More musings

May 31, 2016

(More from Facebook – am archiving my posts)

A guest at our farm


I must have been of my daughter’s age when I last saw a chamaeleon. Now we spotted it along with her at our farm, allowing her amazement and ardour to seep into us. The lovely chamaeleon obliged by posing for my wife’s camera for over an hour in different positions and shades. (And yes, we do have an hour, and more, to spare for a chamaeleon or a Coppersmith barbet or a touch-me-not.)

Of all animals, possibly more than even the ape, its movements seem to resemble humans the most…especially its cautious outstretched limb to catch the next branch or twig. I was somehow reminded of Smeogol.

The slightly bulging eyes that rotate back and forth, independent of each other, was another sight to cherish. Precious.

We could sense that it was moving strategically, and waiting to catch one of the bees that were buzzing around, but we didn’t have as much patience to stay back and watch the catch.

As our friend Suresh observed, its camouflage is perfect. Even while we were looking at it, if we took off our eyes for a moment and tried to spot it again, it was quite a task. I wonder when we will meet it again.


Mornings at the village


Contrary to the seeming tone of some of my posts, I have strenuously refrained from entertaining too many romantic notions about an idyllic Indian village. Whatever little might have seeped through to my heart, get sucked out every day, at dawn. Starting from 3am and with periodic snoozes, the natural alarms of the village – the domestic fowls, go off, as one should expect. Okay, good, waking up early gives me time to do some reading, writing or weeding – I cheer myself up. My Thirukkural translation has really picked up steam.Then, at 5 am, three different loud speakers commence their loudcasts. “Welcome to the new age village”. Our village speakers are secular. One is from the mosque, and goes silent first. Another plays myriad Mariamman and Murugan songs from Tamil movies. And the third, the loudest, hails how Ayyappan turns stones and thorns into a mattress for the feet. If I still happen to be in bed, the thorns prick my sluggishness. And up I rise.

By 6.30 or 7, the speakers are muted, and one starts hearing the chirping of birds, hosted by the tamarind tree nearby. The crow sits on our compound and caws for the leftover dinner. The egrets start their flight to the rivers and canals. The sunbirds come for the flowers of the drumstick tree behind the house. Even the little sparrows are back, apparently after a few years, ‘defying the doomsayers who assailed everything from pesticides to telecom towers for their disappearance’, as one villager put it.



Robots that have feelings, or even life, should not be in the realm of science fiction anymore. We already have such robots. We even worship them. They are called cows. Cow, the mother. Cow, the Goddess. And we like our Goddess Mothers to be virgins.

These calf-reproducing goddess-robots lead a life of forced eternal celibacy and milk-production. Why mate, when injections are cheaper, and perceived to be safer?

So what happened to the males, the city mind asks.

When we talk of cows and beef, are bulls included? Already, we heard it from many a horse’s mouth that exported beef is nothing but buffalo meat. (No, there is no holiness-protection for black buffalos.)

When a bull is born, what is the farmer supposed to do with it? He doesn’t use it to plough anymore. Even the urban folks can understand that the bull can’t be milked, yet. The farmer doesn’t have a need for the cart any longer. With rampant abuse of chemical fertilizers, even bull shit has been banished to the urban lingo. Jallikattu, the courts have concluded, violates the rights of the bull.

Can we make an exception for bull calficide?

The cow’s economy is dead. Long live the cows.

OMG! This is too complex. Let us go and lynch the next beef-eater.


I was guiding a girl, from the village, in her final year BE, in her preparations for her campus interviews. [So, having shunned the corporate life, you may ask, why am I doing it? The girl’s family just sold off their land to us, to help her, and her younger brother, finish college. Her job is their big hope. Helping her get one will assuage my guilt feelings. You get the picture?]

She was a district rank holder in her SSLC. She had done all her schooling in Tamil medium. Overcoming the hassle of English at college, she has a GPA around 9.

I could see that the harder I tried, the more I was shattering her confidence (and my wife concurs). For a smart girl like her, the distance between ‘is’ and ‘was’ seemed insurmountable, especially on the eve of the visit of Infosys, her best bet to break through. She said she could crack all the puzzles in the Shakuntala books but had trouble with the verbal questions, which could be the major chunk of the written test. To compose her thoughts in an alien language, her eyes kept wandering up. I told her to keep looking straight, and keep smiling. She somehow managed to command her eyes to obey but couldn’t forge a plastic smile at the monster before her. Luckily there was the little trickle on the river nearby, giving her comfort, and a setting sun, a dog and goats around us. If she manages past the verbal sea, a cramped room awaits her. With another monster. But not a mock one.

All the best, young lady. You’ll do well.

(P.S.: She is now working at Infosys.)

A tomato farmer

May 31, 2016

Another old post from FB. With tomato prices getting to over Rs.50 per kg in the market, it seems ironic to revisit it now.

One of our farmers had planted tomatoes. I have often seen him tend his small farm with lots of care over the last few months.

Now his tomatoes won’t fetch him a price that will be sufficient enough to cover the plucking and transportation costs. So he has opened up the farm to the villagers. Whoever is interested can pluck and carry the tomatoes with them, for no cost. The lady who herds her goats near our land, had brought two bags of tomatoes for us. We offered to buy and she said he doesn’t bother any longer.

The tomatoes are not for sale now. But the land is up for sale.

He still waves at us with a smile, everytime we drive past him. And I think of our poor (income) taxpayers who believe that they subsidize his failures.

