I is for India

ndia, like a host of other countries, has got a name that needs explanation. “America” came to be named after a chance explorer called Amerigo Vespucci from Florence who confirmed that the lands Columbus had “discovered” were not Asia but a different continent, and then the German Martin Waldseemuller made maps of the new continents calling them America in honour of Amerigo. “India” was derived from the Anglicisation of the name given to the country by people who could not pronounce the name of the river Sindhu and called the people beyond it “Hindus” and their land al-Hind. Does it matter, in either case? Perhaps only to have us know interesting stories, the lesson being that chance, but also power—the power to name—are what comprise history.

But, like all nations, India is also a reality. Those that live within its borders feel the impact of “India” whether they wish to or not.

The fisherman off the coast of Kerala sells his fish to a wholesaler who might ship it off to another state in India. He pays the fisherman with money that has value only because it is the state’s legal currency. What the fisherman buys with it is all part of a distribution and marketing grid that is not local any more, but national. Like many survival workers, the fisherman too sends his children to school and plans that they will move up the ladder with their education. The schools are Indian in their set up, their curriculum, their strengths and their weaknesses.

The wandering bard in Rajasthan sings only of days past and of course his beautiful skill keeps him only near poverty level. A road, however, has appeared near his village, which allows him to consider going to a hotel in the nearby city where he would have an actual job performing before tourists, and his age-old skill will earn him a salary several times larger than his irregular collection at present. His children then could be moved from their not so good school where they do not like to go, to a private school that he feels will lead them to success in the future. His old and new fortunes are all bound up structurally with those of India.

The weaver in North India has ups and downs depending on the market for his fabric. He has no control on this market; it controls him. Similarly, he can buy land but there are building codes about what and how he can build. He can educate his children but what they will study is part of a national curriculum. Being Muslim, poor, inward-looking, he seems “different” to many mainstream Indians, but he is as much a part of the Indian system as anyone else.

India is a web of complex systems that controls each of its citizens from birth to death, literally from chances of survival at delivery time to quality of medical health at the death bed. Today’s Aadhar card and attendant technology consolidates these relationships further. However, India is also different for each citizen according to the education and training they receive. If a child grows up to pass High School with very good marks, they can go on to the higher studies programme of their choice and then to the career of their choice. There are stories of this happening for those who are dalits or girls or simply from ordinary families. If a child has no access to a good school, they will do nothing more than reproduce the cycle of deprivation they may have inherited. If a child gets training in a skill outside school, they will be at least economically secure. If they learn nothing outside school, they will be nothing else but a day labourer, an unskilled worker, or worse, unemployed. If the child is from a middle class or privileged family but cannot or does not study well (and the cannot is typically undiagnosed), they will be supported by their family.

Indian children do not understand this reality as directly as they could although most of them are exhorted to “Study hard! Do well in exams!” with the intention of conveying some version of this reality to them. The India they encounter in school is typically an objectified one, not a lived-in one. They learn of its glorious geography and sing of its mountains, rivers and valleys. They do not learn that India is equally around them and do not look at their own cities or villages, streets and neighbourhoods as “my India.” They learn of its impressive history in which there were so many warriors, sages, reformers, and leaders. They do not interact with people around them as if they and the people were co-citizens sharing the same rights and privileges in a nation. Geography and History in India fail India’s children by not being about the India they encounter but about a book India and a map India.

Then children in school come across India as an object celebrated on 26th January and 15th August. This India is all about flags, parades, national anthems, crisp uniforms, bugles and drums. It is sometimes about folk dances of the states, colourful costumes, and pageants from history. It is not about building up India at the local level by spending youthful energies and talents in improving India’s immediate cleanliness, beauty or order. Young Indians’ India is not the real India around them but an abstraction and a stereotypical objectification.

Finally, children in school need to think of India in relation to the larger world. There are some connections that are already over-played and some that are weak. India and Pakistan are closely associated thanks to military disputes and cricket rivalry. India and the USA are associated because of the latter’s soft power, and multinational companies’ hard power. But India and the rest of Asia is never brought up for children or youth to reflect on. India and the rest of the third world is a relationship that does not exist, and India and the rest of Europe, besides Britain, is likewise almost non-existent.  Most of all today, an India that is truly a part of the world has to think of itself in terms of global warming and preserving the earth. That is not the India students are taught to think of.

We are not yet very nationalistic and should resist the message that we need to be. We need to think of India not as a slogan, a mission, and a banner, but as the India immediately around us, and as the India that belongs to the world, and the earth itself.

One of the bigger disgraces in India is our growing reliance on “Institutes” for “Coaching.” If, going simply by the name, you imagine them coaching in every kind of thing, you would be wrong. They coach only to pass in the Entrance Exams to certain courses of study. In other words, they only prepare students in how to “crack” these exams with appropriate speed in certain very specific kinds of questions.

I know brilliant young people who could not pass these exams though they went on to get their Ph.Ds and make their names in those very subjects. I also know a hundred young people who can never pass any entrance exam because their very foundation in the subjects of their choice is so weak. Their schools failed to teach them some rudimentary concepts and skills and it is far too late to learn them now with coaching. I know farmers who sell plots of valuable land in order for their sons to complete a few months in a Coaching Institute. The son accomplishes nothing, and comes right back to his village home to suffer underemployment.  

India is not an India—it is forever changing. My film Shankar’s Fairies is about India in 1962. Change is an inevitable, and even wonderful thing—but some India’s have vanished forever, to be preserved only as film, performance, writing or object.

A beautiful person to remember is Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the nineteenth century reformer from Bengal who worked tirelessly for women’s rights. His second important contribution important for us is that he wrote down the Bengali alphabet as we know it today. His original publication on the subject is called Barna Parichay, literally, An Introduction to the Alphabet. We think, What? There was no alphabet before? Of course there was. Just as there was writing, there were stories, there was education, there were children. But everything has a date and a beginning because from there starts its categorisation and the classification (the naming.) Vidyasagar made it uniform by removing some letters, adding others, confirming how many there must be and what the exact shape and sound of each was. He further made a rhyme to introduce each to the child-learner. He published the alphabet accompanied by beautiful wood-cut illustrations.

In the history of modern India, there have been few who have matched this. What we have needed for a long time is more resources for children, more writing and the arts, more rhymes and pictures, all based on observation of how children learn. This can only come if we immerse ourselves in our everyday world and are intimate with our shapes, sounds, images and symbols. Immersion is excellent all around, from the learning of a language to planning a curriculum of study.


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