Monday, 16 July 2018

'Us' and 'Them'

I remember a 10-year-old me trying diligently to submit a gender-neutral school essay using his/her, he/she wherever possible. It seemed unfair how skewed the language was towards the male pronouns. 

A little while later, I came across the concept of 'Hijra'. As a child, I thought that they were men dressed as women. But then, I was told that they were 'cursed to be neither male nor female'. People feared and ridiculed them, and prayed that a Hijra child not be born to them. Such a shame that would be, and the Hijras would come and take their offspring away.

Now, if the English language was unfair to women, it totally lacked the vocabulary to adequately address this community. 'Why should a creation of God be feared and ridiculed?', I would think. Why is there so much stigma attached to a natural phenomenon that parents are forced to send their Hijra children away? Why can't they live normal lives, study, work, play like the rest of us? They are humans after all, with a right to lead dignified lives. But alas! Such provisions didn't exist in our society. So unfair.

And then, one fine day, a curious teenager me, got to know that there are men who fall in love with men, and women who fall in love with women. They are called gays and lesbians, I was told. And these guys were perverts and sinners, I was told. So, at least the Hijras were naturally occurring. But the homosexuals were downright diabolical!

Again, my feminist brain refused to buy this argument. How can loving someone be a sin? Homosexuals have no voluntary control over their sexuality. Homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder. It cannot be 'cured'. Being homosexual is as simple as being left handed - which by the way, was also considered ungodly until recently. So then why, why must I believe that they are sinners, just because they love differently? And to accord them 'criminals', only because of their sexuality? That's a bit too much, don't you think?

Now, I'm much older, and know a lot more about the LGBTQ community. I know appropriate gender-neutral pronouns for addressing them. And I know for sure that their sexuality or gender identity doesn't make them criminals. What two consenting adults do behind closed doors is nobody's business. It is high time that they are given a dignified place in our society.

To those who say that they are against Indian culture, there have been covert references throughout Indian history towards alternate sexuality and gender identity. Shikhandi who was instrumental in Bhishma's death, Arjun banished to live like a woman, a child born to Vishnu and Shiva, the depiction of androgynous forms such as Ardhanarishwara, they are all proof that 'Bharatiya Sanskriti' has long endorsed the LGBTQ community as a normal part of our lives. The stigma associated with them is fairly recent and definitely needs to go. Repealing Section 377 is the first step in doing so.

Just like us cisgendered, heterosexual humans, 'they' too must be able to live full lives without fear. 'They' must be able to rent homes, have access to healthcare, and forge meaningful relationships. So that gay men don't marry heterosexual women and destroy the lives of all involved. So that they too can lodge complaints if they are abused, and justice prevails. So that the world becomes fairer. And love conquers all.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

No Child Is Incapable Of Math, And Other Lessons I Learned As A Teacher

As a passionate STEM educator, I have had the good fortune of teaching kids with diverse backgrounds, spanning a huge spectrum of ages, from preschoolers to adults pursuing masters' degrees in engineering. And trust me, teaching each age group has been a challenge in itself, and I have learnt a lot along the way.
I have had the support of some brilliant teachers, and each day I aspire to be like them. Teachers who are adored by children, teachers who create magic in their classrooms, teachers who persevere, who give a part of themselves every time they teach. These teachers strive for excellence, and tirelessly work towards making every student in their class understand and experience the joy in learning.
And in this journey, I have learnt a few things that I would like to share with you. Of course, your opinions may differ from mine, be sure to tell me yours!

1. I am yet to find a student who is completely incapable of doing math

I make this statement after having taught math to children who were just about making it through school. I also need to mention, none of these kids had any learning disabilities, so I cannot make such a claim for children with disabilities. You see, while math is essential to every human being's existence, it cannot be taught to every child the same way. Some have a natural ability with numbers, others, who are visual learners, need the aid of a lot of manipulatives in order to get the hang of things. These kids will test your patience, but they will also enhance your ability to teach in creative ways, making use of every resource that you have at your disposal, be it an educational toy or a grocery item. And trust me, it works. Patience, perseverance and creativity.
And gender definitely puts no limits on one's math abilities. The brightest mathematical brain that I taught belongs to a girl who would often stump me with questions that were much beyond her peers, and definitely motivated me to be better prepared for next day's lecture.

