Thursday, November 25, 2010

Child's Play

I come out of the shower to find Small Person pottering about the room. No hugs, there’s a cold war on over one of her transgressions. As I button my cuffs, I ask sternly “Who went potty in their pants today?”
Large-eyed solemn gaze directed upwards at me from my knee-level.
I repeat the question … “Who went potty in their pants today?”
“PAPA!”, she replies with a gleeful grin before she scampers away on tiny legs.

* * *

Kids! You can love them to bits, but there will be times when you will think Herod and Kamsa had just the right methods for dealing with them. Not the views one should express, however, when invited for coffee and conversation to discuss the issue of how adults relate to children. This was with a group called “Childwise”, at a bookstore on Park Street last Wednesday. It speaks volumes for the organisers’ persuasiveness that I forsook my biryani on Eid and toddled along to hear wise (child-wise!) things about parenting, schooling, learning and disciplining. I was not disappointed.

I expected pontification. Piety. Platitudes. Instead, we got straight talk. I expected a fair amount of preaching on corporal punishment. In the next two hours, we discussed class sizes, power structures, reading habits, role models. (And I fell in love. But more of that anon.) The main question was (and is) are we doing right by our children? Of course everyone has a different answer to this. And of course 99% of parents will assert that they are doing the right thing, but … Those “buts” tend to hide the essentials. Of time spent with the child. Of teaching by example. Of not pressurizing a pre-teen to excel in six different endeavours. And where does the school figure in this picture? Can schools be more than cramming centres? Can they contribute to positive discipline? Some teachers outlined innovative new schemes for motivating students – red cards like a football match, a bank of points at the beginning of the school year. But frankly, those schemes alone do not seem adequate.

Thankfully, the whole issue of corporal punishment in schools was summarily dismissed by Mr. John Mason, who said that its rights and wrongs are no longer open for discussion once the courts have banned it. One well-intentioned lady opined that all punishment demeans the child, that punishments “reinforce an unfair power structure”. I think that’s sheerest tosh. Children are not angels. (Well, not all the time.) Positive examples and rewards alone will not suffice to keep them on the right track. Sometimes a child needs to be made to stand in the corner. Besides, they’ll grow up into a world that has unfair power structures. Doesn’t it make sense for them to get used to it right away?

I was a little disturbed by the clear divisions between parents and teachers, the “we” and “they” attitudes evident. Parents are resentful of teachers who think they know all about teaching. Again, some of the teachers were aghast at how little some parents knew about their children. Thankfully, both groups articulated their issues clearly and within the hour the milk of human kindness was flowing freely. Yes, large class sizes do make it difficult for teachers to devote individual attention to children. Yes, parents should not need to spend 4 hours every evening going over school-work with their children. But how does one get around the problems of competition for limited educational resources?

We benefitted from the clear thinking of several teachers present, including the redoubtable trio of John Mason, Sister Cyril and Brendan MacCarthaigh. Two points that they made stand out. First, on the subject of exams and competition, Brother Brendan pointed out that in sports, a coach is fired if his players fail consistently. Why is it that if a student fails academically, the child is thrown out while the teacher remains? This raised a laugh, but it is a very basic issue in teacher evaluation.

A couple of people pointed out that the supposedly large class sizes in our elite schools are wonderful when compared to the situation in many rural schools. One lady mentioned a school where in one room, one teacher had to teach 80 children across four classes. Sister Cyril (whose appearance, sense of humour and no-nonsense demeanour reminded me of my very dear great-aunt), addressing the issue of overcrowded classrooms, said that the best way to deal with it is to divide the children into groups. This can be done in either of two ways. If the better achievers are grouped together, the teacher can concentrate on the other groups who don’t do so well. If children of varying abilities are put in the same group, they can help each other.

And what about the home front? Parenting is not instinctive. Parents cover the spectrum from those who smother with love to those who forget about their children. Parents need to understand better what makes their children tick and how the child can enjoy learning. Sister Cyril revealed that she has been running interactions with parents on these lines for 32 years!

