Nurturing Young Minds

Nurturing Young Minds

Saturday, July 24, 2010

8. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

(This is a real life story of the power and potential of penniless children, symbolic of over a billion underprivileged kids having no or nominal access to education in the underdeveloped and developing world, who could make all the difference to this planet given the opportunity and guidance)
Episode 8
The Sunday Musings

When I got up after an afternoon nap, I felt very fresh and relaxed. I find it very difficult to sleep in the day time and therefore an afternoon nap is a rarity for me. Today’s nap was perhaps the gift of the masseur.
        On this Sunday evening my children relaxed, and so did I. While generally Vinita allows me to work on Sundays, this Sunday I could sense that she was in a mood to spend some private time with me in the evening. Both of us, therefore, sat in the lawn near the white limestone Buddha amidst flowers and green plants, our bare soles enjoying the caresses of the velvet grass of the lawn, which was nurtured so carefully by Vinita and her gardener. Two eucalyptus trees stood tall in the lawn on two sides of an Asoka tree, and their leaves once in a while fell on and around us to remind us of their presence. Vinita had got made and installed a small wooden home on one of the corner trees in the lawn, which was occupied by a bird family. She would arrange for their food and water every day. Their and other birds’ twitter lent a musical touch to the evening that could beat the best of instrumentals and vocals. Nature is great, and being in the midst of Nature plain beatitude!          We enjoyed togetherness in a quiet and cool evening in complete silence, with a pleasant breeze caressing our bodies intermittently. As darkness fell, the electric light string made of tiny bulbs wound around the eucalyptus tree behind the Buddha lit up, emitting a gentle and soothing glow.
            The HEC area, where we lived, was away from the city, and had no din, bustle or congestion characteristic of a modern city life. It was full of trees planted by the Russians, and the houses were well spaced.
            Sitting in close proximity to the Buddha is a great feeling for me, which is why I got this three feet Buddha statue in a meditational posture sculpted by an artist, My fascination for the Buddha, who was originally Siddharth Gautama, is not rooted in logic. I disagree with some of his fundamental tenets, like ‘sabbam dukkham’, which means ‘all is misery’. In his times there was poverty everywhere, and prosperity a privilege enjoyed by very few. There were no medical facilities to fight disease and to prevent early death, and penicillin had not been discovered yet. Old age was usually a curse, which is not so today. Therefore, ‘sabbam dukkham’ did not appear to me to be a universal truth.  Today, ‘sabbam dukkham’ would find few takers in the economically developed countries. Nor do I endorse the practice of encouraging people to renounce the world, and producing ascetic monks on a mass scale, which is encouraged more by Buddhism than any other religion. Yet, I love and admire the Buddha, and I suspect I changed my surname from Sinha to Siddharth only due to my fatal attraction towards Siddharth Gautama, who later became the Buddha. He was a prince, who suffered little pain himself, but was so moved by the then all pervasive misery of others, that he renounced all his personal pleasures to find ways of liberating the vast majority of suffering people from the agonies of human existence. The Buddha was not only a philanthropist; he was a great leader of humanity who swam against the flow of his times, and made millions to do so in India and abroad. I sometimes guess it was his quality that lay at the root of my inexplicable attraction towards Siddharth Gautama, the Buddha. I have had similar attraction that defies logic towards another flesh-and-blood person, but I would not like to stray into that area at the moment.
            The learning camp that I was planning to organise was not the one where I would encounter any ‘prince’ or wealthy child. But, I thought, when I held in future any camp of wealthy children, or addressed youth with very wealthy parents, I would explain to them the significance of Prince Siddharth Gautama, because for half of the humans inhabiting Asia, Africa and Latin America ‘sabbam dukkham’ was still as true as it was in the times of the Buddha. History has been beckoning more Siddharth Gautamas to set their foot on these lands to help them liberate themselves from the agonies of human existence that still haunt them!
            Philanthropy is not a subject that is taught in schools or colleges. Not even informal discussions take place on this subject. The entire system of education is geared to essentially teaching children and youth how to improve the quality of their own existence. Philanthropy and many other subjects needed to be included in the curriculum, at both schools and colleges.  That would help students become more complete human beings, and would cater to their total and holistic development. I decided that philanthropy and leadership would be included in our camp curriculum apart from other topics that did not figure in the formal curriculum of the schools.
            This brought me back to the issue of putting in place the month-long learning camp’s curriculum, and designing the course material. As on date, whatever was there, existed mostly in my mind, and that was certainly not enough. Time was fleeting fast, and things had to done on a war footing. But if I tried to do anything of the kind this Sunday evening, there could be a war! My wife was a very good soul generally, but sometimes, especially on a Sunday evening, after I had ‘wasted’ two or three Sundays in a succession, she could be a great potential warrior! I am generally a pacifist, and try to avoid wars as far as possible, unless a war is thrust upon me! I especially avoid being at war with beautiful people! So I decided to take half-a-day off on the following day, and go to the Tagore Hill, where Robindronath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate Bengali poet, wrote many of his books, including parts of his Nobel Prize winning poetry collection Geetanjali.
            I mentioned to Vinita that I planned to go to the Tagore Hill the following day to plan the forthcoming children’s camp, and to think. I also informed her that Tagore wrote many of his poems at the Tagore hill, and therefore the hill must have had some mystical properties that inspired creativity and great ideas. I would, I let her know, be happy if she also came along and had picnic with me there.
            I knew if I mentioned about a picnic she would certainly agree to accompany me.             Her eyes lit up at the idea of a picnic, and she gave her consent without delay since I rarely made such offers. I took a sigh of relief, now that a good supply of eatables had been assured while I thought and planned at the Tagore Hill. Google has rightly included it among its four fundamental mantras that food should never be more than 50 feet from its creative and thinking employees.
            I had discussed a poem - the children’s anthem - with her only a short while ago, and now I had mentioned to her about Tagore, the poet.
So poetry was on her mind.
“Why do you only write devotional or inspirational songs? Why don’t you also attempt romantic poetry?” She enquired.

