Mr Kindness

Last week I wrote about Children’s Day. Earlier this month two other important international days passed almost unnoticed. 13 November which is designated as World Kindness Day, and November 16 which is marked as International Day for Tolerance and Peace.

For its fiftieth anniversary on 16 November 1995, UNESCO’s Member States adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. While this is a universal ideal and aspiration, it is at the level of the individual that the foundation of tolerance and respect is laid.

And this is what the World Kindness Day seeks to do–reinforce the understanding that compassion for others is what binds us all together. It is this that has the power to bridge the gap between people, communities and nations. This global day promotes the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and to the world.

The idea of this day was promoted by an international non-profit organisation called the World Kindness Movement which works to inspire individuals towards greater kindness to create a kinder world; and their guiding tenet: The world is full of kind people. If you can’t find one, be one.

Nothing, and no one, exemplifies the spirit and practice of all the three days better than the beloved Mr Rogers whose TV show celebrated kindness, and helped millions of children to develop empathy.

I came upon the inspiring story of Mr Rogers via Tom Hanks when I saw the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. After seeing Tom Hank’s version I wanted to know about the real Mr Rogers!

Fred McFeely Rogers grew up in America in the 1930s as a shy, somewhat awkward, and sometimes bullied child. After getting his first degree in music, he returned home for the vacation before he prepared to enter the seminary and study to become a priest. It was then that he saw television for the first time at his parent’s home. He was appalled to see the kind of programmes where as he said ‘people were throwing pies in each other’s faces.’ While he found this disgusting, he also saw the enormous potential that TV had for connection and enrichment. That eureka moment changed his life—and the lives of millions of Americans.

Fred Rogers went on to create a TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which first aired on 19 February 1968 and continued for over 30 years. The last episode of the 31 seasons was aired on 31 August 2001. Fred Rogers was the host of all 895 episodes, the composer of its more than 200 songs, and its puppeteer.

The set of simple hand puppets featuring 14 characters from his first show continued to be with the friendly Mr Rogers, clad in his trademark red cardigan and sneakers, for over 40 years. The puppets who inhabit the Neighbourhood of Make Believe, portray real-life feelings as they live and learn with the help of their neighbourhood human friends who represent a wide variety of interests and talents. The puppets and the humans live together, care about and learn from each other. As they often reminded viewers “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Mr Rogers was far from preachy. He did not shy away from difficult topics like bullying, divorce, and death; he talked honestly and openly about subjects that adults are hesitant to discuss with children, but that children wonder and worry about silently. He reassured children and adults that it was ok if there were some things that they could not understand. He addressed children’s fears and insecurities, and instilled a sense of faith and trust. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.

Although Fred Rogers later acquired graduate degrees in child development as well as divinity, he always consulted with his close associate and child psychologist Dr Margaret Mcfarland, to ensure that his scripts would authentically reflect the real concerns and feelings of children.

His show also offered children the tools to be lifelong learners—a sense of wonder, a curiosity about the world around us, the willingness to ask questions. “Did you know, when you wonder you are learning?”

The concept of neighbour and neighbourhood in the leitmotif of Mr Rogers’ life and work. “Neighbours are people who live close to each other. Neighbours look at each other, they talk to each other; they listen to each other. That’s how they get to know each other.” In his neighbourhood everyone was welcomed and valued, and the characters taught how to appreciate and respect others.

Mr Rogers’ ‘neighbourhood’ in a sense becomes the symbol of community; it extends beyond a residential address to embrace the city, the country, the continent, and ultimately the planet that we all inhabit. It metaphorically embraces the universe. And it reminds us of the dire need for, and the gentle power of sharing and compassion. “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbours—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

Today teaching and learning respect, tolerance, sharing, acceptance of differences, and celebration of diversity are highlighted in “values education” curricula. This is the kind of education proposed by UNESCO in its declaration of four pillars of education, i.e. learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.

Over 50 years ago Fred Rogers planted the seeds of basic human values in millions of children, who must themselves have grandchildren now! And for all this he offered only one mantra: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

–Mamata

Winter Is Coming….

Unlike the Starks, I don’t need to worry about endless nights and freezing cold; or White Walkers and scary creatures breaking through the Wall.

But I do have to worry about keeping my skin moisturized.