The road to hell is paved with felled trees

May 31, 2016

A compilation of some of my FB posts, published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.


The road to hell is paved with felled trees
The long walk from the bus stop to the farm, and back, never ends without a long conversation with someone in the village. Engrossed in the conversations, we sometimes miss the bus, which comes every half an hour or so. So what? There is the next bus.
Yesterday, we were talking to an elderly lady, and her husband, whose house was on the way. She was mentioning how painful it was to see any tree being cut, especially the palmyra trees. She said people used to believe that palmyra trees (and snakes) live for a 1000 years (பனைக்கும் பாம்புக்கும் ஆயிரம் வருஷம்). A palmyra tree can withstand any drought, and a snake gives its pearl (manickam/nagamani) after 1000 years, she added. Science may claim otherwise, but there could be something more than the literal meaning in her proverb. The tamarind tree at the bus stop was older than their living and inherited memories.
I shared a news item from the Hindu with her, which stated,  ‘A long-pending demand of the district is likely to be met soon, with the National Highways (NH) wing of State Highways Department preparing a detailed project report to develop the Coimbatore – Pollachi Road into a four-lane one.’
She was, obviously, not part of those in the ‘district’, who make such demands.
Then when I spoke of another part of the report, I couldn’t quite retain its cold, indifferent ‘non-editorial’ tone:
‘Almost all the trees (nearly 1,700 of them) on either side of the road will have to be felled for this project.’
“Isn’t that road already broad enough? (அந்த சாலை ஏற்கனவே அகலமாத்தானப்பா இருக்கு?)” she exclaimed.

No amma, not broad enough for those of us who covet infinite development. Not broad enough for those of us who charge by the hour. Not broad enough for our luxury sedans, with headlight beams turned high, to race along. We don’t have the time to relish the shades of those 1700 trees. There may come a day, when we yearn for the shade of a single tree, under which we can leave our grandchildren. But no, not yet. Climate change is still a state of the body and the mind.
An educative encounter
“What games did you play at school today?” I asked (in Tamil) the sixth standard boy from our neighbouring farm, situated across the river. He goes to a government high school in the next village. He comes over to our place, often, with his younger sister, who is in fourth standard. They are vibrant children, bustling with activity, helping us with planting saplings and watering them, even on days when we couldn’t visit the farm. Our daughter’s first friends at the village.

“We didn’t have any PT period today,” he replied glumly.

“Oh, tell me what games did you play during the class hours?”
“I don’t play any games inside the class…I listen to the teachers”

That made my next question, which was the original intention anyway, easier to shoot.
“So, what did you study at school today?”
“An English poem,” he answered.
“I love poetry. Whose poem was it?”
“Do you remember any line from the poem?”
“No, I have to see the text book,” the boy was getting jittery.
“Ok , tell me any one word from the poem,” I persisted for a bit more.
“Do you know what the poem was about?”
“…,” the whiteness of his two large front upper teeth flashed through the uncomfortable smile.
“Does your teacher explain the poem in English or Tamil?”
I was surprised.
“Do you understand English?”
“No,” the answer came promptly.
“Get me your book tomorrow. I will teach the poem in Tamil.”
He seemed happy.
“Did you read the book that I gave you? Did you understand the stories?” We had presented him with a Tamil story book for his ear-piercing ceremony, held last week.
“Yes,” he cheered up.

Now, his sister chipped in, with some strange actions with her hands:”We didn’t have our regular classes today. They taught us words s*ell.”

I heard it as smell. It didn’t make sense, obviously.
“ka-a-tch. Catch,” she droned with the typical phonics sounds. Oh, she meant ‘spell’.
“Did they teach you spelling? How do you spell catch?”
I spent sometime guiding her through “t’, ‘tch’ and ‘catch’.
“Anna, what is the meaning of ‘little’?” she spurted out suddenly.
“Little means ‘kutty’.”
“Yes. Can you now tell me what is the meaning of little girl?”
“No, little girl.”
“Little means kutty. Girl means ponnu. What does a ‘little girl’ mean? You just have to join the two words,” I repeated in a variety of ways to no avail. Her brother also didn’t have an answer.

“Don’t be shy. Tell the answer boldly,” their father said. He is unlettered but has an extensive knowledge about farming. He is the village priest at a local temple and tills the temple lands. When I had asked him, a couple of hours earlier, if he intended to continue with the education of his children, he had replied in a firm affirmative. I looked at him hopefully.

“Payyannu sollumaa (Say, it is a boy),” he said, feigning confidence.

“No, no. Little girl means kutti ponnu. Now tell me, what does a ‘little boy’ mean?”

After a few more errors, they arrived at kutti paiyan. Then we moved on to little dog, little cat. Finally, they seemed to have got a hang of little-something and rushed happily across the river – dry but for a small stream, overflowing from the check dam.

Thankfully, both these kids are still studying in Tamil medium. I shudder to think of the day when their schools will also be converted to English medium. English is certainly compounding the problems but the problem is not merely with English. We are faced with an entire educational system that alienates the rural children from their surroundings and knowledge systems. More needs to be written on this (and done about this).

But, for now, we, the English speaking elite, can go on belaboring about how we want our kids to compete with these children on a so-called ‘equal footing’ in a ‘meritocratic system’.