The question made me pause and think, as I groped for an answer that would on the one hand convince her, and on the other, conceal cleverly the fact that I was not essentially a very romantic person by nature. Which husband would admit that he was an unromantic fellow!

“Well, I think there is a reason. I wrote a couple of romantic poems before marriage, which one day you found out while emptying one of my old suitcases. And then, instead of appreciating the poetry, the first question that you asked was about the identity of the person who inspired my romantic poetry. No?”

“Yes, yes, I must know!”

“Are you aware that a poet can experience vicarious feelings? He can think and feel as if he is in a situation, which he is not really in, and can write a powerful poem or a story on it?”, I asked. She nodded uncertainly. I knew it would be difficult to convince her with such a literary and facile explanation!

“After seeing your approach, which seemed more investigative than appreciative, I thought it was best to avoid entering into a messy area! If I wrote a romantic poem, I suspect you might say, “O, what a beautiful poem! I am sure you have not written it on me! So, tell me, who is the one that has inspired this poetry?”

I have found that women are quite suspicious. Howsoever trustworthy the husband, they would never believe that his love is true, and his appreciation of their charm and beauty sincere.

“I do not know anything! You must write a poem on me!”, she insisted.“ I have heard”, she continued, “ that you wrote a poem instantly as a birthday gift, when you arrived at your friend’s home to discover that it was his sister’s birthday.”

“Yes, I did! The poem’s name was Gift from a brother to a sister. But that was when I was young and creative! After I entered the police, there was no time available to me for being creative. And if I had shown much creativity, I would have lost my job in the police! And then what would you eat?”

“I think it is time you penned a poem on me too!”, she said smilingly, and then  struck a  pose as if I were a painter ready with my easel, canvas and drawing  tools, to draw an instant portrait ! She had an extremely elegant personality, her elegance remaining untouched by age, and now in this better-than-Mona Lisa-pose, she looked even more ethereal!  I had no option but to dump all my intellectual stuff and gaze her eternally in the soft romantic light emitted by the light-string wound around the eucalyptus tree behind the Buddha. The Buddha, for the time being, had disappeared from my consciousness, and a poem had started brewing inside my heart.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

7. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

Episode 7

How Eiffel Towers and Taj Mahals are Made

On a Sunday, when no social gathering is scheduled, everybody is usually in a leisurely mood, and there is no hurry to be in time for anything.
             It was already 3 pm and the fire in everybody’s belly was raging, even as the poetry recital was on. So it was decided that we would now have lunch rather than poetry. Everybody, therefore, headed for the dining table, where the lunch was laid out.
            As we seated ourselves around the dining table, the expected tug of war started between Priyadarshi and Prerna as to who would be fed by the mom today. This acrimony had always seemed extremely disturbing to me at the dining table, as I like to focus fully on my food. I had never demanded such a thing of my mother though my siblings did. If infants are fed by the mother, it is understood. But in India even grown up children prefer remaining infants till their late twenties! And when a tug of war remains unresolved, it is Babboo who usually acts as the arbiter.
            This baby doll named Babboo, whose name would sound like a Baboon to a stranger who does not know him, is actually a plump plastic male baby doll measuring about 8 inches, ‘adopted’ by my wife as her third child, around 2001. In reality, my wife bought him from Prerna, who had purchased him from the Archie’s shop for a hundred rupee of her pocket-money. My wife instantly fell in love with this doll and its captivating, innocent smile. She gave Prerna a hundred rupees, and wanted the ownership of the doll transferred to her.  Prerna, who was then only around 12 years of age, was quite a mature person, and could sense the good business opportunity before her, finding her mother extremely eager to take possession of the doll. She demanded rupees 300, and finally the deal was clinched at rupees 200. Prerna had doubled her money in just two hours! What a promising business professional at 12!

