Does ACP Dhoble Deserve Nothing But Condemnation?

September 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm (Essay)

Recently, I found myself watching a TV program in which a panel discussed the raids conducted by the now famous 56 year old Assistant Commissioner of Police Vasant Dhoble against prostitution and drug abuse in Mumbai restaurants and dance bars. The panelists came down heavily against ACP Dhoble for the harassment meted by him on many innocent persons. Their argument stems from the fact that ACP Dhoble’s drive was overdone and impinged upon the freedom of individuals. The resentment against the ACP’s extra-legal methods is certainly justifiable. He carried a hockey stick, beat up innocent patrons during the raids, filed prostitution charges against women on no real evidence (his arrest of some female German tourists in this regard was highly suspect; they were weeping on TV in shock), paraded patrons before TV cameras and so on.

However, to me, there is another side to this story. In India, sex-workers have been a part of society from  ancient times as it is the case with all other cultures of the world. In ancient India, they were segregated from the mainstream of our social life. The so called ‘red light’ zones were generally located on the fringes of cities or outside the perimeter of villages. While, sex-workers were not considered members of the respectable society, it was widely recognized that they provided an essential service to society by absorbing the emotional effluents of lovelorn desolations and sexual awakenings.  They helped to keep a check on the healthy societal order by serving as a safety valve of untamed passions and at times healing emotional scars. The requirement of soil from prostitute quarters for conducting certain kinds of pujas is a reflection of the depth of understanding of this difficult role played by the sex-workers in society.

Many women from sex-worker families kept alive the family traditions of dance and music without taking up their family profession. Some of them reached the highest level proficiency in these art forms. The name of Amrapali from Buddhist lore comes readily to mind.

It all changed with the colonial domination of India. Imbibing the colonizers’ mixed-up notions on morality and free sex we have developed a confused and debased approach to sex. Existence of the peculiar culture of dance bars in cities like Mumbai bears testimony to this commodification of human flesh. Indulgence to this westernized culture of instant sensual gratification is tearing apart the fabric of our social and family life.

According to me, while ACP Dhoble’s methods are reprehensible, his intention to strike out the excesses of this permissive culture of the flesh is commendable.

– Parthapratim Ray

Permalink Leave a Comment

Hatha Yoga: A Much Misunderstood Spiritual Discipline

April 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm (Alok Kumar, Essay)

Some people consider a particular form of physical exercise as Hatha Yoga. It is a grave error to consider Hot Yoga, Power Yoga or any of such fads present around the world as belonging to any tradition of Hatha Yoga. They can be gymnastics, aerobics or anaerobics but  not  yoga. In Hatha Yoga, Asana is meant for Sthairya (steadiness) and Mudra is meant for Dridhata (Sturdiness). A body exercise qualifies as Hatha Yogic exercise only if three conditions are met:  the posture should be maintained for  a long period of time ; Prana should be regulated during the practice and the mind should focused on certain important points in the body.

Hatha Yoga is not about building a strong and supple body. It is about developing the highest level of control over the body, senses, Prana and mind in order to transcend them at will. Hatha Yoga is vitally important because the Veda declares, “नायमात्मा बलहीनेन लभ्यः”. No spiritual path is for the weak. Brahmcharya and abstinence from sensual pleasures are the non-negotiable pre-requisites of Hatha Yoga. Only self-deluded people can take up these practices to increase their bodily pleasures! Basic practices of Hatha Yoga cure diseases, dispel flab and make the body both strong and supple. If people remain stuck at this level  without going beyond, it is their choice. However, such people must know that they are not practising Yoga if they fail to grow spiritually. They are not practising Yoga if their practices do not develop any yearning for the Divine. They are not practising Yoga if all forms of attchments do not leave them one by one over a period of time. The first symptom of correct practice of any Yoga Asana or Pranayama is the unmistakable experience of peace and purity. Such peace and purity becomes our nature with long practice and sustains us in whatever path we take, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra, Laya or Raja.

Yoga and Vedanta are two separate systems of Indian thought. Different systems of Indian thought differ from each-other in theory; however, they all consider Yoga as the practical way to realize their stated aims. For Advait Vedanta, Yoga is to dispel ignorance (Avidya) to realize the essential oneness of reality. The ultimate objective of practising Yoga  is to unite the soul with the Divine – to make two distinct realities like iron and fire one common entity. A piece of iron and fire appear to be one when in contact; however, the iron manifests its properties the moment it is removed from the fire. Thus the distinction is eternal. Vedanta doesn’t focus much on body, whereas, Yoga uses body as an instrument for its stated end. Therefore, when some people  get confused wondering whether it is right to follow the popupar form  of Yoga while the likes of Swami Vivekananda emphasized only the spirit. The confusion arises because of equating the two distinct schools of thought: Vedanta and Yoga (as philosophy).

Hatha Yoga is propounded by Bhagavan Shiva himself as Adinath. It is meant for overcoming Tamas by Rajas and then both by Sattwa. Those who would like to persist with Hatha Yoga itsself they can  be assured  to have found one way to enlightenment. Those who would like to take different practices under the influence of Sattva can take up Raja Yoga and Vedanta. Raman Maharshi, the famous Jnani of Arunachal, used to do Tratak, a prominent Hatha Kriya. This tradition has produced the greatest of Yogis such as Matsendranath, Gorakhnath, Jalandharnath, Baba Balaknath, Bhartrihari (who gave us ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’), Gopichand (of Bengal), Gambhirnath and many modern great names such as Trailang Swami (whom Ramakrishna describes as ‘Sakshat Vishwanath’), Loknath Brahmchari, B. K. S. Iyenger, Swami Shivanada of Rishikesh, Swami Satyanadna of Munger (from Vedantic tradition). This system pertains to the Tantrik School of Yoga.

Hatha Yoga is often glorified in the popular media for what it can do for the body. Nothing can be more misleading! Hatha Yoga emphasizes on Prana (as its name suggests) and not body. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the classic text of Hatha Yoga declares that Hatha Yoga is like the ladder to climb the heights of Raja Yoga. It has devised various methods that leverage physical body to manipulate Prana. Thus mudra and Pranayama is the most critical part of Hatha Yoga, not Asanas. Asanas are there to awaken the body to make manipulation of Prana easy. This point is time and again emphasized in one of the most important Vedantic scriptures, the Yoga Vashistha, where Vashishtha preaches Rama that it is not necessary for the mind to obey the intellect that Vedanta leverages unless it is highly purified. However, like a falcon tied by rope, mind is bound to be pulled by Prana that ties it like rope. Therefore, even Vedanta has some place for Hatha Yoga.

Sri Ramakrishna himself practiced Hatha Yoga to a very advanced level. Acharya Govindpad taught Adi Shankaracharya Hatha Yoga first and then Raja Yoga and Vedanta. Sri Hanuman is an epitome of the Hatha Yoga. Sant Jnaneshwar of Maharastra was an adept in Hatha Yoga. In the Kriya Yoga tradition also, Hatha Yoga forms the base. Sufism draws heavily from Hatha Yoga. In fact most existing spiritual traditions in India take Hatha Yogic practices as preparatory. Even Bhakti traditions prescribe methods such as Tratak on the Ishta Deva to develop concentration and devotion.

Contrary to the popular misconception, Hatha Yoga doesn’t consider difficult Asanas requiring incredible flexibility as its greatest forms. The greatest Asanas in Hatha Yoga are  sitting postures such as Siddhasana and Padmasana.  All Hindu deities are shown using these postures. Seekers in all Indian spiritual traditions, whether they are theists or atheists, have adopted these postures. Musical and martial arts traditions also use several of such postures.Stable Asanas are considered as a prerequisite for meditation in Raja Yoga (“Sthiram SukhamasanamPaatanjal Yoga Sutra) and Atma Vichar in Vedanta (“Aaseenah Sambhavat”, Brahmsutra).  No true follower of Yoga will oppose Hatha Yoga; however, depending on his or her tradition, he or she may continue with it or leave it after a certain stage in Sadhana.