A close shave
I had gone to a barber’s shop, new to me, early in the morning. After a short wait, as the scissors started cutting off my over-two-month long unkempt hair, the unbearable stink of liquor from the barber pervaded my nose and thoughts. With a scissor and knife over my head, I meekly, but wisely, shut my eyes and mouth, and stayed quiet till it was over. Then I asked him, when did he have his ‘cutting’ – so early in the morning, or through the night?
He said something on the lines of ‘mind your business, and go away’.
“Go away, I shall. But don’t you want me to come back?” I murmured. He went off to get some change for the hundred rupee note that I offered.

The shop owner, who had just walked in, told me that it was habitual for this guy to drink at 4am. He was putting up with him, since he was a talented worker. But he was looking for a replacement.

The drunk barber returned with the change. I confronted him with some questions and unsolicited advice, “Give it up, anna. You can’t afford to get drunk in this work.”

He said, “Don’t worry, I have 25 years of service (in drinking and cutting).”

“But I don’t have any service. I could hardly resist throwing up.”
Cars and compromises
An essay in the Economic and Political Weekly, dated 1-Aug-2015, was about ‘Car Credo’.  The essay made an important point:  “Countries—including many in the developing world—are now learning that discouraging cars, narrowing roads, improving public transport and reserving road spaces for buses, and building more pavements for pedestrians foster healthy and more equitable living. We in India are doing exactly the opposite.”
I completely support this view of EPW, and it pushed me to introspect on my own compromises.
We still own an 8-year old car (earned during my corporate life) – and not without a few pangs of guilt, and dilemma. I must also say that we walk when we can, take a bus if it is longer, and take out the car only if we must (and mostly, if I am not alone), after a lot of calculation and ‘convincing ourselves that this is the best of the feasible alternatives’. We have stopped using the AC on the car…our daughter has learnt to insist on it. In fact, it has stopped functioning now, thanks to non-use. Since, we have the car anyway, and it doesn’t make ‘economic sense’ to sell it, we do envision a few ‘essential’ occasional uses for it. But I, definitely, don’t need high-speed, multi-lane highways. I shall be happy to drive slower on narrower roads, with trees, shade and pavements on both sides. And I look forward to the day, when I could be a lesser hypocrite.
Degrees of despair
It was depressing and satisfying at the same time.
I was on a truck, with 6 mason workers – in their early twenties, who had come from Dharmapuri to demolish a century-old house near Coimbatore. They were doing real hard physical labour. They had started the day at 5 am, after sleeping on the street at night. We had some tea on the way to the village, where we were taking the remains of the house. The truck got stuck in the mud, dampened by showers at night. We blamed it on the inexperience of the driver. We had to wait for the tractor to come and clear the load in multiple trips. Work that we had expected to get over by 8 or 9, went on till noon. With no access to food in the vicinity. Some unripe guavas on the tree saved the day for a while. I felt cruel to preside over this but their priority was to finish the work and head back for more.

I came to know that most of them were diploma holders in civil or mechanical engineering. Almost all of them also held farm land, of even over 10 acres. They said, thanks to bad rains and failure of crops, they were now travelling all over Tamilnadu, doing any work that comes their way. Their next stop was Karaikkal.

I said it was good to see them not sit at home waiting for a suitable job.

In no time, the sharp reply was shot at me: “We can’t afford the luxury of sitting at home.”

Then I heard the cleaner telling them: ‘The driver keeps reading endlessly. He has already completed 4 degrees.’

None of us asked what degrees. Somehow it seemed superfluous.
“Four degrees? Why are you driving this?” one of them asked.
“I have to eat, no?”
To be horrified by the picture of that Syrian child
on a distant shore
was regulation horror.
What do I do to that haunting look of the lonely lady
sitting amidst the ruins of her erstwhile house
with the calendars and photos
on the undemolished wall behind her,
and the JCB doing its thing to the next house,
and well dressed officers watching over,
with the uniformed policemen protecting them.
Roads, yes, we need broad roads,
to zip along and slip past such haunting looks.

Our learning centre

May 31, 2016

Reposting an old note from Facebook:

We have been engaging with the village children for the last few months. 10-15 children come to our house (or sometimes the farm), after school. We call it the Payilagam – பயிலகம் (The Learning Centre).

We didn’t want to start with a concrete structure or curriculum. The children are free to do what they want, and learn what they are keen on, on that particular day. Sometimes they play badminton or chess or Snake & Ladder or other board games. They are free to do their homework or prepare for their exams. If they ask, we help them with the subjects. Of course, that is where maximum time goes.

We have opened up our personal library to them. Our daughter’s books are of great interest to them.

Now and then, we do a few activities together. We start the session with a few songs. If an opportunity comes us, we give some gyan on social issues. Some enthusaistic kid may want to share his/her learnings from a book.

Most children are very good with crafts. Each of them has some special skills – from repairing a sumbmersible pump to farming to repairing bicycles to cooking. That is where we would like our focus to be: getting them to learn all subjects through crafts and work. That is when they do learn a lot.

Being with birds

May 31, 2016

Many have asked me, and my wife, about who took the decision to move to the village and how Nedya is coping up. This album has been shot and compiled by Nedya over the last many months. Such a labour of love should indicate who calls the shots at the farm.

 In Nedya’s words:

“Bird watching gives me much energy and happiness. It shuts out the external world for me and I am completely with the birds. Over the last couple of months, the river around the farm dried up under the hot sun, and gradually my birds stopped coming. One evening, our neighbour across the river was burning something and our old silk-cotton tree caught fire. In the dim light and glowing fire, all I could see was a white-cheeked barbet flying around the silk cotton tree. I was worried that it may have had its nest there.

