Sunday, 13 December 2015

Are we doing enough to promote the habit of reading in students of senior grades in schools?

When a librarian shared statistical data  with about the number of books issued grade wise, I was understandably dismayed by what I saw! The greatest number of books were issued by students belonging to the grades One to fourth, and the least number of books were issued by students of grades eleventh and twelfth over a period of time! What I could see was a distinct trend with a graph steadily declining as it reached grade eleven and twelve, although there was a distinct spike upwards in grade ten!
A few questions that came to mind regarding this trend included:
1.Does this trend of a decrease in the number of books issued by grade eleven and twelve students indicate a decreased interest in reading?
2.Is the trend of borrowing a large number of books at the primary level the result of teacher intervention? Is it artificially induced or are the students already into books?
3. Can anything be done to maintain the trend throughout the grades till grade twelve?
I could also see that throughout a range of upcoming schools that senior grade students were never given or allotted a Library Period, unlike students studying in lower grades. It is clearly visible that not allotting a library period for students of grades eleven and twelve within their weekly schedule of studies is a major drawback in the promotion of reading as a healthy habit throughout grade levels.
A plea to educationists and policy makers in the country is to consciously promote the active reading of books and journals throughout grade levels even till the final grades in school. One argument in favour of promoting the habit of reading because reading helps expand the students’ perspectives, enrich their minds with ideas, and help increase their vocabulary. One of disturbing trends I have observed in students of grades eleventh and twelfth in all the streams, Humanities, Commerce, and Science was how poorly they performed in Comprehension tasks. Their inability to  perform well in Comprehension tasks was because they did not know how to tackle the task. They generally read the questions first and then try to lift the answers from the passage as the answer. This is a strategy that works well with questions that are factual but not well with questions that are based on reasoning, analysis and even interpolation! If students don’t know how to read at the senior grade levels, then is it not high time we taught them to read effectively? But then how do you teach student different reading skills unless you actually expose them to a wide range of books of different genres? True, students can access a large number of free e-text on the internet, but then you would need to carry your own device to access the internet, and BYOD is yet to be introduced in schools.  Another issue with reading on the internet is that it promotes majorly the limited reading skills, perhaps skimming, or scanning but certainly not in depth reading, or reading for the big idea. Also there are limited possibilities for doing annotations, or taking down detailed notes from an e-text.
But then, before I stray further, I would like to turn back to the first question mentioned initially. I don’t believe that the decrease in the number of books issued by students of grade eleven and twelve indicates a decreased interest in reading in students of senior grades. It is difficult to imagine that the students who had a voracious habit for reading would suddenly shun them in the senior grades because they had suddenly started hating the habit of reading. As far as the second question is concerned, I very strongly believe that the habit of reading books and the interest in books is strongly driven by the teachers in lower grades. What needs to be researched further is whether there might not be a correlation between the reduction in the number of books borrowed at the senior grade levels with lack of teacher interest in reading. Here I would like to affirm that I have seen  teachers of lower grade levels accompanying students to the the library, helping them in choosing the books they should read, and even organising active reading sessions. Turning to the third question, I strongly believe that a lot can be done to maintain the reading habit in senior grades. First and foremost, a library period should be set aside for all students. Secondly students should be encouraged to do active research on different topics in different topics not only from the internet, but also from actual books found in the book. They can practice active note making in the library by consulting Reference Books which are not issued. Promoting the habit of reading for information should be encouraged not just by the language teachers, but also teachers of other subjects! But then the first step would be to add at least one library period in the timetable of students of senior grades. While teachers might accompany the students initially, this can be stopped gradually as students learn to navigate through the shelves. Reading session based on themes could however be conducted by the language teachers. 
Popular English newspapers in India very often carry articles that suggest that traditional books are still popular in spite of the entry of the Electronic version. These newspapers also suggest that the reading habit still exists! According to one blurb appearing in the Brunch Supplement “Indulge” of the Hindustan times today, the 13th December, 2015, “The ebook may be here to stay; but the physical book is alive, and well, and doing better than ever,”  the writer goes on to the writer, “According to a recent article in The New York times, ebook sales fell by 10 per cent in the first five months of 2015 in America. And a Nielson survey showed that the portion of people who read primarily on an e-reader fell to 32 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 from a high of 50 per cent in 2012.”- Goswami Seema, The Writing Is On The Wall, Indulge; Hindustan Times Brunch-December 13, 2015. If reading “physical” books is still in trend then is it not high time we thought about reviving our now defunct libraries for senior grades? Agreed that reading ebooks is a new trend, but then how do you doodle, and make annotations on an ebook with an ink pen?
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to conduct our reading and writing workshops in libraries instead of class rooms. Active reading and active writing go hand in hand so why not teach the 6+1 traits of writing by taking students to the library and showing them exemplary works by authors who exemplify the use of the 6+1 traits of writing? I know this would mean additional work for the teacher to go to the library and pick out works that he thinks exemplify the 6+1 traits of writing. In a world where we are moving towards experiential learning and expeditionary learning isn’t it ironical that we tolerate the ersatz rather than the real stuff? Perhaps by taking students of grades eleventh and twelfth, might we not be able to not only read better, but also write better?

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Young students can be great organisers of debate competitions!

