Friday, March 28, 2014

Ananth Narayanan

29-year old Ananth Narayanan was introduced to me through his piece of art: a zero-carbon-footprint notebook of handmade paper made of dry leaves, printed with soy-based ink. “It took me two years to do the R&D for this!” Ananth said talking about this excellent mill-quality brown paper carefully developed in a way that ink does not blot on it. 

I was at the Ekta Parishad Theatre Festival and Workshop in Madurai, where he had done all the designing and decoration at the venue. Very creative coconut-shell masks hanging from the tree, lanterns hanging over the amphitheatre, ethnic design of the brochure and more. He was also the official photographer (photo-documenter) of the event, walking around with his camera and occasionally catching a conversation with someone. “Since you are into homeschooling, you might find Ananth's film ‘The Black Board Syndrome’ interesting” someone told me. “It’s about how schooling damages our children today” added Ananth. You can watch it here.

S: First tell me about your own schooling!

A: I went to the most posh school in Madurai but spent a lot of time reading in my school library. In one of my 8th final exams, I had enough time to answer only one 10-mark question the entire time. They failed me and I had to repeat my 8th standard final exams, I had std.

S: You mean you answered one question for the entire duration of the examination? They failed you for attempting to write a thesis iIn your 8th std!

A: Something like that. That was when I decided that I’ll give my school just what they wanted, never worked too hard and learnt the art of “just getting by with the least effort”. I realised that that was all that my school deserved. So, I was always an average or below-average student. I scored 703/1200 in my 12th std final exam.    

S: So you stayed on in school but actually walked out of the system in your 8th std! That must have taken a lot of clarity of purpose and courage! What about college then?

A: I really enjoyed my undergraduation (B.Sc Comp. Science). I did my final year project for three whole years. I bunked most of my classes and spent all of my time attending various inter-collegiate competitions and projects. The deal I struck with my department HoD was that with every trophy I got for my college / department, I would be given so much attendance. What was very attractive for me in my college was the library. I decided to stay on in college just to be able to access that!

S: That’s a very creative way of walking out of the system and still retaining access to resources that you valued for your own learning and growth! In a way, you managed to not let schooling really damage you from early on. Bravo! I didn’t have that clarity at that age. In spite of finding my text books and lessons boring, I used to study very hard in order to score high marks to please my teachers and parents, which I did! I now wonder what I’d have done with my time and energy had I had your clarity and courage! Did you study further?

A: Yes. I studied product & industrial design at NID, Ahmedabad. And Mass Communication in Amrita University. I worked in CNN-IBN and NDTV for about a year and got to see closely, how news was “manufactured” by these news agencies. I could not stay on in these jobs for long.

S: I heard you are also into organic farming. How did you get into that?

A: I am an avid trekker. In one of my trekking routes in Madurai, I saw a village that had been completely abandoned by the inhabitants. I investigated and learnt the real story. A sugar mill in the village had polluted the ground water and rendered the land and the ground water useless! This forced the people to abandon farming and move out of the village. I got interested in restoring agriculture without the use of harmful chemicals. I went to Vaanagam and stayed and learned with Nammalwar Iyya, even until one week before he passed away. Now, I am collaborating with a friend to farm on her land.

S: Could you tell me about the handmade paper you make?

A: This paper is made entirely from dried brown leaves from an adivasi village forest. I am working on ten different industrial product designs through this company. I believe in my technologies being ‘Open Source’ and being freely accessible to everyone.

S: Your paper must be in great demand now!

A: Yes, it is. But I also don’t want to blindly expand capacity. On the very day the project was written, I put it down on paper, how much leaf matter could be taken from the forest in a year. This is to protect the forest resources from being overexploited.

S: So, what is the name of the organization you do all this under?

A: I run a private limited company which now has 3 companies under its group. 1. Mellow design – a design studio that is into brand communication, signage and print design. 2. Green mill – a self-sustained organisation that undertakes in-operative farmlands and perform organic farming. Greenmill is also committed to environmental activities like tree plantation, wildlife conservation, establishment of organic seed banks, etc., 3. Chiselkraft - a Product and Industrial design studio – Innovates and prototypes breakthrough products for consumers and industrial assemblies, focuses on self-sustainable models.

S: Sounds hi-tech! Can you tell me about one of your successful prototypes?

