12 glasses of water, decides it’s trivia time. Do you know why they ask you to raise the window panes? He asks, and then answers himself, proudly. I knew, I wanted to say to break his bloated balloon. I don’t.
The flight lands. The gujju mother calls her “maharaj” to tell him to start making the “rotlis”. Another aunty calls the driver. Phones start to buzz. Lots of comments about the humidity in several languages.
I see the Narnia man one last time as I leave the airport. His equally handsome Camus-loving boyfriend (presumably) has come to pick him up.
I breathe in the horrible weather. Oh, Hello, home-ish city. I have missed you.
27th May, 2016. 3.45 pm
My bookshelves, they are like carriers of large parts of my history. Organised in patches of memories from my life, they are reflections of my meaning systems.
When you come home, spend a few minutes looking at my shelf, taking in the titles of my books; some faded, some shiny new, and you will know all you have to about me.
You will know that I love second-hand books. And that when I am feeling sad, I go scavenging for them. I especially like the ones that have a disappearing name on its first page, the ones with things underlined (with pencil, always with pencils). My favourites are the ones with scribbles in the margins, or the ones that had been gifted with personal notes. It makes me feel intimate with the previous owner, because I now know what matters to them.
These books, they will tell you of how I have evolved, because books cannot be deleted. They will tell you that I was a Meg Cabot fan, and that I once owned a Chetan Bhagat book before I became more elitist about the literature I devoured. That I still have some books that I would never publicly mention enjoying, but bookshelves don’t lie. It’s an honesty the kindle can never provide.
Open these books and you will be privy to my thoughts. You will see little stars and smiley faces, exclamation marks and circled question marks as well as some epiphanies doodled in the margins. You will see outlines of the tears I cried while reading them and the pages that have had bookmarks in them for real long.
The bookmarks, they are a story of their own. You will see the shady but wonderful ones my sister made for me when she was a child. The quotes I turned into page markers. Plane tickets and coffee house stubs. Like the remnants of my time with them.
I like taking my books on vacation, like a companion for all places. These books, often become conversation starters, and their covers are all you need. I can write a whole series of conversations I have had when I was reading The wisdom of whores by Elizabeth Pisani. The kindles will never hold that mystery, or the joy of being so open about what it is that fascinates you at that moment.
Some books, they hold hints to my intimate moments too. The Murakami, Norwegian Wood, as my companion in one of the tough phases of my life, has all kinds of stains from being in my purse for too long. Flip open my copy of Bridge Across Forever and you will see lines of hope a friend’s father wrote to him before he gifted him this book, the wishes that the friend carried forward when he gifted it to me, and then some notes from a screenplay a friend and I tried to write inspired by it. These books, they have seen me through as much as my closest friends, and you will stumble across these stories when browsing through them.
I will let you borrow these books if you wish. And for me, that would be like sharing a piece of my soul. It will be our shared memory and not just a common pdf. I will warn you not to use pen marks on them, but I will let you leave me little pieces of your heart in it when you return them. And years later, if you have forgotten about the book, I will remind you to return it because there is a paragraph in that book that I want to find. It will be an extra reason to reconnect, should that ever be needed.
When finding these paragraphs, as I turn the pages, I will relive my time with the books, perhaps stopping to read some of my favourite parts. Not as efficient as your Kindle’s search, but bliss cannot always be rushed.
So, next time you are home, stop by my bookshelf. And smell it. It has centuries of stories in them, the joys of holding them, and real shelves of my love. Their brightness may not be adjustable, but they can be held. Hugged. And they light up my soul instead.
(on my way from Mumbai to Baroda)
In the train, there’s this mother travelling with her two children. The older one, about 3-4 years old, says versions of this to his little sibling, who’s only about a few months old, every time it cries: “Mummy is really worried travelling with just the two of us, so we have to behave like a big boy. And I can’t take care of her if you keep crying. So cry when we reach home, please?”
And then makes funny faces at the infant, who pauses the crying to just stare at the older brother.
24th March, 2016. 5.37pm