– Kumar Alok

Permalink 2 Comments

IPL vs. ‘Indian Poverty League’: The Great Indian Cricket Show

March 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm (Essay, Subarno Chattarji)

 As the IPL3 (Indian Premier League) juggernaut rolls on there can be little doubt that it is a phenomenon and not just in cricketing terms. Lalit Modi’s brainchild is a spectacular combination of Bollywood (Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty as immediate stakeholders), corporate interests (Vijay Mallaya, Subroto Roy et al), the usual nexus of politics and cricket, U.S. style cheerleading and time-outs (a seemingly seamless intermeshing of American Football and basketball), and some excellent cricket.

That an event in its third year played only in a handful of countries is now comparable in commercial terms to major sport franchises in Europe and the U.S. is testament to the business skills of the IPL Commissioner and his team. Modi has little doubt that the franchisees will recover their investment: ‘“We are just two-year-old and every team that has been run well must be making profit. If not, they are probably marginally short of making profit,” he told CNN-IBN channel. Buttressing his case, Modi said, “Sports is one of the leading businesses of the world today. English Premier League, NFL, NBA, Spanish League, Bundesliga – these capture the imagination of the youth and the people.”’ [‘IPL franchises will recover their money: Modi,’ PTI, 21 March, 2010, http://in.news.yahoo.com/20/20100321/1416/tnl-ipl-franchises-will-recover-their-mo.html] The corporatization of cricket is not new – what is novel are the ways in which the T20 format has been converted into a major sporting extravaganza, intertwining sport, media, glamour, money, and hype to unleash a continuum of excitement and cricketing drama.

Most of the cricket has been brilliant and it is easy to be mesmerized by the series of games where world class players (some of whom have retired from international cricket) slog it out. The wham-bang nature of T20 has not meant that the action is cornered by younger players. In fact all time greats such as Dravid, Hayden, Ganguly, Jayasuriya, Tendulkar, and Warne have played some sublime cricket. Watching IPL teams battle it out is a perfect example of ‘dream teams’ pitted against one another in the only cricketing space where this is possible. In a different context Mike Marqusee analyzes the ways in which, ‘Sport became both preparation and substitute for war, a theatre of competition not merely between individuals and teams, but between nations and peoples.’ [Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2000, p. 46] IPL maintains the competitive element in terms of individuals and teams and the enormous financial rewards at stake, but it internationalizes cricket in a significant manner and seems to ameliorate the hyper-patriotism that the game has come to symbolize especially in the Indian subcontinent.

The template of this patriotic fervour is the India-Pakistan rivalry where cricketing skills meet with primordial anxieties embedded in national identity. To cite Marqusee once more: ‘Even as cricket’s base had become more democratic and inclusive, ethnic and communal divisions [in India] had grown more acute, and ethnic and communal politics more aggressive. These politics intervened repeatedly in cricket, and that was why India and Pakistan had been unable to meet on sub-continental soil for seven years.’ [Mike Marqusee, War minus the Shooting: A Journey through South Asia during Cricket’s World Cup. London: Heinemann, 1996, p. 20] Marqusee’s comment looks primarily at sub-continental scenarios prior to the 1996 World Cup but the long shadow of communal identity politics haunts the IPL as well. The exclusion of Pakistani players from IPL3 following threats of the Shiv Sena and the Sena’s questioning of Shahrukh Khan’s patriotism because he stood up for the Pakistan cricketers are two obvious examples. The Sena also wished to extend its writ to Australian players (to be banned from playing due to race attacks against Indians in Australia) and even Tendulkar for daring to say that Mumbai was for all Indians (subsequently silenced by Tendulkar’s record-breaking one-day double century). To its credit Australians and Tendulkar continue to play in Mumbai in the IPL, but the bidding fiasco over great Pakistani cricketers robs the event of some of its international sheen revealing the immediate parochial political spaces which cannot be transcended by all the razzmatazz.

In another context, a NDTV 60 Minutes programme (22 March 2010) attempted to deal with some of the politically charged and contrastive aspects thrown into relief by the bidding for two new IPL franchises. It highlighted the obvious dichotomy between Rs. 3235 crores spent to buy the Kochi and Pune teams for IPL4 and indices such as hunger which represent levels of deprivation in India. The contrast between the panellists – Subroto Roy insisting on the business model and Ashis Nandy and Harsh Mander pointing to moral, ethical, social, and political paradigms beyond monetary considerations – served to bring to the fore an important set of issues and debates. As a mainstream English language channel NDTV deserves all credit for entering this arena. However, almost inevitably, the binaries were projected by the moderator in terms of consumption versus austerity, the latter being associated with a ‘socialist’ model (the moderator’s terms) and ‘socialism’ seen as something that is discredited. As an aside it is interesting that President Obama is seen as a ‘socialist’ and his health care reform a ‘socialist’ takeover by big government. While providing Nandy and Mander media space to put forth alternate political and ethical models, the ‘socialist’ tag seemed to discredit moral concerns at the same time that it raised those very concerns. For the millions who live on Rs. 20 a day and the 50% who go hungry (statistical graphics provide on screen) well-targeted, effective, incorruptible government interventions may not be a terrible idea, especially since the business model seems largely uninterested in the poor and disenfranchised.

The NDTV programme is, despite its problems, representative of valuable media interventions and it raises further questions. IPL serves as a lightning rod bringing to the fore consumer and corporate cultures that revel in their own wealth and brilliance as exclusive domains. Within these corralled worlds national and international economic realities – such as growing inequities within India and the disproportionate burden borne by the poor during the recession – are either irrelevant or impolitic (impolite?) and therefore ignored. The internationalization of teams is wonderful in cricketing terms but these teams and their owners, advertisers, and followers are not innocent of particular local and indeed global contexts. The IPL mode of existence and operation could be perceived as literal and pathological markers of collective/national desires and a sense of having arrived (or at least moved further along the road to a consumer-entertainment haven).

Yet why focus solely on the IPL when there are so many other symbols of national desire from malls to multiplexes to the bomb? This criticism is not aimed at NDTV or any other single media provider but at the media landscape as a field which seems to see events as stand-alone ones rather than as being interconnected. Some concurrent media events such as Mayavati’s garland, Narendra Modi – the initial mystery of his date with the SIT and subsequent appearance, the continuing Maoist violence and recent bandh, increasing expenditure for the Commonwealth Games along with dubious labour practices at Games sites, the 26/11 trial and (non)access to David Headley swirl around the IPL as if they were totally discrete happenings. Various types of dispossession and modes of resistance, the history of communal violence and non-conviction of their leaders and perpetrators, terrorism and national tub thumping are all an integral part of India in the new century. Arguably by focusing on the inappropriateness of money garlands and on over-the-top bids for IPL franchises the media establishes a kind of equivalence and ‘objectivity’. Yet both are seen without context and the former is easily lampooned while the latter is a sign of Indian prowess. Similarly the Maoist ‘menace’ is seen almost universally as a law-and-order problem rather than expressive of desperation and anger borne of deep generational and institutional inequities fostered in independent India. The point is not that media outlets ignore inequities in India. Mainstream English language newspapers do carry articles which deal with problems such as a recent Times of India piece which focused on the 58% of Indians who do not have access to toilets. Such reports, however, exist as stand alone ones with no background and no follow-up, while the details, intrigues, tweets of IPL buyers and their ministerial backers are covered in great detail. Paradoxically it is through inclusion that the darker aspects of India are kept at bay, occasional blips in an otherwise confident and wealthy (and not afraid to flaunt it) country. It’s time to turn the TV on for the next IPL encounter.

– Subarno Chattarji

Permalink Leave a Comment

Piazza San Marco: The Drawing Room of Europe

February 4, 2010 at 3:42 am (Katie Sahiar Dubey, Travel)

 Perhaps without exception everyone visiting Venice heads for the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square. It’s the only space to be called Piazza in Venice and is literally, the ‘heart of the city’. For every important occasion in the life of their city, Venetians converge on the square. One of the most astounding urban spaces of Europe, Napoleon is said to have called it ‘The drawing room of Europe’. Getting to Venice was a very important occasion of my life too and so first thing in the morning my sister and I headed to the quayside.  After some confusion that was sure to ensue due to our Italian and their English, we finally got on to an anchored vaporetti ready to leave for stations along the Grand Canal, one of which was definitely the Piazza San Marco.

