Friday, October 8, 2010

Kanniyakumari to Tirupathi--a trip to remember

I'm writing this entry in my “Fulbright to India” blog long after I completed my teaching stint in India—it is over three years, in fact, since I returned to the United States. I'm far from diligent as a writer; well, I'm far from diligent, period. But today, October 10, 2010, my mind has wandered back to the eventful return trip I made May 9, 2007, from Kanniyakumari in Tamil Nadu state to Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh. It started out so scripted and carefully planned and turned out to be punctuated with unexpected experiences which, in retrospect, were as typical in the life of this absent-minded child as they are still typical in the life of this absent-minded (but very, very lucky) adult. I never wrote about it then and I should, which is why I do so now.

By way of reminder, Kanniyakumari, also known as Cape Cormorin, is the town at the southernmost tip of the Indian sub-continent. I’d decided to do just one touristy thing on my own before the end of my tenure as a Fulbright scholar. I’d been invited to give lectures in Coimbatore, in central Tamil Nadu state, and it seemed like the obvious thing to do to continue on down the line to India’s Land’s End. I took a train out of Coimbatore west to Cochin in Kerala state, then all the way on down the agriculturally-rich and lush Kerala coast before crossing back into Tamil Nadu, to the end of the line at Kanniyakumari.

I’d planned to spend two nights in Kanniyakumari and had reserved a hotel in advance. After settling into my room at the Sea View Hotel, I wandered out for a stroll in the early evening, taking a left-hand turn which took me down an unpaved street defined only by the stick-built structures on either side. The street was lined with simple, open market stalls and shops selling everything a tourist could desire. I was travelling light and so browsed without buying anything.

The next day I awoke early to see the sun rise and watched a fleet of small fishing boats, powered by outboard motors, scurrying back to shore to sell their catch of the day. Later I took a boat to the nearby offshore rocky outcrops to visit the monuments to Saint Thiruvalluvar and Swami Vivekananda. I was the only recognizably non-Indian tourist, so the scene at the various sites was a kaleidoscopic swirl of saris and shalwar-kameez, the beautiful Indian female dress which always brightened my days.

The evening before I left Kanniyakumari, after dinner, I walked out to the end of a quarter mile of rock-strewn breakwater pier where, surrounded on all sides by the lapping waters of the merging oceans, I enjoyed a spectacular sunset. On my way back to the hotel I passed through streets lined with the hovels of the local residents, mostly fisher folk, and was reminded—again—that poverty is never far away in India. I stopped at the taxi stand in front of the hotel and arranged with one of the drivers to be there for me in the morning to take me to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) for my flight to Chennai; then, at the hotel desk, I arranged for a wake-up call.

I slept soundly after my day of sight-seeing in Kanniyakumari ("Land's End at Journey's End"). The mingled waves of the Arabian Sea, the Sea of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean lulled me into blissful sleep. In my dreams I revisited the wave-swept monuments to Thiruvalluvar and Vivekananda--dreams that frequently recur to this day, as daydreams during my waking hours.

And so, early next morning, my return journey to Tirupathi began. My driver was waiting outside the hotel in his Ambassador automobile to take me on the two hour drive to Trivandrum. I had allowed four hours for the trip in case of mishap along the way, but we arrived safe and sound well in time for the flight to Chennai. I settled down in the airport lobby with a book to keep me company while I waited for the Air Deccan desk to open so I could check in for my flight. Time passed and no airline personnel appeared at the desk. I asked discreetly when the desk would open and no one knew for sure. Fifteen minutes left till my flight was due to take off. Yikes! What the heck was going on? Then it suddenly dawned on me that I was not booked on an Air Deccan flight at all; I was booked on Jet Airways, for heaven’s sake!

I rushed to the Jet Airways desk (which had been noticeably busy an hour earlier) and tried to check in. The clerk told me I was too late; the plane was ready to leave. But he called the flight deck anyway, just to confirm. Lo and behold, God bless India, I was told I could go ahead and board the plane as long as I didn’t check any baggage. I had my one small, “rolly” suitcase with me, which had to go through security before I could board the bus that was waiting to take me from the terminal to the idling plane. I’d intended checking the suitcase in and had thus stowed in it my Swiss Army penknife, which had served me so well in myriad situations during my stay in India. The penknife, of course, failed the security check; I was not allowed to take it on the plane. So I abandoned it to the airport authorities, thankful that at least I had kept it safe till the very end of my tour.