The Heritage School Debsoc Debate
It was almost without  much thought that I agreed to two rather enthusiastic boys from the tenth grade request to  be their teacher advisor for the debating society. After that it was about accommodating the students and society members into the existing stay back.  All this while the two boys kept working hard, and yes I gave them lee way since they were doing good work. At first it was all about getting the club members together after school, then it was about setting down ground rules, having impromptu debates and so on. Ten came the invitation at the Vasant Valley school, and of course I had to accompany the selected team members to the school on the second day. At Vasant Valley we had managed to reach the prelims and there we were facing some of the most formidable teams from all across the country. We managed to get on to the next level and then that’s it - we couldn’t get past a team that was representing a well known school from Dehradun. We returned disappointed to school and then the two stalwarts came up with the idea of appointing office bearers and then they came up with a plan for promoting formal debating as a culture and to take the debating society to the next level – perhaps to the extent of hosting  other schools. But before we could do so, we would have to expose our own students to the parliamentary style of debating.
The two boys came up with one proposal after another, which our program leader scrutinised with a magnifying glass, suggesting improvements that were incorporated by the two boys. All this time I was involved with completing the syllabus for my grade twelve students, and taking on the workload of a teacher who had left all of a sudden in the middle of the session, besides those of putting up the agenda, supervising and setting schedules that are part of my duties as a coordinator. I just did not have enough spare time for the debating society, and yet these boys from grade ten, and now with some support from the office bearers drew up the plans for an intra-school debate competition  slated for the fifth of December. Time flew and it was on the third or fourth of December that I finally drew a checklist for the penultimate day. The program leader was wholly with us and when we were able to get only two judges out of the four we needed, he stepped in and got us two more. The Program Leader was a constant support for the society, he stood firmly behind us, and yes, the logistics in charge ensured that everything got done, whether it was the food, the booking of the venue, and a sundry other things.


On the fifth of December, the members of the organising committee reached school on a non-working Saturday at a quarter to seven on a cold morning. Immediately they set to work registering students for the event, then we proceeded to the venue for  instructions regarding venues and teams. Somehow everyone had reached well in time, and so we were before time. Rules and regulations were given to the students, and then there was a slight apprehension as we waited for the other two judges to arrive. And then they did, to our relief, and then the Program Leader addressed the gathering and then it was time for an Exhibition Debate. The team wanted the Exhibition Debate to be “perfect” and they surely tried to do their best, although their voices cracked under strain – they did a fair enough job.

We had fourteen teams out of 53 students. The ideal number of students in each team was to have been 4, but then a few did not turn up so a few teams had only three members, but then we did not disqualify them and allowed them to continue although one of them would have to speak twice. The first few rounds  brought out a lot of weaknesses, which the judges and the moderators addressed through feedback and suggestions. When we got back after lunch, we could see that the teams that had survived had become more polished, and they had got their points together. Finally it seemed they had learned their lessons, that debating is not just about having a good command over vocabulary, but it is also about being rational, logical, and having all the points in hand. One thing became clear to me, and that was that my apprehensions about the impact of the MUN Culture of debating were true, and those who had done very well in MUN Debates were left high and dry in the Parliamentary style of debating.
It was disappointing to see how many of the students could speak for only fifty seconds out of the two minutes allotted to them. A few were able to speak for the whole two minutes, but were afraid of finishing their time limit, so they did not support their arguments with sufficient proof, fact and figures although they had known them very well. What was surprising and pleasing was to see that a large number of participants were from grade 8! A large number of these grade 8 students spoke very well too. I guess one of the important lessons  for building a debating culture in school is to catch potential debaters early in life, grade 8, or even 7 if possible.
By the end of the day we had some of the best teams show an amazing improvement in their performance. They had learned their lessons and worked on the feedback given to them. It was amazing to see how the mumbles, and stammers of the initial moments had changed into confident voices with the required voice modulation and intonation. The replies were more logical, the arguments more to the point, and participants stuck to time lines better than earlier.
Debating should be promoted as a culture in all schools because it promotes logical thinking. It also builds up a character of tolerance and patience besides making students good listeners too! Debating can build a vibrant culture of inclusion and respect in the community. It can also teach students to be able to break into concepts, principles and ideas into components that can be easily assimilated.
Yes, you might be wondering about the two boys? Yes they are Sidhant Singh and Dhruv Krihnaswami. The event became a possibility because of the important role played by our Senior Program Leader Vishnu Kartik Sir, who incidentally was the inspiration and a great motivator. The judges for the were Manish, Sarika, Niyati and Akanksha, all teachers who gave their valuable time although it was a non-working Saturday!I am also thankful to Renjitha Ma'am who gave us all the support in terms of logistics, and valuable advice.
The finals of the debate competition will take place later in the month of January, and we hope to have a fiery high energy performance from the teams that have reached the final round!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Cyber-Bullying: its implications for adults

