Life, the Universe and Nearly Everything

Here I am, at the end of my second year in Sahyadri, left again in a pensive mood. I get lost when I try to express my experiences here in a way so as to communicate with the world. Looking back at my previous blog posts about life in Sahyadri, I realise I have written about various aspects of my experiences at different times, but all disjointed. I have written about the interesting things that happen here from day to day. I have written about my experience teaching in the classroom. I have written about my discontent and frustrations. I have written about my evolving outlook of life.

This year has been one of interesting experiences and insights and questions and confusions. It’s very personal, and I wonder if I should write about it on the blog. I keep writing my thoughts in a notebook these days, since I think they are very specific in space and time. But then I think there is value in trying to distil those experiences and get its essence in a form that’s relevant for a wider audience.

Articulating one’s thoughts in a form meant to communicate something to someone else helps me get clearer about my own thoughts. There are very few people to whom I talk about my thoughts at a level where I feel- “Ah, we are communicating!”. There are many people who know me, whom I know, with whom I just pass by. And I suspect the reason for that is that I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell myself. And I don’t have a coherent enough story of myself, to tell others.

They say an adolescent matures psychologically at a rate determined by the society. The fact is, coming to Sahyadri was the first thing that I had wanted to do, decided to do, on my own in life. Granted that I had doubts whether I would be suited to be a teacher (and I still do!), but once I had come here for the interview and seen the place and met some of the people, I knew that I wanted to be here. And it’s only after coming here that I have been able to feel like  an individual, with legitimate desires and frustrations and abilities and shortcomings.

***

The first year went mostly in getting used to life in the classroom. This year I feel I have got a better grip on that. Of course, teaching is such a complex activity that you can probably never say you have done a good job, but I know that I’ve done at least a baseline job part of the time. And I’ve been aware at some other times, that I was doing a less than baseline job, but just couldn’t gather the motivation and energy to put in that extra effort.

In this second year, I’ve been able to peel off some deep rooted ideas about myself and see myself differently. Of course, it’s still only a set of thoughts- an idea of what I am- but it’s been liberating.

At the beginning of this year I was very motivated, being the second year of teaching, and I was eager to build on things that I had learnt in the first year, to do some things better that I had made a mess of at my first attempt. I was also entrusted with additional duties like being a class teacher, and made myself available to listen closely to students’ issues and experiences in school. I had some additional classes too, since I was teaching computer applications also. So most of my waking moments went into my school work, for the first half of the term.

I’m not sure what happened after that- perhaps it was just fatigue, but I think it was something deeper too- I felt a disconnect with the work in school. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew that I felt an immense resistance to sit down and prepare for the next day’s class, I just didn’t enjoy being in the classroom, I felt that my work was completely meaningless.

Not that I had been thinking that this work is meaningful in any deep sense. Being an atheist, I don’t attribute any cosmic meaning or purpose to anything. But meaningless in the sense that I seemed to be labouring within the same constructs of society which I had found meaningless as a student. It seemed like I was stuck somewhere. All I could realise was that I didn’t want to be a teacher. But then I had no answer to the next question- what do you want to do then? I liked being in this place, with these people, but I didn’t want to be a teacher, because I seemed to be stuck within the same meaningless constructs.

That’s when I realised that I had no coherent story of myself. That I was more of an overgrown adolescent of 22, rather than an adult of 22, pretty much still figuring out his place in society. It was a very difficult time, dragging myself through the weeks in the second half of the term. You can’t hide from people your disconnect and disinterest, when you are a teacher. And once it came embarrassingly to the fore on teacher’s day, when some class 10 students were interviewing some of the teachers in the morning assembly, about why they chose to teach. When my turn came, I began with why I came to Sahyadri in the first place, but could only stammer my way to my present reality that I was confused about being a teacher.

It’s a blessing that I have people here with whom I can talk about my discontent and frustrations without their being illegitimised. I had long conversations with some of them, talking about my discontent and trying to uncover its source. It was very messy and we kept going back and forth for many days. In a way it seemed to me that whatever the discontent was, it was not directly related to the work, and if I jumped over to doing something else, it would just resurface. So I knew I had to keep at it and get to the bottom of it.