As it happens, I was not alone on the transit bus that took me from the terminal to the plane. An elderly gentleman in traditional South Indian male dress—a long white dhoti (wraparound sheet-like skirt), white shirt, and a beige waistcoat—was waiting patiently for me to climb on board. I still was not sure if I would catch the plane before it left, so I asked the gentleman if we would make it on time. “Of course,” he said. “I am here, am I not? The plane cannot leave without me.” To this day I have no idea who that gentleman was, but he either had considerable clout in that part of the world, or else he had hutzpah beyond belief.

The plane took off soon after I buckled into my seat and climbed north-west out of Trivandrum on the north-westerly-aimed runway, affording me a view of the Kerala coastline before the plane banked north-east, headed for Chennai. Less than two hours later we landed at Chennai airport where, easily now since I was experienced, I negotiated an autorickshaw to take me to the railway station for the final leg of my trip back to Tirupathi.

The autorickshaw driver dropped me at the station and left me to find my own way onto the waiting train. I had my ticket in hand, with a numbered reserved seat in AC Executive Chair Class on the Chennai-Tirupathi Express, leaving at 5:00 pm, arriving in Tirupathi some three hours later.

Until now, every time I’d travelled by train in India, I’d either been with others whom I followed to my reserved seat on the appropriate carriage (seats in AC class are always reserved), or I had been chaperoned to my seat by some solicitous soul prior to departure. Thus I had never learned how to “read” the system for myself—rather like being driven from point A to point B and never learning how to get there.

Stupidly, instead of asking someone to help me, I decided to guess at which end of the train I’d find my designated carriage—and I guessed wrong. By the time I’d wandered all the way to the end of the very long train, I realized it was the wrong end and, rather than risk missing the train by walking all the way back to the other end, I jumped on the very last carriage without noticing that there was no way, once the train was moving, of getting from this particular carriage to the next. I was stuck where I was, and where I was was on a Third Class carriage. Every seat was taken, and the only standing room was in the open “T” at the end of the carriage formed by the space between the doors on either side and the small corridor of space between the two toilets.

The stench from the filthy toilets was something else, but I soon got used to it. I propped my two bags (a rolly suitcase and the bag containing my laptop computer) against the far wall between the toilets and stood opposite them in the corridor between the doors so I could keep an eye on them. As we pulled out of Chennai station, there were half a dozen other men occupying the same T-shaped space at the end of the train, but I thought they would be getting off at stations down the line and that I should soon be able to move into a seat in the carriage as we got further from the city. I’m such an optimist! At each station no one got off, and more got on. I was soon completely hemmed in by people, mostly men, to the point where about the only floor space I had to stand on was defined by the size of my shoes!

Mercifully, after about an hour of this, the carriage started to empty and I was able to move to an open seat. I reflected to myself that at least I now knew firsthand how the other half travelled in India, that my stupid mistake had thus been a blessing in disguise.

About ten miles (14 kilometers) from Tirupathi, the train for some reason had a scheduled or unscheduled stop for an hour at the town of Renigunta. My good friend Dr. Thasleem Sultana lived near there, so I called her on the phone and asked her if she could have one of her employees take me on his motorbike from Renigunta to my house in Tirupathi. No problem; about 15 minutes later I was being whisked in the dark along Airport Road, my suitcase precariously balanced on the handlebars of the young man’s bike.

What an experience! During what turned out to be a long, hard day’s journey, I’d travelled by taxi, plane, autorickshaw, train, and motorbike to get to my destination. The people I’d met and chatted with along the way were, as ever in India, personable, pleasant, and, above all, kind. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Land’s End at Journey’s End--Coimbatore and Kaniyakumari:

May 7 saw me boarding a train at Tirupati station, bound for Chennai and, thence, for points south in India—way south, to Land’s End! I was to fly from Chennai to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu State. I planned to stop for one night in Coimbatore, where I had been invited to lecture at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU). Then I had a sleeper-AC berth booked on an overnight train which would cut across the state of Kerala and sweep down the coast, via Cochin and Trivandrum, to the southernmost tip of India—a place called Kanniyakumari.