Latest research and statistics suggest a marked shift in age groups that are targeted by Cyber-bulling. It seems as though no one, not even adults, are safe from this social malaise. It is not just kids who are vulnerable to cyber-bulling, but also adults in the age group of 19 to 49, according to an article titled: Cyber-bullying trolls target more WA adults, by Phil Hickey in the Herald Sun,Melbourne on July25,2015. The situation in Australia might not after all be different from what we observe in India or any other country!
The statistics provided in the article suggest that today it is not just children but also adults who are victims of cyber-bullying. I remember the days when I would be greeted in school by a little girl with red eyes who would tell me that she had been cyber-bullied by another girl in her class. Stories of school children falling into depression after being told that they were fat, or looked ugly on social networking sites have been doing the rounds, but then in the midst of such stories are stories about mature adults being targeted for bullying on social networking sites. One incident that I came to know took place in a Government Aided School in Delhi where a girl studying in grade eleven wrote a lot of derogatory stuff about her teacher on Face book because her teacher had ticked her off in class for some misdemeanour. She had also morphed her teacher’s photograph in a manner that was inappropriate. This was the first time when I came to know that adults could also be cyber-bullied. The girl had not realised that what was posted on the face book group was visible to others!
The girl had not realised that what she had done, probably on the spur of the moment, could cause great mental trauma to the teacher who had been targeted. Unfortunately people who resort to such activities might not realise the far reaching implications of their actions. What starts as a harmless prank might end up causing more harm than a laugh. In another instance of the targeting of a mature adult, a female lecturer in a college in England was the victim of a serious series of derogatory comments on a social networking site. The teacher resigned from her post, but before she left, she addressed the perpetrators of the crime and asked them what they thought how her teenaged children would feel if they saw the comments they had posted about her. Stories such as these abound in countries all over the world. There is perhaps a reason why education authorities in India forbid the use of mobile phones in schools, not only by teachers, but also by students. In times when technology has reached such an advanced stage, one can never guaranty that its use will be in accordance with norms of propriety.
The posting of photographs, and videos without the permission of the person central to the media constitutes Cyber-bullying. The same can be said of the posting of derogatory comments mean to vilify and hurt the individual. In such cases, not even adults can be said to be invulnerable to such attacks for the mere fact that they are grown up, mature adults, who are impervious to personal attack!
The article mentioned above suggests that the perpetrators of the crime of cyber-bullying might not be limited, however to children and young people. Adults too can be conscious perpetrators of the crime of cyber-bullying. To quote from the article: Cyber-bullying trolls target more WA adults, “Its not just little Tommy or Mary in the playground that is getting hit hard — it’s adults, too. Emotional and psychological scars can last a lifetime. A broken arm tends to heal but sometimes the mind can’t.”
Times have changed and it is high time authorities who matter address the problem of cyber-bullying as a matter of grave concern for people living in the cyber-age. While I have focussed on the problem as it exists in the educational sector, it does not mean that other sectors are not affected in any way.The need of the hour is for Governments to set up help lines  such as the one given in the article, Cyber-bullying trolls target more WA adults: — If you are being bullied or stalk online and need help visit
The seriousness of the social scourge of cyber-bullying best presented the words, “New data obtained by The Sunday Times shows the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network received 268 reports of cyber-bullying and online stalking in WA between November 2014 and June 2015.
28 PER CENT of victims were aged 19-28,
24 PER CENT were aged 30-39,
21 PER CENT were aged 40-49”. - Cyber-bullying trolls target more WA adults.
For further reference to the latest data and research on adults as victims of cyber-bullying, please visit:

Implications of Copyright Norms for Netizens of the 21st Century

The fruits of the internet have are there for all to see. The ease with which we make commercial transactions, the ease with which we send messages, publish books, research ideas, collaborate with others for school projects, send assignments online to our teachers so that they can be assessed as first drafts, the list can go on and on. However, those who work on the internet a lot will have come across the terms: Plagiarism, Copyright,Cyber-Bullying, and Plagiarism. These terms have begun to take hold of the imagination of a lot of people these days.
Copyright: A term that has been much discussed and pondered upon, Copyright refers to the owning of the right to give and deny permission to people to use ones discoveries, inventions, ideas, and processes. When I submitted my photograph  to my publisher so that it could be put into my book, there was query from my publisher asking me if I had the Copyright to my own photograph ( Apparently, the photograph that had been taken by my brother looked too professional). I was then told that if the photograph had been taken by a professional, then I would have to take a permission from him to put it in my book; apparently, I would not own a copyright to my own photograph if it had been taken by a professional who had not given me  a written permission to use it in a way that I wanted to! I was taken aback by the mail, but then my publishing assistant went on to add that if the photograph had been taken by a close relative and I gave an undertaking to that effect, it would be OK, and they could proceed with the manuscript. I sent an undertaking and things were alright!
Using another person's intellectual property, (photographs, ideas, thoughts, descriptions, research papers, descoveries, and works of art) without any permission, citing of the source and attribution of the borrowed work can be termed a crime. Plagiarism as the crime may be termed, entails infringment of copyright norms. So the next time before you do a copy paste of a research paper, or you borrow a photograph, remember to take permission from the writer of the research paper or the owner of copyright to the photograph! Similarly, when you take out your smart phone for  that candid snap that might win you accolades, remember to take permission from the stranger around you. The ease of access and ease of sharing of online material (made possible by the internet) doesn't give you the right to borrow, share and incorporate other people's work into your work!
Today when I upload photographs through the internet on various photography sites, I either put a copyright mark followed by my name with the hope that it would not be plagiarised or stolen by someone else. Another safety measure is to enter the copyright information in the camera itself so that the EXIFF information about the photograph states that you own the Copyright to the photograph. Alternately, you could also enter the Copyright details through the laptop itself. A third alternative is to compress the photograph to such a low resolution that it is of no use to the the person who wants to appropriate it without even asking for permission to use it!
A proper Copyright however needs to be registered in a court of law. Since America is probably the only country that has extensive Copyright laws, most people, writers, inventors and scientists register their copyrights in a U.S. Federal Court of Law! A lot of books state in the first few books that the copyright to the book belongs to the writer himself. Publishers will do this gratis for the author even if it means that the author doesn’t subsequently register the Copyright in a court. In many cases where the statement that the author of the book owns the Copyright or the Photographer owns the Copyright to the photograph, the precedence of usage, and the date of uploading the matter on the internet could mean that the rightful  copyright owner of the book or photograph might have grounds to fight the case in a court of law. In many cases, infringement of intellectual property rights are fought in courts to earn a hefty amount of compensation. Things become easier when the copyright is registered properly. In such a case, anyone who wants to use your photograph will have to ask for permission from you to use the photograph or matter from your book, alternately you might accede to the request after receiving an offer for monetary compensation. Unfortunately, sharing of photographs and written material on Social Networking Sites weakens the case for infringement of Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights because it might be argued by the person who has used your photograph, his counsel and the judge, that sharing of material on a public forum, like a social networking site  is meant to be shared and used by the public, and therefore doesn’t entitle the plaintiff to seek redress from the court. Sometimes, if it is proved in a court of law that the intention of the person who had taken your photograph was not bad, not meant to make money out your photograph, the perpetrator might be let off with a warning.
Within accepted limits however, a person might use your ideas, and quote your paragraphs as long as it does not exceed a certain per cent of his written matter. This reminds me about a case that took place in a college in America where a student was disqualified for plagiarism and was sent packing to his native country. In many cases, the citing of the source, and attribution of a work to it rightful owner or creator might exonerate the borrower from the crime of plagiarism or infringement of Copyright Norms. In days where a lot of research work is available on the internet, and when students are encouraged to research on the internet, and collaborate with students on the other side of the globe, it has become even more difficult to protect intellectual property rights.
The concept of Copyright has varying social and cultural implications in various countries, as for example the case where a photography enthusiast wants to take photographs in a busy street or a public place. In a country like India, it is OK to take photographs of adults and children, but in a country like England, or America, you would need to take the permission of  the adult, to take a photograph. As far as taking the photograph of children is concerned, you have to be be very careful, they are not your own children, then you need the consent of the accompanying adult! The ease with which photographs can be shared through the internet has indeed become a concern for a lot of people whose photographs might appear in what they think are objectionable advertisements! What it your photograph appeared in a photograph for underwear? While chances are slim, this does not rule out the possibility of this from happening. In the matter of photographs however, Copyright rules are not very clear. Copyright rules do not prevent the taking of photographs of strangers in the street, nor the taking of photographs of children. One of the few ways to fight such a case is that there has been  misuse of one’s photographs is on the grounds of decency and that it is likely to cause the individual mental trauma and social stigma!
A few years back I was surprised to see a photograph that I had taken of a sunset on a web-site that dealt with the marketing of tailor made services. I had uploaded that photograph on a website that hosted photographs from contributing members. I let it go at that time because I really did not have the time to enter into a spat with the person or persons who had taken my photograph without even a request. A simple request for permission would have sufficed in that case. Decency lies in attributing an original work of art to its rightful owner or maker. In many cases, well known celebrities have fought cases in courts of law where their photographs were used in advertisements and packaging of products without their permission. Such cases have been landmark cases, cases where the litigant might have proved in the court of law that there had been an infringement of his or her right to privacy!No wonder therefore, that photographers blacken or erase licence plate numbers of vehicles, or they blur the faces of pedestrians or while taking photographs in the street of landmarks or even portraits of people who have asked for photographs to be taken of them.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