The vaporetti being the local water transport was soon tightly packed, more like a Mumbai BEST bus. We stood by the railing to get some air. As the boat moved away from its moorings and began to pick up speed, Venice unfolded exactly like a picture-postcard. The palaces of the rich, all set along the water’s edge facing the canal, their uniform size and highly ornate decorations were breathtaking even though we could only get a fleeting look.  Boats that served as personal vehicles were moored to the landing of each palace. Quite a few churches were also pointed out to us as we moved past. The vaporetti halted at the San Marco station and we clambered out along with a whole horde of American tourists, distinguishable by their nasal twang. Following the crowd we walked along, crossed several bridges and finally came to the tall column that marked the square, the Campanile or clock tower. Words are entirely inadequate to express the feelings that chase each other when you stand at the base of the Campanile like an ant beside an elephant and look out on the colossal expanse in front of you; a trapezium in fact running 175 meters in length. The space is enclosed by magnificent buildings — the most stunning being the Basilica de San Marco, Doge’s Palace and the Basilica’s campanile, which stands apart from it. 

Travel is nothing if not a slice of history re-lived! I stood at the far end of the square gazing at the opulent and exquisite St. Mark’s Basilica through my camera screen while maneuvering to fit it into my frame. It was rather frustrating as people moved around in front of the camera, children careening around jostled me and while I waited for my moment to click, a rather strange story wafted through my mind.

St. Theodore was the original patron saint of Venice when it rose out of the marshes and established itself on the 118 islands by the Adriatic Sea. Protected by the sea and its waterways it was able to grow into a wealthy trading nation. Then, it needed a major saint in the league of Peter and Paul, to enhance its prestige. A legend relates that, St. Mark when travelling through Venice had seen a vision. An angel had declared his final resting place to be Venice. Eight hundred years after he was buried in Alexandria, two merchants took it upon themselves to bring the saint home. They sailed to Egypt, bribed the guardians of St. Mark’s tomb in Alexandria, removed his body and replaced it with that of St. Claudian. They concealed St. Mark’s body in a basket, carried it to the harbour and took it aboard a Venetian vessel. Unfortunately, the powerful odour emanating from the body roused suspicions. Port officials came aboard to investigate. The merchants shrewdly placed chunks of pork over the body and the Muslim soldiers recoiled from it. The Venetian merchants triumphantly sailed away with their priceless treasure – a saint for their city. Arriving safely in Venice the body was accepted officially as that of St.Mark’s and the Doge arranged for it to be buried again with the appropriate ceremony. 

Founded in 829, St. Mark’s church served as a shrine to house the stolen body of the saint and as a private chapel for the Doge, the ruler of Venice. This little church designed on the pattern of a Greek Cross burned down, but over its ashes rose the magnificent Basilica de San Marco. Byzantine architecture with mixed interior styles, it was consecrated in 1094, though additions and expansion to the building continued.  Enlarged on the north and south it still followed the Greek Cross plan with its most outstanding feature being the vaulting of the five domes built in brick instead of the customary wood to provide a base for the ceiling mosaics. By the 13th century, the domes were covered with towering external cupolas roofed in lead and surmounted by onion-shaped lanterns. By the ordinance of 1075, each returning ship was obliged to furnish it with some precious object. The beautification of the exterior continued until the mid-fifteenth century when it was finally rounded off with the addition of crockets, pinnacles and statues making it the breathtaking monument that we were gawking at. The interior presents vast cavernous spaces lit by narrow windows in the five domes and gilded expanses of mosaics, which cover an area of almost 8,000 square meters. The walls are lined with eastern marble and at the centre of the nave is a beautiful large Byzantine chandelier of delicate hand-painted crystal hanging like a precious pearl, while the floor has 12th century paving with geometric patterns and some beasts and birds filled in. It was all too overwhelming and difficult to absorb in the crush of the crowd. I managed to find some corners to retreat into from where I could gaze without interruption. Soon enough a security guard politely urged me to move on and so having done the entire ground floor, my sister and I emerged into the golden sunshine of the square again.

That was a lot of art and history for one morning. We wandered around doing the mundane – street shopping which seems to be the same everywhere. T-shirts with basilica prints, scarves, peak-caps and knick-knacks; food stalls, glassware, shoes, and ice-cream; just name it. We haggled for some purses, but the guy wouldn’t budge. Of course he wouldn’t with the Americans around! 

So we moved on around the basilica. By the side of the church, narrow alleyways are lined with shops and street cafes. Suddenly, I was riveted to a shop window through which a whole lot of grotesque shapes with eye-holes looked at me. A shudder wracked my body, but I continued to look on fascinated. Then, was able to identify some of the masks: ghosts, clowns, bird beaks and others. I thought of the movie Amadeus. The scene, where the composer Salieri, wearing the scary death mask, asks Mozart to write a requiem, swam before me.

Venetian masks are made of papier-mâché and are exquisitely hand-crafted. Mask-making is done by master craftsmen of whom there are just a handful in Venice and carnival time brings out their best. 

Unrivalled master of trade 800 years ago, Venice generated enormous wealth. It became the most extravagantly beautiful state on the continent. Wealth generated insecurities and people developed a custom of concealing their identity. Secrecy was the pragmatic solution for a small city in maintaining its citizen’s privacy. Then again, the masks served as social-levelers keeping every citizen on a level-playing field. State inquisitors and spies, who questioned citizens, were answered without fear of retribution through the mask! Morale of the people was high – with no faces, they were the voices of their city. Masks became part of daily life and a highlight of the carnival in Venice that takes place in February each year. It celebrates the victory of the republic over the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162. By the 17th century, the Carnival of Venice had become a regular destination for tourists from Northern Europe, especially the Grand Tourists: young aristocratic men who spent a year or more visiting the cultural highlights of Italy.

I continued to follow my stream of thoughts until my sister gave me a rough nudge and we got going again and finally found ourselves at the rear of the church. Here a podium supported weary tourists who were obliged to share the space with garrulous pigeons.  Exhausted after several hours on our feet without respite, we too found space among the numerous tourists to settle down for a while and share some of our sandwich with the pigeons queuing up near us. As I looked around, strains of the old song There’ll be joy, there’ll be fun, there’ll be seasons in the sun floated through my mind and there will be lots of golden sun with spring in the air. The old aristocrats of Europe, people of leisure and adventurous travelers will all be making a beeline to Venice. When the date changes to February 5, Venetian clocks will swivel back to the 12th century and usher in the 800-year-old carnival. Ten days of fun with sheer abandon will follow. Morality dumped into the Grand Canal. Revelers will flock to Piazza San Marco, to be outnumbered by the pigeons that claim the square in perpetuity. Obscured by masks, the signature costume of Venice, there will be uninhibited frolicking, gambling and every other indulgence. Fantasies buried in the box of respectability will jump out seeking fulfillment. Art will come alive with festivals of music, dance, theatre, painting and so on. Gondola racing and all manner of entertainment will be available to satisfy the myriad appetites of the floating populace. It’s the chance of a lifetime. If you are traveling, find your way to Venice in February.     

– Katie Dubey

Permalink Leave a Comment

Remembering Mulk Raj Anand

October 7, 2009 at 6:40 pm (Essay, Katie Sahiar Dubey)

Five years have passed since 28 September, the day Mulk Raj Anand 
 
left us. Recall is a strange thing. Although it was many years ago, 
 
I can still see him sitting on his divan at his home.
 
 
 
Clad in a churidar and tunic, legs neatly crossed, 
 
Uncle Mulk sat beneath the portrait of Leo Tolstoy, his hero.
 
The doors of 25 Cuffe Parade, his home, were always open. 
 
No one rang the bell. They just walked right in. Uncle Mulk never 
 
budged from his seat, but greeted visitors warmly with a strong 
 
handshake or a kiss on the forehead as in my case!
 
Artists, writers, students and all manner of people came to visit 
 
him.They sought his help and advice or sometimes just wanted to 
 
share a drink in the evening. 
 
