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Found: Some Green, Early-summer Words

Yesterday morning, I made a rather feeble attempt to clear out the ton of paper that’s making my rather feeble IKEA shelf sag. I didn’t get very far of course, but I did find some interesting-in-retrospect notes I had jotted down. Most of them were work-notes, taken down while on assignments, but some are just wistful, random jottings, scribbled haphazardly, in Aditya’s old notebooks, sheets of A4 with stuff printed behind, or those cute-looking notepads I tend to hoard ambitiously.

Among them was this note – written at the beginning of this summer. I know I had just come back from my morning walk in the park, but I don’t know if I had meant to add to this or it was just a random thought. Either way, it brought a remembered smile – and a faint whiff of neem flowers – to my morning. And hope – that the summer is on its last legs, and it will become walkable again.

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07/05/2017

It’s only May, and the sun is already sleepless. Now there’s June, July, August, and September to go. The balmy breeze that’s still hovering will soon be evicted, her place taken by razor-edged summer wind that sears all it touches. 

For now, though, the neem flowers are giving way to baby fruits – nature goes on, and so does life, 

I breathe in deeply wondering why we, who are perfecting AI and plotting to colonize Mars, have not yet found a way to capture the fragrance of neem flowers and release it slowly, so it takes us through the summer. 

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That’s it. Just that much on a torn-out sheet of lined paper. I’m now sure I’d meant to add on, but it hadn’t happened. I did manage to dig out a photograph I had clicked on the day though, thanks to technology.

Ahead of me is a long summer day, complete with a long bus-metro-metro-cab commute to the end of Dubai and back. But for now, it’s just these green, green words jotted down in scratchy red ink. And they will see me through.

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A Mother’s Day Wish

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*Kalyani, who occasionally comes over to help me with cleaning, always looks as if she is just an inch away from bursting into laughter. And despite having known her for just a few days, we have shared quite a few laughs. 

Like the time when she recounted how, after she cleaned a bathroom, the owner was so overwhelmed that he kept marveling at how she managed to make it sparkle like that. “I told him it’s all about experience – like any other job!” And bursts out laughing. 

Did I say that her laughter is infectious? Well, it is. 

“Twenty-seven years of cleaning experience, madam. No small thing, is it?” I nod in agreement. 

Kalyani is thirty-seven – started working at ten, madam! – and a proud mother to her 21-year-old college-going son. 

“What!?” I must have heard wrong. “How old were you when you had him then?”

“Seventeen, madam. The nurses who attended to my delivery threatened to complain to the police for marrying off a minor,” she laughs again. I can’t.

“So at what age did you get married? Sixteen?” 

She shakes her head slowly. “Fourteen.” To a man twice her age. 

Her father was an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. The mother had to marry off the daughters early for their own well-being. 

“And your husband? Is he in India?”

“He died. Brain tumor, madam.”

“When?”

“I was twenty-one when he died.”

Married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, and widowed by twenty-one. 

 “I couldn’t sleep for six months…” She stops smiling.  “Kept thinking about — Things… That affected my health…”

After that, she continued working in houses, earning money to send her son to school. “My husband’s last wish was that. Neither you nor I could study, Kalyani. But you send our son to school. Give him a good education. But when he reached higher classes, I needed more money to pay his fees and all that.”

There were people ready to marry her, of course. One of them asked her how much money her late husband had left her. “I threw him out of the house! And then I thought, it’s better if I just take care of my son, madam. Live my life as Kannayya’s wife, you understand?”

Somebody advised her that working abroad will fetch her more money, so she got herself a passport and entered the country through an agency that provides cleaning staff to companies. 

The agency still takes two-thirds of her salary as their commission, and gives her the rest. 

“But why can’t you request your company to give you a visa? That way you don’t have to pay the agency!”

“They would have given me if I had completed tenth grade, Madam. But I got married when I was in eighth. And did not study after that.” 

Kalyani’s son is now studying to be an aviation mechanical engineer. “He’s very good, madam. Passed his 10th grade with 94% marks! Plays the drums, guitar… O-grades in art, and a state level athlete.” She beams with pride. 