In the beginning of the second term, we had this workshop on re-envisioning education, during which we spent ten days just looking closely at our individual beliefs about teaching and learning, and why we teach. This again was a legitimate space for sharing frustrations and discontent, and some things crystallised for me at the end of it.

For one, I could see the messy and entangled nature of education, and that being a teacher meant having one foot in the muck all the time. And I could also see clearly that I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to teach. I realised that I came here seeking a place far away from the crowd of cities, where I could be in touch with nature and quietness, where I could be with people who had a similar outlook of life (and as I recently realised, with whom discontent and frustration were natural and legitimate). Teaching was something I thought I could do, to have access to these. If I could be here without having to teach, I would still be happy.

***

After the workshop, I felt I needed a fresh start in teaching. Fortunately, it was still the beginning of the second term, and 10th standard classes were almost over. So I decided to start afresh with class 9. I had been experimenting extensively with them even in the earlier term. Now I thought was a good time to start with their class 10 syllabus.

Before I started I had a heart to heart chat with them about my workshop experience and how I looked at teaching now and how what we did in class would depend a lot on what they wanted from it. Most of them were very clear that they were learning chemistry to pass the ICSE and get that qualification, and wouldn’t be learning it otherwise. I said- fair enough, we’ll make the classes focused on preparing you for that.

For the first time I could go into the classroom feeling that I was there to do something which the students wanted to do, for whatever limited purpose. I no longer had to go into a class thinking that this topic had to be made interesting for the children to remain engaged and so on. Of course, that didn’t mean that I would be teaching by rote. One of the things which the children said they wanted from the classes was to understand things properly so that they could learn more easily and better. But getting children interested in chemistry was no longer one of my concerns, helping them learn well for the exams was.

This worked well for my relationship with the subjects, and the domain of knowledge in general. I find them quite interesting at one level to think and talk about, but there’s nothing there that has touched me deeply that I have an urge to share with children. And I think I was labouring under the common myth that a teacher needs to be passionate about the subject. I found it quite interesting to engage with the children in the subject, but I could access that something within me only if there was an interest from outside. There’s no urge within to share, and definitely not to push anything down somebody’s throat.

***

In a way that took care of my relationship with classroom teaching. I still have many questions about the constructs of a school, especially a residential school, and what being a teacher means. But I feel a difference- there’s no frustration or impatience to get to any answer. In a way I see the complexity in the whole business of education, and I’m happy to keep the questions alive and wait for the living of it to reveal answers if any.

Another part of me became clearer to me during the course of this year, during the course of conversations. Something not really connected to school work, but about my motivations and what I am really seeking and yearning for in life.

I had been a good student in school and my parents encouraged me to excel at everything I did, and I tried to do so. It seems to me now, that I had done everything that was expected of me as a child. This was especially true of my mother, who had very clear ideas about how I should grow up, how I should never take things for granted, how I should excel in whatever I did and not be mediocre, and so on.

I might be wrong, but I think these expectations have been a burden on me. I don’t blame my parents, it just reflects a society that thinks it knows what is best for children, and is acting out of best intentions, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that but the devil is in the details of how you do it.

And in my case, I realised it because these external expectations and push virtually disappeared one day when my mother passed away in June 2006, when I had just finished my schooling and was getting ready to step into college. There was a huge emptiness, because my mother had almost completely filled the horizon of my consciousness throughout my childhood, with me being an only child and having very little close contact with any adults other than my parents.

For the first time, external expectations of doing well disappeared, and it was liberating. One thing that suffered was academics. I was no longer one of the toppers, but rank average. But I dare say I learnt a few things well, things that I found interesting. I was free to be myself in a way I had never been able to when I was a child. I might sound ungrateful, but I’m not ungrateful to my parents for all that they did for me, and the love and care with which they brought me up. But I cannot deny that I experience a greater wholeness of being today, in the absence of those expectations.

Sometimes I wonder if I ought to feel guilty about feeling this way. But then, my mother had suffered so much from her long term illness, and death only saved her from the suffering. I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out had my mother lived. It would have been interesting. In the last few months of her life, when I was in the 12th standard, I had already begun to have questions about life and society and education, and I used to talk to her about my thoughts. It was interesting how she used to take me seriously sometimes, and how she used to just tell me to stop whining and get back to studying, at other times.