My good friend, Dr. Gunashekar (Guna), made all the travel arrangements for me and I’m ever grateful to him for that. The same is true for Dr. Jamuna, his wife and my facilitator while I was in India. Officially, as you may recall, Jamuna was to help me for just the first five days after my arrival in Tirupati, but she and Guna took care of me until the day I left. That's their daughter, Dipti, sitting with Guna and Jamuna in the first picture above. I can’t imagine what a problem it would have been for me if I had had to make all my travel arrangements on my own. I guess I would have learned the ropes soon enough if left to my own devices, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

Guna had reserved a comfortable seat for me in an air-conditioned compartment on the Tirupati-Chennai train, and the ride through the afternoon was pleasant enough. When I arrived at Chennai station, the place was packed with people. Guna had advised me about how to pre-pay for a taxi to get me from the railway station to the airport, but I decided to save some money and go by auto rickshaw instead. I’d been told how much that might cost, so when one driver after another came up to me and demanded outrageous amounts of rupees, I haggled hard to get the price I wanted. I guess they realized I knew what I was doing because it didn’t take long before one driver agreed to my price and we were on our way.

To my amazement, what transpired next was déjà vue all over again!

The auto conked out half way to the airport, just as had happened soon after I arrived in India when I was at a conference in Orissa state! The last time this happened, as attested to by the pictures above, taken by Dr. Jyostna (Josi), my friend and companion in the auto, I helped push the auto into a nearby gas station and the day was saved. But this time it must have been a mechanical problem of some sort because my driver didn’t take long to do what he did next.

I was keeping an eye on my watch since time was of the essence and I didn’t know how long it took to get to the airport. My auto driver, however, was unperturbed, which did nothing to relieve my anxiety. He soon solved the problem by flagging down another auto rickshaw. He haggled with this other driver to get the best price he could on the cost of the remaining leg of the trip to the airport. Then he asked me for the agreed amount of money that he and I had originally settled on back at the railway station in Chennai. All the while he assured me that I would not have to pay any more to this new auto rickshaw driver when I arrived at the airport.

What choice did I have? I had to trust this man. It was either that, or I was stranded at the roadside, flagging down some other auto or taxi in the hopes that I’d make it to the airport on time. But here’s the point, as far as I was concerned. By now, after more than 5 months in India, I had become comfortable with the people and with the culture of India. I gave both auto rickshaw drivers the benefit of any doubt and I was once more on my way.

As was always, always the case throughout my stay in India, I was not cheated. Everyone I dealt with in India was, in my opinion and based on my 64 years of experience, honorable and fair. No, Indians are no more or less perfect than anyone anywhere else, but the Indians that I got to know have proved to be perhaps the most delightful and trustworthy people I’ve ever had to deal with in my life.

The rest of my trip to Coimbatore was uneventful. I was met by a driver at Coimbatore airport and taken to the TNAU guesthouse—easily the most palatial and well-appointed guest house I stayed at in India. It helped that it was spanking new, like the one I stayed at in Dharwad, Karnataka State. But this one provided me with a suite of rooms with all modern conveniences, including cable TV! A delicious South Indian dinner was served in my room and I slept soundly after my long day on the road.

The next morning I was brought by a driver to the campus at TNAU, founded in 1865. The university was relocated to Coimbatore in 1909. My breath was taken away by the Indo-Sarcenic architecture. It is very beautiful indeed—and well-maintained, too.

On arrival at the campus I was met by the Dean of the Psychology Department and he immediately took me to the auditorium where I would be giving my presentation. I was amazed to see a huge banner on the wall behind the dais, probably 4 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide, welcoming me to TNAU as a guest of the university. Technicians were on hand. I’d brought my laptop and projector along, just in case, but it turned out that the whole hall was wired for overhead projection and sound amplification, with a booth in one corner where the technicians monitored the equipment during the course of a lecture. I gave the technician my pen drive, showed him where my PowerPoint presentation was stored, and left him to get everything ready for me.

