Reading Word Pictures

I am re-reading Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’, set in Nazi Germany in World War II. It is about a girl who steals books and is fascinated by them, but cannot read too well.

Which got me thinking of the ASER (Annual State of Education Report) test results, which year after year show children in India are simply not reading at the required level. Reading is the most important pathway to learning, and if our children don’t read, they can’t learn.
Which then brought me to techniques for teaching reading more effectively.
Research avers that reading and learning improve if children visualize what they are reading. They not only are able to understand better, they are also able to relate better to the text. But it is not something all children will do automatically. Sometimes, they need to be encouraged and supported in doing this.

Continue reading “Reading Word Pictures”

Otherness and Sameness

When we were in school one of the most assigned topics for essay was Unity in Diversity. We prepared hard for this by finding out many examples from India to demonstrate this. We were proud of living in a country where people of such diversity could co-exist, and celebrated this diversity. We also sang with fervour a school song in Hindi that proclaimed that all people of Hind were one, even though there were many colours and features, attires and languages. Hind desh ke nivasi, sabhi jan ek hai, Rang, roop, vesh-bhasha chahe anek hai.

 My heart breaks today, day after day, to read about a country and a world where it is this very diversity that is broken into identity fragments that divide rather than unite; a world that is increasingly emphasising the ‘otherness’ to create chasms, rather than the ‘sameness’ that builds bridges.

This sentiment is beautifully expressed by Maria Popova:

“Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others.”

And then, this past month there was a ray of hope in the World Cup with the multi-ethnic compositions of many of the teams, and much was written about how the not-so-long ago ‘outsiders’ had become integral parts of National teams. This was best demonstrated by the multicultural French team that lifted the Cup…where the Otherness was transcended by the Sameness.

“You gave me blue and I gave you yellow

Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater than the difference.” (Alberto Rios)

Yes it can happen, and yes there is hope, even in these strange and uncertain times, as Barack Obama said in his centennial memorial lecture to Nelson Mandela, and reminding us of his words: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”



Well Spun!

Ponduru, a village in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, arguably produces the best khadi in India. Well at least Gandhiji thought so. He was highly impressed with the fineness of the khadi produced here and preferred it to other khadis. The best dressed (khadi-mode) contemporary politicians even today get their saris, dhotis and shirt material from here.

Ponduru khadi is hand-carded, hand spun and hand woven—truly khadi in letter and spirit.

What makes it special? Well, more than one factor, it seems. For one, the raw material itself is of a special quality—it is made from special varieties of hill cotton and red cotton which are grown in Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts. For another, Ponduru khadi is very smooth, especially the higher count variety. This is because the jawbone of the Valunga fish found in Srikalkulam is used to comb the cotton  fibers to separate them from the seeds, and the process lends a soft sheen  to the cotton.


There was a time when every home in this village had a loom. But like in most of India, the number of khadi workers in Ponduru is falling. The low remuneration is of course a major reason. Those involved in the sector do not want their children to follow them—they would much rather they got a ‘professional’ degree and got a ‘secure’ job.

Fortunately, there are some efforts to improve the situation, including dedicated NGOs working in the sector. Chitrika is one such which has been working closely with the Ponduru khadi sector for over a decade now. They are helping the workers organize themselves into Producer Cooperatives, find newer markets, and improve their capacities. New and innovative designs are being brought in. All this is enhancing the incomes of the weavers, almost doubling them in the last decade.

But without a pull from the market, no government subsidies or NGO efforts are going to lead to sustainable results. An eminent Gandhian once mentioned that if every Indian bought one khadi garment a year, the sector would thrive and all our khadi workers would be able to earn decent incomes.

A small thing to ask! And this is in our hands.

So this piece today is a call to action. We are about a month away from Independence Day. Go out and buy some khadi! It is a practical and easy ‘good deed’ for 15 August!

Buy khadi, and specially buy Ponduru khadi, best of all khadis!






Up My Wall

Of course house lizards must climb my walls in summer. They must eat up the nameless insects and the mosquitoes and the what-nots. I don’t love them, though I respect their role. And the translucent babies are amazingly cute.

Moths must rest on the walls of my room occasionally. Grey, brown, black, white, small, big. Love all of them. Also spiders.

I have found a slug or two climb the outside-wall. Don’t mind too much, though they do leave a yucky trail.

But the one that really stunned me was a tree frog up my bedroom wall, next to a portrait of my mother! The wall of my first floor room, on the side with no window. How did it even get up there? Climb a tree, jump through the open window, hop across the whole room and then climb the opposite wall? Wow!


Ten minutes of full-on excitement. Lots of jumping around ( frog, Raghu and me, with the frog winning on agility and grace— hands down, or is it feet down??); screeching (mainly me, not at all the frog);  some sleight of hand with newspapers and a bucket. And we managed to get the frog out safely.