I am bewildered when I go into a shop these days, with the multiplicity of choices. When we were young, there was a default setting. It was cold cream—in fact, Ponds Cold Cream. It was used on face, on arms, legs or any other exposed parts of the body. For particularly recalcitrant dryness, there was Vaseline, also used on chapped lips. There was the weekly ‘oil bath’ in Tam households wherein til oil was mercilessness massaged into the skin till it saturated every pore, and then washed away with shikai powder or besan.

We were simple and naïve. We didn’t even know there were other types of creams and lotions and potions. There was one dream product though, that our hearts yearned for. But seldom did we get our hands on it. I am not sure why—was it very expensive? Or was it that it was a ‘frivolous’ beauty cream and not a ‘useful’ moisturizing cream? (I saw a recent article mentioning  Afghan Snow as a fairness cream, but I don’t have any memory of it being billed in those days as such). Whatever the reasons middle-class mothers of those days had, I do remember the longing of my young heart for Afghan Snow.

I am not sure if it is still available, but I do remember the light, sparkly, ethereal look of the cream. It came in a blue glass bottle and had a lovely gentle smell. It was the most exotic thing that we knew in terms of cosmetics.

Recently, trying to figure out a bit more about this, I unearthed the fascinating Atmanirbhar story behind this product.

Ebrahim Sultanali Patanwala, originally from Rajasthan, made his way to Mumbai in the early 20th century. He found work with a perfumer and quickly picked up the techniques of blending perfumes. Soon he branched out and set up as an entrepreneur. His first product was a hair oil called ’Otto Duniya’ which met with quite some success, enabling him to set up his own lab and offices.

Messrs. E.S.Patanwala was established in 1909. The company sold oils and perfumes—both those they made, and imported ones. He developed quite a clientele among the Britishers as well as Indian royalty. This did not content him and he took himself off to Europe to learn more. He knew little English, but his earnestness and desire to learn opened doors for him. He connected with Leon Givaudan of Switzerland, at that time the world’s biggest manufacturer of aromatic chemicals. With the training and mentorship he got in Europe, he developed the formula for what was to become one of India’s most popular cosmetics—a cream.

He came back to India and set up a factory in Byculla to make the cream itself, but imported the glass bottles from Germany and the labels from Japan. Around that time, King Zahir of Afghanistan was visiting India and wanted to meet some Indian entrepreneurs. Patanwala was one of them, and he presented the King a hamper of his products included the new, as-yet-unnamed cream. The King is supposed to have opened the bottle, been charmed by the look and perfume, and made the remark that it reminded him of the Snow of Afghanistan. The enterprising Patanwala immediately asked if he could name the cream as Afghan Snow, and the King agreed, and product was launched in 1919 (making it more than 100 years old!)

The product was extremely popular, but ran into some rough weather during the Swadeshi Movement. Because the bottle and labels looked (and were) imported, people thought it was an imported product and listed it as one of the items to be boycotted. Patanwala sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, telling him that the product was wholly indigenous and manufactured in Byculla. Mahatma Gandhi then wrote in his newspaper about Afghan Snow, saying that it was a mistake to boycott it, and that he was appreciative that such a good product was being made in India, and that he personally endorsed it.  

I yearn even more for the product now that I know the story! What I would not give for a dark blue glass bottle full of beautifully-perfumed, light frothy shiny white snow, promising to transport me into a fairy tale!

Even more, I yearn for biographies of these amazing people who broke so many barriers, who did so many pioneering things, and who made products whose name still evokes so many memories a hundred years down the road! How they succeeded and why they did or did not sustain.

–Meena

Mamitu and Emaye: Women Warriors

This year the term ‘frontline warriors’ has become deeply embedded in the vocabulary around the world.  As we show our respect and appreciation for these tenacious, dedicated health workers, here is a much older story of two remarkable women who saved and changed the lives of thousands of others. The story spans over 60 years, and starts from two different places.

It begins in 1959 when a young doctor couple in Australia, Reginald and Catherine Hamlin, saw an ad in The Lancet looking for gynaecologists in Ethiopia.  With the zeal to do something useful, the idealistic couple flew across the oceans and continents to land in a tiny airport in Addis Ababa. They had plans to stay for 3 years, but they never went back.