Anyway, I do feel happy to be free today. One of the interesting things I have learnt is that without the external expectations, there’s nowhere I really want to go and I’m already on “the other side of the hedge”, as in E. M. Forster’s story. I’m just a living organism seeking survival and play. What constitutes play for me is something I’m constantly discovering for myself.

I’ve become extremely wary of attachment, and traditional values of family and relationships. It’s often looked at as something pure and desirable, but it’s an iceberg of entangled human emotions of which one sees only a rosy tip. I like the people around me, and I savour human contact, but I do not want to get attached to anyone. I don’t miss anyone. That’s another thing I’ve realised- when I’m here, I’m in contact with the people around me. Everything and everyone else recede to somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness- almost just names and images. I could be accused of not caring, I guess. Perhaps I don’t. But then that is me.

***

That is my story for the time being. I’m sure parts of it will change and evolve, but I feel that for the first time, I’m on my way to becoming an adult. And I think that means some crystallisation of certain aspects of oneself, for life.

I feel immensely happy and contented to be here. One very important habit that I’ve formed this term is to just go off on my own for walks, during the term. Earlier I used to go on for months without stepping outside the campus, and then suddenly realise- Oh my goodness, I’m living in the middle of all this beauty and I’m stuck in these abstractions!

Lying on the python hill looking at the stars listening to the breeze, watching raindrops on leaves, watching birds and insects (and snakes sometimes!), watching the sun set in different places on the horizon as the seasons progress, watching the moon change its shape and rise at different times, it’s easy to get away from the abstractions in which one lives and works. And remind myself that I’m only a living organism on this planet.

And though I’ve had my difficult times and situations with students, I feel it’s a privilege to be in constant contact with young human beings who are growing up.

I’m on the other side of the hedge.

Education’s Effect on Me

This is what education did to me:

  • Almost made me lose interest in everything that I loved learning/doing. Just beginning to overcome the effects of that. Started again with science and other related technical stuff.
  • Made me unable to think beyond go for higher studies/get a job. It’s a serious dream of mine to overcome this one day. To be able to truly walk on my own feet, depending not on degrees or employers but my own faculties to find and do meaningful work and earn a livelihood. I know it’s not easy, but I’d like to try sometime- this was perhaps the most damaging effect of education. In the meantime, I’m content to be able to work with institutions whose work is more or less aligned to my outlook, and enrich and empower myself.

This was not meant to be a well thought out post, but just an expression of some thoughts that had been lingering at the back of my head for some time, so it may be rather crude and incomplete. 🙂

Vulnerability, Communicating and Connecting

I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog that this year has been one of great learning and self discovery. I’ve also realised that such terms can be extremely abstract and on closer scrutiny may not convey anything at all. It’s been an enlightening practice to reflect over what one has said/written/thought and really cross examine it to understand more deeply what you yourself are conveying by it. This has been one of the areas of learning.

Doing this in real time has been extremely difficult to begin with. Sometimes one has no choice. For example, take the first sentence. If I’m telling someone that it’s been a great experience of learning and self discovery, most people would accept it at the surface level or assign their own interpretations to it and move on. But at Sahyadri, in serious discussions, many a times it is not left at that and if what you say isn’t unambiguous, there would be further questions, not to intimidate you, but to make the matter clearer to everyone. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen elsewhere, I know several people who would demand such clarity, but it is something that is there in the atmosphere in Sahyadri.

In the beginning when I stated something like that and found my statement being cross-examined like that, it was an unnerving experience. Suddenly I realised that what I was saying didn’t make complete sense even to me, and when I looked deeper within me for what I was trying to say, I couldn’t find anything but emptiness. It was as if I was in a mechanical mode, saying what is generally said in such situations and accepting what I listen without closer analysis of what it means to me. Even now, I can’t say I’m comfortable with putting myself in a vulnerable position like that, but I’ve felt myself the power of the clarity it can give you and the connections it can help you build with other people.

The same goes for unconscious assumptions, especially in the area of teaching/learning- like doing a lot of practical work is better than doing a lot of theory, or a quiet classroom is necessary for learning to happen. For teachers, it is absolutely essential to be able to bring to the fore such naive ideas that we may have about teaching/learning situations, so that we can actually experiment and try to find out whether our assumptions are reasonable. But most of the time we are not consciously aware of most of the assumptions that we carry and it’s extremely difficult to actually unearth them. It requires a certain level of willingness to put oneself in a vulnerable position to be examined, but it’s really worth it.