            Whatever the history of the doll, whenever there is something that my wife finds inconvenient to say to somebody, especially me, Babboo  speaks out on her behalf, borrowing her voice, and he is capable of speaking out practically anything!. Since he is protected by informal child rights norms, nothing much can be done to him, whatever he says or does. The fellow has not grown a millimetre since he came to our house, but the glow of his skin and the killer smile on his face have remained intact.   
            Since it is very unusual for a grown up woman to keep a doll, initially it created quite a good deal of confusion in the family, as my wife was often found caressing and talking to this creature as if it was a living entity. But gradually people in the family came to accept the fact that my wife had some extra bit of affection for small children since her younger days, and because now that all children had grown up, this was the only little child to fill that emotional void. There is no streak of abnormality in my wife except this, so I had no problems with Babboo except that he always slept between the two of us, and because he is ultimately made of plastic, and not of flesh, his hardness at times hurt. But nobody is allowed to say that the fellow is made not of flesh but of plastic. Everybody who visits our home brings gifts for Babboo that he might like! The items vary from tiny footwear and toy mobile phones to trousers and tea-shirts. It is mandatory in my home to show affection to Babboo in order to remain in the good books of the lady. On this Sunday, Babboo was wearing the tea-shirt brought by his Bua (father’s sister) on which it was written:
Please do not disturb.
Already disturbed!

            When no amicable settlement could be reached between Priyadarshi and Prerna as to who the mom would feed with her hands today, Babboo finally rose and declared in a stern voice: “Today is Bhaiya’s turn since he lives in the hostel!” ‘Bhaiya’ means ‘elder brother’, and Priyadarshi was Babboo’s elder brother. When Babboo has to speak, he speaks in Vinita’s voice. That is the practice.
            Prerna had no option now, so she sat close to me and Priyadarshi close to Vinita, and we started sipping the soup. As our hunger started subsiding with some foodstuff making its way into the stomach, the children’s anthem started surfacing in our minds.

“Papa, why did you write that the Golden Temples are made from feelings and sacrifices? What sacrifices went into building the Golden Temple?”, asked Prerna.

“Actually, temples were built six times at the place where the Golden Temple stands today. Each time the Muslim invaders attacked and demolished the temples built by the Sikhs there. They also killed the Sikh priests  at those temples. But the Sikh community was a very sturdy, brave and martial community. They were not deterred, and were prepared for any sacrifices.  Each time their temple was destroyed, they built a new temple at the same place. Today’s Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, which is among the most beautiful temples in the world with its dome covered with gold, was their seventh attempt that succeeded. So it did not take only marble and gold to build this temple; a lot of feeling and sacrifice went into its making”, I replied.

All three of them (sorry, four of them, including Babboo!) were surprised to hear the story.

“And what about the Taj?”, asked Priyadarshi.

“If this seventh wonder of the world was made of marble, it would have been made in Rajasthan, near Makrana where the marble was available in plenty. There was no marble near Agra where the Taj was sought to be built. Marble was transported to Agra from faraway places with the help of thousands of labourers and elephants. Emperor Shahjahan was determined to create a monument in the memory of his beloved wife which, in beauty, would know no parallel in the past or future. It was the toil and commitment of the labourers and the power of imagination of Shahjahan that went into the making of the wondrous Taj, and not really marble!
            My wife was visibly moved at the exemplary love of Shahjahan towards his wife. I have found that this story moves nearly every wife to tears, and all of them want a Taj built for them after they leave for their heavenly abode! This may be a good idea, but if this were really to happen, the world economy would collapse, and only the construction industry would boom!
            Suspecting that the discourse might take a more serious turn, and my wife’s moist eyes could start releasing fully formed tears soon, I promptly retreated from the Agra highway, and set my foot on the road to Paris and its famous Eiffel Tower, after which the children’s anthem had been named.

“Eiffel was a great engineer who wanted to erect the tallest tower in the world at Paris that would give worldwide fame to his country, France. There was vehement opposition from various quarters. His envious fellow engineers said that no tower of iron and steel could be built which was a thousand feet tall, as it would collapse under its own weight. No tower of this height was ever built, and therefore could not be built. There were others who pointed out that it would be a great waste of money, to which Eiffel replied that tourists from the world over would visit Paris to see the tower, and the revenue thus generated would far exceed the expenditure incurred on erecting the tower. There was a fierce public debate on the issue, and some people also came out with sarcastic poems on the subject, and against Eiffel.”