Yet, just five years after his death, Mulk Raj Anand has been 
 
forgotten. My dear Uncle Mulk is gone and his name ground in the 
 
dust.
 
The old historic structure, in which he lived and fought so hard to 
 
save from its current fate, will soon be a lobby for a high rise 
 
building.Where every other country preserves the houses of its 
 
legendary figures along with all in it and offers them to the view 
 
of the world,we in India callously tear down historic structures 
 
but talk glibly of past glory. We will do nothing to honor our heroes,
people who have sacrificed the best part of their lives to give us the
freedom we enjoy today. 
 
 
 
It is painful to see the so-called intelligentsia that milled 
 
around Uncle Mulk at one time, melt away. Not one person has come 
 
forward or lifted a finger to honor the memory of a man who did so 
 
much for others.


 
I can remember the time when we were in Khandala over a weekend.
 
I was at the age what Uncle Mulk called ‘the foolish young’.
 
Over breakfast we got into an argument and he said to me: 
 
“You know dear, you young will never know the sacrifices that 
 
we have made for this country. You have never had to fight for 
or give up anything. You have received freedom on a platter 
and I can see it being thrown away once again to the West".

 
Mulk Raj Anand was born to Rai Sahib Subedar Lal Chand of the 17th 
 
Dogras Regiment in Peshawar, on 12 December, 1905.
 
 
 
He was a lovable, sensitive and demanding child, favored above 
 
his brothers by his parents.Mulk was nicknamed ‘Bully’ by his father,
 
who in fact had made up a little ditty with the word.
 
‘Bully, bully, bully my son.’ A nonsensical rhyme that he 
 
would croon with little Mulk in his arms. This ditty remained 
 
forever fixed in his mind, associated with the love of his father.
 
His childhood is re-counted in his well-known autobiographical book
 
Seven Summers.
 
 
 
Mulk saw many shades and hues of life at a tender age, as his 
 
father’s regiment moved from place to place. He studied at Khalsa
 
College, Amritsar; Punjab University, 1921-1924;University College, 
 
London, 1926-29 and Cambridge University 1929-30, 
 
where he obtained a PhD. 

 
He lectured at the League of Nations’ School of Intellectual 
 
Co-operation in Geneva, worked with the BBC in London and 
 
plunged headlong into the vibrant intellectual life of the city. 
 
Touchy and sensitive, he was grief-struck when his dearly loved 
 
aunt Devaki committed suicide after being ostracized by the Hindu 
 
community for her friendship with a Muslim.The episode roused a 
 
barrage of questions about the communal divide in our society.
 
 
 
Mulk vowed to fight the evils that distorted and destroyed the most
fundamental human values.
 
 
 
He chose to wield his pen as a sword.
 
 
The first assault was Untouchable – a day in the life of a scavenger in India.
 
Untouchable was written over a long weekend in 1930 and revised
 
several times.
 
 
 
Then, Mulk came to India and visited Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram to
 
show him the manuscript. He narrated the story thus:
 
"First, the Mahatma insisted on Indian clothes. ‘Why are you
 
dressed like a monkey? Go, put on some Indian clothes,’
 
he admonished.

 
Next, his novel was rejected right away as being unrealistic!
 
‘Have you ever heard an uneducated, rejected scavenger
 
who has been nowhere near a school mouth such big words?
 
Rewrite it and be natural,’ the Mahatma had said. 
 
Mulk returned to England and following Gandhi’s advice to the T,
 
rewrote the entire novel. It was a frontal attack on upper
 
caste hypocrisy.
 
 
Nineteen publishers rejected his book by September 1934.
 
"Do you know what it is like to be rejected time and again?"
 
he asked me, once as he recounted the story to my aunt Dolly and me,
 
one evening in Khandala.
 
 
British publishers were incredulous. ‘A novel about the poor,’
 
 they asked? "No one writes about the poor"they said.
 
"The poor are a joke and we ignore them." Mulk was devastated.
 
Dangerously close to a nervous breakdown,he began to contemplate
 
suicide. 
 
 
Then, fate intervened. A young British poet Blake Oswell took the
 
manuscript to Vishart Books. The editor liked the novel for its
 
‘sincerity and skill’, but wanted his decision endorsed with a
 
preface by E M Forster.
 
 
 
Forster had already read the novel while it did the rounds of
 
the publishers and willingly wrote the preface,
 
saying the book ‘has gone straight to the heart of the subject and
 
purified it.’
 
 
 
Untouchable hit the bookshops in May 1935 and Mulk Raj Anand was
 
launched as a novelist.
 
 
Incidentally, Forster received a larger payment for his preface
 
than the author for the novel. Forster, however, generously passed
 
on the money to the struggling young writer. 
 
Mulk Raj Anand never faltered. He practiced what he preached.
 
His robust humanism, love for the land, compassion and forthright
 
outlook remained unchanged and are strongly visible in all his works. 
 
Therefore, through the hundreds of pages of his novels, short
 
stories, essays and letters, we return to the ‘promise’.
 
The promise to uphold values at all costs. Values that enrich life,
 
that strengthen relationships, that spread peace and are finally
 
woven into the fabric of a strong, civilized and cultured nation. 
 
He wrote in 2001, on the occasion of 200 years of Maharaja Ranjit
 
Singh’s coronation: "Our recalls of the heritages of the past
are not from the wish to revive bygone splendors, which cannot come
back. We wish to show how the purposive will of men in certain
periods of our history have created, out of anarchy and disorder,
glories which heightened the quality of life and which may inspire
 our renascent efforts today.”
 
- Katie Sahiar Dubey

Permalink Leave a Comment

A Mumbaikar in Milan

May 26, 2009 at 5:40 am (Katie Sahiar Dubey, Travel)

I landed in Milan in the late afternoon of a hot, sunny day. As I went about unpacking, without warning clouds gathered, thundered and rain pelted down in gray sheets. Wonderful feeling! So familiar! I rushed to the small balcony of my hotel room and stood there getting wet. Was transported to Mumbai for a few moments.

Milan and Mumbai! So many parallels! Business hub, fashion capital, migrant population, parking problems, laundry hanging out of windows, multiple tongues and friendly inhabitants. Its freewheeling commercial culture and ready acceptance of new ideas has always drawn people to it and amongst its most renowned ‘outsider’ responsible for shaping its destiny was Leonardo da Vinci. The city is what it is today because like Mumbai, it embraced enterprising outsiders. Today, while vibrant and modern, Milan is imbued with traditions which are centuries old. Its history speaking through great works of art, music and church architecture that is lovingly cared for and painstakingly renovated from time to time with generous help from corporate sponsorships.    

Dominating the Piazza del Duomo is the wonder of Milan – the Church of Santa Maria Nascente, known only as ‘Duomo’ or the House of God. It is the heart of the city with streets either radiating from, or circling it and is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the world, 157 meters long and 92 meters high with a capacity to accommodate 40,000 people at a time.

Mark Twain expressed his amazement when he wrote “What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems… a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!”

My reaction too!  Facing the statue of the mounted king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuel II and encircled by the Galleria, it dwarfed them both, subtly reminding one of enduring spiritual heights that go far beyond the material. However, this is no time for contemplation, but rather for quick thinking. One is suddenly surrounded by the ‘fast buck’ makers, mostly of foreign origin, and not a few of them Indians speaking fluent Italian. Feed the pigeons for one euro, or have a picture clicked, or else tie a thread on your wrist and make a wish! Familiar tricks, each one. So, refusing to feed overfed pigeons I moved to the massive door of the church.  Every inch of it embossed in relief, with panels depicting the life of Christ, the ascension of Mary to heaven and other biblical events. So awe inspiring was the sight that I felt a deep urge to photograph every inch of it.  Christ stumbling with the cross and being dragged to His feet. Christ being tied, before being mounted to the cross. So poignantly portrayed are the scenes that several people worship at the door itself, placing flowers on the panels. 

No wonder then that few churches in Italy took as long to build. The Duomo was built over more than five centuries, its foundation stone laid in 1386 under the patronage of Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo. In 1387 Duke Gian Visconti, who had ascended to power in the ruling family of Milan insisted on marble, in vogue at the time to create a power symbol. The cathedral was consecrated in 1418, but not completed until the 19th century when Napoleon spurred on the work to completion.