A: Yeah sure. Though I personally don’t promote the use of either the car or the cell-
phone, I have been developing some applications for them! For example, we have successfully prototyped and developed a car intelligence system that interfaces directly to any engine (mfd. 1994 or later). The device comes with two units - one fits inside the bonnet, the other stays on the dashboard with a 7- 9" touch screen. It also has an optional event recorder. It allows you control the entire car using the touch interface/gestures. It can connect with any handheld device and improve the driving experience with safety monitoring and navigation system. If your car breaks down the system will identify and tell you what exactly went wrong, and possibly locate and call the nearest available troubleshooting facility. In case of accidents, it can automatically call and communicate to the car company, hospital, police and insurance company. The system has a lot of other features. Some car companies have shown interest in buying this product.

S: Is there something different you do in the running of your company?

A: We have a collaborative learning pool in the company where anyone can contribute and get involved in any of the projects that interests them. Generally, I offer mentoring to a group of students throughout the year on various subjects. And they get paid above the professionals pay scale. A few of my professors work in the same way that my students do, mostly getting involved in the ideation process, prototyping and planning.

S: What do you mean by "my students"? You teach somewhere?

A: I am a visiting professor at the DJ academy of Design in Coimbatore. I initially went to teach advanced photorealism in digital 3D modeling systems. Now, I do more subjects related to art - colour theory, liberal arts, digital arts.

S: I'd like to talk to you sometime about your understanding of and views about art, and how it is approached and practised today! But that can be for later! So what do your parents feel about your journey so far?

A: Difficult question! They’ve always wanted me to be like everyone else – scoring high marks in examinations, getting a well-paid job in the industry, etc. They don’t exactly understand what I’m trying to do with my life!

S: Thank you for the interview Ananth. It is very inspiring and energising to see young people like yourself follow your hearts and not be limited by the standards set by the family and society. I hope your story inspires many more to walk out 'creatively' and walk on. 

Ananth can be contacted at 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Quotes on Globalisation and Localisation

I recently had the privilege of participating in the 'Economics of Happiness' Conference at Bangalore (March 14-16). Here is a collection of some brilliant quotes by Charles Eisenstein, Kamila, Aseem Srivastava, Felix, Claude ALvares, Helene Norberg during a panel discussion. Each of them could actually be made into a compelling poster! 

Aseem Srivastava
* The only thing that economists economise on is happiness.

* ‘Scarcity is a fact of life’ is the biggest illusion.

* To produce scarcity out of abundance requires the genius of economists.

* The machinery of illusions needs to be dismantled.

* Development is the process of converting life into money. Progress is the process of adding technological razzamatazz to it.

* A serious social and cultural devastation must have preceded the act of someone asking their neighbour “Can I borrow an onion from you?”

* At a time when we are constantly invited and tempted to live in an economy, we need to ask ourselves “Do we want our children to live in an economy or society?”

* The market economy destroys what is real in order to replace it with something that is artificial. For instance, it had to break down society and create isolated individuals and then sell back “social networking” like facebook. And it makes money both ways!

Charles Eisenstein
* In order to destroy that which is sacred, the market economy labels it superstition.

* Our financial system sets up a ‘musical chair’ game and tempts us to fight for the limited chairs, always throwing someone out!

* The market economy forces us to purchase the feeling of belonging.

* Even capitalists don’t believe in capitalism anymore. The core is hollowing out.

* Those who call me ‘naïve and romantic’ do so from a space of deep grief and sorrow within. Every child is born into this world with the knowledge that the world can be more beautiful, and that she has a special and unique gift to offer to the world. When this knowledge is suppressed and betrayed over and over again, she retreats into cynicism as a way of escaping from being betrayed again!

* The market economy is based on wants, which actually come from unmet needs. A child who does not get real love and nurturance is offered coco-cola and told “To be happy, drink coco-cola. And drink it infinitely”.

Claude Alvares
* We have banned the local from ourselves. When parents discourage their children from speaking their native language, they are sowing the first seeds of cultural genocide.

* If you know who you really are, a unique person with a unique set of gifts to offer to the world, you won’t find the need to hide behind expensive branded jeans and shoes.

* The fact that the US military with all its weapons has been kicked out of every country it invaded, is proof for the fact that there is something much stronger than military power. This is a living sign of life, and our hope!

