Saturday, May 20, 2017

Banking For The Illiterate

I spent the morning explaining to the illiterate domestic help that her bank passbook (she had asked me to photocopy) is incomplete and how, in spite of the fact she can't read, she can identify whether the credits and the balance match or not by crudely measuring the width of the columns. It's not the best way but I showed her how a 'thin' column of 400 rupees can't become suddenly 'wide' to accommodate 13000 when the credit column in between is as 'narrow'' as 10 rupees. Because she is illiterate she gives her money to her nephew to deposit in the bank. I asked her why she doesn't ask her daughter who is literate. "She's only a girl," was her answer. Mom-in-law urged her to send her daughter to the bank instead of the nephew so she could learn banking. I insisted that she go on her own to ask the officials to record the transactions. She hesitated. I pointed to my cook who is also illiterate but has a mental record of every transaction she has made, so much so that she can intimidate bank officials.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How I Became An Educator...



I had never in my wildest dreams seen myself as a teacher. A shy kid who dreaded public speaking, I performed on stage only as a dancer. My first memories of teaching was in 2000, when I had to earn a Social Involvement Program (SIP) credit for the co-curricular Honour's program (not to be confused by the Honour's degree) at St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Crissy, the coordinator for SIP, assigned me to St Stephen's Church at Breach Candy, where under the guidance of the very strict Mother Margaret, I would have to teach a group of domestic workers once a week. I was 17. Till that year, I never had an urge to do anything for anyone for free because I was too focused on my studies.

Most of my students were older than me. Many did not understand Hindi or English, the two languages I could converse in. I felt awkward to go there alone and would miss turns if my fellow-volunteers were not able to make it for some reason. Mother Margaret had given me a Grade 5 English textbook to teach from. Some of the students were irregular because they had to keep juggling the chores of the household they worked in with these 'English classes'. At the beginning of each session I would ask them the page number we left the previous class. They always said, “Page 19.” For six months, we started reading from that page. I did not enjoy the teaching experience and was happy that I got a 'C'.

With members of various editorial teams in Times Response, 2nd Floor, The Times of India Building, Mumbai, in 2006

It was during my stint as correspondent with Downtown Plus, the weekly South Mumbai supplement of The Times of India in Mumbai, did I learn how to mentor. A large part of it was by observing and interacting with my boss, Sridhar Ramakrishnan (the only person in my life I have called, “Boss”), and my senior colleagues Ashishwang Godha, Sanaya Pavri and Swati Soni. For all the things people say about the Times' brand of journalism, of what you can do and cannot do there, it has made me the person I am today and I shall be ever grateful to be given that chance to work with them. I got the confidence to write, edit, design, mentor interns and colleagues, recognise and recruit talent. I enjoyed my role as mentor.

My first batch of students at MS University of Baroda in 2009
Marriage brought me to Vadodara in Gujarat in 2008, a year when the global recession made thousands of jobs redundant. There were no positions for new copy editors in the city's two English dailies – The Times of India and Indian Express. I continued to freelance for the Mumbai papers but I really needed some local engagement. One of my husband's relatives, Dr Amit Dholakia, a political scientist, asked me if I would like to see the journalism faculty at The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda. My husband, Rachit and I teamed with Dr Dholakia and entered the office of the dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at MSU. Dr SK Tiwari had served in that office for 14 years. He asked me if I would like to teach. I hesitated, remembering my previous experience of teaching at the church. “At least if you can share your knowledge, of what to expect when the students get out of here, that would be enough.” At that moment, Dr Niti Chopra, walked in. She asked me if I could teach Quark Xpress to the students. I agreed. I was hired to teach the students editing and coordinate the lab journal, Ittivritt (meaning chronicle).

The first batch of students I taught were an enterprising lot. I asked them if they would like to do Ittivritt in colour (till that point, the press printed only black and white) and they were ready to do it. I taught them Quark and they brought in ads so it could be printed outside. They did everything – logos, illustrations, stories, editing, pagemaking, photography, photo-processing – all with limited access to technology and computers. While I am still proud that they came up with the first all-colour issue of Ittivritt, I am prouder of the fact that they turned me into a teacher and encouraged me even when I shared my fears and hesitation with them. I have been teaching there for almost eight years now, and have learned a lot about people, cultures, education, problems, society and youth from the 180+ students I have encountered there.

Celebrating 25 years of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in February 2017


I got a closer look at what plagues the education system in the country while working as Documentation Consultant for Education with UNICEF Gujarat in 2012. Travelling to rural schools, meeting people who were not very different from the set I had tried to teach at St Stephen's Church in Mumbai, and learning their social norms made me realise that sometimes, even the best intentions of providing access to education may fail if we don't understand the communities we are working in. I had never tried to understand the predicament of my students at the church in Mumbai because they were domestic workers. They had failed to grasp Grade 5 English and I hadn't bothered to find out what I was doing wrong. Gujarat's villages taught me the need to put myself into their shoes: When survival becomes an issue, parents put kids to work in fields or beg for food instead of sending them to schools. When girls menstruate, they stop going to schools because it's a taboo and there are no toilets for their exclusive use. If you want a school built in a village of shepherds, you have to first share their lunch. Education became more about bridging the gaps in my understanding of people of different castes and classes.