Among the many gynaecological and obstetrics cases that they treated, the most common and most horrendous was a childbearing injury known as obstetric fistula. The condition is caused when prolonged labour opens a hole in the birth canal, leaving many women incontinent. For Ethiopian women, the injury often led to their being rejected by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.

When the Drs. Hamlin arrived in Ethiopia, there was little or no treatment available for such patients anywhere in the country, causing of thousands of women to barely survive, with life-threatening and life-changing injuries. Poring through medical books, journals and drawings of operations by other experts, the young doctors developed innovative surgical techniques to repair the damage.

One day in 1963, a 16 year-old girl was brought to them from a distant village, carried for twelve hours through mountainous terrain, on a primitive stretcher made from eucalyptus branches, and then on a bus to Addis Ababa. She had been in labour for four days, and her baby had died. She was in excruciating pain, and close to dying.

Her name was Mamitu Gashe. She was illiterate and terrified. She had never left her village, nor seen white people before; in her delirium she thought that they were angels. The agony, and the trust of the girl immediately touched the hearts of the doctors. Her injuries were the worst they had handled. It took months of repairs and treatment to heal her ravaged body. By then the innocence and indomitable spirit of Mamitu had created a special bond between the patient and her saviours.

As she gradually started her road to recovery, the young girl did not know how to show her gratitude to her doctors. Even while she was still in hospital, she started helping with chores like sweeping and changing sheets. Then as she regained her strength and confidence, Mamitu started to greet and comfort new patients, remembering her own terror when she first came. She refused to go back to her husband and village, and declared that she would stay and help the doctors. They in turn treated her like a daughter. She started calling them Emaye (mother) and Abaye father).

Over the next ten years Mamitu worked shoulder to shoulder with the Hamlins, helping out in the operating theatre, and then assisting in their operations; initially sewing up at the end of the surgery but progressing to learn all the steps in an operation. She learned to operate on fistulas by placing her hands over the surgeon’s and tracing her intricate incisions as she worked to save the women. In 1987, at the age of 40, Mamitu began operating on her own. She still could not read nor write, or speak English, but she had the gift of dextrous fingers, and just the right touch. Under the training and guidance of the Hamlins, Mamitu went on to be recognised as one of the finest fistula surgeons in the world. In 1989 she won the Gold Medal for surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Emaye Catherine and Mamitu Source:https://hamlin.org.au/

In 1993 Reginald passed away, but Catherine continued with her life’s mission, with Mamitu by her side. In 1995 they built another new hospital, one of a series that had started with their first in 1975–Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Today an estimated 60,000 women have been treated, and cured, by the Hamlins’ hospital and clinics. 

Mamitu and her Emaye were inseparable companions for 57 years. In the later years, Mamitu became the caregiver of the one who once gave her a new life and purpose. The two were finally separated in March 2020, when Catherine Hamlin, passed away, aged 96. Seven months later, the still-grieving Mamitu has recently returned to the operating theatre. Now 74 years old Mamitu carries on her parents’ legacy, and continues to be a formidable frontline warrior.

–Mamata

Sankofa

A few days ago my niece asked if, in India, we had a concept or symbol similar to that of Sankofa. This was a new word for me, and as I love to do, I immediately wanted to find out more. What I discovered was beautiful and meaningful.

The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. The word Sankofa is derived from three words in the Akan language: San (return), Ko (go), Fa (look, seek and take). Translated literally it would mean ‘go back or return, and look’. In the Akan dialect this concept is expressed as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki which means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

This reflects the strong belief of the Akan that the past serves as a guide for planning the future. While the Akan believe that there must be forward movement and new learning as time passes, they caution that as the march ahead proceeds, it is the wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.

Sankofa bird

Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is depicted as a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward, or sometimes flying forward (to represent looking or moving ahead), with its head turned backwards (looking to the past). The Sankofa bird is always shown with an egg in its mouth, or as turning back to take an egg off its back. The egg represents the ‘gems’ or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based; it also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom. Thus, the bird graphically demonstrates the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.

The depiction of the bird as bending its neck with effort, to reach back for the abandoned but precious egg signifies the diligence and effort required to pay due reverence to the past, and give it its proper place in the current scheme of events.