“Two more years for him to complete his studies. I will hold on, somehow. After that, once he has a good job, I will go back. Then I won’t have to work… He will get married… And I will just look after my grandchildren…”

Her wide eyes are dreamy. Mine are moist.

Kalyani, here’s my heartfelt Mother’s Day wishes: May all your dreams come true! Every single one of them. 

***

*Name changed for obvious reasons. 

Image courtesy Google

Close Encounters of a Certain Kind: Puli Murugan

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I was covering Global Summit of Women Speakers in Parliament when the call came. Just a number that showed up on the screen, with no name accompanying it. But then that has been the case since I changed phones. Even my oldest friends have become mere numbers, though they don’t know it.

“Can I call you back?” I texted, and went back to the session. There were world parliaments waiting to transform, and urgently. And I was there to document it. A plethora of voices, faces, costumes, hairdos, accents, nationalities, languages, concerns… Each interesting, relevant.

The evening was a treat to my linguistic senses: English, Arabic, English, Spanish, Russian, English, Portuguese, Arabic, French, English, Swahili…you name it. Mr R. Frost, you would understand me when I say that sometimes my vocation and avocation are one. On the flip side, it also means that I need to be alert and attuned – to the myriad voices and accents including the translators’.

So it was a good while later that I returned the call. The voice at the other end was familiar and apologetic.

“Sorry, Chechi! He was fussing so much that I had to call you. You were busy, weren’t you?”

I told Rajitha what I had been doing. “Is he awake?” It was pretty late by then.

“No, he has gone to sleep, after all that drama. I’ll ask him to call you when he comes back from school tomorrow.”

I was bathing when he called me the next day, but this time the phone showed his name as I had stored it: Puli Murugan. Aka Rahul.

The flashback:

We had met on the flight from Kochi to Dubai. He was sitting next to me, and eyeing my window seat with the kind of pathos only a four-year-old is capable of.

I couldn’t hold out for too long in the face of such misery.”Do you want to sit here?”  I asked.

He nodded, his face still a picture of lost hope.

“Come on over,” I said, getting up to exchange seats.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. He wanted his mother to sit next to him.

The young lady refused. Sitting on the other side of her was her newly widowed mother in law, whom she was understandably reluctant to leave alone. I managed to convince them that no, I really did not mind moving, please! You can all sit together.

We played our little round of musical chair once the seatbelt sign went off.

From where I was sitting, I could feel a pair of eyes shooting covert glances in my direction. Each time I look back, he would turn his face. After a while I beckoned him over. His face broke into an impish grin and he came running, as if he had been waiting for me to call.  And parked himself firmly on my lap.

“What’s your name, love?”

He lowered his head, looking shyly at me through a mop of hair.

“Tell auntie your name!” His mother admonished.

“Rahul…” he whispered, and fell silent.

“Like Shah Rukh Khan?” He shook his still bent head vehemently. Definitely not SRK.

A minute later, he lifted up his head, looked me in the eye, and stated, “But you can call me Puli Murugan!” For a minute I thought I heard wrong, but I hadn’t. And he wasn’t joking.

“Of course!” I answered with equal seriousness. Silence, again.

“So did you watch it? Puli Murugan?” I asked, for the sake of making conversation.

He looked at me as if I was daft. Of course he did! And he was appalled to find out that I had not. The next half an hour was spent in telling me why I must.

That was the beginning – of a friendship that was cemented by our shared love for Mohanlal. We both agreed that he was the bestest. He also adored Mammootty, but when he found out that I had reservations, he let it pass. Mohanlal it shall be, from now on. 

An hour or so later, things between us got more serious and we started making plans for future.

“A yellow Ferrari!” he decided. And a two seater at that. We don’t want anyone else intruding on us, do we?

“And we will go places in it, you and I. Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa…hmmm…” He thought hard. “Ferrari World…” Of course. “Then…yes, Kongad! We will go to my grandmother’s place and have lunch, and payasam…”

By the time we landed, we had made a million plans about where to go in his yellow Ferrari, and every single one of them ended at his grandmother’s place in Kongad. We also decided to buy a purple motorbike, just in case.