Meanwhile I was taken to the office of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor C. Ramasamy. Over tea and biscuits, I chatted with him for a while about his goals for the university, especially as regards technology, since that was why I was there. I have met the Vice-Chancellors of a dozen or so universities while I’ve been in India; I think Professor C. Ramasamy demonstrated the clearest understanding of what it takes to effectively—effectively—integrate computer-based technologies into teaching and learning.

He knew it was hard, and that it had to be done right. He didn’t just sort of wave a wand and assume that tossing a few hundred computers at buildings and offices would somehow magically transform how things were done at his university. The reason he had invited me to travel all the way from Tirupati to talk, at his university’s expense, about technologies for teaching and learning, was because he wanted to learn as well as to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed giving the lecture, as I hope the audience of professors and students did, too. There was a journalist there from the Times of India, and afterwards she sat down with me for half an hour or so to find out about me and about the Fulbright Scholarship and, especially, about technology in education.

After the interview, I was taken back to the guest house to rest and get ready for my 14-hour, overnight train journey to Kanniyakumari (also called Cape Cormorin)-—India’s Land’s End. The train departed Coimbatore station shortly after midnight. I had a berth in an AC sleeper carriage and slept soundly till dawn, when I got up to greet the new day.

For the next few hours, till I arrived in Kanniyakumari in the early afternoon, I took pictures of the Kerala countryside. It was wet and lush and green, quite unlike anything I’d seen in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, or Orissa. This was verdant, fertile country. Fruits of every kind grew in the fields amongst the rice paddies and plantations.

The people were out there in those fields, working away, ten or more hours a day. I’ve been given to understand that some of these workers are paid, at the end of each day, not with money, but with food to eat—-some rice, whatever. In inflationary times, food is better than currency, but how do the many millions of poor in India get to escape their poverty if they are only paid enough to survive till the next day?

This I do know for sure. I didn’t see much of any laziness in India. People can’t afford to be lazy. Even the beggars work hard to make a living.

It was great to get to Land’s End, even though there’s not much to see there, other than the two impressive monuments built on rocky outcrops a mile or so offshore. One is to Swami Vivekananda, arguably the greatest social reformer and saint that India has produced. The other is to the Mahatma Ghandi, whose ashes were placed in the memorial here the night before they were scattered in the waters of the Indian Ocean. I stayed overnight at the Sea View hotel in a room with a huge picture window overlooking the ocean. To my left, in the east, I could see the Bay of Bengal; to my right, in the west, the Arabian Sea; and dead ahead, where both seas merged in the south, lay the mighty Indian Ocean.

The trip to Kanniyakumari was the only major touristy thing I did while in India. I didn't see the Taj Mahal or the Himalayas. Maybe next time. But I just had to make the effort to get to Land's End and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed the sunset looking back from the far end of a long, rock-built quay that had me perched alone on the edge of the watery ocean void. A stiff, warm, zephyr breeze kissed my skin. My eyes watered as I stood there soaking up the sunset. Tears of joy welled up as I reflected contentedly on how far I had come to be where I was that day, Land’s End at my journey’s end.

Thank you, India. Thank you, my Indian friends. Shukria. Danyawadalu. Thank you, again and again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Duplicating excellence in Baroda


I arrived in Baroda (also called Vadodara) in the early afternoon of May 2nd. I’d travelled there by car from Ahmedabad on the Ahmedabad-Vadodara Expressway, which is a 98 km piece of the National Highways Development Project. The expressway has apparently cut travel time between Ahmedabad and Baroda from 2.5 hours to 1 hour. That’s about how long it took us do the trip.

In May it is hot anywhere in South India, and Baroda was no exception. I was scheduled to give a presentation to the faculty in the School of Educational Administration at the famous M.S. University, named for Maharaja Sayajirao, reformist ruler of Baroda from 1875 to 1939. Long before Indian independence, Maharaja Sayajirao banned child marriage, did away with untouchability and, in 1906, introduced compulsory, free primary education in his state of Gujarat—the state, by the way, in which Gandhi was born. Gandhi never acknowledged this in his autobiography, but I do wonder if his own enlightened views on such matters were informed by the Maharajah’s example and influence. The Maharajah also established the university where I was to give my seminar on educational technology. He gave one of his palaces to the university and it stands there proudly today amongst the hallowed halls of academe. One of the illustrious alumni of Baroda’s M.S. University is Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution.