It consists of a nave that rises 45 meters, the highest Gothic vault of a church and houses the tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici, which in part was designed by Michelangelo. Opposite the Medici tomb, the 12th-century candelabra by the goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun is believed to be the greatest masterpiece in the cathedral. Fabulous creatures created with meticulous attention to detail adorn this work of art. 

Windows of stained glass that are found nowhere in the world, were executed in the 19th Century by the Bertini brothers. And then there are the stunning windows of the choir, which are considered the largest in the world. Most treasures in the Duomo’s interior, such as ivories, vestments and tapestries as well as sacred vases in gold and silver are gifts that have been donated by princes and noblemen during the centuries of the cathedral’s existence. They beautify it to date.  

The cathedral was overwhelming. Emerging through the dim vault into the blazing sunshine of noontime I drew a deep breath. Without the least bit of self-consciousness, I parked myself on a mid-level step of the cascading stairs and rested exulting in a sense of sheer freedom.  Elegantly clad high-heeled women and suited men rushed by focused on work obviously, while we, tourists, lounged around. The eye-catching life-size poster of Mojca Erdmann, the soprano singer wearing Mont Blanc sunglasses mounted by the high arch of the Galeria, spurred me to move on and explore it. 

Galeria Vittorio Emanuele is one of the most beautiful covered galleries in Europe, the first of its kind to make use of an iron and glass structure with two intersecting streets making a cruciform plan with a domed octagon at center.

The 640-foot-long north-south axis of this cruciform links the secular Piazza del La Scala on the north to the spiritual Piazza del La Duomo on the south. A triumphal arch was added to the southern end of this cruciform gallery. The Galeria was built not just to connect the squares of La Scala and La Duomo, but to represent the union of church and state, which came about after the nationalist revolution of 1848.  Tragically, Giuseppe Mengoni, its architect, fell to his death from the heights of the glass dome while scrutinizing some decorative details two days before King Vittorio Emanuele led the opening ceremony.

Avant garde shops, of every single international brand in every variety of goods is represented at the Galeria. If it’s a brand name then it stands represented at the Galeria. The hour long exploration of the Galeria left me exhausted and I gratefully sank down under the shade of a sun-umbrella at a street café. Although past lunchtime, people lounged at tables and watched the crowd as it swept in and out in waves.  A glass of Chianti and a large serving of pasta re-fueled me and an hour later, was back on my feet.

Mercifully the sun was now fairly low on the horizon and mild light flooded through the glass roof casting soft shadows around.  I wandered out through the Galeria to its opposite end and on to the Piazza della Scala.       

The statue of Leonardo da Vinci had centre stage. Pigeons mingled with tourists seated on the parapet munching or just sunning. Some of them audaciously used the genius’s head as a perch. The square plinth sported stone reliefs on all four sides of Leonardo as a teacher.  Aptly, facing Leonardo was La Scala – one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.

Teatro alla Scala, as it was originally named, opened to public on August 3, 1778.  The building has undergone several transformations since. In 1907 the original structure was renovated and given the enhanced seating capacity of 2,800.  It was severely damaged by bombing in WWII, but was rebuilt and re-opened in 1946 with an unparalleled concert conducted by Toscanini. It was spruced up once again as recently as 2002 and re-opened in 2004.        

Attached to the theatre is a museum of costumes, jewellery and an auditorium. I sank into a seat in the cool auditorium and enjoyed a documentary on the legendary singer Maria Callas singing from her various roles through her operatic life for half an hour, then strolled through the room containing her costumes and merged into the Milanese life of the past century. Finally, there were the accessories and paintings.  Disappointingly, though, the ‘Last Supper’ of da Vinci had been taken off display. 

With my immersion in the past in La Scala coming to an end, I returned to the present by heading for the Galeria with gelato on my mind. What a day I had!

– Katie Sahiar Dubey

Permalink Leave a Comment

Sholai School: In Harmony With Nature

January 8, 2009 at 12:27 pm (Dominic Alapat, Essay)

 

Nine children sit in a circle in one of the several one-room structures at Sholai School. Rodney Walker, an environmentalist from Chile, is taking class. Opposite him, his partner of many years and Sholai teacher Viv Macadam distributes masks to the children. The masks are beautifully painted and represent sun, cloud, wind, horse, lion, forest and so on. Walker lights a candle and places it in the centre of the circle. He says the candle is the universe because it is solid, liquid and gas.

 

Walker continues speaking in his rich and deep voice. He has received the ‘forest’ mask and he speaks of man destroying him over the years with advancement in technology. He talks about his ancient brothers and sisters. Trees, millions of years old. Then, the session progresses clockwise. The children speak about caring for nature, man’s greed, his desire for comfort and his wrongheaded attitude towards life. There are passionate voices here. Some are blunt and condemn the urban man. One young boy says the case is already hopeless. Walker tells him there is hope, and explains why there must be hope. Then I, who has been designated ‘human’, am asked to speak. I am asked to state my resolution after having heard the group speak.

 

Walker’s class ‘Council of All Beings’ is a session of playacting, learning about nature and also improving one’s speaking skills. Outside, at 1,140 mt, the air is cold and birds chirp amidst the verdant surroundings of the Palani hills. Over the face of these blue and grey hills, the mist moves like wonder. The school area is vast and the River Periyar runs through it. Flowers of red, yellow and purple dot the green valley. The farms, the forests are all visible from here. Tall silver oak trees rise straight into the sky. Walker’s class is something of a spiritual experience.

 

How It All Began

 

Losing his father at the age of two, principal of Sholai School Brian Jenkins (63) grew up with his mother in London, lonely and sensitive. As a young teen, he often pondered upon the injustices in the world. Young Jenkins reflected with sorrow on the division between rich and poor. His ideals led him to Kenya after his schooling, where he worked as a schoolteacher for two years. He returned to England to study Social Anthropology at Sussex University. Here, his interest in spirituality led him to Bodhgaya in India, where he practiced satipattana vipassana (Buddhist meditation) for a year.

 

“When I arrived at Sussex, a friend gave me Commentaries on Living by J Krishnamurti. Hence, after obtaining my BA (Hons), I joined the J Krishnamurti school in Brockwood Park, UK, where I remained for 14 years. It was with this background that I sought a good locality for a school in South Asia after leaving Brockwood Park in 1985,” Jenkins says, sitting in the beautiful wood and stone interiors of his home at Sholai.

 

“I was fortunate that my grandmother generously left me a small inheritance in 1980. I bought a Porsche Turbo and discovered the delights of driving at 260 km/hr on English motorways. But then changes took place at Brockwood Park. I also felt that I needed to step out from under the umbrella of that unusual and special school. So I sold the Porsche and went out to India,” he adds.

 

Jenkins traveled to Sri Lanka and Nepal before exploring south India. He drove 7,000 km through Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, finally settling in the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu. Jenkins started building Sholai (tropical evergreen forests) School in 1989. In a way, it is still being built. Since 1989, they have been building constantly with a small team of masons, their assistants, carpenters and electricians-cum-plumbers. Jenkins’ experience and exposure to most of these disciplines enabled him to guide the workmen well and demand quality work from them. He designed most of the buildings at the Centre for Learning, Organic Agriculture and Appropriate Technology, the school’s parent body.

The buildings are a mix of English and local architecture. Open to ideas, Jenkins sought to discover aesthetic and functional solutions based on local knowledge. Most of the raw materials for the buildings were sourced from the property he had bought. Stone, the popular vengai and nava wood and brick comprise the basic raw material. Brick is made in the Auroville method — compresssed earth block technique. The brick is 60 per cent mud, 35 per cent sand and five per cent cement. Teacher Ramesh says it is twice as strong as regular brick.


“This valley is beautiful, but human beings are complicated. I discovered that self-centredness is a common thread that runs through society, whether rich or poor. Poverty destroys culture. While middle-class culture can bring a certain refinement and softness to human beings, poverty tends to harden its victims. This is because there is little exposure to culture with a capital C and very little leisure too. There are exceptions to the above generalisations. In fact we found that whenpoor people’ are given regular employment and other benefits, such as micro-credit and medical facilities, they are more open to learning about themselves than the average knowledge-ridden victims of middle class values,” Jenkins says.