Sankofa teaches us that in order to move forward we must go back to our roots. That does not mean that we remain in the past, but rather we use the lessons and wisdom from that knowledge, and use it to make the best of the present, and a better future. It is a way of looking to the past with the understanding that both the good and the bad have formed the present situation. The concept emphasises the value of learning not only from the good things, but also from the bad things and mistakes of the past so as not to repeat these in the future.

 Sankofa embodies the spirit and attitude of reverence for the past, reverence for one’s ancestors, reverence for one’s history, and reverence for one’s elders. All indigenous cultures across the world have traditionally acknowledged and revered their elders who are regarded as the fount of knowledge, based on experience and wisdom, who can help guide the way. Sadly, in this century there has been an increasing trend to shrug off their wisdom as ‘old wives tales’. Why go to the grandparents when Google Guru has all the answers you need? An interesting contemporary initiative reminds us of the value of this wisdom. 

In July 2007 Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday by forming a Council of Elders dedicated to finding new ways to resolve some of the world’s long-running crises, reduce conflict and despair, and foster peace. In his words “They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

The Elders were visualised as individuals who had “earned international trust” and “a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership”, but no longer held public office, and were independent of any national government or other vested interest.

The original Elders included India’s Ela Bhatt; Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general; Jimmy Carter, the former US president, and Desmond Tutu, the retired South African archbishop. Other members were former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, a children’s rights campaigner; former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen bank, the pioneering micro-credit institution.

A inspiring initiative and much-needed recognition of the need for collective wisdom of the past experience to guide the future of a world besieged with conflict, chaos, and confusion.

Sadly today, across the world, there is a dangerous trend of going back to the past, not so much to learn from it but to choose selectively from it in order to perpetuate what seems convenient to suit the political agenda or religious climate. Alternately there is also the inclination to erase all traces of the past, and build the future on a brand-new slate.

Sankofa is a gentle reminder that if even in our arrogance we overlook the gems from the past, when we come to our senses we should be humble enough to retrace our steps and make amends. As the popular saying goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

There is no shame in going back to our roots. That is Sankofa, simple yet profound.

Thank you Suparna, for introducing me to Sankofa.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Steve Jobs

–Mamata

Waiting for the Mahatma

This slim 1955 novel by R.K. Narayan is the best Gandhi Jayanti gift I could have given myself. It transported me to the days of the Independence struggle. The story itself is not really the crux of it, though it is a novel and there is a love story interwoven with the freedom movement.

So much time has passed since the time of the Mahatma that we cannot really fathom what it must have been to live in his time, to be inspired by him and be, even in the remotest way, a part of the freedom movement. And that is just what the book brought to me. That the most uneducated person in the remotest village in any corner of the country was somehow moved and fired by this figure called Gandhi. Whether the person fully understood what Gandhi stood for or what he wanted of them, still they were ready to believe in him, to dedicate themselves to his mission. In the tens of thousands they stood for hours in the sun for a glimpse of the Great Soul. In the thousands, they were ready to give up everything in life and go to jail for him. The book gives us a glimpse of the person behind the myth.

The incidents in the book obviously draw from many, many real happenings of those times. When I found the photograph of the Mahatma, children and fruits, it told me how authentic was the experience from which the book came. The book describes an incident when Gandhiji is taken to the house of the richest man in a town he is visiting, and all the elite are there, waiting for him to speak and to catch his attention. There are trays and trays piled with fruit. Not one of which he touches. Instead, he calls the children in the audience and distributes the fruit to them. While the adults are not thrilled, they still tolerate it. But they definitely are not happy when the Mahatma spots a little urchin in completely tattered clothes in the crowd, calls him up to the dais, seats him beside himself, plies him with fruit and has a full-fledged conversation.  And then decides to go and stay in the home of the urchin, who lives in the Cleaners’ Colony– the poorest, filthiest and unhealthiest part of town. In spite of the exhortations of all the bigwigs to stay in the house of the town’s wealthiest man where arrangements have been made, gently but uncompromisingly, Gandhi insists on going to the boy’s house, throwing the local elite and officials into a complete tizzy.

His uncompromising insistence on truth and ahimsa. His never sacrificing the means for the end. His belief in people, and at the same time, his being able to understand why they slip from the path. His interest in the minutest details of the lives of those around him. His prodigious correspondence—responding to each one of the letters he got. His sense of humour and unshakeable resolve. His sticking to his point without aggression. With this, he inspired a sub-continent and fought the mightiest empire of the time. With this he got us our freedom.