I recently happened to watch a very interesting TED talk by Brene Brown, on vulnerability. http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

It seems like most of the time, most of the conversations we have with most people in our lives, don’t go deeper than the surface and we either don’t have the time or the impetus to penetrate further and establish more meaningful relationships.

An after thought:
I suspect this deeper reflection, scrutiny etc. is something that we (our brains) are not evolved for. If you look at much of our evolutionary history, until a few generations ago, our ancestors would have mostly interacted only with other members of relatively small, well knit tribes or other social groups with a lot of common cultural ground and a way of living that had been successful for thousands of years. In such a scenario, it made sense for our ancestors’ brains to be economical and make use of the common cultural grounding to make reasonable guesses and interpretations while communicating. When we do the same thing today, with people from such diverse backgrounds(even people from two generations in the same family), our communication ends up being superficial.

Next of Kin

I’ve been quite busy over the last few days, and haven’t got around to writing anything, though there is a lot that I’d like to write about. Just thought I’d keep the blog going by writing about a book called Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts, which I read last month. It’s about a series of experiments about the language learning ability of chimpanzees, by teaching them sign language. Of course we know that chimpanzees are our nearest cousins, but the book reveals just how “intelligent” they are, and how amazingly similar their cognition and social behaviour are, to our own. The author takes us on an intriguing journey that tells us a lot about the nature of our own learning and behaviour, and tackles the question of how language could have evolved, from the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

It’s interesting that for decades, the Western scientific world looked at the chimpanzee as little more than a “monkey”, but the native African cultures look upon chimpanzees with a lot of respect. In fact, the word “chimpanzee” comes from an African dialect, and it originally meant “different man”. Some tribes even supplement their knowledge of medicinal plants by following and observing chimpanzees medicating themselves with herbs.

We often call ourselves “social animals”, which somehow seems to put ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of the animal kingdom. After reading this book, any line of division between humans and the other animals looks really thin. In fact, it makes you even redefine what is meant by “human”.

On Competition

In the Eleventh standard, we had a lesson called The Other Side of the Hedge by E.M.Forster, in English (looking back now, we had some amazing lessons with good philosophical content). It is a satirical essay on the notions of progress we have in our civilized society.

To briefly sum up, the story starts with the protagonist walking briskly along a dusty road, lined by tall brown and crackling hedges on either side. He had been walking down that road for as long as he could remember, like everyone else he knows. It’s the only world he has ever known. He’s weary and stops by the wayside to rest. People jeer at him as they pass him. He is reminded of his brother, whom he had to leave by the roadside a few years ago because he couldn’t walk any further, and wonders whether his fate was going to be the same.

He feels a puff of cool air coming from the other side of the hedge, and he becomes curious to see what is there on the other side. He tries to peer through the hole in the hedge but gets stuck and has to wriggle completely to the other side. He’s amazed by the sight that he beholds- he had never seen such green grass, hills, meadows, the blue sky in its full expanse, clear pools before. He had known only the monotony of the road.

He meets an elderly man who greets and welcomes him. He asks the old man where this place led to, and he replies, “Nowhere, thank the Lord!”. That it led nowhere, and there could be a world without progress was inconceivable to our protagonist. Moreover, he’s puzzled by some peculiarities of this strange new world. When he saw a person swimming alone in the lake, he asks the old man, “Where are the others?”. He replies, “There are no others.” Again, it’s inconceivable for him that someone would be so foolish as to waste energy swimming alone, without anyone else to hold a race with.

He’s amazed to find in this world people he had known on the road, and the old man explains that people keep coming over to this side of the hedge when they are tired of “walking”. As they stroll around, he notices a gate from which ran a road just like the one he had been walking on for ever. The old man says, “It is through this gate that humanity went out countless ages ago, when it was first seized with the desire to walk… It is the same road. This is the beginning, and though it seems to run straight away from us, it doubles so often, that it is never far from our boundary and sometimes touches it.”