2. Children are pure gold, but parents often falter at giving them the right direction

All the children that I have ever taught were pure gold. I never had problems teaching even the most "wayward" of them. Eventually, if the child feels safe, and you have been successful in igniting the spark, they all come around and enthusiastically question, ponder, deduce. It is a magical feeling when this starts happening.
But, what has often put me off is the attitude of the parents. Some are too busy leading their own lives to show any interest in their child's. Others think that they are doing the teacher a favour by paying her fees, and believe their duty ends there. Then there are parents who are not open to taking feedback from teachers, or spending quality time with their kids.
And here's the irony: I have seen children from families where both parents are working full-time, families with discord, families facing financial and medical adversities, and yet at least one of the parents makes an effort to be present for the child, to raise him/her right. And I have seen children from houses where at least one of the parents is at home, apparently "taking care" of the kids, and yet they are emotionally and mentally absent from their kids' lives. They are failing as parents despite being physically present. One time, an angry, filthy rich mother called and threatened me for not fudging her son's attendance. He had attended a total of four classes in five months, and without a valid reason for his absence, was ineligible to take end-semester exams. If I had any thoughts about trying to reason with or help this kid out, they were immediately quashed after his mother's phone call. This mother had never taught her son to be responsible or accountable. He could get away with anything.
All learning begins at home, and parents are the role models that the child looks up to. Some parents spoil their kids by being too permissive, while some others mess them up by being too authoritarian, and pushing them to meet unrealistic expectations. With such parents, the loser is always the child.

3. Grandparents are invaluable

Grandparents are awesome. They have so many stories to tell, they are reservoirs of wisdom, they make sure that the child is well fed, and they love the child to bits. When grandparents are present in the house, there is also a certain degree of tradition followed, the child is probably getting exposed to more than one functional language, and the parents are also behaving better to make sure that the grandparents stay happy. Not only this, the child is learning valuable life lessons just by observing the adult interactions, and will probably look after you in your old age if you are doing a good job looking after your own parents.
Also, in cases where both parents are working, the parents find it far easier and much less guilt-inducing to leave the kids in the care of their family members rather than at a daycare or with domestic staff. It's a win-win for everyone. Of course there will be an occasional squabble, but that too is important. Children will learn the importance of making up after a fight, and not just giving up on people they love.
4. The best gift to your child is inculcating a habit of reading
Surround your child with books. Read to your unborn child, read to your newborn, get picture books for your pre-schooler, and gift encyclopaedias on birthdays. The single- most important habit that children who excel have? They read!
Reading makes sure your child has above-average vocabulary, is exposed to various cultures and points of view, and they have a safe place to turn to when the world around them feels dark. In my experience, such children are less likely to indulge in drugs and alcohol, or show anti-social behaviour. In addition, when presented with a question that they do not know the answer to, they will use their knowledge of words to figure out what a scientific term should mean, and fill in the gaps of their understanding to arrive at the correct explanation.

5. Encourage your child to ask questions

Asking questions is a great sign. It means that your child is inquisitive, and wants to understand before he learns. Encourage this habit by taking the time out to give clear, scientific, age-appropriate answers. Also, ask relevant questions yourselves. Encourage your child to look for answers instead of handing them out. Convert them into small quests and reward them suitably. Positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement.

6. If your child's school doesn't encourage lateral thinking, consider shifting

Many teachers, especially in India, have an extremely bookish approach to problem solving. If a student doesn't solve a problem using the exact methods taught in class, his solution is deemed incorrect. I see this as a limitation of the teacher and not as the student's failure. A teacher must take the time to analyse a student's approach to problem solving, laud him if he has invented a creative way of doing it, or patiently explain to him why it wouldn't work in all situations.
We, as teachers, need to encourage a spirit of enquiry and build an enthusiasm towards problem solving. So many lateral thinkers keep getting branded as errant folks who can't do anything right, whereas they are brilliant people using new ideas to solve old problems.

7. Aim for mastery, not marks

In a talk that should be a benchmark for all educators, Sal Khan points out how in our quest for completing syllabi and fetching marks, we do not wait to see if each student has actually grasped the concepts. We keep trying to build advanced concepts on weak foundations, thus bringing the whole structure down. This encourages sub-standard ways of getting marks, like rote-learning, and also results in an inaccurate assessment of a child's true potential. When we aim to teach for mastery, we are actually helping each student realise his/her true potential, and also evaluate their understanding correctly.

8. All work and no play makes kids dull

I cannot emphasise enough the role that sports and extra-curricular activities play in the all-round development of your child. Apart from keeping your child in good shape, they also ensure mental-emotional well-being right through adulthood. If your child's school doesn't offer enough options, make sure you enrol him or her in a couple of classes. But don't over-burden the kids, or else they might begin to detest the hectic routine.

9. Restrict your child's access to technology

In a world full of TV, internet, and smartphones, it is easy for us to lose track of how much time our kids are spending on them. Keep their usage as minimal as possible. Instead, channelise their energies into doing something more creative, more physical. Take the time out to play games with them, talk to them and understand them, so that they do not themselves feel the need to take the help of these things to get through life.

10. Allow your child some down time and independent space

Children must be left alone for a while each day so that they can discover their own creative worlds, their natural inclinations and hobbies, and generally try to figure things out on their own. Helicopter parents often cause a lot of harm to their kids by not allowing them to face reality and also thrusting too much of their own will on children. Your aim should be to raise kids who can shine on their own in this big bad world rather than academically bright but dysfunctional adults.
Children are little marvels who teach us something new each day we spend with them. When provided with love and the right direction, you will be amazed at all the things they can do. And it's never too late to start trying. Just watch the wonders happen.
This post first appeared here.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें ...

जीवन के व्यापार में,
दाम लगाकर बढ़ना सीखें,
दर्द छुपा मुसकाना  सीखें,
सर्प का दंश पी जाना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें ।

बिना वजह ही हँसना सीखें,
बिन मदिरा के उड़ना सीखें ,
बिन साथी भी जीना सीखें,
गिरकर आप संभलना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें।

बिन आवाज़ भी लड़ना सीखें,
परिस्तिथि को अनुकूल करना सीखें,
कभी उसमें ढलना भी सीखें,
बिन ढोल जश्न मनाना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें।

मस्तिष्क और मन का द्वंद्व हो जब,
मस्तिष्क को आप जिताना सीखें,
मन में जो उठे तूफ़ान,
उसमें ना बह जाना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें ।

क्रोध और विलाप में ना हों लुप्त,
ऐसा धैर्य रखना भी सीखें,
प्रतिशोध की ज्वाला से,
खुद को आप बचाना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें।

बिखरे हो जो रिश्तों के मोती,
पिरोकर माला बनानी सीखें,
यदि मिले शीश झुकाकर अमोल प्रेम,
अहम् भुलाकर झुकना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें।

अंत नही होती एक हार,
आस्था ऐसी रखनी सीखें,
हरी दर्शन हो सब में ही,
ऐसी प्रीत लगाना सीखें,
एक हुनर ऐसा भी सीखें।

Saturday, 1 July 2017

When You Accuse The Delhi Golf Club Of Being “Classist” I See A Hypocrite

You, yes you... the one posting angry social media posts about Delhi Golf Club being classist. Does your domestic help eat in the same glossy china as you do? Who are the steel plates in your kitchen cabinet for? Oh, for the poor ones who come from outside? You never know what kind of germs they are bringing, right? What with their dismal living conditions, poor access to sanitation and hygiene, and widespread contagious diseases. Your rich visitors are clean as heaven, aren't they?
Oh, and how does your brain justify to itself that ₹1000 is pocket change when you buy movie tickets, but the same amount becomes enormous if you have to pay the medical bill of one of your workers? And I'm very sure the young maid who looks after your child while you have dinner at a fancy restaurant almost never gets to enjoy a hearty portion of the same meal with you. Maybe it's just the money talking. Research claims that the richer you get, the meaner you become. Having wealth makes you much less compassionate.
Do you know, the manager of a fast food restaurant gave a good scolding to some poor kids after I asked them to accompany my friends and I for lunch? They weren't stealing. Their meal had been paid in full and they were sharing the table with us. But no, the manager couldn't have his premises get filled with such "filth." Of course he made sure that we had walked some distance away before he started his tirade.
Did I also tell you, just a couple of weeks back our maid was refused entry in an elite club of a small city whose name I will not reveal here. The incident was singularly humiliating, not just for the maid, but for us as well, who treat her like a part of the family. She "looked" like a maid, was their argument—the exact argument that the Delhi Golf Club made when they asked Tailin Lyngdoh to leave their premises. We were part of a large group in a formal setting and hence didn't feel it was appropriate to make an issue out of it. But we were angry and put off by such condescending behaviour by the club. The Delhi Golf Club incident was like déjà vu and it certainly became a topic of discussion for us.
Now you see, it would be wrong to single out just elite clubs and call them "classist." The class divide runs deep in our culture. The distinction between "master" and "servant" is clear among all sections of the society. Our servants don't sit at the same table as us. No matter for how long they have been serving a family, they are never allowed to forget their aukat (status)Dignity of labour? That happens only in foreign countries. And God forbid if the concept of minimum wage got enforced in India. The entire country will be out on the streets protesting against a basic human right. The poor aren't recognised as humans in India—you see, they are just rodents.
Elitist institutions like the Delhi Golf Club and the Gymkhana Club thrive on the master-servant divide. They ensure that their rich members never lose their sense of being powerful and superior. How could they ever justify a ₹7.5 lakh waiting fee if they couldn't cater to the class divide?
The problem lies with us, not them. We the people. Each one of us is guilty of pandering to our lust for power and greatness by treating our servants like vermin. We have a long way to go before the class divide ceases to exist. Until then, people will get evicted from elite clubs for "looking like a maid." So when someone accuses the Delhi Golf Club of being "classist" I see a hypocrite. Don't you?
This post first appeared here.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Why The Suicide Of A Phd Student At IIT-Delhi Didn't Surprise Me

When I first read the news of a 27-year old PhD student taking her own life at IIT-D, I felt tears prickle my eyes. I didn't know her personally, and yet I could feel the pain she might have felt, what might have compelled her to take this extreme step. I suddenly thought, "You know, this might have been me..." At that time, I didn't know that she was being harassed for dowry (as is being alleged by her parents), but I knew the kind of stress that research scholars at premier institutes are under, having been one myself. I will not make any comment about her personal life, as I'm not qualified to do that, but I definitely will highlight some issues faced by doctoral students, which, I first thought were the likely reasons for her suicide.

Graduate students pursuing a doctorate degree pay a very heavy price for attaining that degree, and only someone who has been in the system can understand that. No one wants to talk about this price. It is just widely accepted in academia that this price must be paid. Why is it that the loss of a young, bright life does not shock us? Why this apathy? In my time as a research scholar, I have understood a few sad truths, and some driving factors that lead so many PhD students to depression and mental illness, and I've tried to deconstruct them. I really hope some important people are reading this, because there is a lot that needs to be addressed in our academic system. This attitude of acceptance and apathy towards mental illness in the academia has to change.

1. People with a higher IQ are more likely to get depressed
I'm going to go with the assumption that PhD scholars generally have a higher than normal IQ. While this high IQ is useful in obtaining good grades, it is also their curse. An article in Medical Daily claims that over 30 studies have linked high intelligence and mental illness. People with a higher IQ tend to overthink and overanalyse, and may also be highly emotional and sensitive. They do not take failure lightly, and tend to beat themselves up if things are not as perfect as they want them to be. A study at Berkeley found that as many as 47% of PhD students are depressed at a time, compared to an average of 6.7% in the adult population.

2. The age at which they do graduate studies
Most people I met at graduate school were aged between 24 to 30 years of age. In the prime of their youth, when other people their age are out and about climbing the ladder in their careers, dating, getting married, making babies, the research scholars are stuck in room full of scientific literature, unable to see the beauty of the world around them. They lose the best, most vital years of their life to research, and there is little they can do to recover from this loss. Many students, especially girls, are under tremendous pressure to get married and start a family. Some of them who do get married during this time now have a slew of new problems to deal with, grappling with a new marriage, or staying away from their spouse, in addition to the stress of being in a PhD program.

3. They are suddenly lost in a crowd of super-achievers
I would like to believe that people who pursue a PhD program at a premier institute have an illustrious academic profile (though exceptions abound). People who were toppers, gold medallists, best teachers in their past lives, who used to stand out in a crowd suddenly become lost among many such people. Their academic achievements are no longer a cause of wonder, and they must be exceptional in a group of super achievers to be able to stand out again. The atmosphere is that of critique, competition and secrecy and not an encouraging or transparent one. This is often a cause of immense distress and may make people feel like a failure, as if all they have achieved until now has been a fluke.

4. The inherent uncertainty of research
Research is inherently uncertain, which makes it extremely difficult for even the best minds. There is no guarantee that the problem that you are working on will have a solution. You could spend 10 years working on a problem unable to find a solution, but someone else might miraculously be coming up with results on a different problem every year. If your problem happens to be a hard one, you may be driven to a point where you no longer feel yourself to be competent or worthy of living. Your research problem becomes all consuming, and you are unable to see beyond the failure that you are facing in this moment.