I gave my presentation to an attentive, appreciative, and incisively questioning M.S.U. faculty. I had brought my laptop and projector along with me, but it turned out I didn’t need it. These people were on the ball. All I had to do was give my USB flash drive to Dr. Pushpadanam and, in no time at all, my presentation popped up on the screen.

One question that made me think came from a professor who specialized in the economics of educational administration. I had talked about “duplicating excellence,” a concept I conceived some years ago to describe the ease with which teachers can now share, on the internet, the teaching materials and ideas that they come up with every day. The professor raised his hand and asked: “What about peer review?”

Good question. I had to think for a moment, because no one had ever asked that before. But then it quickly occurred to me that peer review really is built into the World Wide Web. If people value your ideas they’ll come back to your website; they’ll tell everyone about it; they’ll hopefully quote you in their own papers. Quite literally, peer review takes care of itself. If you have nothing of value to offer, you’ll quickly disappear out of sight. If, on the other hand, you share material and ideas that are useful, maybe even valuable, they’ll be gobbled up and duplicated around the globe.

I spent two delightful evenings with Dr. Pushpanadham in the company of another M.S. University professor and her two children. They wined and dined me and made me feel very much at home. I have to tell you, though, that the first night I spent in the M.S. University guest house was horrible. My room was plagued with mosquitos and the air-conditioning didn’t work. I moved my bed directly underneath the ceiling fan and fell asleep right away after an exhausting day travelling and presenting. But the fan didn’t help much at all. I woke up at 2:00 in the morning to find that I’d been more or less eaten alive. I spent the rest of the night insanely killing mosquitos, but it was a losing battle. They had my scent and I had nowhere else to go. I bought mosquito repellant the next morning and left it plugged in all day long so that my second night was blissfully undisturbed.

I set my alarm for 4:30 am, May 5th. A taxi came to the guest house at 5:00 am to take me back to Ahmedabad for my flight to Hyderabad and thence to Tirupati, where I am now. Never did I think that I would ever travel around India lecturing like this. One of these days I’ll wake up and discover that it was all a dream.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Update on my blog's status

I’ve been back in the United States for a while now, since May 16 to be precise, and it’s now October 8. I’ve not been idle, and I haven’t neglected the blog. I still have a half dozen or so postings to write, covering the period from May 2nd through May 15 when I finally flew out of India to return to the US. I’m about to write those blogs now.

Before I do, I want you to know that I’m working with a colleague at SPMVV, the university where I was based in Tirupati, India. Her name is Dr. Indira Jalli and she is translating my blog into Telugu, the local language of Andhra Pradesh State. We have a publisher lined up and the book should be published before Christmas of this year, all being well.

So what I’ve been doing over the past few months has been to revisit each of my blog postings, one by one, and rewrite them all, editing where necessary and adding this and that here and there. It’s been fun; an opportunity to relive the incredible time I had in India, an experience beyond my wildest dreams.

So there you have it. You’re all caught up. Now let me get back to work.

May Day at the Mahatma Ghandi Labour Institute

This morning, May 1st, 2007, I’m at the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute in Ahmedabad, Gujarat State, where I’m attending a two-day conference timed to coincide with May Day, otherwise known as Labour Day around the world. As with most of my engagements since arriving in India, I’m here at the invitation of a professor who I chanced to meet at a conference elsewhere. In this case, my acquaintance is Dr. Harshida Dave who is a professor of Women’s Studies at this Institute. I met her when she came to SPMVV to attend the International Women’s Day conference held in early March at my university in Tirupati.