Helena Norberg
* Separating grandparents from grandchildren is the most efficient way to create unhappiness. Reconstituting inter-generational spaces is one of the most important tasks ahead of us.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Natural Learning - FAQs 4

If you don’t send her to school, then do you teach her everything at home?

‘I’ don’t teach her everything at home.
I don’t ‘teach’ her everything at home.
I don’t teach her everything at ‘home’

The word home-schooling does not reflect what we do since we neither stay at ‘home’ all the time, nor do any kind of ‘schooling’, which, to me, stands for a indoctrination of certain values, and a training in certain skills based on that value system. But we use the word for that is what most people are even vaguely familiar with. Life-education is a better word, since we learn as we live our lives, whatever the different living contexts and situations throw up, and this automatically ends up being relevant to her and our lives! Natural Learning is another word I use.

Isha learns from so many people she interacts with everyday in many different social contexts inside and outside home. When an electrician or carpenter comes home to fix something, she watches their work and asks a hundred questions. She knows to ask Rajeev’s grandmother about recipes or Malayalam stories. She sits by her grandfather’s side when he does his everyday puja. My father-in-law is a radiologist. She sits with him and has learnt to identify precisely which part of the body the x-ray image is of. She learns about vegetables and grains at reStore. When we sit in a circle with the restore staff for lunch, she learns how differently people cook the same vegetable. (The vegetable that gets left behind in the previous day’s bazaar gets distributed among everyone!) When we travel by the bus sitting by the window, she learns about the city and the lives of different kinds of people, especially street vendors. When we take the local train, she watches flower vendors with their baskets of loose flowers stringing them together. She learns about farming and farm animals when we visit village farms. She learns about different lifestyles as we visit different people’s homes (with and without TV, with and without househelp, organised and cluttered, etc.) She learns craft when she is with older kids exploring them. We go to dance recitals and temples. She watches older children playing musical instruments. When we go to my parents home, we spend evenings on the terrace watching groups of birds returning home, as the sky changes colour. She learns about plants and home remedies from our apartment watchman, who comes from a local village.

The list of who teaches her, what she learns and where, is actually endless!

Once when we were visiting a village, she saw a group of villagers sitting in the shade of a tree and discussing something. She kept hearing the word ‘Murungai Maram’ (Moringa tree) and asked me what they were talking about. I asked her to go find out for herself. She approached them and asked “What are you talking about?” They included her in their conversation about village beliefs about where it was auspicious or inauspicious to plant moringa tree and why. And interestingly, different people in that group had different interpretations and explanations for their beliefs, which were sometimes debated. She was quite fascinated by the whole experience!   

If you protect her so much from the harshness of the world, how will she be able to face it when she grows up?

First of all, when we let a four-year old to directly deal with the harsh world, they won’t learn to face it. They will get hurt. A hurt child, who does not have any tools to protect herself, is likely to build walls around herself, and get either aggressive, manipulative or withdraw. Being ‘aggressive and manipulative’ is what our society calls ‘facing’ the world. But they are in fact ways of ‘coping’ with the world.

In my understanding, the thing that children most need in their very early years is safety, both emotional and physical. I can’t imagine young children feeling safe when they are  shoved into a building with the gates closed behind them and separated from their parents and not allowed to do what they really want to be doing. And when they are spoken to rudely and feel their personal space violated in so many different ways, if they do not have someone that they trust to run to (for eight hours a day) where they feel loved and safe, then they begin to withdraw, be aggressive or to manipulate. When they are repeatedly told that they don’t have a choice about this matter, then they resign to the situation. Resignation comes out of a lot of frustration, anger and fear within. When we become resigned, we learn to ‘cope’ with the situation. So, what most of us call ‘facing’ is actually ‘coping’. We learn to falsely embrace the life-thwarting value system that our society is based on in order to merely survive. (How often have we heard people say “You need to learn to lie and cheat in order to survive in today’s world!”) We learn to play by the rules of the unfair game, and become dull and aggressive adults without experiencing any real authenticity or joy.

‘Facing’ the world needs a lot of courage. Facing the world means ‘expressively celebrating what is live-giving and positive’ and ‘boldly critiquing what is life-thwarting and negative’. And being prepared to own up to the consequences of both.  