But we still make the Mahatma wait for us. Wait for us to live up to his ideals. Wait for us to be the nation he dreamt we would be.

How long will he have to wait?

–Meena

Gandhiji’s Wisdom on Education

As we approach Gandhi Jayanti with the New Education Policy (NEP) now a reality, it is an appropriate time to re-visit Gandhiji’s philosophy of education as encapsulated in his Nai Talim (New Education)—Basic Education for All.

The fundamental premise of Nai Talim is that basic education is a holistic process, where all aspects of the individual—intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual—are given opportunity for development.  The curriculum seeks to impart learning through hands-on skill-based work that prepares young people for the real world, rather than creating islands where education has nothing to do with the surrounding community. The centrality of skills aims to reinforce the dignity of labor, the value of self-sufficiency, and strengthen local culture. In this approach to education, craft-skill serves as the center of the holistic development of the student. Other skills such as literacy and mathematics are learned in the context of their craft, and subjects are taught in an interdisciplinary way and never separated from their practical application in the world.

Some other perspectives that under-pinned Gandhiji’s thinking on education were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

A national education conference held at Wardha on 22–23 October 1937 wherein Gandhiji shared his vision of education led to the setting up of two model schools at Wardha and nearby Segaon.  A few years ago, I was in Wardha and sadly, it did not seem that the school was doing too well, or that it was at the forefront of educational innovation. It would seem that it is not easy to implement the philosophy of Nai Talim in a way that is relevant to today’s world.

They say the NEP has some influences from Nai Talim. How far these elements are implementable or how seriously they will be implemented is yet to be seen. My feeling is that it will take very creative re-interpretation of the philosophy of Nai Talim, if we want the spirit of it to infuse our education system. And as of now, I am not aware of any exciting experiments in this direction.  

I often find myself returning to these two quotes from Gandhiji after discussions and debates on education. To me, they are the touchstone by which any educational initiative must be evaluated:

“By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man–body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education.’

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.’

 

–Meena

Look Around for the Butterflies!

September is observed as Butterfly Month in India. We have about 1400 species of butterflies–from the 190 mm wingspan Southern Birdwing, to the tiny Grass Jewel with a 15 mm wingspan. And we are yet to discover all the species there are—in the last few years, 77 species have been discovered in just the Matheran Hills near Mumbai.

Citizen-scientists who sight, record and report their findings are critical in any exercise of species monitoring. So here is a list of some popular guides to Indian butterflies which can get you started on your butterfly journey. Who knows, you may discover a new one, or help to expand the understanding of range or behavior! Good luck!

Common Rose Butterfly. Bangalore. August 2020. Photo credit V. Raghunathan
  1. Butterflies of India. Thomas Gay, Isaac Khemikar and JC Puneetha. WWF/Oxford University Press.
  2. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Peter Smetacek.
  3. Identification of Indian Butterflies. J.H. Evans. BNHS.
  4. Butterflies of the Indian Region. MA Wynter-Blyth. BNHS.
  5. Butterflies of India. Arun Pratap Singh. Om Books International.

There are several excellent region-specific guides too, including:

  1. Butterflies of the Western Ghats. H. Gaonkar.
  2. Butterflies of Peninsular India. K. Kunthe, G. Madhav.
  3. Butterflies of Sikkim. Meena Haribal. Nature Conservation Foundation.
  4. Butterflies of Delhi. Peter Smetack. Kalpavriksh.

(Unapologetically non-conforming to  APA or any other referencing  style!)

And a few tips to help butterflies along:

  1. Butterfly gardening is a great way to provide a hospitable environment. Butterflies need different plants for different stages of their life-cycles. So planting a garden with many different types of flowering plants (or having pots with different kinds of plants) is a good first step. On the whole, plants like hibiscus, shankpushpi, sunflower, chrysanthemum, marigold, mint etc. are among those preferred by butterflies.
  2. Wherever you live, see if you can have some small areas which are left wild, with local species of wild plants. This will help butterflies, as these are probably their preferred vegetation.
  3. Stop use of chemical pesticides in your garden. These can cause serious harm to the butterfly  at the various stages of its development.