The conference here has not yet begun. Its theme is Gandhian Trusteeship, on which subject I’ll be speaking tomorrow morning. As I understand trusteeship in Gandhian terms, it has to do with the responsibility of those who accumulate wealth to share that wealth with the masses of the people, especially the poor. My take on this in my presentation will be that education is key to raising the status and prosperity of the destitute and deprived. In a country such as India, where this community of desperate and deprived people numbers in the hundreds of millions, technology can, I believe, hasten access to education and, therefore, to shared prosperity. All it needs is will and willingness on the part of those in control of wealth—Federal, State and Local government, wealthy individuals, national and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the like.

These umbrella administrations must be determined in their commitment to supporting the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of good people at the grassroots level in India—philanthropists such as several of my new-found friends in Tirupati, and so many others—who are not themselves poor, nor are they rich, but they are in a position to spearhead the trusteeship work of helping the masses of the poor lift themselves up by their bootstraps from the grinding poverty in which they live out their days.

But these grassroots philanthropists can do no more than scratch the surface of the problem if they are left to work in isolation. So Government at all levels must, in my opinion, reach out, gather together, and recognize such local efforts so that they become, collectively, a mighty force for the alleviation of poverty in India, as elsewhere in this world of ours. Failure to do this will be catastrophic, in my humble opinion. It’s just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the gathering of Ghandians was impressive. It was quickly clear to me that I was privileged to be amongst national leaders in Ghandian scholarship. As so often since I joined the Indian academic community last December, I have been humbled by the credentials and clear intellectual credibility of the men and women with whom I have been associated in Indian academe. At the conference on Ghandian Trusteeship at the Mahatma Ghandi Labour Institute I made my contribution. I learned much and I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to take part. Thank you, Professor Harshida, for the invitation.

Friday, May 18, 2007


I am in Mumbai for three days. Mumbai, the financial hub of India, is the capital of Maharashtra State. Mumbai is also the center of India’s Hindi-language film industry, otherwise known as Bollywood. I’m here to conduct a seminar at SNDT university, about which more anon in another blog. I spent the first full day (Sunday) touring the city with a local driver as my guide and discovered more about India that touches my heart.

It was fascinating to visit the Gateway to India, built to commemorate the visit to India in 1911 of Britain’s King George V and his wife, Queen Alexandra. The only way I’d seen it before was in film (Gandhi, Passage to India, etc.) or in picture books. Now, here I was standing before the real thing. My own father, William Gerard Poole, was born in South Asia, just a few hundred miles from Mumbai (Bombay as it was then), in the hill town of Maymyo, Burma—Pwin Oo Lwin, Myanmar now. Throughout my stay in India I have wondered wistfully about how close I am to my dad’s birthplace, where, growing up, he must have experienced a way of life similar in some respects to what I am experiencing during my stay in the traditional, olde worlde town of Tirupati, in South India.

I feel like I am retracing my roots. My father was the first of 5 children of my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side. My grandfather was a non-commissioned officer in the British army during the halcyon years of the British Raj. My father was seven years of age before he saw for the first time England's "green and pleasant land." I like to think that this is the reason why I have not had the slightest difficulty adjusting to Indian cuisine. My mother, engaged to my dad and no doubt anxious to please him, learned how to cook a hot Indian curry from her future mother-in-law. Needless to say, we children grew up enjoying those Indian curries, too.

It is Sunday, so during our morning and early afternoon drive around the city, I enjoyed the relatively traffic-free sweep of Mumbai’s boulevards and beaches. My driver/guide was careful to show me only the more salubrious side of the city. The architecture runs the gamut of styles from traditional, old-Bombay's balconied apartments, to the mostly Victorian, neo-classical, governmental monuments to the British Raj, to the glistening, glass-faced skyscrapers of modern times. It was not until two days later, when being taken by another driver to the airport, that I discovered the other, seamier, side of Mumbai—the bleak, neglected, ramshackle, rampant poverty in the backstreets where the majority of Mumbai’s twenty million citizens live.

Religion is never far from people’s lives in India. I saw it represented in Mumbai by majestic, pseudo-Gothic Christian church spires, colorful, marbled Hindu temples, and a particularly striking mosque, the Haji Ali Mosque, poised on the extreme end of a spit of land that reaches into the Bay of Bombay. The arcing semi-circle of ocean beach is lapped by the waters of the Arabian Sea. At night, the bay is defined by a glittering necklace of lights that strings along Marine Drive.