I found that sipping of the soup had slowed down considerably, as people had become extremely curious about Eiffel and his tower, looking intently at me. I asked them to finish their soup before it completely lost its warmth, and paused for a few seconds. In fact, I was more interested in finishing my own soup which was turning cold.
When the soup finished, I began talking again, also at the same time starting the main course.

“Eiffel remained unfazed. He had studied the subject very deeply, and he was sure that what he had conceived, he could also implement. And finally he succeeded in erecting the over one thousand feet tall tower that could stand on its feet for over a hundred years.”
“When the dream is big, the knowledge, commitment and hard work needed to fulfil the dream are to be even bigger. And Eiffel had all of them.”

“Now”, I asked, “could anyone prove how Eiffel Tower was not made from iron and steel, but from the passion for dreaming big, and doing big?”

Priyadarshi and Prerna had so far been in a mood to ask questions, and not to answer. Therefore, they looked uncertain and curious, especially when the answer was self-evident. Perhaps my mind was engrossed in eating, so I had asked an uncertain and unwarranted question. While Priyadarshi and Prerna looked on, trying to figure out what to say, Babboo sprang (or was made to spring) to his feet, and said, “I can tell you.”
Everybody looked at him with amazement and amusement.

“If Eifel Tower was built from iron and steel, it would have been built first in the states of Jharkhand and Orissa in India where high quality iron ore has been always available in plenty, and where some of the largest steel plants of the world are located. But it was built in France, which is not known for iron and steel.”

I felt flabbergasted, because I had myself not thought in this manner! Surely the creature (or his mother, in whose voice he spoke) had struck upon this idea based on the analogy of the Taj Mahal, from my narration of how the Taj was built.

While I clapped, Prerna looked at Babboo as if she would bar-be-cue him given a chance, and Priyadarshi, a better manager of emotions, eyed him with admiration, as Babboo looked around victoriously.

“In essence,” I proceeded, “it must be understood clearly, that great achievements come not from external resources, but from inner strengths and passion: from will power, exercise of intelligence, power of imagination, hard work, and passion.”

“Not that the external resources are not important, but these inner powers can create or bring external resources.”

“This realisation becomes extremely important in view of the fact that nearly half of the world’s population is classed as moderately or extremely poor, without much external resources. If they and their children realised it, they would overcome poverty very soon.”

“What an idea!”, said Vinita, “Why don’t you incorporate some of these comments in the song as commentary when it is composed and sung?”

“If need is felt, I will do that in one of the versions of the song”, said I.

Our lunch was proceeding very slowly, we being busy dissecting the newly created children’s anthem on the dining table. So I asked everybody to hasten up, and go and relax.

“No. Papa, children do not need to relax! I, Bhaiya and Didi (elder sister, i.e. Prerna), would go and study now, quipped Babboo.”

This time even Priyadarshi did not look at him with admiration, as he was in a mood to rest after a full week of hectic activity at his college.

6. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

Episode 6
The 'Toothpaste Tube Poet'

As soon as the Sunday conference was over, Madhu Mangal’s elder brother, a masseur, arrived. He used to come to me every second Sunday for giving me a body massage. I used to utilizing the massage time for poetry and lyric writing.
Vinita had got used to my queer habits, which according to her were eccentricity, and, according to my better-informed (in my opinion) children, time-management. My wife would earlier arrange only for the necessary things for my massage, but now she would also place a writing board, paper and a pencil on my massage bed. The writing aids would be put to facilitate my writing poetry.
The massage room was next to the living room where Vinita and children sat and chatted, while I took a body massage. I could overhear them occasionally. They were talking mostly about the to-do list for the forthcoming camp, but in-between there were other things talked about too. I could clearly hear my wife telling my children that their father was a 'toothpaste tube poet'. Neither I nor perhaps my children, who were invisible to me at the moment, could make out what was meant by a 'toothpaste tube poet'!  The information interfered with my creative thought process, as I became curious.

"What is a toothpaste tube poet?", asked Prerna.
"When a toothpaste tube is pushed, the paste comes out", she said.
"So?", queried Priyadarshi.
"When the masseur presses your father, poetry comes out."

I could hear all three of them chuckling.