Sholai School began admitting its first students — poor local children — in 1992. Since then, the school has had a steady stream of students, both from the local area and around the world.

 

What Is Sholai School 

 

Education, Jenkins tells me, comes from ‘e-ducto’ in Latin and it stands for bringing out the very best in a human being. During my stay at Sholai, I experienced first-hand the meaning of what Jenkins told me. The students, even those between 10-12 years, have a very different approach to the world than the regular children one comes across in urban schools. These children don’t have to be told to do something. There is a high level of motivation among them.

 

On the second day of my stay at Sholai, young Dinesh shows me around the school. We cross the pretty wooden bridge over the Periyar River and head to the other side of the school. Dinesh spots an eagle, which flies very close to him. He immediately updates me about the various kinds of eagles found in the school. He names the trees, the fruits; he tells me the function of each of the several check dams the school has built. Getting down into the pit where the Micro-Hydro system is located, he moves knobs here and there, shifts levers, and explains to me how the machine works. Dinesh’s skill and enthusiasm leave me awestruck.

 

There are many such examples at Sholai. Students are taught not only the regular subjects, but also learn carpentry, designing buildings, automobile repair and other skills. Groups of children run their own farm plots within the 30-acre organic farm at the school. They do this with almost no supervision. One finds minds that have received a well-rounded education.

 

So what is teacher-student relationship? I ask Jenkins. How would he describe relationships at Sholai. “We expect sensitivity from staff and students towards one another and towards this place. This is a very dangerous statement because such an expectation can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. Hence in our relationship with our students, we put a lot of energy into explaining what is right behaviour, which is not a matter of establishing certain rules, but exploring what is appropriate. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by exceptional human beings like J Krishnamurti in Brockwood. I learnt a lot from them,” he says. He tells me how children are taught about awareness, conditioning, observing oneself and being aware that one is self-centred.

I ask him how he deals with difficult situations involving students at school. Jenkins says the staff spends time with the students discussing their problems, which are openly voiced and debated. He tells me about Litish Kumar (13). Litish, he says, was an unruly and hyperactive child who often got into scrapes with people. One day while he was supposed to be in class, Litish, speeding on his skateboard in the coffee drying yard-cum-tennis court, knocked down a 60-year-old woman working there. The collision broke the woman’s hip and she was off work for two months. Jenkins says he witnessed the incident and was furious about it. He called a staff meeting and they decided that Litish would work on the farm for three weeks. With the money Litish earned, he would help in the treatment of the woman.

 

Jenkins says Litish eventually came to love working on the farm and two years later, is the group leader of his batch in Farm Skills. “It is important to see the right response in a situation. There is no standard response as nothing happens the same way twice. Passion plays an important part,” Jenkins says.

 

Arun Kumar, physics and mathematics teacher, has been at Sholai for over eight years. His wife Menaka and his father Ramchandran are also teachers at the school. Sitting in a small room adjoining the Science labs, Arun tells me he met Jenkins through a common friend and decided to take up Jenkins’ offer of a job. He left Chennai where he was pursuing an IT career and came to the hills. His father, though initially opposed to Arun’s career, came to love the place after he visited his son there, and eventually stayed back as a teacher. Arun goes on to describe how he ended up marrying Menaka, his former student at the school. “There was talk of her family getting her married to someone in the plains. I went and spoke to her father, and we got married,” Arun says. Their three-year-old son Ashwath is cared for in the school crèche. 

              
”I would have found life difficult if not for Sholai.
This place made me,” he says. Arun is an avid bird-watcher and has recorded 130 different types of birds at Sholai. He tells me that he loves photography and often takes pictures of the birds. “Verditer flycatcher, bluebearded bee-eater, paradise flycatcher,” he rattles off some of the names.

 

“Here there are luxuries you can’t afford outside. As a community you are able to afford certain things, which as an individual you can’t. Organic food is one of the luxuries,” he says. “There is a retired IISc (Indian Institute of Science) professor who comes down the valley twice a week. He teaches me mathematics and physics. By the time he’ll be through with me, I would be worth a lot. That’s just a sense of security. Everything is undefined, everything is shared here. Other people think I’m paying a price. I don’t,” Arun says. He then goes on to tell me about classes at the school.

 

Classes at Sholai

 

Currently there are 50 students and nine teachers at Sholai. The student-teacher ratio makes it possible for each student to get personal attention from the teachers. The youngest student is seven years old and the oldest is 20. Arun tells me that only seven per cent of the students are locals. Thirty-forty per cent receive almost 100 per cent scholarships. “Most of the current students are from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, but we have had Italian, French, German, American and Omani students in the past,” he says.

 

Sholai School is affiliated with the Cambridge University, UK, and is an International Examinations Centre for the Cambridge International Examinations. There are no grades at Sholai and the students are roughly divided into groups in a system called Vertical Grouping. For example, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education group, which usually comprises students in the age group of 14-16, may also have an 18-year-old student, who is doing his/her A’ levels. A student who is doing his/her IGCSE may also be attending classes with a lower group to improve his/her English.

 

Sholai has two primary groups. The first group has students till 10-11 years. The second group comprises of students till the age of 12. Then, there is a middle group of students between 12-15 years. After this, there are two IGCSE groups. The first one has students being prepared to take the IGCSE exams (equivalent to the 10th standard in India). These students are roughly in the 14-16 age group. The second group has students preparing for the A’ levels. These students are usually between 17-18 years. All Sholai students fall into one of the above groups.

 

For the IGCSE exams, students are free to choose a combination of five of more subjects, solely on their own choice. Unlike the Indian system where subjects are grouped into Science 1, Science 2, Arts and Economics — where only a certain combination of the subjects in these groups can be taken — Cambridge offers individual subjects, and a student may choose to take up any combination of subjects. For example, a student may take up Physics, Chemistry, Information Technology, English Language, Business Studies and History.

 

After the IGCSE exams, students move on to the A’ levels (or General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels). At the A’ levels, students are given a choice of four subjects (with English being mandatory). After successfully completing the A’ levels, students may choose to pursue their education in any British or foreign university. The Indian government has recently recognised the Cambridge syllabus, and students who complete four A’ levels are eligible for admission to most good universities in India.

Former student Siddharth tells me that by the time students venture into their A’ levels, they are aware of the subjects they are interested in. “The A’ levels are tough and challenging. The syllabus makes students think beyond their books and understand concepts. ‘Mugging up’ won’t help. The examinations (both IGCSE and A’ levels) are based on the understanding and application of concepts, and out-of-the-box thinking,” he says.

 

Alternatively, Sholai also offers the National Institute of Open Schooling (New Delhi) syllabus for students who are not pursuing CIE. With NIOS, the school offers the Secondary (10th) and the Senior Secondary (12th) courses.

 

Sholai School does not believe in examinations, though teachers give tests to students at times, to check their level of learning. A student moves to a higher group based on his/her knowledge of a subject. “As an educator I’m not concerned with examinations. Education is all about allowing a human being to flower. Therefore, coercion, persuasion and pressure should never be a part of the process. Society has the requirement of examinations. Therefore, we prepare students for the international IGCSE and A’ level examinations,” Jenkins says.

 

Sholai has well-equipped Science laboratories certified by the Cambridge authorities. The Computer lab has the latest gadgets. Computer teacher Ramesh tells me that Sholai is the first place in India where Broadband is available at a distance of 10 km from a telephone exchange.

Former student and now teacher Bala says Sholai follows a well-planned time-table and students are also given homework. Day begins at 8 am when teachers and students meet for breakfast in the school dining hall. Everyone at Sholai has fresh vegetarian fare, most of which is grown on the school’s farm. The students wash their own plates, and every week a different group is assigned the responsibility of cleaning up the kitchen after meals. After breakfast, the entire school meets for Assembly where they usually listen to music or discuss current affairs. They may also watch a film, perform a play or sing to the accompaniment of music teacher Viv Macadam’s piano. School ends at 4.15 pm and till 6 pm the students play games and relax. Sholai has a football ground, tennis court and swimming pool, which the students use daily. After study hour, which is a little more than an hour, the students have dinner at 7.30 pm and by 8.30 pm they retire to the two boys hostels and one girls hostel on the campus.