When our children are immersed in a world that operated from a life-thwarting value system, they feel choked and slowly train themselves to embrace it in order to survive. It is the other extreme to isolate them from the harshness of the world in the pretext of protecting them. A third way, which I find meaningful, is to provide children a safe base, which is built on what I understand as a life-affirming value system, where they really thrive and experience authentic living. It is my hope that, staying rooted in this space, if they engage with the outside world, they can meaningfully face it, and become change-makers. So, let us meditate on the difference between facing & coping and immersion & engagement.

Related post: Secure Base: Confidence = God: Vulnerability

How will your child survive in the competitive world out there?

My daughter may not be able to survive in the competitive world out there. But I ask, why should she merely survive? I mean, why not ‘thrive’? Why should she participate in the competitive world and fight for seats in colleges and corporations? I mean, why not ‘create a different world, be an educator, a leader and an entrepreneur who creates meaningful professions and livelihoods for a new and more peaceful world?’ Even if she wants to pursue engineering or medicine, there is competition only if you want to join the work-force. If someone wants to offer something really unique and meaningful, then there isn't competition there! 

The question itself often gets asked from a space of fear ‘Oh, what if I don’t survive?’ It gets asked from a space of lack ‘Oh, what if I don’t get enough?’ This may be true when we are focused on engineering and medical colleges and corporations to join the work force. But if we look away from them, the world is brimming with so much abundance! As our climate changes, as we reach the ‘peak oil’ and as our economies crash, the world’s need for engineers, doctors and old-world teachers (indoctrinators) is going to decline. It’s demand for healers, lovers, artists, musicians, dancers, theatre artistes, conflict-resolvers, farmers, life-skill trainers, servant leaders and life-educators is going to go up. 

This is what really happened in Cuba, when it faced an artificial "peak oil" because of the US embargo, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. All of a sudden, the demand and respect for farmers, traditional-seed savers, organic farming experts, skill-trainers, renewable-energy experts, etc. skyrocketed. Engineers and doctors were forced to learn these skills as well, for their own survival. Watch Power of Community, a film that shows Cuba's story of overcoming its oil crisis, by fundamentally reorganising its way of life.

There are unlimited vacancies in the 'Department of Peace and Healing' - healing the soil, mind, bodies, societies and families, cleaning the air and water. Out of these are going to be born new professions, to enable a new way of living, in order to build a new world. Here are a few examples!

A friend of mine who chose to not pursue college was passionate about snakes. He is now a much-sought after snake-catcher and wild-life educator in Goa. Another friend who chose to walk out is a conflict-resolution facilitator and gets invited by many communities to help them resolve conflicts. Another one is in great demand for training in natural farming. Another one is a pranic healer. Another one is sought-after for his millet cooking training and anchoring. These are not laid-out paths. But that’s why we need path-makers and game-changers.

There is no competition out there for path-makers and pioneers. There are so many things out there that are waiting to be discovered, created and pursued.  I am hoping that children who are allowed to freely explore their lives and their world, with exposure to and opportunities to engage with the reality of our world (with all its violence and lack of innocence), will be better equipped to be path-makers, grounded in practicality. 

Competition in the outside world, then, becomes irrelevant to them!


Watch this video about what a 15-year old who quit school invented! and ask yourselves, who might be his competitor?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Schooling is 'Rewiring the brain'

There was a time in my life, (a whole year in fact) that I dedicated to becoming an environmental economist. It was the year 2000, a few years into my journey into ‘social change’. I was in Brandeis University in the US pursuing a masters degree in Sustainable International Development. I was attracted to the idea of changing the world from top down and aspired to get into the World Bank or the United Nations. I truly believed that human behaviour could be changed through incentives and disincentives, and that that was the only way to bring about any change in the world. The language of money was what people really understood, and I wanted to learn to speak that language really well.    

But I had no training in either Maths or Statistics beyond my class ten. Very bored with the idea of endlessly studying for exams, I chose a vocational group called ‘Garment Designing & Making’ and pursued my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts. Now, if I had to pursue economics at the masters level, I had to catch up on all the lost statistics, algebra, calculus, microeconomic and macroeconomic theories! And I did. For a whole year, I sat through undergraduate 101 (introductory) and intermediate courses in all these subjects. Since I loved and was good at logic, I loved my classes and assignments. A whole year of cramming numbers, graphs and variables, taking special assistance from professors, I aced almost all of them, and was well on my way coming up to speed.   