Just so I don’t forget him, he took my card and gave it to his mother, insisting that she saved my name and number now! Then he took the card back from her hand and shoved it into the recesses of his trouser pocket.  We parted with a lot of reluctance and promises.

I did not expect him to remember me, much less call me. But he did – and in the month hence, we have talked over the phone quite a few times. He was thrilled when I told him that I watched Puli Murugan.

“Finally!”

“Yes, finally…” I agreed that the stunt scenes were awesome, and Mohanlal was awesomer – killing all those man-eating tigers and saving the villagers and all that.

“You will call, won’t you?” He would ask each time before disconnecting.

In Real Time:

I called him back. Again his mother was apologetic. “He made such a lot of fuss yesterday, Chechi, insisting that he wants to speak to you. Your card tore a bit around the edges, and that upset him too…” I could hear him in the background, pestering her for the phone.

“Remember the yellow Ferrari?” he asked as soon as he took the phone.

“Of course! Did you buy it?”

“Not yet, not yet. But remember that we have to go to so many places when I do!”

I assured him I will.

And on we talked for a while. In between he tried to make his elder brother talk to me, but the latter refused, quite understandably. To him, I’m just an apparition his brother keeps making a lot of noise about. “Appu doesn’t want to!” he said, incredulous. I convinced him it was ok not to.

“Call me, alright? Don’t forget. You wouldn’t, would you?” he asked as his mother told him Enough! Auntie has work to do..

I promised him that I wouldn’t. And so we parted. Until next time.

***

Yesterday I told my family about the lovely moon that travelled with me all the way from Abu Dhabi, flitting in and out of the clouds. It was indeed a lovely sight: it made me smile.

The men in my life looked at each other, shaking their heads. The same reaction they have when they catch me discussing yellow Ferraris over the phone. “No wonder she has four year olds as her fan club!”

Amen.

Yet there are times when I wonder about the luminous, invisible, divine thread that connects people. Strangers in time and space, like stars in the sky. Each separate, yet bound. One tugs at the fragile cord, and the other feels. Despite.

Only you seem to get such people in your life, ‘Mma!  

I’m not so sure, love. What about them, those strangers at the other end? Don’t they feel this – this sense of wonderment? Wouldn’t the four year old grow up and gradually forget and then one day remember the elderly stranger he had cried for? Would he then smile and shake his head at his own childishness?

I wonder. At the wonder of it all. Sometimes, nothing seems to make sense.

But then again, it doesn’t need to, does it? As long as it makes you smile…

Sometimes.

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Images courtesy Google

Ten Tips for Getting Kids to Write – by Bruce Coville

Chapter 3 of  In the Course of My Work…

Last year, I had the amazing fortune to be a part of Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, providing content for the English media. In the course of the 12 days (plus the 2 days before that for inaugural UAEBBY), I met and heard some brilliant teachers and writers and those who do both, artists and illustrators as well as people who give their all to the cause they believe in – and each of them left an indelible mark on me. As a teacher, writer and a human being, it was a humbling experience.

This is a continuation of my attempt to pass on what I learned from the experience – something I had ventured into more than a year ago, and was unable to pursue. Before these get lost in the rubble of time, let me spread it around.

 Bruce Coville is an American author of children’s and young adult novels. He was born in Syracuse, New York and lives there currently; he has spent most of his life there, leaving to attend Duke University and then to live in New York City.