 

Thrice a week, the students have Skills. These include Farming, Woodwork and a class called Machine Shed. The students mend things that are broken or make new windows and doors. Electrical, plumbing, and construction work is also taken up.

 

In Mechanics class, the students learn about architecture and repairing motors vehicles. They put together bicycles after sourcing spare parts. The younger students work on Mechano Sets — a game aimed to develop technical skills. A Mechano Set is a box with removable screws, nuts and bolts, which the students put together. 

Sholai also has a good library of books and films. Students watch landmark films and documentaries, and then discuss them among themselves and the teacher.    

Most schools around this area are based on rote learning. Always theory is stuffed into

the students’ minds, whatever their capabilities may be. There is little teacher-student interaction. But at Sholai, partly because of the student-teacher ratio, students are better looked after and encouraged in careers they are interested in. The syllabus is based on understanding concepts — using a wide range of sources and hands-on experience in every subject,” Bala says.

 

Teachers may teach a particular topic from various text-books. The criteria is not just to learn from the text-books Cambridge University approves of, but also to go beyond that and understand what one learns throughly.

 

The Organic Farm

 

When I first arrived at Sholai, I was taken straight to the dining hall as it was lunch time. A wonderful spread of fresh vegetables awaited me. Sitting along with Jenkins and some students, the principal told me that much of the delicious fare we were consuming was grown on the school’s farm.

 

After lunch, Jenkins requests CLOAAT student Dipika Choradia (20) to take me around the farm. Choradia shows me the small patches of cultivated land, which groups of students tend to. Everything looks neat and cared for. I ask her about the vegetables and the trees around. Spotting a guava tree, she plucks a guava and hands it to me. I am moved by the simplicity and beauty of this well-run place.

 

Choradia (20) is pursuing an 18-month Organic Farming and Appropriate Technology course after completing her 12th standard in Pune. The daughter of a surgeon with interests in organic farming, she intends to run an organic farm someday. “I love this place. There is so much I have learnt after coming here,” she says.

 

The school’s 30-acre farm is now certified organic with Control Union (formerly SKAL International), an international certifying agency. Locals work on the farm for pay. Students and staff also assist in running it. The farm grows coffee, pepper, banana, jackfruit, citrus fruits, parsley, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, tomato, radish and a mix of Indian and foreign vegetables. In the last two years, students and staff have been putting in more time at the farm, working up to five hours a week.


Some of the farm produce is sold at Kodaikanal. The school, however, is the major consumer. Organic produce is not appreciated much and the remuneration is small, Jenkins says. In the future, the school intends to set up a fruit and vegetable drier to store dried fruits and vegetables for later use.

 

Cows are reared in the school’s two cowsheds for milk. There is a small building nearby in which cheese is made. I am shown various types of cheese, lying on the shelves. There are cheese making machines too. I am told that apart from what the school consumes, there are regular customers for the various types of cheese made here.

 

The school believes in imparting environmentally-friendly farming techniques to the locals. So the locals who work on the school’s farm learn about alternative and productive methods of farming. There are regular lectures and meetings held with local farmers to persuade them about the benefits of environmentally-friendly farming techniques. Narayan Reddy, a well known farmer from Bengaluru, visits the school regularly to educate local farmers on organic farming.

 

CLOAAT also offers a Mature Student Programme, which are mainly courses related to farming. These courses could be taken up after school or college. Organic Farming, Appropriate Technology, Solar Energy and Biogas Technician are some of the subjects taught at CLOAAT.

 

Along with the organic farm, Sholai School also has a 70-acre forest. The harvesting period for the hardwood trees that grow here is roughly 20 years, says Jenkins. Hence, the school plants new trees on a regular basis. According to Jenkins, wood from the hardwood trees that grow in the forest make excellent furniture. All of the school’s wood is sourced from the school’s own property. Rosewood, nava, wild mango, kadukai, vengai, fish-tail palm, vaagai and axelwood are some of the trees that grow here.

 

Sholai’s Sources of Energy

  

Sholai’s staff, many of them locals, are actively involved in imparting to others the environmentally friendly practices they learn at the school. Along with practices like roof-water harvesting, many local farmers have also taken to biogas.

“We are so fortunate to be born on this beautiful planet that we have a responsibility to live lightly on this Earth, to have a soft and small step. Hence, I established this school without a connection to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. All our energy comes from nature. I want to explore this concept further. It is important to live abstemiously, thereby doing least harm to the planet,” Jenkins says.

At Sholai, there is great faith in Alternative Technologies. Time and again, the school found them superior to conventional energy that runs on non-renewable sources. Sitting in the school’s dining hall, Jenkins and Bala update me on the school’s energy producing systems.

  

Electricity

All the minor electrical systems at the school are de-centralized. This means that even if one fails due to an unseen problem, there will still be others that are working.

 

Most of the electricity that the school uses comes from SPV Cells or Solar Panels. Sholai has about 80 panels across the campus that use 50 batteries. Each panel provides either 75W or 35W of power. Electricity stored in the batteries are used directly as 12V DC, which powers all the lights at Sholai. Inverted to 220V AC, this is used to run the computers, TV, DVD players and the mixers and grinders in the kitchen.

 

There is also a third system in use — a 24V DC that is connected to the inverters, the intercom telephone system and the refrigerator in the kitchen.

 

During the monsoon, the school uses a DC Micro-Hydro system that produces about 450W power to charge the batteries when sunshine is scarce. A Micro-Hydro system is a hydel power plant on a smaller scale. The tank is built at a higher altitude than the plant. Water from the river fills up the tank. This water runs a turbine, which in turn powers a generator. The wind generator trickle system charges the batteries when there is wind.

 

In spite of being very abstemious, Sholai could face power problems in the near future when its new auditorium is built. Anticipating high power consumption, the school has purchased a 3,000W generator set that currently runs on diesel. There are plans to make it run on bio-diesel.  

 

Solar Water Heaters

 

Heating requires a lot of energy and the proven alternative technology for the school is the Solar Water Heater. The school has four of them that provide 65°C of water on a normal sunny day.

 

Biogas

 

Sholai has two big (4 M³ and 25 M³) biogas plants that provide gas for the kitchen, Food Processing and Science labs. The biogas plants run on cow manure. Two smaller plants run on human waste. The school has a water heater and refrigerator too that runs on biogas.

 

The Ambassador Engine

 

An Ambassador car engine has been modified to run on duel fuel — petrol and biogas – at Sholai. A multi-purpose engine, it is used to run a water pump for the vanilla plants. The engine is attached to a coffee grinder and a generator to produce electricity.

Petrol is to be replaced by bio-diesel or ethanol that is currently under research. Jatropa and pongayam plants that provide such oils have already been planted in the school campus.

 

 

Hydram

 

The school also has a hydram, which is essentially a water pump. Water runs into the hydram (drive pipe), which has another large pipe (6 inches). This pipe pumps out water through a smaller pipe (delivery pipe-1 inch) to a great height. The higher the pen-stoke, the higher the reach of the water. The remaining water runs into the river. Water from the hydram is used for the school’s farm.

 

About the alternative energy systems at the school, Jenkins explains, “Lots of things were subsidized when I started the school. My technical losses are zero. The grid electricity system is at least five times costlier than the energy producing systems at Sholai.”

“The Ministry of Science and Environment is supporting us in taking up the environmental upgradation of the entire valley, along with the improvement of the lives of the locals. That we do in a quiet yet aggressive way by giving employment to them,” he adds.

 

One of the environmental issues addressed by the school is hill burning. Many locals set fire to the hills in the summer due to lack of grass. When hills are burnt, new shoots of grass grow easily, which is used to feed cattle and horses. However, this also destroys new trees that are coming up, thereby affecting the forest line. The school approached the local forest authorities and conducted meetings with the local people, persuading them about the destructiveness of hill burning. Since Sholai’s intervention, the frequency of hill burning has reduced in the past few years.