A favourite professor spent early morning hours teaching regression. I’d show up at 6 am in his room everyday walking in the dark through the deep snow with my boots on! I, along with a few other students, was assisting him on a research to figure out whether income levels of two Honduran indigenous communities affected wildlife there. 

Elasticity, supply-demand, marginal utility, opportunity cost, efficiency were concepts that began to slowly occupy my head.

During my time absorbing these concepts, from time to time, I had questions coming up from within. And I’d raise them in my classes. I asked one professor who taught a course on ‘The History of Economic Thought’, “Hasn’t Gandhi said something important about how to organise our economies?” He gave me a blank stare “Gandhi? Hmm…  I don’t think so! Well, may be, I don’t know. It does not concern us anyways.” I asked another professor after a private session in Microeconomics 101 “Henry, may I ask you a question that has been gnawing at me?” American professors are almost always very courteous and encouraging, especially when you have questions to ask. “All these graphs of supply-demand, elasticity, etc. give me the image of people as consumers without hearts or free-will to choose not to buy, or to make their buying decisions based on reasons other than price. These graphs make people look like puppets that can be moved around the ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes. Something does not feel right about it!” Not expecting a question like this from me at all, he said very honestly “I don’t know how to answer this one! Well, this is economics. Take it or leave it.” I asked the same professor "What do you think about Herman Daly's 'Limits to Growth' theory?" He wasn't even aware of it!

The reason for my writing about this is to talk about what I see, in hindsight, as a fundamental re-wiring of my brain! Very unconsciously, I was being trained to look at many things in my life in terms of their economic and financial costs and benefits. Through my training in ‘environmental economics’, I was unconsciously assigning a dollar value to trees, air, water, etc. even as I was walking through a forest. Sometimes extending it to my time, my life, my skills, etc. I was unconsciously evaluating my own life and pursuits based on their "economic efficiency" quotients. All this was happening in such an innocuous way that I wasn’t even aware of it. It was like I was acquiring a new pair of eyes to see the world with. From time to time, for brief moments, I’d experience a certain ‘weird feeling’ about becoming someone very unlike me. But I used to brush off the ‘weird feeling’ telling myself that it was some kind of a ‘growing pain’. I believed that I was shedding my ‘naivete’ for equipping myself to deal with the ‘real world’ out there. But from time to time, for brief moments, I’d doubt if I was actually trading my ‘innocence’ off for ‘my personal ambition’!

After my first year doing all of this (and more theory courses in Project Management – Planning & Implementation, Monitoring & Evaluation, where we got trained in everything from writing a proposal for projects worth millions of dollars, writing a report, “monitoring and evaluating projects” in the ‘third world countries’, etc. and more theory courses in ‘Poverty Eradication’), we had a choice in our second year. We could either do field work (internship with an NGO, do our own field research, etc.) or do advanced study (taking more courses) staying on in the university. While almost all my classmates chose to do the former, since I had to catch up on so much more economic theory and math, I chose the latter. With the help of my professor, I came up with a proposal for what I wanted to study in my second year, all of which was intermediate and advanced level-courses in economics, statistics and maths. After a lot of persuasion (since the administration discouraged students from taking up this option), I was given partial scholarship to remain and do more course work. There was an immediate sense of achievement and relief!

But something strange happened for three days after that. There was a churning in my stomach that something was not alright. I could not come to terms with the many unanswered questions I had over the course of the year. I was not at peace with the way I looked at myself and the world around me through the ‘modern economic’ lens. I could not articulate what I felt back then. It was just that: a very uncomfortable feeling inside.

I chose to stay with it and asked ‘Now what?’ The answer came to me. Over the next three days, I cancelled my proposal for advanced study, resubmitted another proposal that involved travel in India, booked my India ticket and raised funds through friends to travel in rural and tribal India to take a fresh look at everything. And for the next few months, I backpacked to about 40 different rural and adivasi villages, got to read Fukuoka’s ‘One Straw Revolution’, Kumarappa’s ‘Economy of Permanence’, Gandhi’s ‘Hind Swaraj’, Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ and Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’. All these books somehow came to me as though they were meant to. During my many bus and train rides, I read them and wrote pages and pages with questions and answers that I was grappling with during my five-month journey. My journey ended with an unexpected meeting with Shilpa Jain of Shikshantar, whose presentation about ‘Unschooling and Unlearning’ made a lot of the then-loosely-hanging pieces fall in place. That was when I understood the much deeper implications of ‘schooling’ – much deeper than “Our schooling system does not allow our children to be free. It does not allow our children’s individuality to flower” and such superficial arguments around freedom. 