A Check List for Analyzing a Poem

Atmosphere :Identify the words, images, and descriptions create  a distinct atmosphere in the poem.
Tone :What kind of a tone has the poet adopted? Support your answer with a list of words  that are suggestive of his tone.
Mood :How does the reader feel after reading the poem?
Style of Writing: Generally poets adopt the descriptive style of writing, although at times they might also add up a narrative style to accommodate the theme. Quote entire sentences, or phrases that are either descriptive or narrative in nature.
Poetic Diction: Poets use specific words to describe their ideas. Quite often the choice of words becomes typical to  each writer. Words use in a poetical sense often mean different  from what they would when written in a prose  piece. Identify specific words and phrases that have been used in a special way.
Metre and Rhythm: Most poems have a distinct rhythm and beat to them determined by the number  and length of feet in a particular line. The Iambic  metre has one short or unstressed syllable by one  long or stressed syllable. Identify the  metre  used by the poet in the poem.
Important figures of speech: Metaphors, Similes, alliteration, synecdoche, repetition, alliteration. Identify figures of speech used by the poet and explain why they have been used by the poet.
Images that strike you : Generally a set of images can create an atmosphere. Identify or describe specific images used by the poet that strike you most. Explain why you think they are unique.
The Message :Is the poet trying to tell the reader something through this poem? Is it a personal advice?

The Central Theme : Is there an overarching idea that the poet has used in this poem? Can the reader  make connections between this central idea or theme with those in other poems by this poet and other poets?


Saturday, 21 November 2015

Memories of Childhood-The Seeds of Rebellion are indeed sown early in life!

