How-to-be-Happy Curriculum

Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life is reported to be the most popular course ever offered at Yale University. Within a week of registration being open, nearly one third of Yale undergraduates had signed up for the twice-weekly lectures. What is the course all about?

Basically about teaching college students how to be happy! In an age where “getting there as quickly as you can” and “excelling” are seen to be the key indicators to success, it is sad that young people who are just about entering one of the best phases of their lives—with so many journeys of exploration and discovery ahead of them, need to take a course that teaches them how to lead less stressful, more satisfying lives. Such is the irony of the times we live in.

I think back to my undergraduate days as the most enriching, exciting, and yes, some of happiest years of my life. Ok, so I did not go into the ‘pressure cooker’ of an IIT or a medical college (I was “one of those Arts types”) but I did get into an Indian equivalent of an ‘Ivy League’ college. For someone who had never enjoyed her school years as much as many seemed to have done, stepping into college, was from day one, a joyous journey that lasted three years. It was indeed a time of the opening up of the mind, not just in terms of the curricular, but more so in the extra-curricular. It was the Film Club that opened windows to different ways of seeing; the Hiking Club that opened up unforgettable vistas of nature; it was the invaluable exposure to music and dance and theatre, all of which we always had time for.

Even more precious it was the making of friends that have remained so for almost fifty years! This was the gang for hanging out with in the canteen, with laughs and giggles, and the pouring out of woes. It was the bunking of classes to go see the morning show, or catching a bus to go all the way to centre of town just have a lassi between classes, and the book fairs at which entire wholly satisfying, and oh-so-happy days were to be spent.

College was indeed the cradle for what was later to be described as the “all round development” of the personality, for which today there are Life Coaches and Grooming Gurus (not forgetting the ultimate go-to-Guru Google!).

Sadly college life today sounds different—unhealthy competition; the pressure of justifying the sky-high fees that parents are shelling out; the continuous looking at how to ‘plan’ one’s future career; and the dangerous encroachment of politics into campuses….and news that young people are ‘burning out’ at an age when they should be blossoming into vibrant human beings…What a tragedy indeed!

To top it all we need a Yale Professor to remind us that feelings of happiness are fostered through socialization, exercise, meditation and plenty of sleep! How sad is that?

PS: I am proud to be an LSRite!   (And yes, intercollege rivalry was healthy and produced excellence rather than antagonism).


Proud to be a Mirandian

The newspapers have announced the results of the higher education survey, and Hey! My alma mater, Miranda House, is right on top there as No. 1 college in India.

Ahead of Stephen’s, ahead of Hindu, ahead of LSR. For those who went to DU, it is obvious why this feels so good. MH, after being queen of the campus in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, went to playing 2nd, 3rd and nth fiddle to these.

It is such a long time that I passed out that it takes an effort to remember what college was like. Lovely old red building and green lawns. A fiercely dedicated and committed faculty at the Chemistry Dept from where I graduated. We had Dr. R. Usha, Mrs. Sunita Narayan, Dr. Popley, Ms. Adarsh Khosla, and many others. Good infra, good labs, no shortage of equipment or reagents.

For some reason, MH students who took Physics as main or subsidiary had to go to the main University Physics Dept for classes. I never quite understood why, and not sure if the situation still persists. But we had no complaints—it was lovely walking across the DU campus, especially in winters, with a riot of flowers blooming in the lovingly tended Univ gardens. And it sure made us feel grown up and important, to go to the Dept for classes!

The saddest thing I think was this paper called ‘History of Science’ a compulsory subject for all Science students across the University. What should have been a fascinating and mind-enlarging foray into understanding the spirit of science and the spirit of enquiry, was reduced to a thin ‘kunji’. I think it is a real loss that generations of students did not take this seriously. But students will be students. Maybe the system should have ensured that it was taught better.

I do remember I enrolled for the NSS, but nothing much ever happened. Of extra-curriculars, I cannot recall much. And anyway, being ‘sciencies’ we were a bit lower down in the pecking order overall, and were probably not included.

But the taste of the college canteen samosas and kaddu sauce (passed off as tomato sauce), remains etched!

I recall an interesting story about the name that my father told me. Apparently the college was named by Sir Maurice Gwyer, who was Vice Chancellor of DU from 1938 to 1950, and who founded MH in 1948. He named the college after his favourite Shakespearean heroine, Miranda of The Tempest!


B.Sc (Hons) Chemistry, 1977-1980.

A Sad Ending

We are wakened at dawn every day by the melodious duet of the Coucals. The Coucal couple share our little garden, and we watch over each other. The Coucal or Crow Pheasant is a handsome bird; its glossy black body, chestnut wings and long black tail lends it a special dignity and grandeur. After the morning duet of soft whoops and klak-kloks, they join us as we have our morning tea. Sitting amongst orange flowers of the Cordia tree, or flitting across to the Champa tree, they offer a reassuring start to our day. As the day progresses, they descend lower to drink from the water container, as the smaller birds respectfully make way for them. Then as the sun reaches its peak, the omnivorous birds stride confidently across our small patch of lawn, looking for sustenance. Through the rest of the day, they call to each other using an amazing repertoire of calls. We could never have imagined that a single bird could produce such a variety of sounds.