–Meena

How Montessori Came to India

The year was 1911. A young man set up practice as a District Pleader in Vadhwan Camp, in the erstwhile princely state of Bhavnagar in Saurashtra. His practice was doing well, he was gaining a name and earning too, but his heart was not in the machinations of legal matters.

In 1913, he became a father to a son. The advent of the child Narendra triggered the life mission which would launch him into a new role. The man was Gijubhai Badheka and his mission was to bring about a revolution in the field of child development and education.

Indian education during that time was a curious mixture of the Macaulayism as practised by the English rulers and the traditional “spare the rod and spoil the child” tenet. Narendra’s parents saw the sorry state of the local schools and were apprehensive about the kind of education their son would get. Gijubhai yearned for something different for his child, but was not able to visualise what this could be. So he started reading whatever he could find about education and educators. He also started sharing his anxiety and dilemmas with his friends.

One of these was friends was Darbarshri Gopaldas Desai, who visited Vadhwan Camp often. He told Gijubhai “If you want to read literature about children’s education, and see a new kind of school, go to Vaso and meet Motibhai Amin”. This was when the door opened for him. Gijubhai went to Vaso, met Motibhai and saw his school. He came back with many books; among which was a book describing the Montessori Method of education. This was Gijubhai’s introduction to the thinking of Maria Montessori, and her writing.

The more he read, the more deeply he started thinking about children and child development, and about putting the theory to practice. He also started experimenting with young Narendra, and sharing his observations with his friends, as also the ideas of Montessori. As his desire to spend more time and energy into this new challenge grew, the further he drifted from his legal practice.

IMG_20200826_100613.jpg
Dakshinamurti Balmandir

That is where serendipity stepped in. In 1915, Gijubhai helped to frame the constitution of an educational institution in Bhavnagar called Dakshinamurti. Its founders were kindred spirits, all grappling with dilemmas about education, as well as reading the works of Montessori. This was the turning point. In 1916, at the age of 32, Gijubhai quit his legal practice, and joined Dakshinamurti, initially as Assistant Warden of the student’s hostel, and teaching in the High School. His direct interactions with students reinforced his conviction that if real change had to happen it was critical to start from early childhood. He put forth a proposal to the Board to start an experimental pre-school (Balmandir). His wish was granted and in 1920 the Dakshinamurti Balmandir started. This became Gijubhai’s karmabhoomi (the land where one works). And this is where he applied the Montessori philosophy and method, drawing upon the core beliefs and tenets about child development, while adapting the methods and techniques to suit the local realities.

In 1925 Gijubhai took on three major initiatives that created a revolution in the thinking and practice of children’s education across Gujarat.

He set up a formal Adhyapan Mandir to train young people in the philosophy and practice of pre-school education.

To spread the thinking and to attract larger interest in children’s education, the first Montessori Sammelan (Conference) was held at Dakshinamurti. It was chaired by Saraladevi Sarabhai, who had personal experience in using the Montessori system in educating her own children, and who had tremendous belief in this philosophy. The Sammelan concluded with the setting up of the Nutan Bal Shikshan Sangh, headed by Saraladevi Sarabhai to take the work ahead.

Gijubhai invited all citizens interested in the new children’s education approach to join. The enthusiastic support of these members helped spread the new wave not only across Gujarat, but also other parts of the country. The Sangh became a platform to carry this forward. It was proposed to publish a monthly Shikshan Patrika to give voice to the movement.

In 1926, the second Montessori Sammelan was held at Ahmedabad, presided by Gijubhai. Educationists came from all parts of India and carried back the Montessori message.

In the short period from 1920 when he embarked on his mission, till his death in 1939 at the age of 54 years Gijubhai not only pursued his passion for, and practice of his vision of pre-school education, but wrote prolifically for children, teachers and parents.

He combined the scientific perspective of an experimenter, the desire to do something new, the insight to draw out some light from the doldrums that the educational system was in, and faith. This was supported by the revelations from the writing of Madame Montessori.

Sadly the two great like-minded people never met in person. Madam Montessori first came to India in 1939, the year that Gijubhai passed away, at the invitation of Theosophical Society of India. She was then 69 years old. She made Adayar, Chennai her home and lived there along with her son, Mario till 1946.

By then seeds that her writing had sown had already taken root and spread, and Gijubhai was the gardener that nurtured the early shoots, and encouraged the branches to spread far and wide.