The day was getting older, and he told the old man that he should get going, back on the road. Though this world seemed pleasant, mankind had other aims and he felt he had to join them. But the old man wouldn’t let him go so soon. They passed by a group of people having their dinner, who invited the newcomer to join them, but he wouldn’t because he mistrusted them.

They now reached a new gate, similar to the first one and the old man says, “This is where your road ends, and through this gate humanity—all that is left of it—will come in to us.” His transformation is complete when he notices a person walking by and cannot believe his eyes when he sees that it was his brother, whom he had left by the road a long time ago.

This story influenced me deeply. It was a time when I had just started thinking about the problems with the human world, and had this feeling that there was something wrong with the world, and this story seemed to ring true. Right from the early school days, we are initiated into a world of competition, just like the road in the story. We are not aware that there is an alternative.

One of the main hurdles that we have, in escaping from the rat race, is our deeply ingrained belief that “progress” is essential to mankind. We believe that it is a natural law just like gravity, and to not progress would be to become fossilized. Of course, happiness is dynamic, not static, and we should be constantly renewing ourselves. But our notion of this renewal, along the lines of “progress” is misguided. Wherever we look in nature, we can see constant renewal in equilibrium with its surroundings. “Equilibrium” is the key word.

Also, in my previous post on Ishmael, I had mentioned how we have this misconception of “survival of the fittest” as an unbreakable law. But that is not how nature works, and that is certainly not the only way humanity can work. In fact, when you observe nature carefully, it is so diverse that each creature finds a niche, which suits its characteristics. I feel that our human world is similarly diverse and each one of us can find a niche which suits us. We don’t have to take part in the rat race, and keep “climbing the ladder” or “progressing on the road” (which doesn’t lead anywhere). For me, “success” is finding this niche which we can fit into, which gives us space to pursue everything that makes our life meaningful and worth living.

Note: The idea of niches evolved from a discussion with Ayyappadas, who says that our identity crisis is our failure to look for and create a niche for ourselves. When we follow the set trends of society that do not suit us, it’s likely that we lose a part of our identity.

A Few Thoughts on Education – 2

4. Education and Learning
In the last post I mentioned that education was failing in helping the children acquire different skills. Why does education fail in making children learn? Probably because education is designed without considering at all what we know about how human beings and children generally learn things.

Modern cognitive studies suggest that lectures are the least effective ways of teaching, and that no one actually learns anything unless she’s involved herself in the activity. Further, we know that we learn languages by actually picking up bits and pieces from our environment. Perhaps that’s how all learning takes place, and that’s why a suitable learning environment is important for proper learning to take place.

I’ve been lucky to get to know a person who has worked with tribal artisan communities. He says that there learning takes place naturally and without any coercion. He says that true learning is need based, and in these tribal communities they keep using their creativity all the time to meet the challenges they face. Their learning is fun, because they are not made to sit down and memorize dry facts or figures.

5. Alternatives
How can we overcome the problems of education? It would be unrealistic to expect wholesale changes in the structure of schools and colleges in the next few decades, because people still don’t have half a clue as to what is wrong with it. Can we do something while standing within this framework?

Schools can start by putting fewer children in each class, so that every child would have more space for their individuality to grow into. Also smaller classes mean better interaction with the teacher and could give the teacher more freedom to experiment better methods of teaching/learning.

Colleges are supposed to be places where you enter as a boy and leave as a man. Apart from being centres of excellence, they should provide an atmosphere of freedom which encourage the students to question conventional ideals, ponder the effect of personal choices on the society, reflect on the state of the world etc. Critical thought is something that’s seriously missing in most of us. We’re too worried about grades or whether we’d get a good job. College life should instil in the student the confidence to rely on her skills rather than her degrees to make a living.

Other than this I don’t know what can be done within this framework. I’d like to know what the readers think of this.

6. Knowledge and Wisdom
We are accustomed to thinking of knowledge as good in and of itself. But knowledge without wisdom can be a dangerous thing, as we are finding out today, with our actions proving destructive to the very biosphere that sustains us. As E.F.Schumacher said, “Man is too clever to survive without wisdom.”

What is wisdom? It is a form of knowledge, about what works and what doesn’t regarding our activities, our way of life and the world we live in. It is passed on from generation to generation in the form of culture. And it’s not just humans that do it- many animals do, most of the more “intelligent” mammals do it almost just like us.

