Category Archives: education

The ‘Practical’ person

Being practical seems to be normal state of being for the majority of the people. In fact, being practical is often equated with maturity, adulthood or ‘coming of age’. It is considered that magical threshold beyond which you finally understand your place in the cosmos and how it (the cosmos) works. You now can share the table with the big boys, with that glass of liquor essential for socialising among practical people.

Watching so many people make this transition (since this is the age (25+) around which most people take that leap into the abyss) gives fodder for thought and amusement. The first visible change is in clothing: you shift from the ‘Yo!’ clothing of your foolish, immature, larval/pupal stage into the big, beautiful wings designed by van Heusen or a cheaper brand. Running shoes are now, unfortunately, used only while running. Spectacle frames thin down (while your own frame fills up), your favourite sports watch gives way to a less accurate, but way more expensive, analog watch.

The second visible (and audible) change is in language and mannerisms: gone are the golden days where you could spout four letter words with gay abandon; you start to address each other with great civility, which most of the time is not very sincere. You start talking intelligently about topics you have no clue about, especially those pertaining to the economy and politics, with Facebook being the ideal place to show your ignorance and practical (i.e., worldly) bent of mind. You look forward to shaking hands with other practical people and vice versa; you would never shake hands with children or other such degenerates. Phones are now a means to balance bank accounts rather than multiple girlfriends.

Though I find practical people amusing, it does not mean I don’t respect them. It is within the structures created by practical people that impractical people like vegans and scientists (or what is worse, vegan scientists) can survive and even thrive. They are the cogs of that giant machine we call civilisation, on which some lazy, good-for-nothings get a free ride. Practical people run the world, may be even helped create it, though it is unlikely they would ever be able to conceive of it. They are normally peaceful, predictable and law-abiding, since they find comfort in following law, ritual and custom, without thinking too much about them.

Adulthood is a most unfortunate period in life. It is the time when practical people combine the worst qualities of the infantile and senile. Thus, they are stubborn, cranky, narrow-minded, think they know better, and are proud of being so. You can bully children and ignore the old, but these options are unavailable when dealing with practical people. Because of their strong conviction that they understand the world and how to go about life, they are fiercely combative when faced with something outside their ‘operating parameters’, and go on to advise the ill-informed on the correct ways to lead life.

The practical life is like the perfect prison: you know you are in it, and are proud of being in it and never want to leave it. It ensures you can keep body and soul together by an incessant performance of certain rituals and without the anguish of constant self-doubt or constant self-improvement. Practical people do admire people from outside their world, but only if they gain success in terms that make practical sense, like money or fame. However, this admiration is accompanied by the belief that they can (and should) only dream about such things from the safety of their couch.

It must have been a practical person who first thought of cursing people using the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’. But then, this is a Chinese curse, and the Chinese are known to be very practical people. Being practical ensures you fit in, blend, and most importantly survive. Being practical means understanding and accepting the way the world is structured. It is something like travelling using public transport: Only an impractical person will wait for a direct bus from Yeshwantpur to R.T. Nagar (for example). The practical person understands it is easier to get a bus to Mekri circle, change over to a Yelahanka bus, and then finally get a bus from C.B.I to R. T. Nagar. If you don’t understand the previous sentence, you obviously are not a very practical person.

On the other hand, the impractical person, will have to wait for half an hour, finally give up, hitch a ride half the way, walk few kilometers, lose her way, ask a few people for directions, and finally land at her destination half an hour late. However, during this ordeal, she might have met some interesting people at the bus stand, some kind person willing to give her a ride, noticed a small bookstore that is only visible when you walk past it, increased her patience, humility and stamina, and probably figured out some problems with the public transport system which, if she ever gets into a position of power, she might change for the better.

A world overrun by impractical people will be unliveable; in the same way, a world ruled by practical people will be brittle and intolerant. While civilisation may be by, for and of practical people, it makes a lot of practical sense to carry along the free-riding man-children who carry in them the seeds of unconventionality which will make all the difference when what is practical today becomes impractical tomorrow.

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Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

Being useless

First of all, something from XKCD that echoes my sentiments:

The mouse-over text for this panel goes like this: “The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.” For some reason, this part of life is completely overlooked when trying to describe what makes an ideal human being. We seem to have internalized a fact of dubious validity that if one is useless, then it is a bad thing. Good is equated with useful (to someone/thing) and bad with useless.

It is undoubtedly true that since we live in the company of other humans, and all of us are trying to prop up a gigantic structure called society, that we need to work with each other, and for each other. It is therefore only fair that we are rewarded when we do our part, and are useful to others. Only thieves and politicians seem to think otherwise, and also those who beg and borrow without ever trying to find something useful to do. But somehow, somewhere, the fact “you need to be useful to survive” gets transformed into “you survive to be useful”.