When I stepped back and saw 'SCHOOLING AS RE-WIRING OUR BRAINS' I could begin to understand ‘freedom’ at a much deeper level. I understood that by allowing ourselves to be schooled, we were fundamentally losing our freedom to be intuitive, connected to the sacredness of life, to trust, to celebrate, to experience the joy of true communion with nature and community. Basically connection and communion with all of life. In other words, we give up our personal power to the mass madness / unconscious that is hell-bent upon rewiring our brains to serve its own advancement.

When I experienced a deep inner joy on seeing adivasi women make elaborately embroidered skirts and artistically woven brooms, I knew that the women weren't doing it because there was a rupee value attached to it but for
just for the sheer joy of creating them. They were weaving the songs of their souls into them. 

While I was studying economics, I happened to listen to a lecture on Globalisation in New York by Satish Kumar. All that he spoke about was how his grandmother used to do elaborate embroidery enjoying her days. He ended his talk by saying ‘To counter globalization, please slow down. Go home and bake your own bread!’ I couldn’t make much sense of what he said back then. During my travels just a year later, I could!

In another tribal village where I stayed, I saw the villagers herding and taking great care of cows in their village. My modern mind asked them 'How much milk do you get from these cows?' It was trying to calculate the effort put into maintaining the cows vis-a-vis the economic benefits. The villagers gave me a strange look and said 'Voh hamare saath rehte hain! Jab dhoodh dethe hai, tab ham thoda lete hain.' and explained how, as a community, they took milk from the cows only if and when they produced more than needed to feed their young ones. 

I felt so grateful for those three sleepless nights. And of course all the people and energies that made my journey possible, from then until now. And I’m glad that I never looked back at the modern economic theory ever since. It was one of the best big decisions that I made in my life!

Friday, December 27, 2013


Dear readers who are not on facebook, This post is a continuation of a dialogue that was started on facebook. If you would like more background to it, please write to me! Thanks!

Forms of elitism
Firstly to clarify, I am talking about economic elitism here. And since friends have talked about spiritual, intellectual, nutritional, emotional and other forms of elitism, let me explain why I see economic elitism as fundamentally different from all others. In our current capitalistic society, being an economic elite means that we figure in the top 10-30% of the population that controls 70-80% of the world's resources. So being an economic-elite today means that one has unbridled access to and control over resources, which becomes possible ONLY BY forcing the rest of the population to lose their control over these resources. To give you a very simple example, Britannia (a leading biscuit company in India) was able to grow only through planned and systematic destruction of numerous small local biscuit making enterprises (driving people to poverty), by the admission of a senior marketing manager of the company known to me. 

Manish Gupta has quoted so many apt examples to demonstrate this. “I live in an apartment with running water, decent electricity availability, both these resources come at a premium to me. These are diverted to me as I am willing to pay the price (high rent, cost of electricity, etc). Many non-elites do not have ready access to these, and at least partially the reason for this is my being extravagant with these resources. When I run an AC, it consumes enough electricity that could provide fans to several small houses. My long showers or washing machine eat up the cooking water of 'non elites'. When I drive a car in the morning rush traffic, it is eating up a 40 square feet or more of road space for one person, whereas 'non elites' take a fraction of that space in a bus or train, but have to go through delays of traffic and its inconvenience, because of many elites like me taking up the limited road space.”    

But all other forms of elitism are different. It may be true that currently only a small percentage of the world population is elite nutritionally, spiritually and so on. But their perceived elitism does not practically impede anyone else's ability to become elite. It, in fact, can catalyse the process of everyone being able to rise. And so, theoretically 100% of the population can be intellectually, nutritionally and spiritually elite, attaining the true goal of sarvodaya (Universal Uplift / Progress for all)

Since Sainath is one of the most adept at articulating issues around 'inequality', here are links to two news articles that have some statistics and imageries useful for our dialogue. Like Manish Gupta has said, I think elitism also has many degrees to it, with people making different levels of allowances for themselves. While this might be on one end of the spectrum, it gives us a good idea to see where in the spectrum we each are for our own personal knowledge!  