The statement contained in the title of this post is indicative of the line of thought that I would pursue as a corollary to the lesson, Memories of Childhood prescribed by the CBSE for grade twelve English. The lesson found in the guided reading textbook Vistas describes two different people, Zitkala-Sa and Bama, social activists in their own right, who live in different eras, belong to different countries and yet share a few commonalities. Zitkala-Sa lived in America while Bama lives in India.
What is common about both of them is that they both experienced, and sensed the pain of marginalisation. In the case of Zitkala-Sa, it was the pain of being forcibly separated from her community and being put into the Carlisle Indian school as a child. To make matters worse, she had to undergo a rigorous programme of Westernisation which included getting her hair cut, replacing her Indian attire with skirts and shoes that squeaked, learning to eat by formula, learning a new language and a culture that taught that her Native Indian culture was not as good as the culture of the West! All this happened when she was a child and the most impressionable events took place in the first few days of her admission in the Carlisle Indian school. The humiliation of sitting at the table while others were still standing, being forcibly tied to the chair so that her hair could be cut, all led to confusion, a puzzlement resulting from being told that the things her mother had taught her were no good. All this made her cry aloud. She had suffered ‘extreme indignities’, she had been ‘tossed in the air like a wooden puppet,’ and in her anguish, she called out to a mother who was not there. It was at such a time that the seeds of rebellion were planted in her mind. Her statement to her friend, Judewin on being told that they were going to cut her hair (“No, I will not submit! I will struggle first!”) is a foreshadowing of what she would do as an adult. When her hair was cut, we are told, she ‘lost’ her ‘spirit’; by then the seeds of rebellion had already taken root. Later in life, we are told, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin became ‘an extraordinarily talented and educated Native American woman who struggled and triumphed in a time when severe prejudice prevailed towards Native American culture and women.’ Gertrude who wrote under the pen name, Zitkala-Sa became a prolific writer and a social activist who wrote about the marginalisation of the Native Indian Community and its culture by the Mainstream Western Community. As an adult she criticised the way Native Indians were sidelined, ostracised and looked down at by the settlers who had occupied their land and were now imposing their culture on them. The seed of rebellion planted during her childhood bore fruit when she grew up and wrote about how Native Indians were the victims of cultural chauvinism.
Bama, a Tamil Dalit woman from a Roman Catholic family, sensed and felt the anguish of marginalisation and the insult of belonging to a lower caste community. Although she might not have experienced direct humiliations, she was however, filled with extreme anguish and anger when her elder brother explained to her that what she had seen while returning home from school, (the community elder bowing low, holding a packet of vadais by the string before a young man who belonged to an upper caste community) was not something funny but rather an example of Cultural Chauvinism something to be shocked about. Bama had wanted to burst into laughter on seeing the community elder bent low holding the packet of snacks by the string was funny indeed. Her brother told her that ‘everybody believed that they were upper caste and therefore must not touch’ the people belonging to her community. If they touched the people of Bama’s community, then they would be ‘polluted.’ When Bama heard this she did not want to laugh anymore. She felt angry, disgusted, and infuriated. How could these people treat them like this? After all, they too were human beings!
What Bama saw that day, as a little girl studying in the third class, ensured that the seeds of rebellion against cultural and social-chauvinism were firmly planted in her mind. Added to what she observed on the way home, was the advice that her brother had given to her. He had told her that the only way to gain “honour or dignity or respect” was to “study and make progress…study with care…Work hard and learn.” What she saw in the marketplace, and the words of advice given to her by her brother ensured that excelled in studies, and as a result, ‘many people became (her) friends.’ As a social activist who exposed the scourge of caste system, Bama wrote three main works, an autobiography, Karukku, a novel, Sangati and a collection of short stories titled Kisumbukkaaran.
The lesson, Memories of Childhood makes it clear that injustice in any form cannot escape being noticed even by children. Both Zitkala-Sa and Bama were impressionable children who were affected by the injustice of cultural and communal chauvinism and they went on to rebel against the system that allows the marginalisation of weaker communities by mainstream communities. They wrote extensively on the subject and sought to expose the weaknesses and hypocrisies that exist in the modern society even today! Bama felt the injustice of the caste system, the pain of belonging to a lower caste community while Zitkala-Sa experienced the pain of belonging to a race, community that was considered less uncivilised. In both of these women it was about crying out loudly, “We too are Human Beings…”
Vistas, Supplementary Reader for Class XII (Core Course)
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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Church of The Epiphany, Gurgaon Garden Fete 2015, a Glimpse

Cutting of the ribbon by the Chief Guest, Ch. R.P. Manikumar, National Gen.Secy. of the YMCA-India
This year as always, The Garden Fete of The Church of The Epiphany, Gurgaon was a much awaited event, a moment when the members of the congregation got together over games, food, and fellowship. The fete took place on Sunday, the 15th of November, and the chief guest on the occasion was Ch.R.P.Manikumar,  National General Secretary for YMCA-India. Also present on the occasion were Mr. Peter Prem, President of the New Delhi YMCA, and Mr Nirmal Andrews.
Welcoming Mr Peter Prem, President of the New Delhi YMCA

The day saw a generous number of people coming together, manning various stalls and spending generously in order to contribute their share to the fund raising campaign for the new  Building of the Sadhu Sunder Singh Church in Sohna.  I have pasted a few photographs taken on the occasion which will provide a glimpse of the event.

At one of the stalls
At the Raffle Ticket Stall

At the Coupon Stall far left, Mr Sircar, in middle is Ms Patricia and on the far right you have Mrs Sircar
A little girl browsing through the C.Ds. at the White Elephant Stall

Winners of the painting competition
The winning hamper was handed to Mrs Maya Lal by Mr Peter Prem, president of the New Delhi YMCA
Waiting to draw the lucky ticket
Chilling out
Stalwarts of the White Elephant Stall, from left, Antara and Nidhi Lal
Mr Nirmal Andrews handing over a lucky gift to Mrs Praveen Sagar
A gift for Samaira Lal

Sitting in the foreground, Mr Pramod Sagar, the convenor of the fete, and Rev. Sunil Ghazan, Presbyter in Charge of The Church of The Epiphany, Gurgaon
For memories, from left, seated, Mr Mukherjee, and Rev.Patrick M.Lal, Standing from Left, my Mother, Mrs Ivy Lal, Mrs Shobha Lal, my Aunt and Joya Lal, my Sister in Law
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Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Why do people undertake risky adventure activities, climb steep mountains and raft down treacherous rapids?