Girls in a very remote village school in Bordha village, Vadodara district. I visited the place to document UNICEF's intervention in Education through photographs and success stories


In 2014, Rachit and I moved to Brisbane, Australia, to set up the sales and distribution arm of his mining equipment business there. While we worked together in the office, I took time out on Wednesdays and Thursdays to go to the Indooroopilly Uniting Church, where I would learn art and volunteer at the PlayCafe, a space where mothers and children would meet and socialise. At any given time, there were people from about 15 nationalities at the church. My art-teacher, Gabriella Veidt-Weidmer is one of the most skilled teachers and finest human beings I have met. She taught me (and others) art for one-and-a-half years for free in one of the most expensive countries in the world. She didn't care if you knew how to draw or paint, which country you were from or if you spoke English or not (she is Swiss). If you wanted to be part of the group, all you had to do is walk in and grab a chair. I loved the way she imparted her knowledge to us, without ever asking for anything in return.

With members of Art n' Soul at Indooroopilly Uniting Church. My teacher, Gabriella, is on the extreme left


It was through the art class, I met my dear friend Leyla Kesbi, who had fled Iran and come to Australia as a refugee with her husband and son. The Australian government had helped Leyla get into a TAFE course so she could work as a teacher-aide in school. Leyla was great at the practicals. What she hadn't realised was that she would have to write a lot of reports in English as well. One evening, she SMSed me for help. We met at the Indooroopilly library and she discussed her problem. She was about four days away from her deadline and she struggled to understand the workbooks she had to complete. For two days, we sat together, ate cake and worked our way through the questions. I helped her translate her experiences into English sentences. If she didn't understand a word I mentioned, she would look up the English-Farsi dictionary.

When I came back to India in 2015, I learned about Pax Populi Tutoring Program, from my former student, Nalanda Tambe's Facebook update, where she mentioned an interaction with a student in Afghanistan. Curious to learn more, I wrote to Robert McNulty, the founder of Applied Ethics, Inc, Pax Populi's parent NGO. After exchanging a series of emails and having a video-conversation, I was appointed as tutor to teach one Muhammad Qasem Jami in Herat, Afghanistan. An English teacher himself, Qasem's understanding of the language and fluency in English made me work harder to create assignments and find readings that would challenge him. We discussed peace, education, culture, countries, war, music, films, democracy, diplomacy, university applications, fellowships, conferences, etc. I taught him for seven months and we've become good friends. I then worked another student, Suraya Mehrzad, from Kabul, who introduced me to the difficulties of students who are not used to reading the Roman script and the various pronunciations of the five vowels to create different sounds. I learned how to improvise.

(From left to right):
Priya More, a student at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication (FJC) at MSU who conducted a study on Pax Populi for her Masters' dissertation,
Sayed Khalid Sadaat, an Afghan student at FJC (MSU), me and
Robert McNulty, founder, Pax Populi at the Lukshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara


It was after I started posting my interactions with my Pax Populi students on Facebook, that I started being talked about as an educator. Till last year, I was known as a writer-journalist and people would ask me to critique the newspapers in Vadodara. Last year, I had little time to write in the media because I was too busy teaching. I taught the Bachelors of Journalism and Communication course at Navrachana University in Vadodara, two batches of the Masters' course in Journalism and Mass Communication at MSU, students at Pax Populi, guest-lectured students at Lincoln Learning Centre, Kandahar (Afghanistan) and Social Entrepreneurship Council at The University of the Pacific, California (USA) on Skype and collaborated with fellow-teachers for writing projects at University of Edinburgh (UK) and University of Iowa (USA). I engaged in dialogues and chats with students from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, USA, Germany, Australia, Iraq, Iran and UK, to understand the gaps in communication between educators and students. I even talked about my teaching experience for a Teachers' Day video produced by WideAngle Studio in Vadodara. I talked about safety and girls' education in a video for The Red Elephant Foundation. I haven't done videos about writing, yet.

It recently dawned on me that I have been teaching in a quasi-professional capacity for almost 17 years. That's longer than my writing career of 13 years! Wow! Now, who would have dreamt of that?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Book Buy: Who Killed Osho by Abhay Vaidya


If you lived in Pune in the early 1990s, you would have, at some point in time, learnt about Osho or Rajneesh. I first saw his picture at my grand-uncle's house. I was seven when we moved to Pune from New Delhi. It was 1990, the year Osho 'left his body'. Unfamiliar with the bearded man in the framed photograph, I asked my grand-uncle who he was. He replied, "He's a guru, Osho, and he lives here in Pune." "Your guru?" "No, we've been to a few of his talks." Osho faded from my memory as other things took over till I got married and moved to Vadodara and found his book on my mother-in-law's bookshelf. I read it and liked it but did not read more. Not till I found this book, 'Who killed Osho?' At Crossword bookstore, I took a second look at the book because the writer's name caught my eye. 'Abhay Vaidya.' And I have a faint memory of him introducing himself at a Times of India 'outdoor' workshop I was part of. I bought the book. It has been an eye-opener about how faith and business married to create entire communities of believers all over the world and how it led to the death of India's most widely-known new-age guru, who created his own brand of meditation, under the most suspicious circumstances and how the world was made to forget Rajneesh to make way for the most marketable spiritual brand, Osho. Of a professor who became widely known as a 'sex guru', multimillion dollar investments in his name, illegal transfers of intellectual property rights and fights over copyright, clashes between Western pragmatism and Eastern beliefs and the rise and destruction of a faith, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers and leaves you thinking, "How the hell did we miss this?"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Why Gujarat's villages are quick on the 'development' front