After a few spells of rain, my birds are back. I am hearing a Koel now, for the first time after we had moved to the farm. To find the Koel, I moved towards its call. Two black headed Orioles were chasing each other around the silk cotton tree and across the river. Two Mynas joined their chasing game. A Black Drongo, which was sitting quietly on the silk cotton tree, suddenly turned aggressive when an Oriental Honey Buzzard came to sit on the same branch. Finally the Black Drongo won and chased the Oriental Honey Buzzard away. A couple of Grey Hornbills flew high up over the coconut trees. A family of white headed babblers chattered loudly. Two red-vented bulbuls were busy taking fibres from the coconut tree to built their nest. An Asian paradise flycatcher was moving from a neem tree to a coconut tree. A Rupous treepie was flying here and there with something in the mouth. Two Rose-ringed Parakeets were enjoying each others company. Suddenly the Rupous treepie started chasing a House crow. How could I forget the national bird? A peacock danced beautifully, proudly opening its feathers. A flock of Egrets was flying over the river. To add to all this, a family of four freshwater turtles (or terrapins?) were happily swimming in our open well. All this within a few hours and on the same day, at our farm. Yes, the magic was created by a few showers of rain. Rain has brought back my birds and our friendly farmers have happily started sowing in the Chithirai pattam. This time, we have sowed a few varieties of millets and pulses(Kambu, Ragi & Chollum). I know, we may not be able to harvest anything. But my birds will have a wonderful feast.

I dedicate the following album(collected over the last few months) to Arun , who opened my doors to the world of birds.”

Sarvodaya Day Conference – A few memories

May 30, 2016

Published in Sarvodaya magazine, May 2016.

The death anniversary of the Gandhian leader, Jagannathan, who played a crucial role in the Sarvodaya movement, is commemorated every year (on February 10,11,12), in a way that is refreshingly different. Instead of reducing it to a series of homages to an individual, or tributes to a leader who was indeed loved by all, these three days are converted into an exploration of the social change that he desired. This year, the conference was anchored around education and healthcare. Experts and young students came together to think, converse, exchange ideas and return with renewed enthusiasm.

The first day began with a welcome address by Dr.Bhoomikumar. K.M.Natarajan delivered the inaugural address. He shared his memories of Jagannathan. He spoke of how Jagannathan, when he was a teacher, donated his wrist watch to Mahatma Gandhi for the Harijan Seva Fund. He also pointed out that various Sarvodaya leaders like M.Arunachalam were mentored by him. He further recalled Jagannathan’s educational initiatives in Javvadu Hills.

Dr. Pankajam, ex-Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University, who spoke next, focussed on Basic Education – she declared with pride that she completed her entire education, from school to graduation, through the Nai Talim method. She emphasized that the future educational strategy has to evolve from the students. She listed out the challenges faced in the field of education today: deprivation of education for many, exclusion of quality education for the poor, high drop out rates from schools in the rural areas, unemployment of the educated, drain of skilled manpower and lowering standards of teaching. She charted out the required changes in education: Basic education has to be altered in line with changing times; researches should be solution-oriented and not intended for promotions and degrees; Delhi should not be making the curriculum – it should instead be evolved locally; talent should be identified at an early age; maximum stimulus should be provided at the pre-primary stage; various alternatives should be made available to the students; we need to move towards sustainable development.

The next speaker was Dr.Jennifer Lad, who runs the organization, Class Action, in the USA. She remarked that we have to view education in the context of economic changes happening all over the world, the climate change, the over dependence on and exhaustion  of fossil fuels, and raised the question on how we can create resilient communities. She identified six foundations for education: (i) Light is in each of us, and the objective of education is bring out that light;  (ii) Adaptability to the times and conditions; (iii) Systems thinking that will encompass family, community and history, health, food and transportation; (iv) Education has to be transformative, and make us think out of the box; (v) Sustainability should be at the core of our thinking, and all our decisions should be assessed based on the impact 7 generations down;  (vi) Courage and strength of heart.

Jennifer went on to facilitate a discussion with me and my wife, Nedya, which turned out to be a surprising and pleasant experience for us. She focussed on our move to quit the corporate-urban life, and shift to the village to take up farming and teaching the village children, and our experiences around home schooling our daughter.

Later, all the participants broke up into smaller sub-groups, to discuss within themselves and present their views on education. The deliberations could be summarized as follows:

Education should be decentralized.
On the lines of Nai Talim, education should be centered around crafts ad physical work.
Morals and values have to be inculcated.
Students should not be assessed only based on marks.
Equal educational opportunities should be available for everyone.
Mother tongue should be the medium of instruction.
Teachers training and evaluation should undergo significant changes.
Quality of education in government schools has to be improved.
All Children should learn without fear.

The theme for the second day was healthcare, and Dr.Sathya coordinated the events. Dr.Nachiar, one of the co-founders of Aravind Eyecare Hospital, narrated the social journey of her organization. She opined that blindness has afflicted 39 million people globally and 12 million in India, and 80% of it is treatable. She mentioned that Aravind Hospitals reaches the people directly through the 56 primary care centres in villages. The village centers are more important than the large hospitals in cities and locals have to be trained and employed in those primary care centres; even if healthcare is offered free, it is not free for the patient who has to bear certain direct and indirect costs to avail that free treatment. This challenged my perspective on freebies.

Dr.Ramasubramanian, founder of M.S.Chellamuthu Trust, shared his experiences in community psychiatry. He lamented that mental disorders are viewed by the society as a curse or as black magic; it is not just the individual but the entire family that is affected. A vast majority don’t seek medical help from psychiatrists because of ignorance, fear of stigma and high cost. However, all mental illnesses, if detected early enough, are curable, he said. He gave the background behind starting a mental care hospital at Musundagiripatti village, through his Trust. Initially, cooperation from the villagers was not forthcoming; but after he managed to cure a local patient, and employed the same person, the villagers started trusting him. After the fire accident at Yervadi, he tied up with the religious institutions there, and made them refer the patients to qualified psychiatrists. This seemed to be an excellent strategy to use when social initiatives are in conflict with religious faith.

Jone Schanche Olsen, a psychiatrist with Stavenger University Hospital’s Transcultural Centre in Norway, shared his harrowing experiences with refugees affected by war. Refugees have been streaming into Norway from African countries, such as Eritrea, for many years. Now there is a sudden influx from Syria. These refugees have to cross many countries on land and by water. Many of them are children and teenagers. Due to the many gory sights that they have seen, and sexual exploitation, they experience severe mental trauma. Nurses and social activists are trained to work with them. Group therapy is provided for them.

David Albert has been a regular visitor to India for the last 40 years. He has had a long association with the Krishnammal-Jagannathan couple.  He has written important books on Homeschooling. He has been engaged in efforts to bring hygienic drinking water to African countries and India, through his organization, Friendly Water for the World. He spoke about the relationship between education, health and water. In India, the quality of water is worse than it was 40 years ago. The ground water level has gone down. 48% babies are stunted at birth due to malnutrition. Children are damaged the most due to water. Even in the United States, malnutrition among black children is at the same level of India; their mortality rate is similar to that of India. Our educational institutions have failed to impart the knowledge about water filtering and water management. Every teacher should be seen to be cleaning toilets; every child should be taught about clean water and cleaning hands; Gandhi’s experiments with latrines were experiments with truth; Corruption and acceptance of unsanitary conditions are mental illnesses. David touched upon many disparate topics and established their connection with water.

The third day (February 12) was the death anniversary of Jagannathan. It is celebrated as Sarvodaya Day. This is a day that brings together many Gandhian workers. Many villagers from Nagapattinam region, who have benefitted through the works of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, had also come. Dr. M.P.Gurusamy, Dr. Padamuthu, Dr. Markandan and Dr.Jeevanantham spoke. Inamul Hasan and Rajendran narrated their experiences during flood relief operations in Chennai and Cuddalore. Dr.Kausalya Devi, who has been rendering great service in the medical field, and Vengayyan who has, through his stirring songs, played an active role in Sarovodaya movements, were honoured with Sarvodaya Awards. Dr.Natarajan, Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University spoke about Dr.Kausalya Devi and K.M.Natarajan about Vengayyan.

These three days gave fresh impetus to our current efforts, and motivation to take up more. The incident that capped the three memorable days happened on the last day, when the morning session was coming to a close. After hearing many delegates speak, and with the lunch time approaching, the attentiveness of the group had started sagging. It was time for Krishnammal Jagannathan to speak. She rose from the stage, and started walking ahead; she rushed to centre of the hall, sang a small prayer and started speaking emotively in colloquial Tamil. She brushed aside the mike that was offered to her, and someone had to insist on holding it. The American friend, next to me, who out of respect for the speakers was sitting patiently and diligently, though she couldn’t understand the language, was up on her feet, exclaiming, “This is the way to do it.” Krishnammal recounted how, during 1948, in the same location, she was a warden in a hostel for poor women, and helped them to become nurses; of how, many years later, at the same place, she heard of the massacre at Keezha Venmani and rushed there, stayed there and started off the initiative to procure land for landless Dalits. “I saw in newspapers – on the eve of Pongal, rice, jaggery and piece of sugarcane was distributed for all…have you all become so despondent, that you queue up to get rice, jaggery and sugarcane for 10 rupees? What work have those who were in power for 60 years done? Did they give land to the people, did they build them houses, or educate them? Whatever left is the tag, ‘lower caste’,” she stopped abruptly and turned back. The stillness of the room stretched out for a few more seconds, and then dissolved in the applause. For those few moments, the atmosphere there was electric.

Beyond Schools: Into the world of Homeschooling

May 22, 2016

First published in the Sarvodaya magazine, Feb 2016 edition.


I had first met David H.Albert during the Sarvodaya Day conference organized at Gandhigram University to commemorate the death anniversary of the veteran Sarvodaya leader, Jagannathan. David stood out in the crowd, not just because of his foreign looks but also due to his contagious energy and exuberance. When I got introduced to him, he said he was travelling across the world, trying to ensure safe drinking water for everyone. He had also been involved closely with the LAFTI movement, for many years. Later, I came to know of his other side: an active proponent and writer on homeschooling. He has penned five books on homeschooling and alternative education. I had the chance to read his book, ‘Dismantling the Inner School – Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Abundance’.

Disillusioned with the current education system, there are many experiments happening in that space in India, and across the globe. Many alternate schools have been setup in various cities and villages. However, they are but a tiny drop in the ocean. There are other parents who have embraced homeschooling for a variety of reasons. It is important that the criticism of mainstream education and this phenomenon of homeschooling needs to be understood better. David Albert’s book is a step in that direction.

For readers of this magazine, homeschooling, in itself, is not a new concept. Gandhi homeschooled his children; he famously supported Narayan Desai, the son of his trusted aide, Mahadev Desai, in his wish to be homeschooled. His own criticism of the education system led to the formulation of Nai Talim.

David demystifies the idea of homeschooling systematically, in a modern context.

As a homeschooling parent myself, of a seven-year old daughter, I found many parts of the book very thought-provoking and useful. David has put the motto of the Royal Society on the first page – “Nullius in verba” (“Take no man’s word for it” – I am reminded of the popular Thirukkural conveying a similar meaning, ‘எப்பொருள் யார்யார்வாய் கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள்/ மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்ப தறவு.’) I approached the work of David, applying the rigour of this motto, of not taking his word for it. To the author’s credit, it was, for the most part, very difficult not to take his word.

Another quotation that adorns the first page is that of subjiyay, the late spiritual leader of the Skokomish tribe: “Do not teach all children the same thing, or in the same way. For if you do so, they will learn that they do not need each other; and the world will split apart.” This, beautifully, sums up the spirit of the book, and the subject it has chosen to tackle.

The book, though not physically split so, can be seen to be divided into two parts. The first part consists the well-structured core, “Dismantling the Inner School”, and the second part comprises of a series of loosely linked jottings – with tips and anecdotes – on homeschooling, education and more.

In his introductory chapter, David quips, ‘the hardest thing about homeschooling is deciding to do it,’ and ‘once you start homeschooling with your son or daughter, you quickly discover that almost everyone seems to think the kids are fair game for testing, and that you are just inwardly begging for their advice.’ The person who offers the advice or does the ‘testing’, may have no clue about education. This is something that most homeschooling parents do face, and aspiring ones are likely to face. The public acceptance of the decision to homeschool is extremely difficult to procure, and homeschooling parents have to be prepared to weather the storm. David helps with the preparation. There is an inner school in all of us that needs to be dismantled before we embark on a different journey, and David identifies 15 crucial bricks that have to be knocked out first.

The bricks to be dismantled

Here is a short summary of the fifteen bricks that David says have to be dismantled:

Learning starts much before school and is a continuous process.
The fear that something important will be missed if we don’t attend school is over rated.
There are no special places, times or equipment for learning.
You are as much an expert as anybody when it comes to your children.
Learning cannot be sequential and scheduled. It happens in fits and starts.
There are no average children.
Socialization happens even outside age-restricted peer groups. School socialization teaches to obey and not question.
What you teach is not what they learn. Learning is a product of the activity of the learners.
Great enjoyment may even be found in activities we are not good at.
Learning doesn’t happen through accumulation of facts. But by wrestling with new theories of how the world works that help us make sense of the data, so we can throw the old theories out.
Learning is not only for kids. It is a family affair. For the few years you are with your children, turn your household into a learning community.
Learning is not all about individuals – i.e, the learning to be gained by an individual does not trump community intelligence.
There is no permanent record that will follow you forever. What I do in my seventh standard would follow me forever is false. The only permanent record is the one written on your child’s minds and hearts in the course of their life journeys.
Your life outcomes are not determined by how well (or poorly) you do in school.
School cannot fix everything and if things are not going well, the solution is not more of it.

David discusses each of these in detail, backing up his assertions with data, anecdotes and logic. Many of them resonated with my own personal experiences and learnings. I shall share a few here.

Brick one: Learning starts on the First day of School

Many of us do believe that education starts and ends at school. That could be the only explanation for so many hundreds of premium schools, which charge fees that are many times higher than the annual income of an average citizen. Farmers sell off their farm lands to send their children to ‘good’ schools and colleges. A friend recently posted that a school in Chennai has invited applications for LKG admission. Like you, I thought it was nothing unusual. Then I realized it was for the year of 2019. We have chosen to believe that the education for the unborn child, still in its mother’s womb, will start four years from now, after he/she enters a reputed school. How naive! I definitely believe that a substantial part of my daughter’s learning abilities and character were shaped much before she entered school. In fact, after joining school, there was a noticeable decline in her inquisitiveness. After three years in nursery schools, we reverted to homeschooling. The number of questions from her have been on the rise.

David challenges this importance assigned to schools. He writes, ‘regardless of our predilections or philosophies, kids started living and learning at the same time,’ and ‘you and your child don’t have to wait to get on the yellow bus. You are already on it.’

Brick three: There are ‘special’ places for learning, ‘special’ times and there is ‘special’ equipment

“Reading from a book is much less intriguing than the signs in a supermarket, or on the highway, or on the back of a cereal box. The math problems pale in comparison to figuring out the proportion of ingredients needed to bake a cake, or computing gas mileage,” says David, and adds that he is struck most of all by the people we didn’t meet at school.

It is always amusing to see how a child learns. Much of my daughter’s reading happens outside books. She loves to read road signs. She will pick the newspaper and read the headlines. She once read the title of a novel that I was reading, ‘நிலமென்னும் நல்லாள்’, and immediately identified the exact verse in Thirukkural where that phrase appears. She sees that a coin sinks in water and wood floats and wants to know all about floating. She keeps a bowl of water, with salt dissolved in it, in the sun and learns how salt is made.

The child is always alive to learning, and learning happens anytime, anywhere. We don’t need a special password-protected machine to dispense knowledge.

Brick five: If you don’t learn things on time and on schedule, it doesn’t count

This is an extension of the previous point. David asks a disturbingly pertinent question regarding the content and sequence of the lessons: ‘who made up this schedule and on what scientific principle was it based, exactly?’

Once we had visited Sevapur, the Gandhian community in Karur district, along with Dr.Markandan. Near the guest rooms, there was a tree with attractive red-coloured seeds. Our daughter started collecting those seeds, and arranging them in twos and threes. Voila! With a little prodding from me, she learnt the basics of multiplication. It was unplanned, and was surely, not part of the syllabus for her age.

Her learning never follows a pattern. At school, she had learnt a bit of English but had not reached the stage of reading on her own. After leaving school, we taught her only in Tamil for a whole year. At the end of the year, she, almost magically, one fine day, picked up a book and started reading fairly fluently in English, without any prodding from us. She may not, now, be able to do a lot of things that her peers in school do. But it doesn’t matter. She will eventually learn what she needs to, and wants to.

Brick Six: There are such creatures as average children

Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the terms correlation, regression towards the mean and popularized normal distribution and standard deviation. His work gave rise to the ‘Bell curve.’ He applied these set of statistics to human characteristics. For example, that height of humans would fall on bell curve. He applied this to human intelligence. He said intelligence is hereditary, and follows normal distribution.

I have observed the tyranny of the bell curve in the corporate setup. For long, bell curves have been the bedrock of performance appraisals. People have been rewarded and fired based on which part of the bell curve they fall on. It is only now that some companies have started escaping the firm grip of bell curves.

Applied to children, the concept of normal distribution is even more troublesome. There are no average children. Everyone is unique. I was teaching spelling to a boy from our neighborhood farm. He simply couldn’t remember the different spellings. But, asked to identify the various plants on our farm, he did that gleefully with great accuracy. With our daughter, it was the reverse. How can we classify the boy as average, as the school is most likely to do?

Brick eleven: Learning is for kids

“For the few years you are with your children, turn your household into a learning community,” is one of the important advices that David offers in his book.

As parents, we do not always have the answers for the innumerable questions that are asked by the child. It is a great opportunity for us to learn, and learn it right this time. I had to google and find out the exact reason for something as basic as why wood floats and iron sinks. My wife and I had no interest in astronomy before. Now we gaze the stars with our daughter, whenever we get a chance. We had never been to classical music concerts before. But we don’t miss an opportunity to go now. Our daughter learns Tamil Classical music (Thirumurai) from a teacher, who visits us at home. Inadvertently, that is a huge learning for us too, more in Tamil than music.

The child constantly challenges and spurs her parents to grow. For those who oblige, a new world unfolds.

Brick Twelve: Learning is all about individuals – i.e, the learning to be gained by an individual trumps community intelligence

David goes beyond the individual to take a social view in this section, and asserts that public education has not developed our capacities for participation in social and community life. We have become good when it comes to asphalt but we’ve gotten poor at caring for one another.

“In our dogged pursuit for individual excellence and our insistence on a singe standard for it, whereby we are expected to cultivate the same capacities at the same time, we have marginalized entire groups of people: children (who are not supposed to be seen outside of school), the aged, the unemployed, people who work with their hands or their backs or their as-yet-to-be-fully-realized artistic imaginations, those who stay home with their children, the infirm and the disabled are far removed from our community dialogue (and often from our democratic processes as well).”

Brick fifteen: School can fix everything and if things are not going well, the solution is more of it

David says, schools have become the chosen venue for interventions in the life of our communities far beyond their more narrowly defined educational purposes. He cites a research published in 2001, by Karl Alexander, a sociologist at John Hopkins University. Alexander followed 650 first graders and found that, after five years, children from low socio-economic class backgrounds, after starting with only a small deficit, were well behind those from higher ones. But he also found that cumulative classroom learning over the five-year period was virtually the same. The difference was a result of what happened to the reading scores of the two groups during summer vacations.

On that basis, it is asserted that keeping the kids (especially the poorer ones) in school would help bridge the gap. But rich kids gain most when they are not in classroom. So, the question should be what can be done, in their homes, families, and communities outside of school and instead of school to improve the quality of their living and learning environments.

This finding rings very true. Our schooling system in India is in worse shambles. There is a huge learning advantage that is gained by being born into the right economic background, in the right cities, and in the right castes. Schools, far from leveling the field, are exacerbating the problem by allowing vast differences in the quality of education and infrastructure.

Have tea and conversation

One of the biggest concerns around homeschooling is how to ensure that the child gets adequate social interactions. The interactions need not always be restricted to age-group peers. The solution that David offers for this is simple – to surround the children with conversation, not just with ourselves, but with interesting people from all walks of life. ‘Enrich your own life with conversation and it will rub off on the kids.’

This is another aspect that I can vouch for, from our experiences. Going to school would have deprived our daughter, who is usually reticent, of some wonderful interactions with some wonderful people with all sorts of talents and inclinations.

‘All men are created the same’

David draws a parallel between the industrial world and post-industrialization education. ‘Human beings – beginning with childhood – must be manufactured. They must have the same likes and dislikes, the same moral or political opinions, same moods, same reactions, so they can all be made, at the whims of our consumer culture makers, to twitch all the time. There is no experience, except of the manufactured variety.’

There is a profound truth in this observation too. Our education system is filling its students with profuse sameness, who go on to propagate that sameness in all spheres of life – making the same sort of software, consuming the same kind of food, building the same kind of buildings, aspiring for the same kind of lives, going for the same holiday destinations, and even making the same kind of art; and, ultimately demanding singularity in religion, culture, language and politics.