All in all, a very instructive evening and an experience that I would like to have repeated. One niggle remained, however. For a body with the laudable motto of “Connecting before correcting”, Childwise could have made sure there were more young school-going participants in the discussion.

And yes, my falling in love? The object of my adoration was Sister Cyril’s distinct Irish brogue, which has survived 32 years in Calcutta!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Getting there ....

After several hours of earning my pay (not a very pleasant exercise, at least in my day job), I took some time off today to browse. And by labyrinthine ways came I upon a blog I used to have, many years ago. In fact, the first blog I ever started (almost defunct, because I haven’t posted there since February or thereabouts). At the risk of boring the pants off the few readers I have left, I shall reproduce a post from 2004 (SIX years ago?!) which so matches my mood just now, as a perfunctory sun splashes its last tired rays on Park Street and starts its homeward slide into the haze behind Vidyasagar Setu, as I gird my loins for yet another meeting and a long drear November evening in office with piles of papers that make a mockery of the first nip in the air.

But the post also has content that brings contentment, for even though it’s taken six years, I can now put a couple of tick marks against my bucket list. Observe the parts emboldened –

* * *

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

And how shall I begin ... shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets. And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows … And one of them would have been me, standing at a window high above the Via Arriberti, looking out at the layered sky settling behind the chic hedgehog Duomo and the dome of a church in the next street.

The winter evening settles down With smells of steaks in passage-ways … except that in Calcutta, one would have to wait a long long time to smell a good steak. Perhaps in the CC&FC or Mocambo. Mem: Work on a good steak-house for the city. But as the weather slips towards December, it is nice to walk the darkling streets or perch (perchance) on a balcony and greet the chill of evening.

Life is very long … What does the week ahead hold for me? I need to change my job. Stay at home and tap away at this slightly speckled key-board until something emerges that I can parley for pelf.

Then take the money and run … to Peru to see the Nazca Lines and Macchu Picchu, push myself across a rope bridge in the Andes, stare down a llama … Or to Malawi, to walk the high veldt with a camera as the sun goes down behind the acacias and a stomach-jolting roar floats from the horizon … A wood-panelled pub in a narrow alley in Dublin, at a table scarred with burns and bitters, with the lilt of Irish talk around … Or on a road out of Istanbul with the Bosporus gleaming below, driving between two days and two continents as strange music pours from the radio … Perhaps a yurt on the steppes on the edge of the Gobi, lifting the flap to see the horizon distant as another day ...

Oh well. At least I have my coffee ... "black as sin, hot as the Pit and strong enough to float a horseshoe".

* * *

Observe, good my lords and gentles, that I have got around to fulfilling a couple of these wishes. In 2007 a couple of kind souls who liked my store window, to wit, this Philippic, actually started buying some of my efforts. No princely amounts, but the satisfaction of knowing that somebody thought my writing good enough to buy with real money. Post recession, the market has even picked up, to the point where my keyboard can subsidise not just my panatellas but even the occasional bottle of peaty delight. Score one for the dinosaur!

Peru … I know my limitations, so I did not venture the Inca trail with its precarious bridges, but in 2009 I did manage to visit Machu Picchu (Pick-choo, say Pick-choo, not Pitchu). I even saw the Nazca Lines from the plane, on the long flight back towards Sao Paulo. And while truth compels me to admit that I did not in fact stare down a llama, I did withstand the downhill rush of three of the uncouth creatures while climbing up to the threshing floor at Machu Picchu.

Istanbul was the year before that, 2008, an idyll of quayside coffee in Ortakay and leisurely walks down Istiklal (marred only by a series of meetings, how work does intrude most unfairly upon life!).

And of course, Mocambo and black coffee are two of the enduring pillars of my workaday existence. For once, this Old Bong has reason to go easy on the sadness! Sunrise in Malawi, the Gobi, even Dublin - I shall get there, no matter that it’s a long long way to Tipperary!