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 Ten Tips for Getting Kids to Write:

  1. Provide time. Good writing takes time to develop.
  2. Provide freedom. Let the writing come from within.
  3. Provide a role model (namely yourself). Modeling is the single best tool we have as teachers. If children don’t see you as a writer, you’ve sent them a powerful message about how much value you really give the subject.
    • Journal with them.
    • Freewrite with them.
    • Show them/read them your own work.
  4. Read to them. Writers need models of language to work from. The more language we pour into their heads, the deeper the well of words from which they can draw.
  5. Read to them. I’m repeating the point, just so you will know I wasn’t kidding.
  6. Respond at least as much to content as technique. Writing is about communication. Skills are necessary to communicate properly, and so the technical aspect of writing must be taught. But correct spelling and grammar do not indicate that communication has occurred. Writers need feedback.
  7. Provide an audience. Journal writing is meant to be private. Any other writing that does not have an audience lacks a reason to exist.
  8. Make it a daily event. Having the children write DAILY not only provides the practice they need to grow as writers, it send a powerful message about how much to value the skill.
  9. Encourage journaling. A journal is a gift from the self to the self-to-be. Having your kids keep journals is a gift from you to them.
  10. Explore forms. The more kinds of writing you work with – poetry, journaling, essay, fiction – the more apt the writer is to find the form that fits.

Some Teacher Tales

Now I see them in saris…and I recall those old days!

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I no longer teach in a school, and so I’ve lifted my self-imposed ban on adding my students as friends on Facebook. I need them in my life – they are my girls, after all. In terms of pure emotions, we have invested heavily – on both sides: love, hate, anger, frustration, happiness, pride…you name it.

Not to mention nouns, verbs, modals, argumentative essays, powerpoint presentations, homework. Write, rewrite, write and write more.  Jokes, laughter, Shakespearean play enactments. We’d laughed, cried, shared jokes and fumed at each other – silently (they), noisily (you know who).

Did you do your homework?

Yes ma’am. No ma’am. Not completed ma’am….

Those who did not complete, stand up. Why didn’t you?

Look down, fidget. Glance at each other covertly. Exchange now-she’ll-go-on-a-rampage looks.

I asked you – WHY?

I went out over the weekend/ we had guests/ I was not well/somebody took my book…. Sullen silence.

Yeah, dog ate your homework…go on! DON’T try these on me – you won’t get far. I’ve sat in that seat and warmed it too.(And God knows that’s the holy truth.) Pick up your books, step out of the class/stand at the back and complete it. Resentful looks, hostilities opened.

Teachers’ Day, Valentine’s Day, my birthday. Roses, cards, beautiful handmade cards and gifts. We love you, Ma’am! Hugs I feel like a queen. All hostilities suspended, seem like impossible history. It’s pure love. Until next morning/day.

Pull up your sock (literally). Tuck in your shirt. Pull up your skirt for God’s sake. (I’m truly worried about the precarious positioning of some of the skirts.) What’s with your hair? Reopen hostilities. Show me your nails. What on earth is this?

Ma’am… Long eyelashes batting. Butter would certainly not melt in her mouth. I’m reminded of Puss-in-boots when he first approached Shrek.

Tomorrow I need to see those nails cut.

Tomorrow, and WHY AREN’T THOSE NAILS CUT?

Ma’am, I forgot…sorry –

Get it cut, NOW.

Now, Ma’am? Does anyone have a nail-cutter? Hidden smile, knowing they won’t.

No one has, predictably. ‘Well, there’ look from the little lady in question. Unuttered now-what-will-you-do hanging in the air.

The clinic will have one. Go on.

Incredulous look. The clinic? Now?

YES.

(Two years later she texts me, seeking blessing for her exams, and ends the message with I still cut my nails regularly.)

Next morning, or the day after morning, me in a new sari, accessorized to boot. Good morning! is followed by Ma’am you look great! Others echo the sentiment. I feel like Queen Gayatri Devi and Julia Roberts rolled into one.

Ten minutes later. So what’s this I hear from your Math/History/Hindi/Any other subject teacher? She says you didn’t do your homework / or you’re so unruly in class / you did badly in exams.

But Ma’am, she’s… Anger, tears. They do have a point.

Listen, listen carefully. Understand. This a twelve/thirteen-year-old raw and open in front of you. She feels her feelings with all her being. 

I understand, but then she’s your teacher – you can’t change that. So show her the respect she deserves. Be polite at all times. I’ll certainly see what I can do, but take these things as a learning experience.

Complaints, righteous indignation, frustrated tears. Placate, console, advise.

Ma’am can I give you a hug?