5. The immense loneliness
Most PhD scholars lead extremely lonely lives because their research depends on their hard work. Don't get me wrong, I personally have forged some very deep, meaningful friendships in the years that I have spent as a research scholar, but I cannot say that I have been able to do them justice. I could hardly ever go out or enjoy with my friends like other normal people did. In a PhD program, you spend most of your time alone trying to crack the code, waiting for a miracle to happen, which will fetch you an international publication, and eventually your degree. You can't really make time for friends or family, which again adds to your stress.

6. Power lies in the hands of a few
In a PhD program, your supervisor(s) is all powerful. True, there is a committee in place, but it doesn't intervene unless there is a huge call of distress from the student. In case of failure, it is always the student's fault, and not his supervisor's. Consider this. On the one hand, you will constantly suffer from anxiety, if your supervisor is too tough, which may lead to a break down. On the other hand, if you get a supervisor who is too laid-back or nice, you will find it extremely difficult to get your work done, again causing you to have a breakdown. If you are lucky, you will get a supervisor who is dedicated to research and determined to see you get your degree. And yes, abuse of power does happen. Just like it happens at any place where one person becomes all powerful. It may be 1% of people who indulge in this kind of stuff, but students suffer immensely if they have been assigned a supervisor from this category.

7. Lack of good, transparent counselling services
While most institutes offer counselling services, students are afraid to seek help. They fear that their grievances might get conveyed to their supervisor who is likely the driving force behind their anxiety. They don't have a reliable shoulder to cry on, and no one they can open up to when they need it the most. Many foreign universities offer aid and professional counselling services to their graduate students free of cost. Such services, with proper confidentiality clauses must also be made available to graduate students in India.

8. The very poor financial condition of a research scholar
Research scholars might be the most qualified but the least paid in their age group. How is a PhD student to feel good about himself when he is constantly taunted, "Even a BA pass clerk has a salary better than you!", or "The brightest child of my family is earning the least amount of money," or, "No girl will marry a guy who earns 18K a month! How will you feed your children?"

9. The apathy of academia to mental illness
I find that depression is treated as "normal" in academia. Even those who are not in academia are accepting of the fact that people who are in a PhD program will go "mad" due to studying too much. This attitude needs to change. The suicide of a bright, young scholar must shock and surprise us.
Doing a PhD is hard enough. If, along with this, a young woman is facing mental, physical and emotional torture for a reason as 18th-century as dowry, I can only imagine how broken she must have been. It is only when a person sees utter hopelessness, do they feel like death might be a better option. My heart goes out to her family, and to the families of all bright, young scholars, who took death as a route of escape.

To anyone grappling with their PhD and/or personal issues, I want to tell you that this will get better. That you will do wonderfully in life. Nothing is worth taking your life, neither studies, nor a cheating boyfriend, nor an abusive husband. There are much better things that need your attention—your health, your family, your spiritual journey. That you will emerge stronger and a winner. Please, for heaven's sake do not allow your hopelessness to consume you. You are loved and wanted. Your life has immense purpose. Please don't give up on it.

This post first got published here.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Precautions while taking a selfie

If you are a selfie enthusiast, you may have often found yourself in awkward or life-threatening situations. Here are a few precautions you must take so that you can happily pursue your adventurous pastime.

1. If you intend on taking selfies while walking, make sure you aren't heading towards the stairs or the end of the cliff.

2. If you are taking selfies while facing backwards on the escalators, take note that they might end sooner than you think.

3. To avoid being beaten up in a movie hall, please switch off the selfie flash when the lights in the hall dim.

4. Remember to gloss over the tiles behind you. Almost everyone can recognise a public bathroom.

5. When taking selfies in the shower, ensure that your naked butt isn't visible in the mirror behind you.

6. Be careful how much you contort your face. You might be resembling an animal more than yourself.

7. Employ safe practices when taking selfies in a moving car. You do not want to fall out the window or hit your head on a tree.

8.To get a desirable value of likes, limit the number of selfie uploads to four a week, or fewer.

9. Carry some extra money for times when you drop the food that was meant to be eaten. Also make sure there's nothing stuck between your teeth before you post the selfie online.

10. Avoid taking selfies with people or animals who don't share the same passion for your art. They may bite you.

This was an inexhaustive list of guidelines to keep you safe while taking a selfie. I hope you are having a good day. Happy clicking!

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