* * *

Monday, November 15, 2010

... the first stone

(The Bengal Post, Monday 15th Nov 2010)

On weekends, the Better Half makes breakfast for me. Very gratifying, but once in a while she gets the fried egg less than perfect. The yolk runs. Very sad. I do so love the first dip into the sunny centre of a good fried egg. My question is, when I don’t get my egg just so, do I have the right to criticise the Better Half? (Of course, I’d never actually criticise her, I’m a sensitive modern man. With a healthy instinct of self-preservation!) After all, she has given her time and effort to fry me that egg without any profit from the act. Does that place her beyond criticism? Is altruism generally beyond criticism?

I think we’re agreed that if the egg in question is ruined by the cook, a certain amount of criticism is warranted. (But very cautiously: good cooks are hard to come by. When Saki wrote “The cook was a very good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go she went”, he was merely outlining the demand-supply situation for skilled HR.) The cook is paid to do a job. If the job is not done to the client’s satisfaction, there is a monetary loss. Fine, that’s easy – egg ruined, cook gets it in the neck. But if there is no payment involved, is criticism still justified?

I’d say yes. Criticism may not be fair, it is rarely objective, but it should always be permitted. Now that I’ve established my credentials as a model of reason and fairness – who may, however, hate your guts for criticizing me, not that I’ll ever say so, oh no! - we can now move on to the next step in this argument. Suppose the cook just cannot fry an egg the right way. Criticism and advice have no effect. What then? Find a new cook, I’d say. What if every cook I find is still incapable of frying an egg right? To my mind, the answer is simple – do it yourself. (I do fry a mean egg.)

Can this progression hold true in every case? Last week, I ventured that if we are unhappy with people in public life, we should ask ourselves if we can do their jobs instead. Which brought upon my head both wrath and invective. One reader raised the question of doctors. If you’re unhappy with your surgeon, can you carry out a laparoscopy? Obviously not. But you are at liberty to read up on the subject and learn about the basics of the procedure. To carry this do-it-yourself argument to its extreme, if the medical procedure is really that important to you, you should have trained yourself to be a doctor. (Or to be John Rambo, who could sew up his own arm.) This is not realistic. People have different skills and training, they fulfill different roles in an organised economy. A doctor can criticise a baker even if he himself does not know how to make a plum cake. At the same time, the baker can crib that his doctor just couldn’t cure his allergy. The do-it-yourself option is not always viable. And criticism can result in improved services, especially when the media or the courts are involved.

But what about situations where specific qualifications are not required? To go back to my earlier theme about the people we all love to criticise i.e. politicians, no specific training or qualification is required to stand for election. What is required is effort. And time. If you think that no government addresses the issues that concern you, would you take the matter into your own hands? Would you stand for election? Would you fry your own eggs?

I have an example in mind.

In 1985, the owner of a restaurant named The Hog’s Breath in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, faced some problems in getting clearances for some modifications. So he ran for election as Mayor. (Reportedly, he campaigned for the repeal of a law that banned eating ice-creams in public.) He actually won the election by a handsome margin and went on to modify the downtown building codes. Having got the policy he needed, he finished his term and retired from public office. That’s do-it-yourself. The man had a personal history on those lines. He was (and is) an actor who had differences with his directors; he eventually set up his own company, directed his own pictures and went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Director. Take a bow, Clinton Eastwood.

I’m not saying everybody can run for election (or be Dirty Harry). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticise people for doing a bad job just because we can’t do the job ourselves. What I am saying is that in many cases, we waste our time in criticism when we actually could get the job done ourselves. The most awe-inspiring example is Dashrath Manjhi of Gahlour village in Bihar. Does anyone remember him? He worked for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982, to cut a road through a hill, a road that cut down the distance between his village of Gahlour Ghati in Bihar’s Gaya district and the town of Wazirganj. By the most conservative estimate, he single-handely cut and moved at least a million cubic feet of stone!! We speak lightly of resolve that moves mountains. He had it. The next time you have a problem – with traffic, with local hoodlums, with bad roads – think of Dashrath Manjhi. He never said “Yes, we can!” He just never doubted that he could.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The easy way out

I really need to start reading comics again. Except that comics no longer exist. These days we have "graphic novels". Thankfully, even graphic novels feature superheroes. Though superhero costumes are significantly different these days. No more undies worn on the outside, or so I'm told. I won't hazard a guess as to what has replaced the Phantom's diagonally striped briefs, but the Indian version of Spiderman reportedly wears a dhoti!