But the world has been changing so fast in the last couple of centuries that wisdom of one generation became seemingly irrelevant to the next and we have lost a lot of valuable wisdom in the process. And without wisdom, the pursuit of knowledge is of little use, because we don’t know where a piece of knowledge fits in the scheme of things.

We have lost valuable wisdom, but I think through critical thought and action we can still find out what works for us and create new wisdom. We need a balance between wisdom and knowledge- because wisdom which doesn’t renew itself through knowledge can lead to superstitions. With this wisdom we can find out how we can live without needing to destroy our home, and we can pursue new and relevant knowledge with the beacon that is wisdom.

A Few Thoughts on Education – 1

Education is something I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. I thought it’d help me a lot to put down my thoughts somewhere in an ordered manner and consolidate them, and that’s why I’m writing this post.

1. What is Education and why is it deemed necessary?
The young ones of any animal species need to learn a lot before they are able to stand on their own feet, and fend for themselves. This is true for every species, more so for mammals and even more so for human beings. Our human world is a complicated place, and there is so much a child needs to learn before she can become independent, that’s why we need a dedicated education system, which divides the world into smaller, simpler pieces and present them in the form of subjects and curricula to the child. The role of education should be to enable the child to stand on her own feet by the time she grows up. I believe most people would agree to this concept of education.

2. Education as a failure
If that is what education should be doing, it is a miserable failure. In fact, most people realize that it is a failure. That classrooms and exams are not doing a good job of teaching children different things. We all know the easily avoidable tension, frustration and fear that academic competition instills in many children, even driving some to commit suicide. Many of us think of education as a necessary evil, because we feel that don’t have any other alternative, and after all, many children do thrive in it, so the ones who don’t are considered to be just not as brilliant.

But as for enabling a child to stand on her own feet, education is a failure. Perhaps it gives her a job because of her qualifications, but it’s not the skills that education gave her that will help her earn a livelihood. If anything it would be skills acquired beyond or even in spite of the education system. So is education necessary at all? Except that it is an excellent way of sorting people? Which brings us to…

3. The Economics of Education
Some time last year I happened to read an eye-opening article by Daniel Quinn- Schooling-The Hidden Agenda. In it he says- “Suppose the schools aren’t failing? Suppose they’re doing exactly what we really want them to do–but don’t wish to examine and acknowledge? Granted that the schools do a poor job of preparing children for a successful and fulfilling life in our civilization, but what things do they do excellently well? Well, to begin with, they do a superb job of keeping young people out of the job market. Instead of becoming wage-earners at age twelve or fourteen, they remain consumers only–and they consume billions of dollars worth of merchandise, using money that their parents earn. Just imagine what would happen to our economy if overnight the high schools closed their doors. Instead of having fifty million active consumers out there, we would suddenly have fifty million unemployed youth. It would be nothing short of an economic catastrophe.”

Of course, this is not to support child labour. But imagine a situation in which children of 12 or 14 were quite equipped with the skills necessary for living and were ready to take on the world (as they are in so called primitive tribal communities), it would be an economic catastrophe.  Also..

“But keeping young people off the job market is only half of what the schools do superbly well. By the age of thirteen or fourteen, children in aboriginal societies–tribal societies–have completed what we, from our point of view, would call their “education.” But the last thing we want our children to be able to do is to live independently of our society. We don’t want our graduates to have a survival value of 100%, because this would make them free to opt out of our carefully constructed economic system and do whatever they please. We don’t want them to do whatever they please, we want them to have exactly two choices (assuming they’re not independently wealthy). Get a job or go to college. Either choice is good for us, because we need a constant supply of entry-level workers and we also need doctors, lawyers, physicists, mathematicians, psychologists, geologists, biologists, school teachers, and so on. The citizen’s education accomplishes this almost without fail. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our high school graduates make one of these two choices.”

I’d like to add one function for education, as I mentioned in the end of the last part- that of a sieve. In our complicated hierarchical society we need people for a vast variety of jobs, with different requirements and benefits and we need some system to segregate people- education does this very well and reasonably fairly. It’s an improved form of the caste system.