About a month ago we noticed that the Coucal couple were more than usually busy. We saw them flying back and forth all day long, carrying in their beak a strand of the creeper with the white flowers, twigs from the nearby neem tree, long blades of grass and other trailing vegetation. Some days later, having tracked their destination, we discovered that they had made a nest high up in the tangle of our bougainvillea. The nest was very large, and from ground level looked quite messy! Even though we only had a worm’s eye view of their new home; there it was, testimony to the well-coordinated effort of our faithful couple. We were honoured that they liked our garden enough to move on from cooing and courting to setting up home! We were not quite sure when Mrs Coucal decided to start her family in her new home. But we watched and waited eagerly, like anxious grandparents-to-be. We hoped that at least one or two eggs had successfully hatched. While we could not follow all that went on in the nest, we were reassured that the parents were assiduously flying back and forth, this time with morsels in their beaks. It was amazing to see how the couple worked relentlessly and in perfect tandem—getting food, keeping an eye on the nest and around, being alert and protective—all the while calling to each other, with gurgling chuckles and raucous croaks.

Then yesterday we heard a rustling in the dry flowers and leaves piled under the bougainvillea. A closer look revealed a tiny little cluster of black and brown feathers fluttering weakly in the undergrowth. The chick had not yet developed wings strong enough to make it back to the nest. We were very concerned, and felt quite helpless as the anxious parents hovered nearby. We prayed, and tried to see how it could be safe. When we did not see it late last evening, we hoped for the best.

Sadly this morning we saw the still little bundle of feathers. Nature had not meant it to grow into a handsome young Coucal, and to share our garden. Today, the Coucals do not call.


Swimming 101

Yes, I am a 101. What is more, I have been at 101 for well over 101 months! And after making close to 101 attempts!
I did try to learn swimming back in the day. If anyone recalls, those of us who did the 11 year ISC (Indian School Certificate), used to have a 7 month break between school and college. Our exams would get over by December, and we could join college only the next July. What a glorious break! While we did our best to do nothing (except read Mills and Boon from the nearby lending libraries), parents were hell bent on sending us here and there, to learn this and that. Not as wide and exotic (and expensive) a menu as today. The staples back in our time were typewriting (yes!!), swimming, a foreign language (usually French), classical music and dance (the last two especially for the Tams). Supplemented by usually-unsuccessful efforts to get us to learn basics of cooking.

Accordingly, I too was shunted to most of the above, including swimming. I showed no talent for physical activities and swimming was no exception. I caught myself a pretty bad infection in a week, and that was the end of that first foray.
I kind of gave up (or did not see a swimming pool) for close on 25 years. But about 15 years ago, when we moved into an apartment block with a pool, the desire to glide like a fish took over. Accordingly, we hunted up a coach and early morning classes started. But the water was cold and Day 4, when I turned my neck in a panic to breathe, it caught. The classes stopped the next day, but the pain persisted for a month!
Next summer, I decided to go to the school down the road which opened up its pool during the vacations for swim lessons. Being in the pool with 15 below-15s did nothing for my ego or my skill. That too ended without much progress.
The year after, using a host of contacts, was able to organize for lessons at the pool of a big club. Slipped and fell on the side. Bruised all limbs and was stiff for a week. End of lessons.
Then we moved to another city and another colony which had a club with a nice pool. Year 1, I did try sincerely and flapped in the water for a month in summer—it was a case of two strokes forward, one stroke back (pun unintended). But next year, there was a dispute between the club management and the residents, and the club closed for the rest of the time we live there.
Then, three years ago, we moved into our permanent home. For the first two years, I just walked around the pool in the society. It was too cold; or there were too many kids; or it was raining; or I was sure I was getting a cold.
Then a week ago, I met a friend on my evening walk. We got to talking of swimming.

‘I can kind of do the back stroke’.
‘Me too’.
‘I can do a few yards of freestyle, but after that, I can’t breathe.’
‘Me neither.’
‘I have tried attending classes many times but the coaches say they can’t teach me anything more. That I know the basics and it’s up to me to practice.’
‘Same here.’

‘Really wish I could swim’.
‘Me too.’
So both of us decided—literally—to take the plunge yesterday.
Dug out our suits (thank god I still fit). And our caps. And towels. And bags.
Landed up at the pool. Showered and were in.
Flapped around a bit. Did a breadth or two of backstroke. Swallowed a lot of water. Felt the chlorine sting our eyes. But did not go too far anywhere.
Got back home. Decided to turn to youtube for a few lessons. Realized I had forgotten to breathe out in the water when I was trying the freestyle.
Now fully charged up. Easy peasy—it looks in the video.
And I have been practicing all day (on land, I have to confess)—blow, blow, blow, breathe in; blow, blow, blow, breathe in.

Today, I shall do it! I shall graduate this time. I shall overcome. I shall glide like a fish.
Do not under-estimate a matriarch.
PS: If I don’t, I won’t be telling you about it!