Of course!

Me too?

Certainly!

Hugs and hugs. The air is thick with love. Until the next morning.

 

A DWHC Experience

My colleague Mathilda pointed to a man in chef’s uniform sitting in the media room (our domain as of now) of Dubai World Hospitality Championship and suggested that it might be a good idea to get a quote or two from him for the next press release. I went over, and we got talking. I just wanted to get a couple of quotes and get on with my work. My very limited knowledge of the hospitality world meant that I had no idea about the identity of the man I was sitting opposite to.

Chef Charles Carroll turned out to be incredibly easy to talk to. After the usual niceties about being a part of the DWHC, he pointed to a curtained-off part of the aisle and said, “In a few minutes you will see some very fine food made by some of the most talented chefs in the world. Would you like to go and see that?” Of course I would – I don’t say ‘no’ to food and clothes as a matter of principle. And this is not Vasant Bhavan or even Calicut Paragon we are talking about – we are talking about the finest food made by WORLDCHEFS Dreamteam, a handpicked team of the world’s best chefs who have come with the sole intention of wowing the culinary connoisseurs of the UAE.

Chef Charles took me to the aisle and thanks to him, my humble persona not only got to see the food at close quarters, but also to taste it beside a seven-time winner of Culinary Olympian award who offered me a crash course on enjoying good food – to savour the nuances of flavours, to feel the different textures, to experience how each variation complements the other to create a symphony of pure gastronomic delight… I could see his disappointment that I am able to taste most of the spread because of being vegetarian, but he was gracious enough to find out the veggie fare and lead me there.

I tasted a dish made of variants of beet, on a bed of what tasted like Arabic coffee – a hint of cardomom and mint on coffee, a slice of apple and many other subtle flavours which added up something as new as it is interesting. The humble beet that brings a collective frown on my family’s face has so much to offer!

Chef Charles took me next to his colleague who showed me the process of ‘popping’ white chocolate on a gadget that looked like a cross between a decorative water ionizer and the ‘goblet of fire’ in Harry Potter. Out of it came fumes that might have been from dry ice. Spray choclate into the liquid inside (-365 degree farenheit, apparently) and it comes out resembling a popcorn. The ‘poplate’ was added to a delicate-looking dessert, and some passion fruit sauce poured – and lo behold! it was a dessert unlike any I had ever tasted.

The chef who demonstrated the awesome show for my sole benefit was looking expectantly at me as I tasted it, and when he saw the relish written clear and large on my face, his own lit up…  And I realised that all artists, regardless of how huge they are in their respective domain, derive their pleasure from others’.  Creativity thrives on appreciation, always. Lesson learned.

Then came the delicate chocolate eggs, each filled with a different concoction of flavours and textures, and guilt kicked in. Guilt at having broken the ‘controlled eating’ I have taken up (I don’t call it dieting)…guilt at eating such exotic chocolate that would have thrilled my boys…and guilt that I am eating all of this finest fare when a huge majority of children in the world are rummaging through bins looking for food… And it was only a day earlier that my colleague Siham had told me about her stint in Lebanon where she watched people doing exactly that – rummaging through garbage bins for food. She opted out of her UN posting there in Lebanon because she was beginning to lose hope in humanity.

Yes, my world is a tortured one. And just as rich in many ways.

I carried the little custom-made tray to the media room where I assuaged my guilt by sharing the chocoeggs with my colleagues, adding to Liz Cook’s (another Apco colleague) conviction that I’m a compulsive food-sharer. A whole lot of us dug into the chocolate, and I felt a whole lot better.

Back to Chef Charles Carroll. It was only this morning, as I was looking him up on the net to find out his credentials for a press release that I knew how impressive a profile he has. There was no pomp or show in the way he talked, or in the way he guided me to the sanctum sanctorum and offered me an incredible culinary experience well knowing that I was a novice.