"How funny", I said to myself, and reverted to my half-finished poem, "Eiffel Tower Kaise Bante' ("How Eiffel Towers are Made!"), switching off my auditory functions.
By the time Madhu Mangal’s brother had finished massaging, my poem was nearly complete. I do not pretend to be able to write all my poems or lyrics in an hour's time. But sometimes I almost do! Poetry does not come out of your soul suddenly. A poem is like a drizzle. It takes a good deal of time for the clouds to gather. But they come down on earth in drizzles that may not last long.
The idea of this poem had been gathering for quite some time in my heart and mind, which means, if I would use my wife's phraseology, that the paste was already there inside my mind's tube. It came out quickly when the need arose, and a strong creative pressure built up. The immediate need was to inspire and motivate children in the forthcoming children's camp that made the clouds precipitate.
I have learnt to give vent to my creative poetic urges when I am in a flight or a train, or when I am getting a massage, because different engagements consume all my other time. When I come out of the massage room, I go straight for a bath, and that day was no exception. But as soon as I was out of the bathroom, the poetry recital began, as I joined my three detractors in the living room, who had enjoyed laughter at my expense only a short while ago!
The text of the poetry was later turned by Priyadarshi, whose hobbies have taken him far into graphic designing, into a beautiful picture. I first present the poem's text embedded in a graphic, followed by the text portion cropped for ease of visibility.

The meaning of the poem in English would be somewhat like this:

How the Eiffel Towers are Made!

How are the Eiffel Towers made?
From iron and steel?
No, no! They are made from
The passion to do something big!

How are the Taj Mahals made?
From stones and marble?
No, no! They are made from
Hard work and the power of imagination!

How are the Golden Temples made?
From rocks and gold?
No, no! They are made from
Feelings and sacrifices!
How are the satellites made?
From tools and equipment?
No, no! They are made from
Will power and knowledge!

Will power, intelligence, imagination,
Hard work and passion,
Cannot be bought in the marketplace,
But can only be found within!

With these powers,
We would change the course of time and history!
And with these powers would one day
India be at the top of the world!

This poem was written essentially with children in mind, and it became the anthem for all the future camps for children. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

5. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

(This is a real life story of the power and potential of penniless children, symbolic of over a billion underprivileged kids having no or nominal access to education in the underdeveloped and developing world, who could make all the difference to this planet given the opportunity and guidance)

Episode 5
The first conference begins at home
Now that the children had been identified and collected, the next task was to work out the structure of the camp and allocate responsibilities. This was the first event of its kind that I or we were organizing. There were no human or financial resources yet ready with us to keep the learning camp going for a month. It has always been my belief that once a clear resolve or will develops, resources start building up. I have always believed that man has been fashioned in the image of God, and all humans are miniature Gods in their attributes. When God said, "Let there be light", I do not know if He thought about the resources with Him to create and spread light. He just willed and said, "Let there be light", and there was light. Thomas Edison willed and said, "Let there be light when God's light fades", and there was the bulb! The only difference was that when humans will, it might not happen immediately. But it also happens sooner or later, provided that the will is backed up by commitment and toil. And maybe there are a few failures before the final success. Thomas Edison had only 499 failures before the bulb came into existence!

The only captive team I had with me at that moment consisted of three people living under the same roof with me: my wife Vinita, a school going daughter Prerna aged 17,  and son Priyadarshi aged 21, who was a student of engineering at a local engineering college. All four of us were heavily engaged with our respective works and assignments.

the core team (withTausif)

My wife has been a homemaker, and she has always liked cooking herself. This is one reason why I, in spite of all my best efforts, have been unable to bring my weight below 95 kilograms over the last two decades, some times dangerously hovering around a hundred kilograms. She is passionate about cooking, and, when the food is good, I tend to throw caution to winds, hiding behind the pretext that my height is six feet three inches, and that justifies this weight. It is another matter that I know that I am not being truthful to myself, and I should weigh less. I envy the husband of my wife's twin sister, who (the husband) has similar height,  but has always maintained perfect weight due to his wife being less passionate about cooking!$?#!

An additional problem was that my official residence was unreasonably big with two floors,  constructed by Russian engineers, when they came to build the Heavy Engineering Corporation four decades back. I am told that all women that lived in these houses had been cursing the Russians who were responsible for making  them climb up and down more than twenty times a day, Vinita being no exception. I was given to understand by one such well-informed lady that the Soviet Union crumbled and disintegrated under the curses of these aggrieved women only! To tell you privately, we the men always felt delighted that the Russian engineers had very cleverly ensured that our women, who loathed walking, jogging or sprinting, barring the two notable exceptions of PT Usha and Shiny Abraham, were forced to remain physically fit in this manner. However, there is no denying the fact that the bigger the house, the more time consuming it becomes to maintain it. But now no pretext would do. We had to start the camp. So the first meeting of this core committee began.

I proposed that Vinita would be the Camp Mother.

There was an uncomfortable silence for some time. I knew that if I called her Camp Manager she would not agree. She loathes being a manager, and managing things. Indian women, perhaps Asian women, are fascinated by the concept of motherhood. They become wives perhaps in order to become mothers. And once they become mothers, they practically forget their husbands, busy most of the time with their children. If they become mother to two, three or more children, the husband is relegated to the background. So I knew  if I had to succeed in finding an unpaid manager for the camp I had to play the mother-card.