As a personal ethic, to live in the service of others is undoubtedly a very noble thing. But problems arise when everything is judged by its utility to yourself or to society. By this standard, bureaucrats (the earnest ones anyway) are useful and painters useless. Farmers are useful and folk singers useless. If we keep eliminating useless people and things from society, then, like the cartoon says, life would not be very much fun indeed. Also, it is very easy to apply double standards: A sports person who has spent his entire life thinking about himself, his body and his technique becomes a hero if he wins a medal, though his actual contribution to society is similar to that of an orchid to a forest.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the word ‘useful’ itself has different meanings at different points in history. It is socially defined and it defines ‘The Box’ within which society operates. People of science were not only considered useless but even dangerous a few hundred years ago. Nowadays they are worshipped as saviours of humanity. Therefore, some who is very useful and maybe even invaluable at a particular point in history is so because she operates completely within ‘The Box’, and is happy doing so. If everyone thinking outside ‘The Box’  are eliminated, civilisations will stagnate and die out.

It is therefore important that society tolerates useless elements like beggars and philosophers. They may be parasites, but as long as they don’t suck the life-blood out of the society, like politicians, they should be allowed to survive and persist. They may harbour ideas or examples of ways of living that may lead the way for future generations, or their ideas may be eternally useless. But being different, being useless requires conviction and courage (however misplaced), both of which are rare qualities in society.

At a more personal level, being useful implies leading a life that is mainly governed by the needs of others. As experience will inevitably show, the ‘others’ are a mix of deserving and undeserving people, and you have no control over which kind you end up serving. It a very rare set of people who can truthfully say that they serve only deserving people. Also, people and things have values that are not included in their utility: beauty, inspiration, serenity — these are also things that we as a society must value, and seeing how things are progressing, maybe value more that brute utility. Being useless is something that is brainwashed out of us very early on, maybe it is time we re-learn what it feels like!

View from the outside – reality or caricature?

Social situations suffer from problems of interpretation, as much as any literary work or puzzling movie. The dynamics which make a situation what it is are very widely spread, both in time and space. From the immediate spark to historical wounds, from neighborhood feuds to global markets, all play their part in shaping interesting situations.

For this reason, much like in the natural sciences, social thinkers have tried to find the ‘essence’ of the situation — Marx saw class war as the dominant dynamic, others see markets as playing this role, Nationalists see it as an ‘us vs. them’ logic, and so on. The problem does not lie in an analysis for personal clarity, but in drumming it around as the way to look at things. Since forceful views feed back into popular perception, the analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, tribal communities have always been handed the short end of the bargain for a long time. So also the Dalit community all over India. However, there are many facets of tribal or dalit life that is simply inaccessible to the external analyst (who is normally urban and middle class), their daily lives, routines, modes of resistance, their culture, songs, Gods and loves. If an external analyst tries to learn about everything he/she can no longer be ‘external’. However, given the respect such a person normally accords, normally due to eloquence of speech and unsubstantiated self-assurance, the way these people view the world and themselves changes. Dalit writers themselves have documented this change, with Dalit leaders despising their own roots in the villages, consistent with Ambedkar’s analysis. The loss of a world view has to be replaced, and modern, Western thinking and contempt for non-European thinking set in, with an intensity that only occurs in new converts to a way of thinking or a religion.

Another example is that of the current trend of acquisition of rural land for personal gain by the BJP government. It is being seen as a farmer vs. corporate/politician nexus. This, however, does not explain why quite a few farmers (always with large amounts of land) seem to be willing to sell. Rural Karnataka has had to my mind three major changes over the past few decades.

One, with laying of roads everywhere due to the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana (started by Vajpayee), transport to the nearest city/town centre has become very easy. With urban wages and a rural lifestyle both being within reach, most of the labor force prefers to work on construction sites. Farmers with lands larger than they can till (not just absentee landlords) are consequently finding it impossible to find farm hands. This was something I noticed in Bihar as well on a recent trip. The advent of television and the boom in rural telephony due to cellphones is also facilitating wider awareness of options beyond the rural economy, driving people out.