Mountains of the Himalayas
For most adventure loving people, mountains can be a metaphor for achievement,and goals in life. That mountains are poerful metaphors and that they have a strong pull cannot be denied by many. They say that once a person is smitten by the mystical beauty of the mountains, he or she will continue to visit them year in and year out! For many adventure loving people, mountains can also symbolise a quest, a journey towards self-discovery and a means of achieving self-actualisation. Mountains can also be a manifestation of the spiritual world that gives us sustenance and staying power. In the medieval ages, pilgrims made the arduous trip to Canterbury for penance and to ask for blessings of the saints, today, this has been replaced with annual treks in the mountains like for example in India you have the Char Dham Yatra.
Life in the 21st Century has become so boring and dull that people yearn to get away from a rather humdrum life they are litterally dying for change! Corporate companies  organise adventure camps in order to help their employees regain their mojo (this would essential add up to their performance and the the profits of the company in the long run). Good schools  organise expeditions and excursions to the mountains so that students can learn to adjust to a tough camp life where they have to wash their own dishes, and adjust to the scarcity of water. In schools where students are spoiled for choice having so many facilities, it becomes a learning when students wash their own plates and ensure that they leave no trace in terms of wrappers and other stuff that they might throw carelessly around. Expeditions to the mountains teach visitors important life skills, they learn to be a team, and gain a first hand glimpse of how powerful Nature is.  It is very important for all of us to understand how small and tiny we are when compared to the mountains, rivers and forests and oceans beyond towns and cities. As it is, towns and cities have become mere concrete jungles, repositories of dust and smoke!
One of the questions in a CBSE grade eleven English Core textbook asks the question, “Why do you think people undertake such adventurous expeditions in spite of the risks involved?” The question is based on an extract describing Gordon Cook’s failed round the world trip in 1976. An interesting ponderable is based on thereasons that motivate  people to untertake risky voyages in treacherous seas, or for that effect why do they climb the Mt. Everest in spite of the risks involved? When I recently watched the movie, “Everest” based on a true event that took place in the year 1996, (where a mountain climbing team was hit by a storm leaving many people dead) I wondered why the members of the ill fated team had decided to undertake such risky trip! I am sure that deep in their hearts each member of the team was aware of the risks involved in climbing the summit. Was the expediton worth it? Each member of the team in that ill fated expedition had a different reason for setting on the trip to Mt. Everest. For the female Japanese climber it was about taking the tally of her mountain conquests to seven, for another it was about fulfilling a promise made to school children that he would plant a flag on the summit for them, for yet another climber it was about covering up for a previous failed attempt.
Everyone has a different reason for doing the unthinkable. For Arunima Sinha (The first woman amputee to climb Mt. Everest, an Indian) it was about regaining confidence after losing a limb - it was about proving to herself that she was as good with a prosthetic limb as she was with the real one.
I would however like to state that this article is not just about climing Mt. Everest, it is  also about trying to understand why people love to play with danger; whether it is  rappelling, white water rafting, bungee jumping, slithering down a bridge, sky diving,  or Para-gliding !
My first experience of rapelling down a cliff-face for the first time was filled with the fear of falling, my mind was filled with questions, what if the rope broke, what if the man belaying the rope slipped, what if the rope slipped from his fingers? I was paralysed with fear, my hands and legs were shaking, I was in a daze, my heart was beating very fast, and I wondered why I was taking such a risk. At one time I thought I would not go ahead, but then I had reached the point of no return. In the end I simply had to go ahead because there was no turning back!The feeling of fear however turned into elation when I reached the bottom safely. The second time I got the opportunity to rappel down a cliff face, I was the first to go! I was not the first however to jump off the branch of a tree that was forty-five feet above the ground even if I was tethered to a harness that had been threaded to a pulley. Perhaps looking all the other people doing it made me want to do it even more! Each time I did something risky and exciting, I wanted to do more of it. I was able feel proud of myself. At times it was also about not letting the  team down, and it was about proving to myself that I could do it. There were two occasions when I was part of a team of twelfth graders and then a team of eleventh graders  and we had to raft down the Alaknanda past Byassi and Jayalgarh on a twelve or thirteen kilometre run. I admit being frightened of the whirlpools and rapids that we crossed, and they had strange names like Cross-fire, and Roller-Coaster, and Three-Mice, and when we covered the distance, it was with a sense of relief that I stood on solid land. The first time I did white water rafting was in the year 2013 and that was the year the flood caused by the cloud burst swept everything away. This happened exactly one month after the trip to Byassi.
The scale of  perspective when you are out in the lap of Nature is simply unimaginable; in domestic life everything is so predictable but when  you go to the mountains, you are simply lost! The first time I took part in a white water rafting expedition on the Alaknanda, the Instructor told us to jump off the raft into the water. It was at first frightening but then gradually it became OK, and when our feet touched the river bottom part of our sanity did return. The jump into the river was however not just for the heck of it, rather what the instructor wanted to do was to train us about how to pull people back on board!
Later after a year when I returned to the Alaknanda river and visited Byassi and Jayalgarh in Uttarakhand India, I could see the damage that had been done by the bursting waters of the Alaknanda. The landscape was scarred, huge boulders had rolled over to the sides of the banks, and there were huge tree-trunks that littered the banks. Of the Camp that I had visited in Jayalgarh a year back, nothing remained! One very important question that I keep asking myself is that if I ever get the opportunity to set out on a white-water rafting expedition will I go, and the answer is a definite, yes! But then If you asked my whether I would like to go on a climbing expedition to the Mt. Everest, the answer would be a definite No! No, when I talk about adventure sport and how thrilling and renewing it is, I am simply not bargaining for a trip to Mt. Everest, even if I were to undergo rigorous training for a year or so!

Before I ramble on, I would like to address the question, “Why do they do It?”
To answer this question, I will put in more questions because honestly speaking, I am not an expert on the topic, all I can claim is that I speak straight from the heart! Well, the first rhetorical question I put before the reader might be suggestive enough:
1. Have we become more daring and adventurous in the 21st Century than our forefathers and fathers? At least no one did climb the Mt.Everest before Tensing or Hillary.
2. Do people do it because they have a death wish? They are so fed up of  mundane, humdrum everyday life that they might as well decide to end there lives, not by committing suicide but by doing something thrilling, enjoying the last high, the adrenaline kick before switching off.
3. Are these people so dysfunctional, nerds, extreme introverts living on the edge of the social fabric? Is it because they  want to prove to the society that they can do something daring!  Perhaps they want to bask in the limelight of recognition and fame, even if it is for a brief moment, maybe they want their moment of glory.
4. Could it  be because they want to fulfil a promise made to someone, school children perhaps? Maybe they promised school children that they would plant a flag for them on the summit.
5. Are they nothing but adrenaline junkies, habitual hormone addicts, people who can get their fix only by ding something daring and risky?
6. Is it boredom with life that drives people to climb Mt. Everest? Life in the 21st Century has become so predictable so devoid of challenges that adventure loving people feel constricted.
7. Are people driven towards adventure sports because they want to spend time with themselves,? They might want to  – introspect – meditate and devote self-time which they can’t enjoy in a life that is so full of stress and pending work.
8. Do people want to climb the Everest as a form of devotion towards their creator, the ultimate pilgrimage, a form of dedication towards God?
7.  Could it be simply that people want to do something different? It could be as basic as doing something different for a change!
8. Is it because they want to know more about Nature that people like to explore the hidden? Maybe they want to discover hidden life forms, understand more about tectonic movements.
9. Do people do it because they are plain curious? Perhaps they are curious about the unknown?
10. It could also be because they couldn’t do it the last time, so they want to do it once again. One of the team-members in the film, “Everest” wanted to climb Mt. Everest because he had not been able to do it the previous time.
While these questions can only raise more questions, I feel however that the Socratic method could work well in trying to understand why people undertake such hazardous adventures in spite of the risks involved. For many it might be about confronting their fears and handicaps  like for example William Douglas who hired the services of a swimming instructor and then swam solo in the swimming pool and the Lake Wentworth, and then Warm Lake. William Douglas, an adventure loving outdoorsman of America was handicapped by his fear of water after a near-drowning incident at the YMCA pool in Yakima. This fear of drowning prevented him from enjoying fishing for landlocked salmon, canoeing and wading the Tieton. Douglas realised that in order to enjoy his outdoor activities, he would have to confront his fears. The near death experience that Douglas had undergone at the YMCA pool in Yakima.
Copyright-Rodrick Rajive Lal