Oh, how boring  life would be without things that climb my walls!





Talk Time

All through school and college, one of the best parts was the ‘night-spend’ (before it was called ‘sleep-over’!) at a friend’s place. The high point of this was staying awake till very late, sometimes even till dawn, simply nattering the hours away. Though well past our school and college days, for myself and my friends, this continues to be so, even today!

We never seemed to run out of conversation. Conversation was comfort, it was catharsis, it was heart-to-heart and tête-à-tête, and more. Conversation was face-to-face communication.

It was not just with friends–face-to-face communication was a way of life. Families caught up with doings and happenings/news over daily meals, and at family get-togethers; colleagues exchanged views over a cup of tea; housewives met at the corner for a chinwag to exchange neighbourhood gossip, and senior citizens bemoaned the state of the world as they took their constitutional in the park. We communicated daily with the shopkeepers, the domestic help, the essential service providers like the milkman, the presswalla, the newspaper supplier, and the auto drivers.

Today we are told that the world is “connected” like never before. We are in constant communication, as it were…Through the press of a button we can order our groceries and daily requirements; we can book tickets for movies or order in food; we can upload pictures of our latest travels; we can stream live the family wedding from the exotic destination; we can open our hearts to the BFF through Twitter and Instagram…and we can even text our children in their bedroom to say that dinner is ready!

The world is “connected” 24/7. Time saving, effort saving, technological marvels we say.  But somewhere in all this, have we not lost something precious? Something that is a basic human need–Face-to-face communication, an ancient and abiding human gift? Are we losing a vital connection?

“When you speak a word to a listener, the speaking is an act. …Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. …And it is a mutual act: the listener’s listening enables the speaker’s speaking. It is a shared event, intersubjective: the listener and speaker entrain with each other.  …When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.” (Ursula K. Le Guin in a piece titled Telling Is Listening.)

Perhaps the next time, before we sign up for “Unlimited Talk Time” offers, let us see if we can make real Time for Talk.


Keeping Tradition Alive

July is here. And along with it, the festival season. Pujas—a time for festivities, fun, enjoyment with the family. A time to get back in touch with our traditions. A time of solemnity and also gaiety.



But also today, a time for stress! Who knows what the auspicious grass for Ganesh Chaturthi is? Or the prasadam to be made for Thiruvadarai? What is the rangoli to make for Rathasapthami?

And how to answer questions from the kids? Why is Naga Panchami celebrated? Who is Ekadashi? Why do we make sundal for Navaratri?

“Follow the Hindu Moon: A Guide to the Festivals of South India’, by Soumya Aravind Sitaraman, will answer all these questions and more. Brought out by Random House about 10 years ago, this magnum opus is in two volumes, totaling to over 800 pages. But don’t be put off by the weight and the bulk. The publication is erudite and comprehensive, but extremely easy to read and refer to. The text presentation is clearly organized and simple.

What really brings the book to life are the more than 400 colour plates. Beautiful, un-posed, real—they bring alive the beauty of our traditions. Whether it is the decoration of Varalakshmi or the photographs of the delicacies made for different pujas, you wish you could be there in the photo, living that moment. The photographer is Usha Kris, Soumya’s mother!

Volume 1 is called  ‘Celebrate’. It covers: “Puja Basics’—everything from aartis to vastram; ‘Embracing the Almighty’—a guide to pujas;   ‘ Getting organized’—pooja checklists to annual festival planner; and ‘Celebrate’—detailed walkthroughs for every festival of South India, including procedures, observances, rituals, sankalpams, stories, etc.

Volume 2 called ‘Understand’ has sections on everything from ‘Reading the Panchanga’ to shlokams, to naivedya recipes, and festival-specific rangoli designs.

The books work at several levels: as a ‘Do-it-yourself’ guide for novices; as a reference book on details for experienced mamis; and as a fascinating browse for anyone.

At first look, Rs. 3500 seems a bit of an investment. But this book is bringing to you almost those many years of tradition!

So whether you are an experienced puja veteran, or a student in the US who wants to celebrate festivals the traditional way, or an ‘armchair cook’ like me, you are going to enjoy this book. So buy it for yourself. Or share the joy of a festival and gift it to a loved one!


129 Pages Open Up a World

‘The Buddha in the Attic’. What an innocuous book title. And such a pretty cover.

But the world it opened for me was neither innocuous or pretty.


A confession first. I am pretty ill-informed of historical migration to the US. I knew about Italians and Irish going. And other Europeans—like the Polish. But I never thought of Asian migration as significant. Hence the very moorings of the book were an education. ‘Oh, Japanese migrate to the US in numbers in the 1880s?’ was the question that struck me. I had to do some little surfing and reading to give myself a context.