A hoarding for a gated community which promises private swimming pools near Pune, Maharashtra State.
A well surrounded by villagers for water in the same state of Maharashtra     

Equal opportunity?
Within a fundamentally unequal society i.e. economic order (since, these days, our societies are embedded in our economies!), we can say for the sake of argument that everybody has an equal opportunity to get to the top 10% and get access to resources by marginalizing others. But I am interested in a different kind of an ‘equal opportunity’. The kind where we say ‘Every single life form has equitable access to resources to satisfy their material needs in order to thrive!’ Sarvodaya! 

"The economically rich person has the same challenge as one who is economically challenged: how does she/he create a meaningful life?"
I would word it differently. “Some challenges are same for everyone, either economically rich or poor. The challenge around ‘how to create a meaningful life’ for instance.” If I were an adivasi (aborigine), when a mining company comes and sweet-talks me into giving up my ancestral land, employs police force to shoot my family members down to silence protest, and when I finally find refuge in a city slum, sends a bulldozer to raze my home down without notice to expand the road or whatever, I wouldn’t think that my challenges are the same as those of an economically rich person! 

Swadharma / Yugadharma or Personal Resolution / Social Responsibility 
Many of you have talked about how you personally resolve the fact that you are an elite. "I don't categorise my experience as elite...." "I don't relate to others through my elite lens..." In the spiritual life of an economic elite, it is of course absolutely essential to find peace in the moment with what is, treat everyone kindly, etc. This is the easy part of the answer. But it does not absolve us of our responsibility to finding the answer to the more difficult part of the question. It is one comment that says "I don't have to deal with my own elitism. Others do!" Now, what responsibility would we like to take for others experience of my elitism? Especially if our economic elitism comes at the cost of their mere survival?

If we connect to the idea of THE FLAME OF DISCONTENT, then the question becomes whether we are finding peace while stoking the fire or by putting it off. In our quest for peace, have we pegged the line of action around us, or do we have an unpegged line that is drifting. The latter requires a willingness to continuously question the world around, understand our relationship and interface with it and an ability to make peace with the answers we find, from one moment to the next. This is where we enter the arena of 'dharma' and 'dharmic action'. Interestingly, the word 'dharma' means 'that which holds together' or 'the universal law which holds all life together in unity'. In today's world where everything is falling apart and disintegrating - from our own health to the ozone layer to glaciers to forests to families to communities to wildlife, a world which is stricken with widespread adharma, a constructive and holistic dialogue about dharma becomes extremely important and urgent.

The fact that we are all making ourselves accountable to this question I posted shows that we are all people continuously striving to live with integrity and awareness. But our lives are being controlled by a system that has completely lost its integrity. The question is “Can we live a dharmic life, entrenched in a fundamentally adharmic society?” It is interestingly closely related to another post I made “Of what use is it to be a good citizen, live a life where all our undertakings are ‘legal’, if we are living in a country whose laws are framed and controlled by a completely wrong set of values?”

If swadharma is one's own chosen personal life path based on her understanding of her tendencies, assets, liabilities, duties, etc. and yugadharma is the dharma of our times (which depends on the kind of crises that the civilization is facing in that particular yuga / period of time), my personal understanding is that one needs to constantly strive to align swadharma with yugadharma. Here's an analogy of the human body. Though the swadharma of the brain is different from that of the kidney, they still need to align with the larger functioning of the human body in order to keep it together. If the larger system disintegrates, the organ becomes dead and irrelevant. The individual organ and the body are interdependent.

From my understanding and experience, there is always bound to be a conflict (dharma-sankata) between our swadharma and yugadharma, because we all operate from a certain level of personal desire, the basis of which is fear. But this is ok and is a part of a natural evolutionary process. Through spiritual practice, as we keep the fire stoked and practice awareness, the more we are free from our personal fears and desires, the more our swadharma and the yugadharma will converge. Since every action of ours has an impact on life around (on the world), dharmic action can be born only out of deep enquiry into and understanding of the yuga-adharma.

What is the root cause of all suffering in this world? In what and how many ways has it manifested? What physical systems and structures has the conflicted and fear-ridden mind created? How do we dismantle it to enable the flow of life? We need to sincerely enquire into what is action of punya (that which enables the flow of life) and what is apunya (that which obstructs the flow of life) of our times!