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Regarding Retention and Attrition in Government and Government Aided Schools in India

The Indian Pension Act 1972 and the Indian Pension norms make it difficult for staff in Government and Government Aided Schools to shift to the Private Sector before a period of twenty years. Some how this is one of the strongest factors that forces staff to languish stagnate for years in spite of the efforts of the Educational Departments to provide them with some sort of an in-service programme. It is true that the promise of job security (irrespective of the quality of work) and the possibility of promotion through a common roster for  staff in the Government Sector means that once in, you might never leave! If retention levels are very high in Government and Government Aided schools, it is not because they provide a better environment, rather it is because of the  repressive, archaic and nepotistic acts and rules that govern a job in a Government School.
When a person joins a post as a teacher in Government or Government Aided school as a teacher  it is for keeps even in it ends up in stagnation and frustration on not being able to be innovative enough. often years of routine processes, lack of recognition for initiative, and lack of challenges mean that the employee soon becomes disillusioned and dissatisfied with plodding on and on. Why then don’t employees quit before they become disillusioned and fed up with a system that pays homage to an archaic system of rules and regulations that are more constricting than liberal? The answer is straight forward, you can’t quit before completing twenty years of service because then you will not get your pension, nor will you get your gratuity, and this is what I experienced when I decided to quit my job in a Government Aided School in Delhi after seventeen years of dedicated service. No, I was constricted by the archaic norms, I was fed up of the same routine year in and year out, and I wanted out! My regrets? Well, I was denied my pension and my gratuity. The reason given by the Directorate of Education at Lucknow Road? well they said I had quit before completing the mandatory twenty  years of service according to the Indian Pension Act 1972! The norms however are different for employees working in the Private Sector schools, as accordingly employees who serve for five years are eligible to get their gratuity!
Labour norms, including pension and gratuity norms that discriminate between Government and Private Sector employees are parochial, dictatorial, and favour forceful retention of Employees in the government sector even if it means employees want out! The question is, whether forceful retention of employees in Government and Government Aided Schools through unfair Pension and Gratuity Norms is ethical, and democratic in nature! I very strongly feel that the 1972 Pension norms need to be rationalised as in their existing form they infringe on the rights of employees to switch to the Private Sector. Ultimately, what matters is to have a fresh and dedicated workforce and not a disillusioned and fatigued workforce irrespective of where it works, Private or Government sectors. It is said that some amount of attrition is good for the organisation. It helps bring in new and fresh workforce, and it helps grant opportunities for those who want to opt out to grow professionally. The existing pension, gratuity, and education acts allow employees to move from one Government service to another Government Service but they don’t allow a Government Employee to move into a Private Sector job before the mandatory twenty years of  Service!
The fact of the matter is that forceful retention of workforce in Government Schools is causing more harm than good in the long run. It is very important that pension, gratuity and service rules are liberalised and rationalised so that they favour a healthy amount of attrition in government schools. Also, Central government pension rules need to cater to service in the private sector and accept that if an employee in a private sector school is eligible for gratuity after five years of service, then why not an employee in a government School? Research has show that while attrition up to 30 per cent  is healthy, forced retention is unhealthy is equally unhealthy. It is high time service rules, labour rules and Pension/ gratuity rules were rationalised so as to promote a healthy movement of employees from Government Schools to Private sector schools and vice versa, without the looming threat of the withholding of funds and perks that are the employee’s right!
In today’s world where outsourcing is the norm, and the Government is talking about Private, Public and Government partnership in the Education sector, it is important that there should be a free movement of workforce from one sector to the other. Forced retention by the government sector is affecting the quality of the workforce. Liberalisation of Government Service rules are the need of the hour.  

Sikandra King Akbar's Resting Place Photo by Rodrick Lal — National Geographic Your Shot

Sikandra King Akbar's Resting Place Photo by Rodrick Lal — National Geographic Your Shot

Flying Apples Photo by Rodrick Lal — National Geographic Your Shot

Flying Apples Photo by Rodrick Lal — National Geographic Your Shot

The Pomegranate Seller Photo by Rodrick Lal — National Geographic Your Shot

The Pomegranate Seller Photo by Rodrick Lal — National Geographic Your Shot

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Agra, a Treasure - Trove of Mughal Architecture and Art