Two, the trend of waiving away farm loans was started in Karnataka and is now there everywhere in India. This is not a very new idea, with landlords historically having done this during bad years. However, now neither the fine grained differentiation between deserving and otherwise is no longer possible, with the latter gaining more, nor is there accountability, with farmers taking loans from the local bank and waiting for the Government to waive it off. Access to credit at low interest rates has also enabled over borrowing, say borrowing 3 lakh when all you need is 1 lakh. An interesting case was of a woman setting up a shop using microcredit and using it to buy a TV and refrigerator (even though her roof still remained a thatched one) in an urban slum which was documented by one of my classmates. Oh, and she defaulted on the loan as well.

Third, NREGS work is highly attractive wherever it is working even half well, and there have been cases of laborers not working and simply paying off the contractor to get wages, which in the case of men inevitably goes to the nearest toddy shop-owner. Farmers growing time sensitive crops like rice, which simply have to have certain things done at certain times, are unable to find workers and this forces them to shift to horticulture or other alternatives. Ironically, the proper working of NREGS seems to be putting people out of work in such cases — there are many farmers who are simply giving up cultivating more than what is necessary for personal consumption.

Thus, it is not as if the rural population is a passive, mute spectator to emerging trends, but very aware, discerning and looking at how to profit from change. The only difference is that they don’t use excel sheets.

When a community listens to an outsider describing it, there can be two reactions, both flowing from an awareness of what is important and what is convenient. Most would go with a path that makes things more convenient, like developing a victim complex, which is present in Muslims, Brahmins, Dalits, Christians, rural and urban communities if one cares to look closely. Any ideological stand that facilitates a way to not do inconvenient things and gain political power is preferred, even though it may have no internal coherency. The second, harder way of actually learning what is relevant from an external analysis without losing self identity is rarely taken, and such attempts are celebrated for very good reasons. From being a real, living community that had its own way of looking at the world, we get a community that sees a caricature of itself, which focuses only on some aspect of their life, as reality.

Politics from above and below

A bus journey from Bangalore to Mysore shows interesting patterns – until the periphery of the urban sprawl, which extends nearly to Ramangara, you will see walls painted advertising the protectors of Kannada, of which there are more than desirable – Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, Jaya Karnataka, Pratidhvani Vedike, Kasturi Janapara Vedike and so on. They mysteriously disappear near the villages, where the walls are painted with advertisements for consumer goods and appear regularly at all the major towns in between. Maybe since their fight is against the English and Hindi speakers, they stay where such riff-raff tend to gather. Or maybe there is simply no interest for their cause among the `simple-minded, ignorant’ villagers. who knows.

These organisations, along with the collection of miscellaneous Senes, and the more established Congresses and BJPs, represent the `sexy’, visible side of politics in India. Whatever the theoretical aims of such people, all they do nowadays is power brokering without any particular ideology guiding them. Power is required to acquire money and more power, nothing else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, the common person is both attracted and cynical toward them. Attracted, since they seem to matter the most, and hence can be a source of leverage when need arises, and disappointed since in most likelihood, they are not responsive to his needs.

If politics is a process of rearrangement of power, then these organisations simply have no proper method by which to devolve power to those they claim to serve. They would claim that power in a few hands will be more effective for the battles of today. Unfortunately, not so in the ultimate war against prejudice, hatred and misunderstanding.

Is it really that hard to empower individuals? Take the example of computers for Kannada speaking people. There isn’t a single Kannada font out there worth its name. The best one is from, god forbid, Microsoft. Can’t any one of these outfits with their enormous reach pressurise the government or themselves undertake the task to make one? A computer completely usable by someone who does not know English is still a dream.

Similarly, those who go on protests to protect Kannada culture, however one may define it, don’t seem to want to take it forward by putting in the hard work to become established poets or authors or even decent journalists or expositors of famous works. Wonder where Carnatic music would have gone if Tyagaraja had started going on dharnas to save traditional music.

Similarly, taking out processions and discussion meetings about slum dwellers or farmers or tribals or whoever is going to create a very aware, sympathetic, but ultimately useless set of armchair philosophers. Unless one has the commitment to stay in a place for years on end and bring about the change within themselves and the world around them, there is no hope that anything constructive will ever happen. In a place of contrasts like India, the challenge not only lies in outreach to the less priviledged, but also in forgetting whatever one knows about ideas of desirable and otherwise, and try and see the world from a point of view as alien to you as a person from the Amazon.

This is a more subtle, constructive politics that allows a person to assume charge of her life and gain the confidence that her destiny can be written by herself, and that too by modes of living which are not derived from a middle class model. It is slow, painful (like all interpersonal interactions are!) but ultimately the only way forward.

Grades, Percentile or Percentage? Ask a stupid question…

The motivations that drive individuals to perform certain tasks, which pattern the society in certain ways are normally difficult to gauge. Economic data is limited to analysis using primitive regression kind of techniques, and results interpreted using more primitive models of human behavior. Interviews may disclose what the person would like to think his motivations are, which makes it easier to live with himself. However, if you engineer a change, however small, that strikes at the heart of their motivations, they are exposed to plain sight.