Graphic novels were brought to mind by a whimsy in Samit Basu's new novel "Turbulence" - that superheroes actually prefer simple exploits, like fighting muggers off an old lady's purse, to grand schemes for improving the world. Makes sense, if you think about it. Punch a hoodlum, save a lady, smile for the paparazzi, then fly off with the cape billowing heroically. Much easier than, say, identifying the bugs in health-care delivery systems. And so very much easier than actually thinking up workable solutions. Besides, try explaining fiscal reform to a guy who’s on his fifth beer. “Look, suppose this napkin here is the federal debt, and this salt-cellar is the bail-out package … ”. Nope. Wouldn’t work. You’d get a much better connect with “So we decided, these guys aren’t going to listen to reason, we need to bomb the **** out of them!” Keep it simple. And, if possible, suitable for television.

A brilliant example is the strange incident of the dog on Salisbury Plain, as recounted in the memoirs of the Rt. Hon. James Hacker. Remember that? Where the Minister spends several million pounds of public money to save a dog that's strayed onto an artillery range, all because it will earn him votes? Cuddly dog, convenient cameras, caring Minister, great sound-bytes. An event rather than an issue, more circus than bread. A showy gimmick that’s not only easier than a systemic solution, it's also easier for the common man to understand.

Gimmicks these days are much easier. Or principles easier to defend. They were rather tougher propositions in the past. In 1865, Sir Robert Napier led an army from India to Abyssinia to fight the Emperor Towoodros (Theodore II) just to free a handful of British prisoners. Nine thousand infantry and cavalry with their guns and artillery ferried from India to the northern tip of Africa, then 30 kilometres of railway built to take them up-country. And a last brilliant touch - 44 elephants to pull the guns into the mountains! Three months for the army to cross 400 miles of mountain and ravine between the sea and Towoodros’ mountain-top stronghold, Magdala. Then, anti-climactically, just one day to rout Theodore's army. With only 2 fatalities on the British side, one of them in a shooting accident during the march. (5 of the elephants died, alas.) Sir Robert Napier was lionized for his brilliant leadership. Parliament and a grateful Queen made him First Baron Napier of Magdala.

Then came the bill for the exercise. And the reaction. 9 million pounds? Too steep a bill to pay for Britain's glory! The press and public tore into him, and into the government that had seen fit to send his army to Abyssinia. Perspectives change when there's an election to fight.

The British political establishment, of course, was justifiably scared of being judged by the electorate, especially when the victory was long past. Isn't that what we voters do? Applaud as long as our leaders fight the lions in the circus, then raise the roof with cribbing when we find there's the devil to pay? Napier - and others after him, in other times and in other countries – faced the public attitude summed up by Kipling when he famously wrote about the British soldier. "Oh, it's Tommy this and Tommy that and Tommy go away / But it's Thank you, Mr. Atkins! when the band begins to play."

I suppose we all know the risks when we sign up for a life in the public eye. Whether it's on the hustings or the silver screen, success comes with the hazard of the pillory, the laurel wreath barely conceals the basket of rotten tomatoes. I wonder, though - do the tomato-chuckers ever consider how it would feel to be on the receiving end? Would we be as quick to criticise if we knew we might be asked to step up ourselves?

That's a sobering thought. Especially when I think of the names we like to call our politicians. The next time you think they're taking the populist route, evading the tough issues, beating up on the muggers instead of rebuilding Gotham City (to use the Superhero Simile), just consider - would you put your money where your mouth is? Would you stand for election?
And if you would not, will you be honest about the reasons why you wouldn't?