I succeeded in my game. She could not refuse. She only asked who would cook at home?
I said, "No body. We will eat our lunch with children everyday at the camp community kitchen. We would only take dinner at home."
Breakfast was no problem, becasue we were accustomed to taking light and uncooked or quick-to-cook breakfast of fruits, boiled eggs and milk  in order to preserve our health, to save the house lady from over work, and to allow her time for her creative hobbies.

"That is fine", said Vinita, "but who would cook for camp children? And from where will come the cooking material for a month for so many people - the rice, pulses, oil, vegetables and all?"

I informed her that a cook was being arranged for children, and it had already been communicated to children's parents that those of them who could afford, should send the dry ration and potatoes for their children for a month along with one liter of vegetable oil in a packed bottle. I was sure that most parents would manage that for the future of their children. I told her that we would take care of the shortfall, if any. In any case, there was that One up above who always sent the necessary help whenever required, without our asking, when our efforts proved inadequate. She knew that, and sincerely  believed in it. So the issue was shelved.

"What about the faculty who would teach children? And what was going to be taught in the camp?", asked my daughter.

"Fifty per cent of the time would be given to English language teaching, and fifty per cent to developing such abilities and skills as would help them become more complete human beings.", Said I. "This is July, and the camp is to be organised in August-September. I will put the entire camp curriculum for one month in place shortly, and hand it over to Vinita.We will get ready with all the hand-outs preferably before the camp began, and all the testing instruments too.  I would teach children after office hours and Vinita and you would teach when I am not there. We would also find other qualified people who would donate their time for camp children. We would request the HEC authorities to spare three security guards from the HEC for guarding the house round the clock and regulating access, because no child should go missing from the camp."  I hoped that the HEC authorities would agree to this because it was mainly the HEC school's children that were participating in the camp.

Prerna has the great quality of establishing rapport with people in no time. She is very good at making friends, and maintaining friendship. She is an outgoing type, and she emits light, positive vibes that make the atmosphere jovial and friendly immediately. In this respect she is my exact opposite! So I said that Prerna would visit the camp off an on, and would motivate children apart from assisting those few that were academically especially weak. I was sure the children would not visit a learning camp again in their life if they had to be in my company alone for a month!

Vinita had once administered my English language teaching module in 1992, so she was comfortable with that part of the camp curriculum. But she was not sure of what she could do to implement the other 'total development' modules of which she had thus far only a vague idea. I allayed her apprehensions saying that a paradigm would emerge automatically during the course of the camp. I requested her to prepare a menu for camp children that would be economical, healthy, convenient and yet have variety. There could not be a proposal which she could more readily agree to - feeding children, the summon bonum of a an archetypal mother!

At the end of the conference, an important issue was raised by Priyadarshi, who happens to be a thoughtful person, and who generally  lived away from home in the hostel of his engineering college, and used to visit us on week-ends: "Do you think a positive difference can be made to the life of those children in a month's time, when so many negative influences were at work at the school, home and the society at large, where they had spent so may years already, and would be spending the rest of their life?"

I thought for a moment and the replied: "We find that one interaction sometimes changes our life for ever. The Buddha once happened to pass through the area where the infamous robber Angulaimal had been wreaking havoc, looting and killing people, and donning the garland made of the victims' finger-bones. On sighting  the Buddha, he ran after him as well. As he reached near him shouting "stop, stop", the Buddha coolly turned and gently said, "Angulimaal, I had stopped long back. When would you stop?"  And it made the robber stop forever! He gave up his profession in one moment in which he had been for years!"

"I agree that the mystical factor in the Buddha cannot be re-produced in a camp, but when new ideas, new people and  new attitudes are encountered by children in a new environment continuously for a few days or weeks, the seeds of change are bound to get embedded in their minds, which may germinate in due course. In some children the seeds may sprout and then die, but in others - most others - the seeds may grow into saplings, and then into trees, to given them sweet fruits. We should remember that the children's mind is more receptive than grown-ups".

"I believe that a difference of five to ten degrees will be induced in most children, which will not appear very pronounced at this moment, but over the years these five to ten degrees would mean a vast difference in the trajectory of children."

"In fact, I believe that  the difference would be quite noticeable in many matters by the end of the month itself. And the difference could be measured by an independent agency", I said.

"Then what are we going to do to get the differences measured by independent agencies?", asked Priyadarshi.

"I would try my best  to arrange for independent measurement", said I, and the conference ended without tea, sweets and snacks, which are the main marks of a successful conference, because the person who could provide us with all this exotic stuff was herself in the conference.

4. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

(This is a real life story of the power and potential of penniless children, symbolic of over a billion underprivileged kids having no or nominal access to education in the underdeveloped and developing world, who could make all the difference to this planet given the opportunity and guidance)

Episode - 4
The 11-year intruder who joined my camp only to prove me wrong.

(New visitors may please refer to earlier episodes for continuity and comprehension)

When all the 22 children had entered, and the gate had been closed, I started feeling drowsy, and went to sleep at around 4.30 a.m. leaving it to Vinita to help children fill the registration forms,which had been thoughtfully designed to extract some basic information about children. Of the two of us, Vinita can resist sleep better, and she continued with the job till around 9 a.m when I woke up and returned. 

My instructions were that children below class VII or13 years of age would not be admitted, since they would not be able to cope up with the kind of schedule I was planning for the camp, and would not be able to keep pace with other more mature children, all of whom would be teenagers. Vinita had, therefore, not admitted Tausif Ali, who was just around 11 or 12 years of age and was a student of class VII. 

When I reappeared on the scene all the children had been registered and an identity card issued to them, except Tausif Ali. Most of the children had also left except Tausif and a few other children with whom Tausif had come in pitch darkness walking several kilometers, braving the inclement weather. Tausif would not speak anything, but he would also not go. I tried to convince him and his companions that he was too young and would not be able to cope up with the strenuous schedule of the training. But the only language Tausif knew was tears. The more I spoke, the more his eyes became moist.   He was a completely innocent looking child, and he spoke more with his eyes than with his tongue.

I thought that this child was keen on joining the camp just to be in the company of his group rather than for expanding his knowledge or abilities. When all my persuasion failed to make him see reason, and to make him budge, I, finding no other option, advised Vinita to admit him. So he was finally admitted. When the Identity Card was finally issued to him, he gave his first smile! He had won, and I had lost! But I did not know that it was not his last victory, nor my last defeat!

Tausif Ali

Thursday, July 15, 2010

3. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

Episode - 3: 
The Preparation for the First Experiment Begins
(For continuity, new visitors may please refer to the previous epsodes)

The first thing to be arranged was a place where children could be housed. The place had to be within a few hundred meters of my own residence so that I could spend all my time with them after and before office hours, and where, during office hours, my wife Vinita could take charge of them. Fortunately a house under the Heavy Engineering Corporation was found lying vacant close by, and that was alloted by the Corporation on request for a month for housing the camp children. The house had four rooms and a large drawing-cum-dining hall, and it could not accommodate more that 22 children. Therefore, only 22 children could participate in my first experiment.

Having found a house, I had now to arrange for 22 underprivileged children who would be willing to stay in the camp for 30 days, and whose parents would not mind allowing them to be off school for such a long period. It was no easy task. The first task was to motivate and persuade children.

I went to a nearby school, which is run by the Heavy Engineering Corporation primarily for the factory workers'  children, and addressed children of class VII, VIII, and IX. The monthly fees in this school for children was rupees 20 (less than half of a US dollar), and the children were drawn from the lowest economic strata of the society. Their parents were mainly  laborers, factory workers, newspaper vendors, auto rickshaw drivers, and house helps. I asked them if they knew the meaning of 'bada aadmi' (literally, 'big men') and  great men. Yes, most of them knew and could name different great men and 'big men' from various domains like Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekanand, Sachin Tendulkar, JRD Tata, Donald Bradman, Thomas Edison, Mother Teresa, Sania Mirza,  Lata Mangeshkar and hosts of other men and women of eminence. They also knew that by becoming an engineer, a doctor or a civil servant one could become a 'big man'.

After ascertaining that they knew the meaning of 'big men' and 'great men', I posed a more serious question to them.
"Who is seriously interested in become a big man himself?"
Children fell silent for some time.
After a brief lull they started raising their hands one by one. Finally nearly all of them raised their hands except a tribal child, who could not be persuaded by me to say that he also wanted to become a 'big man'. I will revert to this unfortunate episode some time later.

I explained to them that I could help them with becoming a big man in a full time learning camp that I proposed to hold for a month, if they and their parents were both willing.

Hundreds of boys and girls got ready, but I requested the Principal to obtain written consent from their parents that they agreed to take children off school for a month for being put in the camp. After a few days a long list was given to me. I had only 22 seats and children were too many. Girls were excluded from the first camp, though they had looked keener than the boys, because we had no place to separately house them. But the number of willing boys was also great. I believe that the rush was mainly due to the attraction of English learning, since the concepts of 'holistic education' or 'total education' are difficult to understand even for the well educated, and, even if understood, the idea is not very attractive because it neither promises a higher social status nor a good job. English, on the other hand, is not only a status symbol here, but also promises good returns in terms of job possibilities. As far as I was concerned, I did not use English as a bait, but wanted to raise the confidence of children by making them realize that English and Mathematics were no great nuts to crack. If these could be mastered so easily and quickly, what was there in the world that could not be achieved!