(to be continued…)


The Good Old Days

It is often misleading to compare life in two different eras, but that is exactly what I’m attempting to do in this post.

Recently I have been reading some classic Malayalam novels like Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum by Uroob, Oru Deshathinte Kadha by S.K.Pottekkatt and Unnikkuttante Lokam by Nandanar. All these books beautifully describe the life in Northern Kerala some 90 to 50 years ago. One thing struck me after reading these books, more than anything else- that how sterile the environment in which I grew up- and my childhood- were.

I’m not grumbling or being ungrateful. I like to think that I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have been able to grow up in comfort, with liberty and into a life full of possibilities. But something is missing- big time. I really don’t know how to pinpoint what exactly is missing.

Perhaps it’s the lack of contact and communion with nature, having been brought up entirely in a town. Perhaps it’s the effect of today’s schools(which are more like factories). Perhaps it’s because of the demise of the joint families where cousins got together in their ancestral homes at least during vacations (my elder cousins had this fortune. By the time I was growing up it was too late…).

Perhaps it’s because of the marginalization of society. Especially in towns, people generally interact only with people from similar economic/social backgrounds. This is very evident if you look at the backgrounds of your classmates, whether in school or at college. Perhaps it’s because so much time is now spent watching/listening to various virtual media so that actual time spent “living” is less. Time spent observing and interacting with the real world. So that we have withdrawn deeper and deeper into our shells of comfort and become less and less bothered about what’s going on outside it.

It must be a combination of all these things and more, which I do not have the words to explain- basically a lack of diversity and colourfulness to stimulate the senses and the intellect, compared to the “good old days”. Of course, these are my personal views. I can’t generalize them, but from my understanding of my peers I could confidently say that these conditions apply to many if not most of them too, differing only marginally from person to person.

I simply cannot accept this as the “price of progress”, just like I cannot accept environmental degradation and our alienation from nature as the price of progress and civilization. I sometimes wish I was born at least some 20 years earlier! But coming back to reality, I really do want to explore alternative ways to see if I can rediscover some of that colourfulness…

Choices, Careers and Livelihoods

My seventh semester is underway, and I feel this is a good time to write about this, as companies have just started visiting the campus for recruitment and most of my friends are eagerly writing the tests and facing the interviews amid fears that campus placements could be seriously down this year, due to the recession.

The fact that I’m not putting myself up as well, with a “FOR HIRE” board,  seems astonishing and hard to digest, for most. It has invoked countless enquiries as to what my future plans are. When I tell them that I have no real concrete plans, though I may do a post grad, they are perplexed and exclaim that I could have at least appeared for the placements just to be “secure”. Secure from what? The vacuum created by the loss of an address that defined your life for the past four years perhaps, as a job would give you a new one? And what kind of security? The promise that some company will buy your time and skills and give you lots of money in exchange?

I’ve been often reminded of the fact that I would need money to live (strangely, something which most people feel that I’m oblivious to). But there is a difference between making money to live, and living to make money. I have never been attracted by the prospect of making a lot of money. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. On the other hand, I think I know why people generally are obsessed with making money to such an extent that it is the central concern in their lives (of course, a small fraction of the people are lucky and get to work on things which they are really passionate about, but this is a minority).

The urge to earn more and more money, is ultimately down to a deep insecurity regarding one’s own survival (and other comforts to a lesser extent). Obviously, in today’s society and economy with specialized divisions of labour, none of us have any survival value. (That we take pride in this condition and consider it to be a sign of progress seems incredible to me, but that is the topic for another post). For example, a software engineer knows only how to code, and if his company goes bust, he doesn’t have the skills or resources to earn a living off the land. So his obvious concern would be to earn as much money as possible, so that he is “safe”. The more specialized the division of labour, the deeper is this insecurity.

Like Christopher McCandless says in Into the Wild, “Careers are twentieth century inventions”. For the most of us, doing this work or that doesn’t make much difference if we get the money we need to support our families and lead a good life. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, what people want is a livelihood and not a career. It is unfortunate that in our times, you invariably need to take up a career offered by an institution to earn a livelihood, and the difference between them has become almost imperceptible. I can’t imagine the Kalahari bushmen leading careers in picking berries. It’s just something they do for their livelihood.