 

 

Jenkins is proud of the school’s achievements. Sholai uses 109 watt-hours per person, per day. Ideal usage proposed by the Centre for Science and Environment is 2,000 watt-hours per person per day, he tells me. Sholai won the Model Green School award for 2007/2008 from the centre for their conservation of water, energy and eco-friendly practices. This, he says, is an award that everyone at the school is proud of.

 

Spirit of Sholai

 

“When I had a one-to-one with J Krishnamurti in Brockwood about starting my own school, he had said, ‘Let it be your body. Be married to it.’ I learnt a lot from many innovative educators there. However, let me clarify that this is not a J Krishnamurti school,” Jenkins says.

 

The school does not impart the philosophy of any guru to its students. Sharing, debate and discussion are the founding principles of the institution. The older students have an almost automatic sense of responsibility towards the younger ones. They assist teachers in lectures and keep class in order in a teacher’s absence.

 

Teachers have about four hours of lectures a day. Yet, as Arun says, they are expected to stick around to be of assistance to anyone. I noticed this spirit of sharing in everyone I met at the school. Multi-talented, multi-tasking, students are trained to develop a holistic approach to life.

 

Dr T C Gopalakrishnan, an engineer by profession and author of In Quest of the Deeper Self: Towards Enrichment of Life, comes down once a month from Kodaikanal to hold lectures at the school. In his class, everyone discusses how relationships can be improved between students and students, teachers and students and teachers and teachers. Students and teachers discuss their problems and try and find solutions to them.

 

At Sholai, knowledge is imparted creatively in a spirit of openness and freedom. I attend Ramchandran’s Assembly where this former Information Bureau officer discusses the state of the global economy with the students. He goes on to talk about oil prices, world trade, the future of India and China and so on. You can tell by the pin drop silence in the class how every student is taking in this expert analysis with so much interest. Outside, the birds chirp and mist moves over the hills. Here, young minds learn much more about the ‘real world’ than their urban counterparts.

 

Future of Sholai

 

It is late at night on the second day of my visit to Sholai. The students have all had dinner and gone to bed. Jenkins, Bala, Dipika and I sit in the dining hall talking. Jenkins discusses about solar batteries and their running costs with us. He speaks from experience. I notice how intelligent and organised, yet light-hearted he is. During questions, he jokes with us and the kitchen staff. It is very dark outside and we are cosy and comfortable after a nice meal. I ask him about the future of Sholai. Jenkins speaks frankly with quiet passion.

 

“There’s no place like this in India,” he says. “This concept of giving responsibility is not very clear to the teachers yet. As a school we’re vulnerable. This school is run by the Sholai Trust, which has five trustees including me. I have bought 60 acres of land in Chittayankottai, 50 km from here. Let’s see where it goes. I have a responsibility to see that this place continues if I kick the bucket tomorrow,” he adds.

 

On my last day at Sholai School, senior student Murali walks me to the school gate. The whole place is a maze in my head. I walk up the winding stone paths while Murali shows me his photo album — it is full of pictures he has clicked here. He shows me pictures of sunset, birds, snakes, the farms, trees and the valley. The photographs are beautiful. So much talent, so much enthusiasm, so much creativity, I think. I thank him for showing me the pictures. The white mists over the hills move slowly. It is cold. I get into the waiting car and begin my journey home. Sholai School has been a dream.

 

– Dominic Alapat

Permalink 32 Comments

Paul Celan: Words from the Snow

July 3, 2008 at 5:30 am (Dominic Alapat, Essay)

 

What words would do justice to Paul Celan’s poetry?

 

From the first time I read him nearly 10 years ago, Celan’s voice has remained in my mind like great rags of sound fluttering in the breeze of 20th century poetry. 

 

Celan was born in 1920 in a German-speaking Jewish family in the Eastern European city of Czernowitc, a part of the Austrian empire. His personal life, which was entwined around one of most catastrophic events of the century, the Holocaust, produced poems that to many are unmatched in their power, moral and poetic, in descriptions of a world that had gone and killed itself. Sample these lines from ‘Deathfugue’:

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and drink

we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair

    Margareta

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he

     whistles his hounds to stay close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he commands us play up for the dance   

 

Celan (born Paul Antschel), like many other German-speaking Jews of his time, grew up on the classics of Goethe and Schiller, and Hebrew texts. Having a deep love for poetry, he read Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson and the French Symbolists. From his teenage years onwards, he translated poetry from English, Romanian and French into German.

One day in 1942, during the course of World War II, his parents were picked up in a raid by the occupying German forces and sent to Ukraine to a concentration camp. Celan returned home that night to find his parents gone. Soon after, he himself was sent to forced labour where he learnt that his parents had died; his father of typhus, his mother shot dead. These events changed the course of his life and resulted in a poetry that moves like no other with its pain and its sense of horror and loss at the world. His poetry is an attempt to find reality in a radically altered world. In this changed world, he wondered what role the German language would have to play. In ‘Nearness of Graves’ he asks:

 

And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,

the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?         

 

Celan returned home after two years in labour camp and eventually found his way to Paris where he lived till 1970, when he took his own life at the age of 49. His poetry got him the top literary prizes in Germany after the war. With Nelly Sachs and Peter Huchel, Celan defined German poetry of the postwar era. He married the French graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, had a son, and earned a living as teacher, translator and poet. Writers like Gunter Grass and Primo Levi and philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno came to acknowledge his writing. Yet, in spite of all the accolades and acclaim, Celan was a poet in pursuit of what would make sense for him in his poetry and in his world, with a heart that had gone past bewilderment. He suffered from bouts of depression and always the snow of the Ukraine where his mother perished returned to him:

 

Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.

My mother’s hair never turned white.

 

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.

My fair-haired mother did not come home.

 

Rain cloud, do you linger at the well?

My soft-voiced mother weeps for all.

 

Rounded star, you coil the golden loop.

My mother’s heart was hurt by lead.

 

Oaken door, who hove you off your hinge?

My gentle mother cannot return.    

 

Celan was against philosophising about his poetry. He never chose to elaborate on his poems in his interviews and said that meaning rests in the poems alone. Writing poetry for Celan was “an attempt to gain direction”. A poem for him “can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.”

 

Celan’s was a hunt for a language threaded bare. His words go off in the mind with a freshness and power that seem to knock down the boundaries of reality, yet is a part of it and also constantly searching for it.

 

Many of his later poems, works from the mid to late-sixties, are short poems, almost like haiku. Here, the words are pared down to a minimum. The poems stand like torn flags in the wind, with a plain speaking transcendental power. In ‘Once’, a poem seemingly to be meditating on God, he says:
 

 

Once,

I heard him,

he was washing the world,

unseen, nightlong,

real.

 

One and infinite,

Annihilated,

they I’ed.

 

Light was. Salvation.

 

Celan’s bouts of depression increased during the late 60’s and he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine River in 1970. Since then, his poems have been translated into many languages and have come to be recognised by poets, critics and readers as an outstanding human testament to a terrible time. Translators like Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner, from whom I have quoted, have rendered a great service to Celan’s English language readers with their insight and scholarship in his works. Celan’s influences can be seen today in the poetry of vastly different cultures and languages. The American critic Helen Vendler calls him “the greatest poet since Yeats.”

 

Many living under brutal and oppressive power structures find a world of their own in Celan’s poems. Like all great poetry, his works transcend their time; they have a lot to tell us in their universality about art and the human condition. Yet, Celan on the occasion of receiving The Literature Prize from the city of Bremen, said, “A poem is not timeless. Certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time—through it, not above and beyond it.”

 

For me, this is one of the wisest comments on poetry I have read. Poetry is after all the engagement of the poet with his or her reality. It is this test the poet’s work has to engage with. Language and environment, what each does to the other. What art will result out of this marriage. Like with all great literature, each reading of Celan will encounter deeper feeling and nuance as though found for the first time. Like incantations of a kind, his poetry is like the smoke rising to the sky from the death-chambers of the Nazi camps. 

 

 

– Dominic Alapat.

 

 [Lines quoted are from Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan translated by John Felstiner, Norton books.]

 

Permalink Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: