Craft week

January 17, 2020


We took three boys from our village and our daughter to the Crafts’ Week at Marudam Farm School, Tiruvannamalai. For a person like me who is really bad at using my hands to create anything useful, a week of watching artisans at work, fleetingly trying my hands at different crafts and reconfirming my inadequacy is an ego-grounding exercise. We, self-professed intellectuals, presume that mastering a craft is something we can do in a jiffy, whenever we choose to do it. It’s a nice theory as long as we don’t attempt to validate it.

We don’t have to romanticize craft as art. Craft by itself is valuable. The intrinsic value and expertise of a good craftsman is as much as that of a manager or a doctor. The market does not value their contribution but current market value is not everything. We have to move increasingly towards local production and consumption, if we are serious about carbon footprints, climate emergency, etc. Artisans will have a huge role to play in such an economy. They are keeping alive a possibility essential for our existence.

Tagore’s Mukta-dhara: nationalism, science, education and more

November 12, 2019

Rabindranath Tagore’s Mukta-dhara (Translated by Marjorie Sykes) is a play with an interesting, futuristic theme. The King of Uttarkut, Ranajit, employs an engineer, Bibhuti, to build a dam to stall the waters of Mukta-dhara which were flowing into the neighbouring country, Shiv-tarai, in order to make them starve and submit.

The play, written in 1922, can be viewed as a critique on nationalism and the use of science for destruction. There is also a small scene from the play in which Tagore launches a scathing satirical attack on the schooling system, relevant today more than ever. Tagore’s play precedes Noam Chomsky’s description of formal education as ‘a deep level of indoctrination that takes place in our schools’ and a schooled person ‘is one who is conditioned to obey power and structure’.

The Bairagi, Dhananjaya, a character in the play, reminds us of Gandhi and speaks his language of non-violence. Some critics cite the character of Sandip, the antagonist in Ghare Baire, to be a veiled attack on Gandhi. But Ghare Baire was actually written in 1916, much before the phenomenal rise of Gandhi in India and his khadi movement on a national scale, and has to be seen more as a criticism on the swadeshi movement of the previous decade. Tagore, though, did employ some of those arguments in his later debates with Gandhi on khadi. However, it was an ideological debate and not an attack on his personal integrity, which was the case with Sandip. Dhananjaya is a far more representative portrayal of the voice of Gandhi than Sandip. But even Dhananjaya, Marjorie Sykes points out in the introduction, had already appeared in an earlier play of Tagore, Prayaschitta (Atonement), published in 1909.


[Here is the scene where a schoolmaster and his students meet the King.]

The schoolmaster of Uttarakut enters with his boys.

MASTER. You’ll be getting a taste of the cane, I can see.
Loudly now, shout, Jai Rajarajeswar!

BOYS. Jai, Rajara . . .

MASTER [slapping a boy or two within his reach] . . .

BOYS. Jeswar !

RANAJIT. Where are you all going?

MASTER. Sire, your Majesty is to confer honour on our royal engineer Bibhuti, so I am taking the boys to share the rejoicings. They have learned from childhood to honour everything that is to the glory of Uttarakut. I don’t want them to miss any opportunity.

RANAJIT. They all know, I suppose, what Bibhuti has done?

BOYS [jumping and clapping their hands]. Yes, yes, he has stopped up Shiv-tarai’s drinking water.

RANAJIT. Why did he do that?

BOYS. To make them smart!

RANAJIT. And why should he make them smart?

BOYS. Because they are bad men.

RANAjiT. How bad?

BOYS. Everybody knows it, they are very bad, awfully bad.

RANAjtT. But you don’t know why they are bad?

MASTER. Of course they know, Maharaja. Now, you, didn’t you read? Didn’t you read in your book?
[Whispering] Their religion is very bad,

BOYS. Yes, yes, their religion is very bad.

MASTER. And besides, they are not like us. Come now, speak up! [He points to his nose.]

BOYS. They haven’t got high-ridged noses.

MASTER. Right, now what has our professor proved? What does a high-ridged nose show?

BOYS. The greatness of our race!

MASTER. Good. And what will that great race do?
Come, speak up! … they’ll conquer , . . out with it. do! … they’ll conquer everyone else in the world, won’t they?

BOYS. Yes, everyone.

MASTER. Were the men of Uttarakut ever defeated in war?

BOYS. Never, never!

MASTER, Didn’t our former king Pragjil, with two hundred and ninety-three men, drive back an army of thirty-one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three southern barbarians?

BOYS. Yes, yes!

MASTER. Rest assured, your Majesty, all these boys will be a terror one day to all wretched foreigners. If not, I am no true teacher. Not for a moment do I forget what a great responsibility is ours. It’s, we schoolmasters who mould men — your ministers have merely to use them. Yet think what a salary they get, compared with ours!

MINISTER. But these boys themselves are your reward.

MASTER. Well spoken, sir, the boys themselves are Our reward. Alas, but food is dear. Just think; cow’s ghee, which used to be . . .

MINISTER. All right, all Tight, I’ll see about your ghee. Now go, it’s nearly time for worship.

The Schoolmaster goes out with his boys.

RanajiT. This schoolmaster of yours has nothing in his head but ghee, cow’s ghee.

MINISTER. There is certainly a good deal of the cow about him. But, Maharaja, fellows of this kind have their uses. Day after day they repeat, mechanically, exactly what they have been told. Things wouldn’t run so smoothly if they had more sense.


[A scene with Dhananjaya:]

GANESH. Master, only say the word, and I’ll get hold of that bully Chandapal’s stick and show him what beating is.

DHANANJAYA. Can’t you show him what not-beating is?
That needs too much strength, I suppose? Beating the waves won’t stop the storm. But hold your rudder steady, and you win.

FOURTH SHIV What do you tell us to do, then?

DHANANJAYA. Strike at the root of violence itself.

THIRD SHIV. How can that be done, Master?

DHANANJAYA. .As soon as you can hold up your head and say that it does not hurt, the roots of violence will be cut.

SECOND SHIV. It is not so easy to say that it doesn’t hurt.

DHANANjAYA. Nothing can hurt your real manhood, for that is a flame of- fire. The animal, that is the flesh, feels the blow, and whines. But you stand there gaping — don’t you understand ?

SECOND SHIV. We understand you, but your words we don’t understand.

DHANANJAYA. Then you are done for.

GANtSH. Time presses. Master, and your words take so long to understand. But we understand you, and so we shall have an early crossing.

DHANANjAYA. Early? But what of the evening time?
When you find your boat sinking within sight of shore?
If you can’t make my words your own, you will be drowned.

GANESH. Don’t say that. Master. We have found shelter at your feet, so we must have understood somehow.

DHANANjAYA. It is only too plain that you have not understood. Your eyes still see red, and there is no song on your lips. Shall I give you a tune?

Our learning centre

November 20, 2018

(Posted in Facebook on 9th September)

We have found a new place for our learning centre, thanks to the wonderful couple (currently working in Japan), Krishna Kumar and Gayathri Krishnakumar, who have offered us their house and rooms on their farm, closer to the village than our own farm. So far, we were functioning under a pipal tree, which housed a temple for Vinayaka. It had its own charm but there were caste issues, rain and other challenges.

Now the new place offers the children scope to do much more. Other friends have helped in other ways. And there are new challenges, which I hope we’ll overcome (more on them, later). But we are most excited that we are not in it alone, anymore.

Experiential Learning

November 7, 2017

Narayanan works on the farm where our current house is located. He is hard of hearing. But a tireless worker. He starts his day at 5.30 or 6, by cleaning the cattle shed and milking the cow, and works almost non-stop till he ends his day after 6 after handing over the evening’s milk to the milkman.

I keep hearing about snakes in our village. Most of the snakes that they see are reported to be kraits or cobras. I’ve heard our boys talk about 5-headed snakes. I keep pondering if they can really identify snakes or if, out of scare, they think of every snake as venomous.

I was reading a book on snakes by the renowned snakes expert, Whitekar (translated into Tamil). It had fairly extensive details about snakes, with their Tamil names, and black and white photos.

Narayanan was passing by. Suddenly seized by either an urge to test his knowledge of snakes, or a thought that he might be interested in going through pictures of snakes, I showed a photo on the book and gestured to him, asking what snake it was. He can’t read. But immediately after glancing at the photo, he said ‘Russel’s viper’ (கண்ணாடிவிரியன்). He also correctly identified the common krait (கட்டுவிரியன்) and Indian cobra (நாகன்) on the previous pages.

“My father died after being bitten by a Russel’s viper. I must have been younger than your daughter then. My youngest brother was a few months old,” he said.

“In those days, our houses were all damp during rainy days. He was bitten while he was asleep. He kept insisting that it was nothing for a long time. Then my mother saw a viper, and killed it. Later she saw four more coming from behind a drumstick tree. Where were cars and buses during those days? Especially at night. By the time we arranged a cart and took him, he died. He had been bitten below his knees. My mother had tied a cloth on his thighs. But one lady had removed it. The poison rose to his head quickly.”

“None of us studied. After I grew up, I was bitten by a common krait. But my employer had a car. He took me to a Chritian Mission hospital in Kerala. They kept a stone which sucked out the poison.”

“Then…you know my brother, Ponnusamy…he was cutting some maize stalk for the cows. A Russel’s viper zapped around him and bit him on his knees. It was 8pm. We took him on the K.P.K. bus to Pollachi. Even then, we had to spend over 10000 rupees.”

He further spoke about rat snakes and cobras. The details and physical features that he mentioned were more or less similar to what I find on that book.

However many books I read, I doubt if I could identify snakes correctly, or if I am bitten, whether I would know how to react. Whenever even bees or wasps build their hives inside our house, we go running to Narayanan. Who teaches who?

Which system of education can impart them the learning that they gather from their experiences, dangling between life and death? Can we, at the least, not alienate them from their experiences and environment?

Death of a girl

October 14, 2017

(Translation of my earlier lament in Tamil)

The mind which gets agitated by distant deaths, gets diverted to other things soon enough. But deaths that occur near us continue to haunt us and the guilt refuses to fade away.

This week, at our village, Nithya, a tenth standard student, jumped into a well and killed herself. The villagers believe that she had been caned badly at school. They say that she got treated for a bruise on her hand, 10 days ago at the PHC. The teachers had been compelling her to bring her parents, since she was not performing well at her studies. Her parents, who are daily-wage labourers, had not gone to the school, probably due to their ignorance or work load or indifference. Her teacher had continued to warn her and rebuke her. On that day, she had gotten ready for the school, braided her hair, took money for the bus, left her school bag at home and fell into the well. The well, which was covered with bushes, had been barren till that week and water had just been filled from the bore well. The person working on the farm, where we reside at a rented house, had seen her going to that place. But he had not questioned her, thinking that she might be going there for relieving herself. Her parents, after being on the queue at the ration shop, had seen her bag and chappals at the house, and started searching her everywhere. Somebody happened to peer into the well, and saw the school uniform. The whole village assembled immediately.

Having gone to our farm, which is a bit removed from the village, we were oblivious to all these events. We heard the news and headed back to the village only in time for the cremation.

“Had it been one of our children, we would have abducted the teacher and hacked him,” said a few Keralites.
“If she can’t study well, what else can the teacher do but beat her? Should the girl kill herself for this?”
“What is the point of blaming others? Her parents should have gone to school. What can anyone do if they sit at home fearing to go there?”
“They left the matter at this because they are poor. Had they been from a rich family, there would have been great commotion.”
“If she had been from the, they wouldn’t have remained quiet.”

We heard many such talks. Something had happened at school that had impelled her to death. It is not fair to blame the child. There is no point in blaming the parents. Almost all of them said that Nithya was a quiet and timid girl. Her brother had also dropped out of school and was working at a petrol bunk.

After investigation, the police seem to have recorded that the teacher had admonished her/advised her. The newspapers carried only those words, the next day.

When I sought to converse with the parents and the village elders on the possible next steps, they were not keen on taking this any further.

I too, personally, didn’t have a violent urge to ensure that the teacher was punished. It could be because I do not have faith in punishments in such cases. Transformation of hearts is what is needed here. And this is not a problem that can be pinned on one person. Most schools still have cardinal punishment for the children. Many parents encourage caning. Even the government schools are now under pressure to deliver good results in public exams. The teachers believe that poor students should have been filtered in earlier classes. They consider them to be a burden.

I thus keep rationalising within myself.

This should not occur to another child. The teachers shouldn’t become complacent that no one would question them.

Next week, I intend to go to that school with another willing friend, and offer to do what I can by engaging with the teachers in group discussions and counseling.

Though our farm is located in this village, we were residing in the neighbouring village so far. It has only been a month and a half since we relocated to this village. Since we hadn’t yet found a place where we can gather the children, our learning centre has not been started here yet. We haven’t yet commenced working with the children. Had we avoided this delay, could we have averted this death? My own lack of clarity, and inadequacies, give me great pangs of guilt.

We can view the bushes around that well from the windows of our house. We had not known that there was a well there behind those bushes. We had never met Nithya. But, when she had trudged towards the well, and slided down the bushes, we had been only about 100 feet away. Had we glanced there, we might have seen her. Had she screamed, we could have heard her. On the way to our farm, her mud tomb is located, decorated with flowers. It will be washed away by the impending rains. But my heart shall not be consoled.

Every time a teacher raises his/her hands to beat a child, they should realise that they might be holding a rope of death. The harsh words that you utter and the punishments that you give might suck a life out. Sow only love. Education, marks and your salaries are all trivial. So what, if Nithya had failed the exams? A death renders everything meaningless. We need a huge shift in our attitudes towards, and understanding of, education, teaching methods, and children – before we lose another Anitha or Nithya.

Learning – Its purpose and impact: From the Tamil Sangam Age to the Cyber Age

July 10, 2017

[This is the full text that I had prepared for a speech at IIT Chennai. The actual speech delivered there was shortened due to time constraints. I have broken the text into 3 parts: The first part has a bit of my personal experiences; the second part focuses on references to learning in early Tamil literature, and a look at the situation of education in India in the recent past;  the third part deals with contemporary issues. One may choose to read the whole essay or only the parts that are of interest to you – they can be read together or independent of each other.]

Reading at a Table - Picasso

Reading at a Table – Picasso

“For the learned, every nation and every place is theirs;
why then, doesn’t one keep learning till death,”
– Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar.


Educators have a pet peeve. They say only a lawyer advises on issues of law, a doctor on medicine, an engineer on his field, an artist on art and so on. But everybody has something to say about learning. That is because everybody learns. While educators may have a major role to play in learning, learning is not the preserve of educators or educational institutions. Learning may happen because of them, it may happen despite them, and it may well happen without them.

How we learn, why we learn and what me must learn are questions crucial to the human civilisation today.

What I intend to speak about learning has a lot to do with how I myself have learnt, and still learn. I have been to premier educational institutions, and have worked in large corporates. But I was continually plagued by the questions, what was I learning, and how was my learning relevant to the society that I lived in. I incidentally started translating Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil text by Thiruvalluvar. I also started to read deeply about Gandhi, and works by Gandhi. My questions didn’t go away – they got deepened. I saw a big mismatch between what we were learning and doing, and the impact of all that on my own inner self, and the society around me. I decided to quit my job, and corporate career. I started training students on leadership – righteous and compassionate leadership – using the tenets of Thirukkural and Gandhi. While my efforts may have helped inspire some students, I still felt a void. I began feeling that sitting inside a classroom, listening to a lecture, watching fancy multimedia slides, and doing pre-designed activities, however absorbing they may be, is not how children, or adults, learn. Learning, I began realising, emerges from and has to be rooted to the society, to its culture and Nature.

Despite rampant urbanisation, a large part of India still resides in its villages, and I too, decided to shift to a village. Along with my wife and daughter, we are now learning farming and various other aspects of life from the village. Yet to forego our vanities, we run a learning centre at our home, which we call ‘Payilagam’. It is a free, open space for the village children to come, read books from our library or play games or do homework or clear doubts, be themselves and do what they want to. It has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn about learning. Our nine year old daughter doesn’t attend formal school, and has been learning naturally from the rich experience she is gaining from her environment, and the people and books around her.

With this little personal background, let me proceed deeper into the subject of interest for us today: learning. Learning, I would like to emphasise again, has to be rooted to the culture, society and nature. The impact of learning is today measured by the exam scores, the entrances that one clears, employability, earning potential and depth of knowledge. But we have reached a point where not many of us really care about the impact of our learning on the society. Cultural continuity has been lost in our learning, which in turn, negatively impacts the societal relevance. ‘Let Nature be your Teacher,’ said William Wordsworth. But much of our modern learning has taken us too far away from nature. In the course of this speech, I shall devote some time to each of these aspects.

Firstly, culture. An understanding of one’s culture, and aligning our learning to our culture, will, one can understand intuitively, enhance learning. However, our education systems, on the one hand, think learning is universal and local culture has nothing to do with it. There has been a disdain towards our learning heritage, and many of us seem to think that our education started with Macaulay. There is no need for us to seek a false sense of superiority, but to have an understanding and rootedness is essential. Being rooted to one’s culture, will give the thrust to embrace all other cultures. Of course, there will be, and has to be points of departure from certain aspects of the cultural past. But an understanding is a must for making those departures too. As a first step, I first seek to understand our culture of learning.

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Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)


There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]


Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.


A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”

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Seine at Govindanur

January 8, 2017

Writer Payon has been sharing many wonderful paintings of acclaimed painters on his Twitter account. I’ve been saving some of the paintings. I showed them, this week, to the children at our learning centre.

Haseen, who was upset with me till then, as I had inquired about the tussle he had with his brother and another boy on their way back from the class the previous day, was the first one to join. (“Appa, Haseen anna would become alright, if you offer to show some movie on the laptop,” my daughter had suggested.)

After going through most of the paintings, he himself chose one, (Gabriele Münter “On the Seine”, 1930) and started drawing. Sahana and Tamilselvi joined him as well and drew their own interpretations. Jumana, who had been troubling everyone with her naughtiness, lended them the crayons for colouring.

“Akka, do you have those Bangalore biscuits,” asked Jai. We had run out of them long back, and offered them other biscuits.

The learning centre took on a new hue. We started clicking some pictures. A joyous sensation gripped everyone. Unexpectedly, a celebration got staged.

Dhyanavanam – A unique experience

January 1, 2017

An entirely new experience was in store for us last week. We had gone for a training workshop, organised by Dr.Raja and Kalpana, the couple who work in Gandhigram University, and have become close family friends over the last few years. This time, the training was held outside the University campus, at Dhyana Vanam, an ashram nearby.

Dhyana Vanam is run by Father Korko Moses – a saffron-clad Jesuit Priest. He manages the ashram, spread over 6.5 acres, mostly alone and with the occasional help of priests who come for training. It has been 5 years since the area has received decent rains; the adjoining dam is dry; yet, there is a bit of greenery left. The mercy of the small showers that morning had added a glow to the green.

Father Korko lives a simple, monastic life. His bedroom offered a sight that I’ve never come across. In the room, built as a pyramidal structure, there was a cot, over 4 feet tall, and a thin mattress over it; there was a makeshift bathroom at one corner. There was nothing else in that room.

“For the first time, I am seeing a room with no material objects,” I commented.
“A few of my possessions are in the office,” he clarified.

The program started after four girls lighted a lamp, and Mahirl Malar sang a song from Thirumurai.

In the large hall, where the program was held, there were pictures of Dalai Lama, Vivekananda, Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Mahavira and other spiritual leaders. He shared with the children, an outline about each of them. There was a picture of Jesus, seated in Padmasana. He said he sees Jesus as a Siddha saint.

Father Korko considers Swami Sadhananda Giri to be his Guru, and has spent many years in Bengal, learning Yoga from him. This Catholic priest has also assumed another name – Swami Saranananda. He has written a book, Yesu Nama Japam in Bengali, and has translated it into English and Tamil.

There is a separate hall for meditation, set amidst serene surroundings. The wall facing the door, has in its middle, a picture which brings together symbols of 12 different religions. On top of it is, inscribed in bold fonts, the Tamil phrase from Thirmoolar, “There is but one religion, and one god.” In the middle of the picture, the figure of a meditating saint is seen.

Founders of all religions attained an enlightened state after deep meditation, says Father Korko.

In front of the picture, Gita, Bible and Koran, are placed open. On the book shelf in the room, several copies of these scriptures were present.

On the first day evening, the 30 children, aged between 10 and 15, quietly sat through a 1-hour session of bhakti songs, the multi-religious song of Vinoba Bhave, meditation, reading of a passage from Bible (related to the couplets from Thirukkural that we saw that day). Father Korko briefed the children about the 12 religions represented in the central picture. He told stories of Buddha.

The meditation ended with an ‘arati’ for the central picture.

We assembled again, at 6am the next morning. After a few physical exercises, we had another round of meditation and singing for an hour. This time, instead of Bible, Father Korko chose a few passages from Gita, and asked me to read aloud. Dr.Raja sang the song of peace, ‘Shanti nilva vendum.’

Later, when I cited Dharmananda Kosambi, who in his well researched and reverent work on Buddha, disputes some of the popular tales as improbable, Father Korko agreed, “Yes, they are myths. Myths are built around all prophets within a few years. These myths are useful to explain their philosophies.”

In between our training sessions, he taught the children Korean dance. They were thrilled.

When Nedya took a session on birds, the children could easily appreciate the connection between people and nature.

The task of taking classes based on Thirukkural was now simplified. In a way, it seemed redundant. When children could see righteousness and love personified by a simple man, right in front of them, what is there to express through words.

The children were split into small groups and sent into the village, to visit at least 5 houses, converse and mingle with the villagers. At some houses, dogs barked at them; at a couple of houses, people did the barking; but largely, people were friendly, invited them inside and offered them something to eat. Though the drought has robbed them of all revenues and jobs, there is moisture left in their hearts.

There is nobody willing or trained, yet, to take over the Dhyana Vanam from Father Korko, and, though he is not someone to be too fussed about future, his longing for a potential successor can be sensed. He feels that this place will be more ideal for seekers than devotees. Though there is no organisational resistance to his work, there doesn’t seem to be any great support either. He travels abroad every year to conduct meditation sessions, and also conducts retreats at the ashram. He raises sufficient funds for running the ashram through these activities. He also holds alcohol de-addiction camps.

He wanted to learn the song on Shiva (Oli valar vilakke) that Mahirl had sung. He asked her to sing again, and recorded it, and noted down the lyrics. He opined that the raga of the song must be Ananda Bhairavi. We didn’t know for sure, who the author was (Thirumaaligaithevar). He took us to his library. The library had the entire collection of Thirumurai in over 20 volumes. He also had the complete collection of Max Muller’s works on Eastern sacred texts. Having left for Bengal at the age of 18, and having spent 38 years of his life there, he felt that he couldn’t gain sufficient exposure to Tamil works.

At the end of the two days, during the feedback session, one young girl mentioned, “I asked the Father if Hindus can read Bible. He said yes. I liked it very much.”

That openness and appreciation for other thoughts is one of the key insights the children would have gained in those two days.

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.