Just a quick wiki-glimpse of the highlights of this for those of my readers who may not be familiar with the issue:


Coming back to the book, it traces the stories of ‘picture brides’ who came to the US from Japan. And therein lies the brilliance. It is not the story of one woman or family. The technique that Julie Otsuka uses is such that through a tiny 129-page book, I begin to understand the history of the whole Japanese community in the US in the pre-WWII period, and get powerful insights into what might have happened to a whole set of picture brides.

Read it to understand history from the perspective of immigrants; read it to understand history from the perspective of women; read it to understand xenophobia is not new and that history does repeat itself; to learn that the stories of some women are the stories of all women; to learn that the stories of one diaspora are the stories of all diaspora; to learn how so much can be conveyed with so few words.

Bottom line, READ IT!


P.S: Feel really ill-informed. I never knew about this book or Julie Otsuka till recently.

Needs, Wants and Luxuries

So the ultimate in luxury seems to be “Make Google Do It”! As the ads remind us your little Google Assistant will do it all for you—Play music, Cast videos, Control your lights, Get step-by-step cooking recipes, Stay updated with news and sports, and anything else that you shall wish for—Just Ask and your wish is its command. This is the new age Aladdin’s Lamp, no less!

Not so long ago, we still remember walking back and forth from the Black and White television set to change the channel (from the limited selection available). Then came the Remote! And its fallout—a generation of couch potatoes! And more recently, the Fitbit and Gym generation that needs to burn the calories collected courtesy the hard-working Bot!

It is the age of too much, an age of choices galore. For those who can afford it, the choice is no longer ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, but staying ahead of ‘Those who have Everything.’

But what are the choices being offered, and what are we choosing?

I am reminded of a simulation exercise that we often did as environmental educators. We would ask participants to imagine that they have to leave their home due to a sudden disaster in the area. Before they leave they have time to take just 20 things that they can carry with them. They are not allowed to take money. They do not know where they are going, when they will reach, and if and when they will be able to return. They must make a list of these 20 things. Once they had done this, they were told that the truck that was carrying them is overloaded, and they have to drop 5 of the 20 things they were carrying. What would they choose to leave? Once they have done this, they were further told that the truck has broken down and they will have to walk. Which 5 of the 15 items will they discard? Now the list has 10 items. As they go ahead they are stopped by a gang of dacoits who demand five items from the ones they are carrying. Which ones will they give, and which ones will they keep? Now they are left with 5 items.

At the end we would review each one’s list, and think about the choices each one made, and the reasons for these. We would, perhaps for the first time, review our own belongings from the perspective of Needs–those that were essential for survival; Wants–those that were desirable but not indispensable, and those that were things we owned because we could afford to—Luxuries.

This is not simply an abstract exercise;  in news reports every day we see heart-rending  scenes of millions of refugees—ousted from their countries and homes by natural calamities, political upheavals, social and cultural persecution. People with nothing to their name. People for whom simple survival is a luxury.

For those of us fortunate enough to have choices, and the luxury of more than we need, it may be worth sparing some thought to our personal List of 20-5-5-5. How much do we really need?

“He who knows he has enough is rich.” (From the Tao Te Ching an ancient Chinese philosophical poetry.)


Justifications Believers Could Give

In the old days, it seems from all reports,

That Gods of all faiths performed many, many miracles


THEY would save believers from the jaws of death

THEY would heal lepers and give sight to the blind

THEY would grant riches and victory to the righteous

And take the time to wipe the tears of widows and orphans


But it seems THEY are slipping up badly these days

I can see no miracles around me

In fact, THEY are performing ‘Below Expectation’ (a term from my appraisal process!)

Even in their core function

Which is to reward the good and punish the bad


Well, when you think about it

I can find some excuses for THEM

How do you expect THEM to cope

With the kind of rise in population

The world has seen from the good old days?

So many billions of souls

Calling out to them for

Miracles big and small


Agreed THEY are Gods

But even THEY, surely

Must be stressed and over-worked

Poverty, hunger, AIDS

Terrorist attacks, the War on Terror

Nuclear proliferation

Stock market booms and busts

Dictators and trolls

Floods, droughts, tsunamis

Child trafficking, porn sites

Violence against women


In between sorting out all this

Do you seriously expect THEM

To make the time

For a personal miracle for you?


Get real!




A Special Week

Last week was special for the Matriarchs. A week of reunions and catching-ups. Meeting old friends in new places. A week to celebrate friendship, and be grateful for good times, and even bad times, savoured and shared.

Sharing some thoughts that capture the spirit.

“We trust our friends to tell us what we need to know, and to shield us from what we don’t need to discover, and to have the wisdom to know the difference. Real friends offer both hard truths and soft landings, and realise that sometimes it is more important to be nice than to be honest. That too is knowledge that comes only with age…. In other words friends are what we have in addition to, or in lieu of therapists.”                Anna Quindlen

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Source: Google