The Dakshinamurti Balmandir continues to function today, in its original building, one hundred years after it was first established.

It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel the pressure too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.

If we could say: “We are respectful and courteous in our dealings with children, we treat them as we would like to be treated ourselves” we should certainly have mastered a great educational principle and undoubtedly be setting an example for good education.

Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook (1914)

A teacher’s work is like flowing water. …If we do not understand those who have to be educated; do not think about what they like and what they do not, then our work and theirs will go in vain. The fulfilment of the work of education is not in teaching one or two subjects nor preparing for a certain class, or passing matric or BA. Real education lies in making humans aware about their own unending strengths. It is to reveal the secret of how to animate these and how to use them. To do this requires that the strengths are respected. Their individual development needs to be given first place. Rather than being taught, they need to be guided onto the path of self-knowledge. This is the work of education today.

Gijubhai Badheka  Note to Teachers circa 1920.

–Mamata

 

War and Peace

6 August 2020 marks 75 years since one of the most devastating events in the history of warfare took place. On this day, in 1945, an American bomber plane called Enola Gay dropped a 4000+ kilo uranium bomb named ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

It was as if the city was struck by a blinding flash; the bomb exploded, and a giant mushroom-shaped cloud rose to the sky. The blast flattened the city and killed nearly 100,000 people; tens of thousands were injured. Three days later, on 9 August, the Americans dropped another nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On 15 August 1945 World War II ended.

But for the survivors of the nuclear blasts the battles had just begun. Within a month of Little Boy hitting Hiroshima, radiation exposure is thought to have caused the deaths of at least 6,000 people who survived the blast. And the long-term effects of radiation exposure, physical and psychological, continued to reveal themselves for the next decades. There was a documented rise in cancer, especially, in leukaemia cases. In the years following the attacks, the survivors became known as the hibakusha (the explosion-affected people) and were subjected to widespread discrimination as it was believed that they were carriers of a contagious disease. And for years the ugly spectre of the after-effects kept raising itself.

Amidst all this, there were still some stories of hope and resilience. One of the classic stories that beautifully captures this is that of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. This is based on the life of a real little girl named Sadako who lived in Hiroshima from 1943 to 1955. Sadako Sasaki was a baby when the bomb devastated Hiroshima. Her grandmother died in the explosion. The story opens ten years later when Sadako is a lively girl who dreams of becoming a runner. One of the annual outings of Sadako and her family is on 6 August to what was called the Peace Park to commemorate those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1945, and to pray for peace and good luck.

Sadako loves her family, her friends and her school. One day as she is practicing for a big race, she feels dizzy. Quickly, and without any obvious causes, the dizziness and weakness continue to worsen. After some tests at the Red Cross Hospital, the doctors’ worst fears are confirmed: Sadako has leukemia, the dreaded “atom bomb disease”. The cheerful little girl’s world is turned upside down.

Sadako needs to stay on in hospital. One day, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko comes to visit her in hospital. Chizuko has brought with her some golden paper, and she folds this to make a crane. She tells Sadako: Don’t you remember that old story about the crane? It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again. She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one”.

This gives Sadako hope and cheer. She spends the next few weeks folding as many orizuru or paper cranes as she can, even as she is getting weaker and sicker. Soon everyone becomes a part of the project. 

Everyone saved paper for Sadako’s good luck cranes. Chizuko brought colored paper from the bamboo class. Father saved every scrap from the barbershop. Even Nurse Yasunaga gave Sadako the wrappings from packages of medicine. And Masahiro hung every one of the birds, as he had promised. Sometimes he strung many on one thread. The biggest cranes flew alone. 

Sadako channels all her fast depleting energy into painstakingly folding paper crane after paper crane, making a wish with the completion of each one, and determined to reach the magic number of 1000 paper cranes.   

She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside of her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.

 Against all odds, Sadako manages to complete 644 cranes before she slowly sinks into a peaceful death.

She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes. She never woke up.  

Sadako died on October 25, 1955. Her classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes, and all 1000 paper cranes were buried with her. Her classmates also collected her letters and journal and published them in a book. The book reached young people across Japan, and they all came to know the story of the courageous Sadako and her cranes.