A wonderful analogy is that of large dams. The modern mind came up with the idea of blocking the flow of rivers through large concrete structures (dams) to exploit it. We have collectively paid a very heavy price for it! Now large dams are being decommissioned (i.e. removed through explosion) across the world to let the rivers flow again. In a mad race to ape the west and "develop", India is building more large dams. But that's another story. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

"What is 2+2+2+2+2?"

“Amma, what is 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2?” I hear Isha’s voice from the toilet as she’s getting her ‘big job’ done! I tell her “You tell me!” After a few seconds she says “10!” I ask her “How did you figure out?” and she responds “Just like that! It’s so easy!!” Every time she sits on the toilet seat, she looks down and stares at two rows of five while tiles in front of her, and this exact same conversation has happened at least 5-6 times so far. And from what I understand of how children learn, it is quite unlikely that she is figuring out the same thing each time. My guess is that she must be figuring out newer ways of counting five 2’s, or two 5s, i..e. her understanding of the numbers is growing more complex with each time, even though the conversation / her expression remains the same.

Actually, her answer is so profound in a way. That she learnt to add up 2, five times, “just like that”. She wasn’t told or didn’t know that she was learning her ‘2’ or ‘5’ tables or addition. She didn’t even know that she was doing ‘Maths’. I’m sure she didn’t even think that she was “learning” something! She must have simply been curious and found it fun to put them together and see what it came up to!

When Isha was just two, her great grandmother taught her this cute song that they used to sing as children.
Onnum onnum rendu, kai pidikkira chendu
Rendum rendum naalu, pasu karakkura paalu
Moonum moonum aaru, mookkula podura mookutthi
Naalum naalum ettu, netthiyil vekkara pottu
Anjum anjum patthu, kazhutthula podara mutthu
Aarum aarum pannandu, pottukkodi kondai
May be because of this song, Isha finds it so easy to tell that half of six is three, half of eight is four, and so on.

When parents ask me “So, you sit down with her and follow a curriculum to teach Maths?” I’m going to tell them what Isha tells me “No, she learns Maths “Just like that. It’s so simple!” J

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Our little scientists

This happened a few weeks ago. Isha picked up a PVC pipe and a few pairs of my ear-rings that were lying around. She placed the pipe sloping and kept dropping different ear-rings (some round, some long, some with hook, some with stem, some heavy, some light, some big, some small, sometimes singly, sometimes paired and so on) through the pipe and watching how they fell, and picking them up from the bottom. She kept altering the slope of the pipe from 90 degrees to almost zero and continued the same activity. I stopped what I was doing and observed her during the entire 30 minutes that she was at it, when she was oblivious of her environment including me (as I pretended to be doing my own thing.) 

When I saw that she was almost done, I asked her ‘Hi kannamma, what are you doing?’ She said ‘Come, I’ll teach you a game! I’ll hold the pipe, and you drop a pair of earrings with hooks at the top. If they both get hooked together when they come down, you get a point.’ I said ‘Ok!' and dropped them together once, and yes, they did get hooked together. She said 'One point! Do it again. Each person gets two chances.' The second time, they didn't get hooked together. She said 'One more point! So, you have two points now.' I said 'But, they didn't get hooked together!' She said 'It doesn't matter. You get a point every time you drop it.’ (I love how rules get made up and changed as the game goes along. :) And we played this win-win game for a while.


In the initial ten minutes of my watching the game, my schooled mind was trying to analyse and box her activity in many ways ‘Oh, she’s learning all about gradient, speed, motion, force, density, etc.’ I, then, caught myself right there in the middle of that process, as I remembered what my yoga sutras teacher had shared with us just a few weeks ago about the flickering light in the Kalahasti Temple. “Don’t stand there and analyse its engineering - where the wind is coming from, at what speed, etc. Just stand there and be lost in wonder at the mystery of the universe, and find yourself in that prayer!”

I have no idea what my little scientist was upto. But I know that it was something immensely meaningful and joyful to her. It is very unlikely that she approached / initiated it as a ‘learning activity’. She was just AT IT, clearly engrossed in her exploration, lost in time. As I sat there, unschooling my mind and healing through my scars of being told (as a child, mainly by teachers in school) and watching many children being told repeatedly 'Don't waste your time. Come study'.  


This blogpost is dedicated to my friend Jinan, who taught me how to let children be, observe them and learn from how they learn. You can read about him and his work in these sites.