Now we had to find the filtering criteria: who to admit and who not to admit? The criterion could not be academic achievement, because I wanted to experiment with motley group of children - bright, average and below-average. It took some time but the criterion evolved in my mind: I would admit only such children who would take more pains for clinging to their dream. I decided and communicated to the school authorities that only such children would be admitted who would come to my residence between 3 and 4 a.m. early in the morning for registration on a designated day.

On the designated day, I and my wife Vinita could not sleep due to anxiety. Both of us spent the whole night sitting in the outer veranda waiting for children. They were all young children and coming so early in the morning was fraught with risks. Even though I had communicated that parents must accompany children, we were not sure if the parents would really do so. My apprehensions proved completely correct. Children started coming from 2.30 a.m. and by 4.00 a.m 19 children had arrived, all on their own, without any of their parents accompanying them. When the clock struck 4, the gate was closed. It was still pitch dark. At around 4.05 a.m. some one heavily knocked at the steel gate. The gate was opened, and it was found that three more children were standing outside, panting. I had told the guard not to allow entry to anyone after 4 a.m., so he refused entry to them. But the children persisted, and finally I had to talk to them. One of the children explained that the chain of his bicycle broke, so he had to come on foot dragging his bicycle, which caused delay. I let him in. The other two reported that they were hounded and chased away by street dogs, and had to wait till the dogs were out of the view. I allowed entry to them too, instructing the guard to politely tell 'no' to other children coming late, explaining  that all vacancies had been already filled. It does not appear that of the hundreds that had shown eagerness earlier,  many more children turned up thereafter, because taking the trouble of getting up so early in the morning, and then walking so many kilometers in inclement weather and darkness for learning English or for acquiring knowledge was no easy thing for children of that age!

(Pl. wait for the next part. I will be writing them one by one.)

2. The Barber Boy and a Billion Children: the Story of an Evolving Dream

Episode - 2:  The Barber Boy Returns
(For continuity, please refer to the previous episodes)

The next Sunday the barber boy returns  with the sheet.

I ask him if he could make out any thing.

He nods in the affirmative. I feel surprised. I take a quick test. Yes, he has learnt all the phonetic symbols by heart with heir nearest Hindi equivalent sounds. No mistakes, except in pronouncing  two-and-a-half sounds the likes of which are not found in Hindi! And he can scribble all the consonant, vowel and diphthong symbols in no time!

I feel astounded, happy and curious. What no child  studying in a good English medium school was found by me to have done so far (I have been teaching phonetics for quite some time off and on), this poor, semi-educated, slum child studying in a very ordinary Hindi medium school had done!


Madhu Mangal 

Madhu Mangal does not know that he has done anything remarkable. So far I have been told by my professor friends teaching English in universities that even the  students of English literature are not able to master the phonetic script fully. And here is an ordinary looking school boy  who has done it so easily! I have always known that these poor children had a drive to rise high and get everything in life that all other well-to-do people had, but they did not have good teachers to guide them and show them the way, and not enough resources to help them realize their dreams.

While working on intelligence quotient for my module on total education, I had come across a British study that surveyed a number of children from the rich and poor classes and found that the IQ of the poorer children was less than that of those having rich parents. One possible reason could be inadequate exposure. Another could be suppression of mental faculties by hunger and poverty. A third could be poor nutrition.  I had to find our if this was true of India too. Madhu Mangal's case appeared to suggest evidence to the contrary. But even if true in general, I had to find out if a higher emotional quotient and inspiration could easily off set the disadvantages of a lesser IQ. If yes, to what extent?

The idea clicks in my  mind - let me find if there are more underprivileged children like Madhu Mangal. I decide to undertake a larger empirical study by holding a learning camp for slum children who are not known to be academically bright. The idea starts acquiring a shape. Indian children find mathematics and English to be most difficult subjects. Could I begin my experiment by teaching English to a group of underprivileged children, and see if they cold do well ? No, not only English, because that would not take care of the future of these children in a larger sense on whom I was now planning to spend  my precious time for a month. I must develop a module for holistic education - total education - encompassing the various different aspects of life while devoting half of the time to English language teaching. I must develop a module and a model that is replicable and scalable - that can be administered to any number of children, in any place - perhaps any country. So a decision in principle is taken. What remains to be done is to put things in place for the first experimental learning camp of underprivileged children so that the idea can be kick-started.

Shaping the future of children means shaping the future of humanity itself. In India and other underdeveloped and developing countries, children constitute the largest number and, among children, underprivileged children having no access to schools or no access to good schools are the largest chunk.

(Please wait for Episode 3. I will write the different episodes of the story one by one.)