The recently announced CBSE results were an interesting psycho/social experiment, whose results give us some insight into what our schooling system has become. Consider the statement in this article:

Mehak Arora, a student of Kundan Vidya Mandir, who scored 9.8 CGPA, said, “I think the percentage system was better. I scored more than 95 per cent in four subjects and between 80-90 per cent in one. If the percentage was to be calculated, I would have topped in my school.”

few things show up immediately – the student does not seem to care much about what he studied – If all I care about is English or Physics, the ‘overall marks’ would not really matter. Here, subjects are simply a means to acquiring marks. Secondly, the ultra-competitive nature, no doubt nurtured by parents and teachers, which drives him to get only a certain symbol on a piece of paper. Thirdly, the student is more worried about his performance relative to others rather than upto his own standards (if he has any).

Of the three, only the third is even remotely justifiable, and that too only if you assume that everyone ought to study only one of few things (Engineering, Medicine, blah) and only at certain places (IIT, IISc or (god forbid!) IIM). The students, especially the 98% variety, somehow seem to find it hard to accept that they cannot assert their superiority over others in an unambiguous manner. What is worse, if this crazy notion of success based on superiority succeeds in burning out a child or making her an insufferable snob, the society is poorer by one brilliant mind. Thus, in education as in almost every other field, the society as a whole shows suicidal tendencies.

This problem is nothing new: people have probably written about similar behavior since time immemorial. The solution is also obvious:  people don’t ask ‘why’, but only ‘how’ – not why do I need a car, but how can I get one. Not why should I get married, but how to choose my bride (‘Net arranged, broker arranged, family arranged, ‘net romance, college romance, office romance, among other permutation-combinations). Ironically, if the ‘why’ is answered, the ‘how’ normally answers itself, and the headless chicken-existential angst-Sri Sri Ravishankar routine can be avoided.

While one can claim adults make the choice themselves, burdening children with such problems is truly the symptom of a sick society. While anyone older than 25-26 and lives in a city would have had an exposure to a different way of life from what they presently lead, present day children are led to believe that there is not much beyond books, a cricket bat and a Lego kit. The nation requires x number of engineers by 2020, so childhood is spent on an assembly line to meet that requirement. Large scale organisation of this kind requires high degree of structuring, which is antithetical to a happy childhood, which is highly unstructured and exploratory.

Thus, children must not only be encouraged to ask questions, but also the right kind. One has more pessimism as to whether adults can do so, and whether it is worth the effort. Children, OTOH, are open to ideas, can be corrected, bear no prejudice that their parents have not unloaded upon them, and thus every society’s greatest experiment and perfect reflection.


Field Trip to Kaggalipura

For some unknown reason, was invited by the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore to conduct a field trip for the children who were attending their annual summer camp. I was to speak about ‘pollution in a water body’, but thankfully was able to do more than just that.

Morning sky
Thank you water vapor!!

The day was perfect for a field trip, overcast from the morning. The plan was to make the children take a hike around the (almost dry) lake and make a list of what animals/birds/plants/trees/insects they see. We then used the data that they collected to try and make some sense of it from an ecology framework.

Insect hunters!

Birders!
Botanists!

They found that there were far more small organisms (plants, insects) than large ones (birds, trees). We tried to figure out why this was so, and this led to the concept of survival of the one able to reproduce fastest. They saw birds near the lake had different beaks and legs compared to the ones in the field, and this led to the concept of adaptation.

We then had a discussion about the food web, and why the nutrients in the soil never get over even though plants keep consuming them. This led to the concept of a nutrient cycle, and the importance of decomposers in any ecosystem (and the importance of sweepers and housekeeping (as compared to the IT crowd) in any city!).

Fortunately, the discussions stopped before the children were bored, and then we were off the Somanathapura for lunch and then headed back.

Can't get enough of it!
Intricate, beautiful...
Curiosity has no favorite subject!
The gang at state of least entropy!!

Seems like the best way to teach children anything is to actually take them to where the action is. Since they have enough energy to burn, unlike me, they need to work on some activity which keeps them both mentally and physically busy. Then, rather than shoving concepts down their throats, it is best to ask questions so that they come up with the concepts themselves, or suddenly understand what their textbooks had mentioned. Thankfully, this theory worked well with this bunch of kids, since they were actively answering and participating in the discussions. It never works with older people. Guess questioning is now only a bastion of the child!!