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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Now it's Facebook

An old boy sent me a very sardonic little Bangla essay mocking the ongoing Facebook mania, and my daughter has written her own blogpost around it. Do take a look...

Anybody remember orkut today? I wrote a post titled 'orkut, anyone?' years ago. The reader might visit that too, and then look up this link once again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Unwilling women

Now that my daughter can be treated as an almost full-grown woman (unlike lots of women in their 30s and 40s I know!), we have begun to have those long and deep conversations that I had been looking forward to for so many years. Only recently, for example, we were wondering together why, although I have quite a few female members of all ages here, she and my old friend Shilpi in the US seem to be the only two who read regularly and comment frequently (much of my daughter’s commentary I hear at home, obviously). Most others, it seems, never have anything to say, although I write on a very wide variety of subjects – of course, that doesn’t include fashion and cooking and gossip about celebs, but still. Several have communicated very eagerly but briefly, and then vanished out of sight without a word of explanation. Not that some males don’t also behave like that, but the proportion of females is vastly greater. What is it about me that turns them off? Some girls and women have told me privately that it’s unfair on my part to base judgments on the few women I know: my riposte is that, if they are honest, they will admit they are themselves always doing the same thing (because it is the natural thing to do: everybody has to make decisions in the real world primarily on the basis of personal experience), and besides, I have known far more girls and women personally and often pretty closely over long periods of time  than most people either male or female. The average male or female does not get to know more than fifty women well in a  whole lifetime…

In any case, I’d like to hear my readers’ opinions – including and especially women’s opinions, if you please – on this question. Why do so few females feel the urge to comment on my blogposts, even (if I may assume) that many of them actually read these? And if women don’t as a rule read my blog, why so?

Just don’t say it’s because I routinely discourage critical comments, because I don’t, as anyone who has been an attentive reader for a while ought to be aware of. I admit criticism, from males and females alike, often even if it is obvious that it is irrelevant, uninformed or somewhat foolish, just so long as the writer is not blatantly and unnecessarily offensive. There must be a more serious reason than that: maybe several. And I’d really like to know. On the very last post, for example, I had been expecting a lot of comments from women, seeing that I have heard so many complaints about the current crop of teachers from women who are mothers of schoolgoing children now. Not one has come in yet. If my readers don’t feel, like me, that this is very odd indeed, I should also like to know why.

And a reminder – for the umpteenth time – to the interested reader not to confine herself to the home page but click on the links to old posts, where she will find a lot more interesting stuff. Such as this one, and this. Just to show I can give attention, respect and praise to women where it is due: apposite, I think, in the context of the current post! Goes without saying I’d love to have more comments on those two earlier posts, too.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

If these be teachers...

I keep hearing from the parents of toddlers, youngsters my daughter’s age and many ex-students far older, finishing their master’s courses, even in very ‘prestigious’ places, how bad the new crop of teachers has become: all those in their late 20s and 30s, that is to say. And I recall that I used to say to so many pupils who attended my classes fifteen-twenty years ago: ‘What on earth is going to happen to this country when irresponsible and lazy dullards like you become teachers?’ That nightmare has now come true.

And no wonder. For a very long time three very nasty things have been happening. a) public examination standards fell through the floor, b) only the dregs generally took up teaching: those who had always been backbenchers in their own student lives, and lacked the energy and intelligence needed even to become BPO hacks or sales agents, and c) the best students routinely shied away from teaching – as they are still doing as a rule, despite the payscales having been revised quite sharply upwards – because teaching is supposedly hard, unglamorous, thankless work and ‘lacks status’ (apparently a glorified mechanic-turned-file-pusher, aka engineer at a steelworks or an MBBS on a government salary in a rural health centre or even an IT worker drawing Rs. 25K a month has more ‘status’, God help us!). As a result, all our teaching positions are being filled up by nitwits with bloated and brittle egos (I have heard despairing parents say, ‘aar kichhu toh pelo na, tai teacher-y tei dhukiye dilam…’). I know directly how little English and History and Economics the English and History and Economics teachers know – they are helpless without their notebooks, many skip classes regularly or spend whole classes in idle chatter or make the pupils merely read out from textbooks, mark homework and testpapers in the most hurried and shoddy way imaginable, most of them would fail miserably if they were forced to take an impromptu test themselves – and I hear the same thing about those who teach math or biology or physics from my students who are themselves good at those subjects. This, despite the fact that they have loads of degrees: one can easily guess how those degrees were obtained, how easy and meaningless it has become. On top of that they are by and large lazy and totally uncommitted – teaching to them is little more serious an occupation than selling paan and cigarettes (one of these creatures actually told me that it’s just ‘time-pass’ until he gets a ‘real’ job), and bribery plus sycophancy are all you apparently need both to get and hold on to teaching jobs. They naturally suffer from a huge sense of inferiority in class, so it comes as no surprise that all they can do is bully and shout down the more intelligent and curious of students, threaten them with all kinds of dire consequences if they don’t blindly toe the line, reward only shameless flatterers and witless crammers, take no responsibility for their pupils’ progress, and spend all their spare time thinking up excuses why they are not to be blamed for the whole system going to the dogs. Amartya Sen has been warning us for a long time about the pathetic state of our government schools in rural backwaters – if he did a survey of the most ‘elite’ schools and colleges in our metros, I don’t think he would survive the shock. Why do you think everywhere we private tutors are making hay?