One of the things I have noted when I travel around rural Gujarat is that many villages are made of people who belong to a single caste/community/clan, unlike in north India, where you find a mix of castes, with the outer rings comprising of the dalits and lower castes and the inner ones of high castes. If you want to push a development project in a single-caste village, you essentially have to convince the village chief and the rest of the clan will come out in support. When people marvel at the pace of Gujarat's 'development' and industrialisation, this factor is often missed. In mixed-caste communities, getting consensus from all factions is important and can be long and tedious even in the most syncretic settings.

Pax Populi, now a subject of Intercultural Communication research

In September 2016, Priya More, a student at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication (#FJC) at #Vadodara's MS University (#MSU) told me she would like to study Pax Populi for her Masters' dissertation on Intercultural Communication. #PaxPopuli is a people-to-people #peacebuilding initiative founded by Prof Robert McNulty of Bentley University, Massachusetts, #USA. As part of the initiative is an online school, Pax Populi Academy, where tutors from all over the globe teach students in #Afghanistan. Since 2015, I have been volunteering my services as tutor and social media manager. After almost nine months of study, which involved interviews with students of Pax Populi in Afghanistan and tutors in India, surveys and lengthy discussions with Robert when he visited #India last year, Priya has completed and submitted her dissertation, "Intercultural #Communication: A Study on Pax Populi," at the university. This image of the cover brought a smile to my face. In her research she concludes that there has been a change in the outlook of Afghan students after they were initiated into Pax Populi Academy, in the way, they shared their ideas with people of other cultures, overcame their shyness while interacting with people from another country and learned about the cultures of at least two different countries (US and India, in this case). She even recommends that such education-for-peace projects "should be replicated in other colleges and universities to foster one-to-one understanding of different #cultures."



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

From Madhavan's Harvard Speech: Funerals Cost the Village Poor Dear

I was viewing Madhavan's speech at #Harvard and came across a point about what forces villagers into a cycle of debt: An unexpected death in the family. In India, the death of a loved one mandates that the family should spend considerable money on funeral rites and organise feasts for communities and priests during the mourning period. In Hindu custom, this is commemorated by organising feasts every year. Villagers are forced to borrow money from moneylenders. Weddings and dowry people can save up for, but death can push a family into penury. People in India sometimes spend more on funeral rites and proceedings than weddings, to ensure that the departed soul rests in peace. I asked my househelp, Rangaben, about how they get money to organise village funeral feasts. She said that they pawn off the jewellery and mortgage their fields. Rarely do economists talk about this when they study the Indian poor. At seminars on development and economy, we  always have experts talk about dowry, weddings, alcohol and tobacco but never funerals. And that's why #Madhavan's observations as an actor who travels and films in the remote rural villages of Tamil Nadu are remarkably important. #Death costs the Indian poor dear.
#WhyIndiaRemainsPoor #Poverty #Villages #Debt #Development #Economics #Customs #Funerals #India


Monday, May 1, 2017

Nostalgia: How I thought of becoming a journalist

As a child I believed I was made for science. I come from a family of surgeons, doctors and scientists, among the first Indians to be enrolled in British-run medical schools and colleges in pre-Independent India. Chemistry was my favourite subject in school and I wanted to become a scientist like Antoine Lavoisier. When anyone asked me about my ambition, that's what I would say. Until, April 1996. 1996 was an important year not only for me but also the entire Indian subcontinent. It was the year the Cricket World Cup was jointly hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. My favourite players were Pakistani and Australian and I watched all their matches, read up all I could about them and knew their batting and bowling statistics by heart. Pakistan did exceptionally well in the tournament till they met the worst opposition in the quarter-finals, India. I did not watch the match. The fall of an Indian wicket would be attributed to my presence. I sensed the hostility in the drawing room and have never watched India-Pakistan World Cup matches since then. After the match I realised that my favorite bowler Waqar was 'smashed' by my friend's favourite batsman, Jadeja. Those two overs had cost Pakistan the match. The next week, I became the  target of snide remarks during any debate on Indo-Pak cricket. The newspapers carried stories about how distraught Pakistani fans were that they warned the team not to return from Bangalore or else they would be killed. "Eleven graves for eleven losers." At that point of time, I chanced upon this piece, "The Last Namaaz in Karachi," by Javed M Ansari in India Today. I was so moved by the piece that I wanted to write, and write like him.  I was 13. From that day, when someone asked me what I wanted to become when I grew older, I would say scientist or journalist.
#IndoPak #WhenIDecidedToBeAJournalist #Cricket #WorldCup #journalism