But the highlight of my touristy day in Mumbai was a visit to Mani Bhavan, the house—now a museum—where Gandhi lived not long after he returned to India for good in 1915. It’s a rambling, colonial, three-storey building in a quiet corner of the old town, not far from the center of the city. He lived here with his family from 1917 to 1934. Prior to that he had worked as a lawyer in South Africa where he learned, developed, and honed his skills in satyagraha—peaceful, non-violent resistance to the injustices inflicted by the strong and powerful on the weak and defenseless.

We arrived at Mani Bhavan before opening time, but a word from my driver to the attendants who were hanging around outside gained us early entry right away. They opened up the house just for me and I had the run of the place for a good half an hour before anyone else showed up to disturb my quiet, pensive, somewhat dreamlike enjoyment of this place in time, this piece of history that memorialized the impressive achievements of the man who led India on its march to independence.

The house was wall-to-wall pictures, photographs, dioramas and artifacts that recalled Gandhi’s life and times. As I wandered the corridors, stairways, and rooms, I was moved over and over again by memories triggered in my mind by my lifelong love of all things Indian. Here I paused over the very place where Gandhi sat spinning cotton—a place I’d only previously seen in photographs. There I gazed from the balcony over the front door where, in the company of his wife and Jawarhal Nehru and others of his political devotees, he greeted the crowds gathered to see the man who made such a relentless nuisance of himself in his dealings with the representatives of the British Raj.

I’ve learned much about Gandhi since coming to India. Everywhere there are statues to his memory—iconic depictions of well-known milestones in his life. The icon most frequently captured in monumental stone or cast metal is of a sandaled ascetic, head pressed forward, stubbornly stepping out, staff in hand, to lead the people in a non-violent challenge to the “authorities” over a Salt Tax. The “Boston Tea Party” in the American Revolution comes to mind as a parallel political statement of discontent. It is significant that tomorrow I fly to Ahmedabad (pronounced Am-da-bad), capital of Gujarat, the state in which Gandhi was born. It was from his ashram in Ahmedabad that Ghandi began his 400 mile march to the salt-strewn shores of the Arabian Sea.

Gandhi, who trained as a lawyer and was a politician to the core, devoted his entire adult life to advocacy on behalf of the underprivileged, such as the migrant Indian workers in South Africa and the Indian peoples subjugated by the British during the time of the British Raj. With all his faults—and he had many—it is only fair to recognize the success he had in galvanizing against their oppressors those people whose rights were being abused, whether in South Africa by the Boers or in India by the British.

Gandhi carefully and shrewdly cultivated an image of austerity and self-denial and he did so with great effect. He wanted to be identified with the poor and oppressed even though, as his popularity and fame grew, it was hard for him to live a life of abnegation. He courted imprisonment but, because of his standing, was rarely, if ever, treated as a common criminal.

It took more than a mere image, though, to place him amongst the pantheon of God-like figures in India’s storied past. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “I am not concerned about what history will say of me, because I intend to write it myself!” So, too, Gandhi. He was accompanied everywhere on his travels across India by an amanuensis. His every word was recorded in writing for posterity. The biographies of Gandhi that I have read thus far unashamedly toe the Gandhian line, usually quoting directly or indirectly from Gandhi’s own autobiography, which I read first, soon after I arrived in India. I’m looking for a biography of Gandhi that uses more than Gandhi’s autobiography as a primary reference.

That said, I do admire the man. I certainly don’t have the guts, determination, chutzpah, and high threshold of tolerance for discomfort and pain that Gandhi had. Nor do I have his charisma. In many ways he was a public relations genius, but above all he had an extraordinarily focused mind. You’d have to have a focused mind to doggedly hold on to non-violence in pursuit of political goals when faced with the indignities and physical suffering inflicted arbitrarily on his followers and himself by the South African and British overlords.

So I take my hat off to the Mahatma Gandhi and sing his praises, even as I hold onto my personal reservations about him until I’ve had the opportunity to study the man more.