I hear from quite a few ex-students that they are now teachers of one sort or the other – some at schools, some at colleges, some at BPO training centres and hotel management institutes – and all I can say inwardly is ‘My God, that idiot too?’ (I am reminded of a girl I called ‘daab’ in class, because even among very silly people she stood out prominently, and a few years down the line I heard she had become a teacher in one of the well-known plus-two level schools in this town. I leave you to draw your own conclusions…). Incidentally, the very few among them who are both learned and sincere repeatedly aver that before they started teaching they had no idea how much effort, serious concentration, dedication and constant self-correction it entails, how awfully challenging a vocation it is, how little time and energy it leaves you for anything else. So imagine the kind of teacher who is by choice a party animal or mall-hopper!  No wonder the one idea that scares their pants off is that their careers should be made to depend on student-evaluation alone. And yet I have maintained since my own days as a class representative in college that the only people competent to pass judgment on teachers are the students who actually learn or suffer at their hands…

I was chatting with a truly brilliant old boy the other day, someone on the verge of passing out from university, and he was telling me about a classmate who thinks Shah Rukh Khan is a ‘great actor’, Gandhi was a disgusting fool, and anyone who asks her why is stupid and rude: she just happens to think that way, she has a ‘right’ to her opinions, and of course it’s very old fashioned to say that one ought to base one’s opinions on knowledge and reason. It occurred to me that this girl was not only going to be a parent in just a few years’ time, but, armed with a good degree from a first-class university, quite possibly a teacher or even a college lecturer too. My God. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in imitation of the Naxalite era, students started hurling bombs at teachers once again: this time not driven by ideological hatred, but simply because they have had their fill of uncouth illiterates masquerading as teachers.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Thoughts for the new year

For quite a few years now I’ve been noticing that after a prolonged vacation (which means anything more than a week) I begin to itch quietly to go back home and get back into the regular round of daily tuitions by which I have been earning my bread for ages. I think it really has gotten into my blood now. It’s true that I often get tired and frustrated and temporarily bored with the routine, and sometimes very angry or unhappy indeed with my pupils for being dull, inattentive, forgetful, lazy and what have you, and sometimes even curse fate for having tied me to this grind lifelong, but who knows, Providence might really know better what is good for us than we ourselves do. We’ve noticed again and again too that when I am slightly ill, nothing makes me bounce back to full potential as a session in the classroom: no pill or pep talk from my family works half as well!

In any case, one cannot, after three decades, help becoming a creature of habit. When I used to tell some parents some time back that I was looking forward to retirement, and that I’d give it another ten or fifteen years at the most, some of them smiled and said, ‘You’d never be able to stop completely. People won’t let you. Besides, everyone needs some work to live by, even if it is no longer essential to make a living.’ Who knows but these people were prescient! Looking at many people who are very old and have been living utterly idle lives for decades and slowly growing ever more senile, I can only shudder. I don’t know how they have coped with being totally unoccupied and useless for so long, but I know this much for sure – just one year of it would drive me up the wall. I must keep working, just to stay sane and enjoy living as long as I am around: much better to die in harness relatively young (in one’s sixties, I mean) than to hang on to be a doddering old fool in his late eighties.

I also used to say I’ll work but I’ll change my vocation and try to do something I like much more, but these days even that makes me wonder. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. What else am I good at, what else would I rather do? Write, yes, if I do find a large and eager enough audience – which is unlikely – or teach, perhaps younger people, needier people, if that brings greater satisfaction, a greater sense of giving back. But these days I can’t think of much else that I’d rather do, besides raising grandchildren, that is.

Life has been good to me, on the whole. It comes home to me with greater force with every passing year, watching people my age, younger and older so hassled and so frustrated all the time – even if they hold high office and earn large incomes and can boast of great honours. To have such a combination of decent earning and good health and peaceful family and leisure and freedom is not given to many of us, especially in this day and age. I am writing this down because I want to come back to it again and again when I am feeling blue: I do have much to be thankful for, things could have been much, much worse, and few other lifestyles could have given me so much overall satisfaction, even if I had been earning ten times more, and seen myself mentioned regularly in the papers. It is from an infinitely deep well of wisdom that the Lord’s prayer says ‘Thy will be done’ rather than mine – how little we know until we are very old what we really want, what would really make us happy. I started teaching almost by accident when I was barely out of boyhood, and I have taught so long and so many people and so many different things, and though I’d have gladly done a lot of things differently if circumstances had permitted me (trying to make teaching more interesting both for me and my pupils) I cannot now imagine that I could have ever wanted to do anything else. And to think that I had once fantasized about becoming a neurosurgeon, or a pilot, or a business tycoon or even a statesman…

It’s been a truly bemusing transition, from a very young teacher to an ageing one. Kids may come and kids may go, but I go on forever! At least, what I mean is that my ex-students grow old, but those I constantly deal with are perpetually fresh and lively 14 to 18 – while so many of my ex-es have become dowdy, frustrated, dull and common enough to embarrass me. My one grouch is that when I refer to myself (as I often do these days) in class as the boring old man, many of the kids, both boys and girls, loudly protest that I am neither so old nor boring, which is, I admit, a mild salve to the ego, but they do precious little beyond that, either the girls or the boys, to prove that they really are interested in me as a human being as they used to do twenty years ago (as distinct from a note-churner whom they pay a fee just to pass examinations). One could imagine, in this era of cheap telephones and email, that some few would try to build relationships privately, even if they were too shy to take the plunge in the classroom. It’s hardly very sensible to think that I’d seduce every girl who tried that, and turn every boy into a terrorist or a drug addict – as some silly mothers in my town used to fear once upon a time!

How little we as parents and teachers know what makes a good life when we so pedantically and enthusiastically lecture the children in our charge how they should order their lives to achieve ‘success’! I hope my daughter (and maybe her children) may learn from this, rather than other so-called teachers and friends’ parents, that we elders know too little and sermonize too much – most probably to cover up our own shameful shortcomings and failures! – and that beyond a certain age they are really on their own, and they must follow their hearts, and then accept and gradually grow used to and even start loving what life has given them… if there is any happiness to be found in this world, that’s the only way you can find it.