When we were invited to my niece’s wedding by my cousin brother in Agra, I thought it would be a good opportunity to also take the opportunity to visit some of the Mogul monuments in the town. I was particularly interested in testing the Canon 40 mm f-2.8 prime lens that I had recently purchased to go with my 1100 D Canon DSLR Camera. Besides the prime lens I also used my 18-55 mm f-4.6 zoom kit lens for a wider coverage. I was particularly pleased by the sharpness and shallow depth of field that I was able to achieve with the prime lens, although I was limited by the narrow angle of coverage. We left for Agra on the eighteenth of October and returned on the twenty-first. This was a four day trip which included a one day no visit day devoted to the marriage itself. One of the best things about Agra is that you can plan you itinerary in such a way that you cover all the monuments in a sequence. If you are taking the Delhi Mathura highway, then the first monument you can cover is Sikandra. This monument can be visited on the first day of the journey because it is on the highway itself. After spending time in Sikandra ( at least two hours) you could check in at the hotel and then visit some of the U.P. handicraft emporiums. The next day could be spent visiting The Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Remember to rise early and visit both monuments early in the day so as to beat the heat of the sun. Another word of advice for those who want to take photographs is to carry a lens-hood as shooting into the sun can cause flaring which although sometimes welcome can be at other times irritating! The third and last day of the visit to Agra can be devoted specifically for a visit to Fatehpur Sikri and Jodhabai’s Palace, two adjacent complexes located at a distance of about 38 kilometres from Agra itself. 

The grand entrance to Akbar's mausoleum

The town of Agra, located in the state of Uttar Pradesh is a must visit for all those who would like to learn more about Medieval Mughal history. A drive of a little more than two hundred kilometres from New Delhi, Agra’s is home to the world heritage monument, The Taj Mahal.  Besides The Taj Mahal, there are a few other important monuments that are a must visit, and these include, Sikandra, which houses the tomb of King Akbar the Great. A tall and imposing complex of gates, the complex is surrounded with green lawns which are inhabited by deer, The Red Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Jhodha Bai’s Palace.
In this mausoleum  lie the mortal remains of one of the greatest emperors of India,
Akbar the Great!

The Red Fort of Agra is another monument of historical significance . Initially built by King Akbar, his sons Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb made additions to the structures situated within the boundaries. Built of Red Sand Stone brought from Fatehpur Sikri and other places, As with all the other monuments, one can find in the monument, traces of Persian, Hindu and Western architectural influences.

The Taj Mahal of course is the most significant monument of all, not just because of the fact that is the best know world heritage monument, but also because it is poetry in Marble. Sourced from Makrana in Rajasthan, The Taj Mahal is an expression of Akbar’s love for his departed wife Mumtaz Begum. A Complex of  outer gateways and galleys, and the inner monument made out of marble slabs, the Taj Mahal is worth a visit.

 The Bulund Darwaza is one of the tallest gateways in India.

Fatehpur Sikri is about 38 kilometres from Agra and it houses at its centre, the Shrine of Salim Chishti, the religious man who prayed for King Akbar that he should get an heir for his throne. Built majorly of red Sandstone, the main entrance to the complex is through the Bullund Darwaza, the highest and tallest of all the gateways in India. The Dargah of Salim Chishthi is visited  by people from all over India who have wishes they want to be fulfilled. As such people tie a string around the lattices of the screen inside the shrine and it is their belief that if their thread or string comes undone, then their wish will be fulfilled.
It was here that the emperor and his wives played a game of Pachisi. Seen on the floor are distinct lines marking the squares where women stood in place of counters! 

Right next to Fatehpur Sikri is the palace complex of Jodha Bai. While the Fatehpur Sikri is spiritual in nature, the Jodha Bai palace complex is more about the earthly and mundane day to day life of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his  wives.  Built in the form of a Rajasthan Haveli or Bungalow, Jodha Bai’s palace complex has an inner courtyard and surrounding buildings that house lining quarters, prayer areas, sleeping quarters, kitchens, entertainment areas and so on.

This is where Akbar held private meetings with his ministers.

Pasted below  are a few photographs of various art forms I was able to discover from the monuments I visited:

A couple of friezes at the Taj Mahal
An intricate design on the inside of one of the  domes in a building in the Taj Mahal
A glimpse of the intricate design inside the dome of one the buildings inside the Taj Mahal complex
A glimpse of yet another Dome at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra

An intricate pattern on one of the domes in one of the buildings in Sikandra

An intricate pattern on the underside of one of the domes in of one of the buildings in Sikandra

For our trip to Agra we took the Delhi - Faridabad-Mathura road, and not the Yamuna Express way because we were travelling from Gurgaon to Agra. Taking the Delhi - Mathura road was a better option as we would not have to drive all the way to Delhi and the then take the Express way. The Faridabad-Mathura-Agra highway was once touted as one of the best highways but now is riddled with bottlenecks, diversions and construction equipment. Toll collection gate lanes are often congested, and all these obstacles might hamper you if you are driving down to Agra, however we were able to cover the distance from Agra to Gurgaon while returning in exactly four hours having departed from Agra at 5:20 p.m.

An important advice to people driving to Agra would be for them to leave early in  the morning at least by 6:00 a.m. or late in the evening by 5:30 p.m. This way they will be able to avoid traffic jams.
Of course that is me behind the counter of one of the shops selling the Panchi Brand of Petha!
Besides its monuments and handicraft items, Agra is famous for its sweets, namely Petha and tasty snacks called Daal Bheeji. The Petha is a Pumpkin that is boiled, dipped in lime water and then cooked in sweet sugar syrup.Panchi Petha is the most sought for brand name for Petha.   Agra is also known for its sweet bread known as sheermal and kebabs and tikkas. Agra is famous for its street food and to enjoy it, one will have to step out of the hotel one is staying in and enjoy the huge variety of food that can be found in the markets. It makes me wonder if some of the street food found in Agra might not have been the kind of food that the Moguls might have once enjoyed themselves!

A few more examples of mogul expertise are pasted below. Look for perfect symmetry and mathematical accuracy.
A corridor in one of the buildings in the Red Fort.
A glimpse of Salim Chishti’s Shrine.
Devotees and pilgrims proceeding towards the Dargah of Salim Chishti.