Now I’ll tell you why I don’t like modern “careers”. It is a rat race out there to earn as much money as possible to “secure” oneself. In fact, people struggle too much just to stay alive. Some of the things you put into your work in exchange for wages, are simply invaluable and irreplacable. Each one of us might be aware that every decision and choice we make, is a tradeoff. When we choose something, we inevitably have to forego something else. And for me, taking up a career is a huge tradeoff, one that is almost unacceptable.

First, the amount of Time, Energy and Health that one has to put into a career. Any anthropologist would tell you that ours is the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. No other creature has to work so much just to stay alive. Nor did humans for a few million years, nor do the few tribal people who have survived. I accept that I cannot just jump off our culture at will, but what I can do is to reassess my actual needs, (as opposed to imagined needs and fear of future needs) and work only so much as to fulfil them, instead of sacrificing myself for earning money and then wondering what to do with it.

Another thing that is compromised, I feel, is Freedom. It is a word that is often used in misleading ways. For example, you often hear that when you get a job, you get economic freedom and independence. What the speaker probably means is that you no longer have to depend on your parents for your livelihood. But as I see it, a job just transfers your dependence(at least in modern economies with specialized division of labour) from your parents to the company and the wider economic structure without which your job wouldn’t exist. So that’s why I feel that taking up a career means compromising one’s freedom to a large extent. Again I realize that I can perhaps never be completely independent of the global economy, but I can experiment with alternative ways of living that would minimize the dependence.

To quote Thoreau once again, “The price of anything is the amount of what I call life, that you exchange for it”. So taking up a career is indeed a costly affair. If I reject a particular career, it is because I roughly realize the terms of the trade off and find them unacceptable. It is actually because I feel there is something to be gained by searching for alternative ways of living, and not down to frustration or indifference or prejudice. Of course, this is another trade off, where I’m compromising social “security” for other things which, obviously, I personally consider dearer.

It is one thing to know all this, and quite another to actually experiment with one’s life. That’s why I admire people like Gandhiji and Thoreau so much. I don’t really know what I’ll end up doing, but I am damn sure that what I’d like to do is to find my own path, however dense and unforgiving the undergrowth seems, and not to follow the beaten road, “secure” and “promising”. It doesn’t really matter how long the path runs or where it leads, as ultimately it is the journey itself that is important and fulfilling.

Walking Out and Walking On

That’s how people at Shikshantar refer to what people generally call “dropping out”.

“Today, those who have the good sense to choose to leave the dominant system of education are labeled by it as ‘drop-outs’. This negative term connotes failing and incompetence, and is applied to those who don’t fit in the competitive schooling or college system. We view the decision to walk out (or rise out) of formal educational structures, as a thoughtful and positive choice. Far from signifying incompetence, walking out demonstrates intelligence, creativity and courage of conviction.

It also exposes education for what it is: a deep form of violence against peoples’ minds, bodies and spirits, which cuts them off from nature, their family, communities, culture, work, expression, and themselves. Furthermore, walking out represents a strong form of dissent against the global political economy. It is a powerful indication of reclaiming control over one’s own learning, and therefore, over one’s own life. It is an important step in de-institutionalizing one’s life and moving towards swaraj.”

Our lives are so rigid and institutionalized. Right from age 3 or 4 we are sent to school and “educated” for almost two decades. Then when we are grown, we have to find a job in an organization/industry and build a career. Why do we need these inhuman mega structures- social, political and economic- to depend on?

Why do we need multinational corporations to employ us? Why do we need agribusinesses and retail chains to feed us? Why do we need a degree to certify our worth? Why do we need governments to “take care” of us? Why do we need to depend so much on so many institutions? If I believe that my life so far has not been a complete waste, and that I have developed a few useful skills over the years, then why should I have to sell my time to make a livelihood? Can I not make a livelihood(not necessarily a career) doing the things that I care passionately about?

It’s a question that has been haunting me for a while. In fact, I’m an aspirant of walking out and walking on. Exactly how and when I do not know. But I believe that I will be able to find the way when the right time comes. My biggest dream is to get rid of all those irrelevant stuff that needlessly sophisticate our lives and reclaim all the missing things that really make Life meaningful.

“Relying on your strengths and talents, instead of your degrees, makes you a walkout.”