Curriculum of abundance

David lists down three scarcities that should alarm us.
Scarcity of attention: A teacher, however good, cannot be expected to know all her 30 students equally well. Therefore, our system takes a one size fits all approach.
Assumption of scarcity of time: A child is assumed to have a limited time for learning. Therefore, it is expected that a particular lesson has to be learnt at a particular point of time in her life. It does not matter that the child might find other things interesting at the point of time, or that she could learn that lesson well at a different point in time.
Scarcity of intelligence: Schools believe that the children cannot be trusted to learn or figure out anything on their own. ‘If it isn’t taught, it ain’t learned, and if it isn’t tested for, it ain’t worth knowing.’

David assures the homeschooling parents that they have abundance at their disposal: abundance of time, energy and potential.

Robins and Bluebirds

During the second month of his first grade, David and his classmates were separated into ‘Bluebirds and Robins’. Bluebirds were the ‘smarter’ kids, and the Robins the ‘average’ kids. There were other classifications too.  All Bluebirds used to sit together and read together. Robins used to separately sit and read together. The books for Bluebirds had words in them and Robins had only pictures. Bluebirds were 90% Jewish. They spent no time with Robins. In six years of ‘ability-tracked’ system, not a single Robin ever became a Bluebird, and vice versa, irrespective of the grades and performance. Soon the Robins fell out of their consciousness. A Bluebird was allowed a large creative space for personal initiative, but only in a system that rationed opportunities for others, i.e. Robins. All ‘Bluebirds go to college. Robins sometimes do.’ It was clear that Bluebirds meet more success in life than Robins. ‘Liberal or conservative or in-between, virtually all the politicians are Bluebirds. Certainly almost all the social service executives, and all the people in the think tanks. Bluebirds managed the global financial meltdown, and send soldiers (virtually all Robins) to war.’

In India, it must be reiterated, the unofficial segregation into Bluebirds and Robins happens right from the time a child is born or a school is chosen. The tendency to segregate children based on socio-economic strata is getting strengthened. Today, rich children can be seen exclusively in elite schools, and are taught by the best teachers, with the best infrastructure and ideal teacher-student ratios. Poor children can be seen in the government run schools, which, despite paying its teachers reasonably well, are typically under-staffed and are run in poor conditions. Children of poor parents, with higher aspirations, fare worse by sending their children to low-cost private English medium schools, which pay low salaries, overwork the teachers, and hence attract poor talent.

David, throughout his book is blunt, has no sacred cows, busts the myths around everything from the efficacy of measuring IQ to using phonics. David’s book is important, not just as a tome on homeschooling, but as a detailed critique on the current education system. The honest book does give rise to hard questions, including about homeschooling itself.

Concerns around homeschooling

My harshest criticism about the book is that it tends to romanticize homeschooling, without delving into its shortcomings and challenges. Even as we homeschool our daughter, we have some questions for which we have not got any convincing answers, including from this book.

Foremost among them is this: is homeschooling another form of education, possible only to the privileged? I tend to think so. Despite giving up the economic privileges to a large measure, personally, we still retain our social and educational privileges. I do think we are still in a far superior position than parents not as well educated (at school or outside) as us. Here I mean the bookish education. Of course, education means more than that. An illiterate potter may be able to pass the best pottery skills and the best culture to his kids. But, would they have the liberty and aptitude to make a different choice?  Wholesome academic education, aligned with emphasis on professional skills, places the children in a position to choose their vocation. In a caste dominated society like ours, with aspirations of the common man going beyond hereditary professions, it is important that everybody gets equal educational opportunities, and it is also important that such an education doesn’t alienate the children from their strengths and surroundings. Homeschooling, to my mind, doesn’t serve this social purpose on a mass scale. One of my biggest criticisms about most alternate schools, barring a few notable exceptions, is that they are elitist in nature. While, a balanced education is provided to the students, the balance is badly offset by the lack of socio-economic diversity among the students. This will leave the students of such schools with a very skewed view of life. Homeschooling, while not necessarily elitist in nature, is, most often, possible only for a selected few.

Secondly, while non-peer socialization can happen during homeschooling, it is dependent on the parents, especially during the younger years of the child. For parents like us, leading a free life, who are able to have the child with one of us throughout the day, and also travel a lot, ensuring such non-peer interaction is easier; but for parents who go for traditional vocations in government or corporate workplaces, this luxury may not be possible. Also, for parents who lead a secluded life, homeschooling will deprive the children of precious company. ‘Tea and conversations’ are a must. Even for those of us, who claim to create abundant non-peer interactions, creating same age-group interactions is a challenge. I have observed that the child craves for both peer and non-peer interactions at different points of time.

Thirdly – a respected writer of serious literary merit pointed this out to me – a homeschooled child grows under the protection of the parents; the unlimited freedom that the child gets is simulated. Only when the child is exposed to the external world, independent of the parents, the child will be truly exposed to all the goodness and the cruelties of the world. Only then, the child will truly see the world with her own eyes, and will be shaped by what she sees. This, I am aware, is a highly controversial point of view. I cannot say that I, myself, fully agree with it, but it is the valuable view of an artist, which I’ll not ignore. David speaks of such exposure during the adolescent years of his daughters but at an younger age, if at all it is desirable, homeschooling may not serve that need.

These and a few other questions cast a shadow on the otherwise attractive and very natural way of educating a child.

In conclusion, in my personal opinion, homeschooling, at best, is an option available to a select few, who are disillusioned with the current education system. Taking into account, all the criticism mounted on mainstream education by David in this important work, we still need to find the right ways to impart the right education to the masses.

Book: Dismantling the Inner School – Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Abundance
Author: David H. Albert
Publisher: Hunt Press, Los Angeles
Year: 2011