Sadako’s classmates resolved to honour the memory of their friend in as many ways as possible. Their efforts sparked a children’s peace movement that swept through Japan, and then the world. This transformed the origami paper crane into an international symbol of peace. Their fundraising campaign led to the establishment of the Children’s Peace Monument in the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Here stands a statue of Sadako holding aloft a golden crane.

Today millions of paper cranes, reach here from all corners of the globe, symbolizing the universal value of peace and the preciousness of life. In Japan a popular tradition is to fold 1000 cranes and string these together, usually 25 strings of 40 cranes each, which are given as gifts called senbazuru which literally means, ‘one-thousand cranes’.

On 6 August every year, people still place folded paper cranes at Sadako’s statue, and reiterate the same wish that is engraved at the base of the statue:origami crane.jpg

This is our cry,

this is our prayer;

peace in the world. 

Today the long and complex history of the World War II is just that—history. But more than ever before, the unleashed peril of a nuclear explosion continues to keep the entire world on tenterhooks. Hiroshima is a reminder of the horrific legacy of nuclear warfare, but the Peace Memorial is a reminder that there can be another legacy—one of peace.

–Mamata

 

And Long Before E-Education, there was SITE…

In the education space, stakeholders in India ( at least private
schools and ’learning solution providers’) have moved to E-learning. An estimate is that overall, technology adoption has been accelerated by upto two decades,
thanks to COVID.

Two things stand out. We would not have done it, if we did not have to
do it! While online tutoring had caught on in a big way, educational
institutions were definitely not leveraging technology to the extent
it should have happened—till COVID. The other, more heartbreaking, is
that this is adding to the already stark inequity in educational
access. The point is not to deny access to some because it cannot be
universal. The point is rather to go on a mission to make it
universal!

In contrast—SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment)
undertaken by India in 1975, was a proactive effort to use technology
for education and development communication for the most-unreached.
Imagine 1975, when TVs were hardly seen even in urban households. Here
was an unimaginably bold initiative to take TV to 2400 of India’s most
backward villages in 6 states.

There were questions even apart from our technical ability to do this—was such an experiment necessary for a country at our level of poverty and problems? Surely, there were more pressing problems and more immediate use for the scarce resources? But the conviction of a team led by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, that technology-leapfrogging was critical to solve India’s development challenges,
ensured that the topmost decision makers saw the advantages and they
could make  it happen. (‘Technology-leapfrogging occurs when
decision-makers choose to adopt leading-edge technology, skipping one
or more technology generations’).

This was a NASA-ISRO partnership with the objective of using technology for the education of communities in the most deprived and unreached parts of the country . A NASA broadcasting satellite was used. In the first-ever Indo-US space collaboration, it was positioned over India for the
duration of the experiment (August 1, 1975 to July 1976). The
deeply-researched content on critical issues faced by the community,
from agriculture and health, to culture to short films promoting
scientific temper, the production was done mainly by All India Radio,
with social research and evaluation done by a special team from ISRO,
and with the involvement of experts from a range of the most
significant institutions of India-Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to NCERT. Apart from community programs, there was a rich variety of special educational programs for schools as also massive teacher training.

AA930C61-3377-476F-B4AC-6E6DE5EAB179The programs were broadcast for a few hours a day, and hundreds of
people would gather in the village community hall or wherever the
village had installed the TV. In villages which did not have
electricity, truck or car batteries were used to power the viewing.
People in remote Bihar were watching television while many in Delhi
had never seen one!

SITE was a resounding success in proving that technology had a huge
role to play in solving the real development challenges of the
country. It helped ISRO develop its capabilities in operational
satellite systems and contributed to a sound platform for the Indian
National Satellite System (INSAT). It helped us develop an
understanding of educational software programming, from social
research to production to evaluation. And it helped develop managerial
capacities. It was probably also the first time in India that a very
young group (mainly in their 20s) formed the core of the team taking
responsibility for such a complex task of national importance.

Well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called SITE ‘the
greatest communication experiment in history’.

So even as education (for some) moves online, here is a Hurrah for the vision of the
giants on whose shoulders we stand! Can that infuse us once again?

And a Hurrah from the Millennial Matriarchs for some of the amazing
people who were part of SITE, whom we have had a chance to interact
with—Prof. Yashpal, Kiran Karnik, BS Bhatia, Binod Agarwal,
Vishwanath, Mira Aghi—to name just a few. We are thankful to life for
giving us these opportunities.

–Meena