In my studies of Gandhi, the name Ambedkar keeps popping up, especially when I read anything written by someone other than a Gandhian devotee. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) is considered the father of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar was a dalit—a "broken one," one of the Hindu outcaste "untouchables." He championed the dalit cause as did no other. An Indian friend of mine reminds me that Bombay belongs to Ambedkar, too. I'll have a lot more to say about Ambedkar in an upcoming blog.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast"

Soon I’ll be leaving India. I have a packed schedule till May 12, when I fly out of Tirupati bound for Hyderabad and Frankfurt en route to the United States. Yesterday, though, was very special. I finally got to see what I had been looking for—an elementary/secondary school where modern computer-based technology is sensibly incorporated into teaching and learning.

Granted I’ve seen only the tiniest fraction of India’s schools. I’ve visited some 15 universities and half a dozen elementary or secondary schools in 7 southern states. Not much of a sample on which to make a judgment or draw any conclusions. For this reason, I’ve been careful to reserve judgment, for the most part. Yesterday, however, was a bright spot in my Fulbright experience, giving me further grounds for hope that India is moving in the right direction to implement its long-range goal of free and compulsory education for all children.

I spent the morning at one of the Bright Day Schools situated in Gujarat. Dr. Pushpanadham of M.S. University in Baroda, brought me to the school, located on the outskirts of Baroda (Vadodara), and introduced me to the principal, Ms. Rupa Sharma. Rupa took us all around the school and I was able to interact with the students and see everything that was involved with the school’s day-to-day running. It was quite a tonic after what I had seen elsewhere.

First of all, the whole school was well-maintained, brightly and freshly painted, airy and clean. Then, to my surprise, every classroom has a computer system installed in such a way as to make it easy for integration into teaching and learning. I’d never seen a setup like it. The flat panel display was fixed on the wall right beside the chalk board in front of the class. Speakers on either side of the display provided good quality audio. The system was wired to the internet. I asked one teacher to bring up my home page on the Web. The access speed was not bad at all, though the teacher said she usually downloads ahead of time any pages she planned on using in class.

What I liked was that the display was visually aligned with the chalkboard. I’d never seen an arrangement such as this and it struck me as very practical and ergonomic. The screens need to be bigger (the ones I saw were only about 17” displays), but a screen can be easily upgraded when money becomes available. It also would be easy enough to connect a projector to the system for display on a larger screen. If you only have one computer in the classroom, this, it seems to me, would be a good way to go.

The teacher-pupil ratio at the school is 1:27. There also are 120 uniformed “maids,” two assigned full time to each class. Their job it is to keep the school clean, fetch-and-carry for the teachers, cook and serve meals, and so forth.

I met, and chatted with, many of the teachers. I was treated to delightful impromptu singing and dance performances in the music department. I spent quite a bit of time in upper level classes. I discovered, to my surprise, that almost all the students had computers at home! When I asked them how much time they spent using their computers, the answers ranged from half an hour to three hours a day. This is in India! This is in Baroda, an out-of-the-way town in Gujarat! I never saw anything like this in Mumbai or Bangalore, where they’re supposed to be so ahead of the times.

I also stopped off in the kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes where I was entertained with whole group song and finger play recitals. In one classroom, a three year old boy came running up to me as soon as I walked in, his arms out, inviting a hug. I bent down and scooped him up into my arms where he immediately clamped onto me like a limpet.

I have 34 nephews and nieces and 48 grand nephews and nieces, so I’ve scooped up many, many children in my time. I’ve never before been held like this child held me. After a minute or so, the two teachers in the class came up to take him off my hands, but this kid was having nothing of it. He held me tighter than ever and wrapped his legs around me, too. I could feel the heels of his shoes digging into my sides. It was incredible; it was also very, very moving. I’d have been quite happy for him to stay stuck to me for the rest of the day. He weighed no more than a feather and it felt great to be so wanted and loved.

Turns out the kid thought I was his grandfather, who’s also bald as a coot! Eventually the teachers prized him off me limb by limb and we were able to proceed on our way.

What a great school! It’s all happening in India. I predict great change in the infrastructure of education over the next 20 years, with technology being more and more integrated into what goes on in the classroom. India’s already taking its place amongst the leading nations on the economic front. Watch out when India eventually implements its goal of 100% free and compulsory education for all.