However, what clinched a blog post on him were his earnest insights into the need for sustainability and total utilization of resources. He told me about how the WORLDCHEFS Congress, of which he is the Committee Chairman, is thinking about ways to incorporate the message of saving resources and making sustainable choices right from the school level, through to chefs and end-users. “It’s no longer a problem for our grandchildren – it’s our problem now,” he said, and we discussed water wastage, farmer subsidies and all the rest until my deadlines beckoned me, and the ice-carving he was judging called out to him.

I walked back to the media room thinking about something else he had said, “An angry chef cannot make good food.” I’m planning to print that out and get it framed for my kitchen.

P.S. I hate my habit of leaving behind my mobile phone – I could neither click a picture with him, nor with the food.  Grrr…. @ self!

😦

If you, like me, don’t know much about WORLDCHEFS or Chef Charles Carroll, visit:  http://www.worldchefs.org/ and http://www.chefcharlescarroll.com/

Presence of ‘The Other’ in children’s literature

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Some of the talks that happened on the first day of the UAEBBY’s conference took a good long look at how Arabs were depicted in western stories and vice versa.  Many celebrated authors and activists from the Arab world were concerned about the exclusion of ‘The Other’ – meaning people from other countries, cultures, ethnicity – in stories that originate from the region. They were of the opinion that the AW must open up to the ‘larger’ world, and include others in their children’s literature, so that children are aware and accepting of cultures outside their own.

I wondered about my own country, the land of more than an estimated 850 ‘mother tongues’, mine being one,  and how ‘the other’ is depicted in our children’s literature.  I realized that even in our children’s literature, there is hardly the presence of characters from outside our own society or community.  However, being largely bilingual – at least those of us from in Kerala and other parts where English is as present and dominating as Malayalam is/was – we were exposed to the ‘larger’ world from childhood.  Maybe to a fault at that, because I remember growing up with the vague notion that all female protagonists were fair and had golden hair, and had names like (apart from those of the fairy tale heroines) Amelia Jane, Alice or Betty.

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At this point, I’m reminded of a TED talk I had listened to once, where a Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ – how what she had read as a child had influenced the way she wrote and thought.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

This is the other extreme, where you identify more with ‘the other’ than your own.

Two sides of the same coin, yes, but at the core, the message remains the same – our literature has to open out for our minds to do the same.

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Growing up on large doses of fairy tales (closely followed by equally large doses of Mills and Boon romances) would have given me a skewed notion of the world, not to mention a permanent inferiority complex about my very Indian looks, had it not been for the countless ‘Poombaatta’, ‘Balarama’, Target, Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha that I used to devour as a kid and M.Mukundan’s, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s and countless other Malayalam novelists’ books that were as ethnic as they were broad-minded.

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By adulthood, I had been able to achieve a reading habit that crossed linguistic and cultural borders, and now I realize that I had been extremely fortunate in that, because it had a lot of say in shaping me and my approach to the world.  My world, the physical one, must not have extended to more than 25 kilometers each way till I was in my twenties, but the world inside my head has always been measured in square light years (you astrophysicists out there, pardon me).  Growing up, the very same habit helped me break a lot of prejudices that I’d never have been able to otherwise.  As pompous as it sounds, it did give me a ‘global perspective’, to whatever extent I have it today.

So yes, we need literature – and a whole lot of it.  Transcending all physical and cultural borders.  We need it for our sake, for our children’s sake.  It’s not just the Arab world or any other region that needs to open up – it’s the collective minds of the people in those regions.  And that includes you and me.

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In the course of my work….

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The past couple of weeks, as I’d mentioned earlier, had been eventful – in fact, they were a crash course in writing, typing, reporting, people skills and learning.  Something that, in retrospect, I feel I had really needed.  Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, though.  To be in the presence of some wonderfully knowledgeable and committed people, listening to them talk about their work, watching them interact with children – it was amazing.

But then, it was not all excitement, thrill and wonder.  Working eleven hours a day for fourteen days, (alright, it was less on the two Fridays that happened in between) in a media room fitted with a centralized air conditioner set at below freezing point posed its own challenges. Add to that the need to be on the alert at all times to pick up anything newsworthy that is going on, typing them as press releases two or three a day, and most importantly, to be politically correct at all times in that writing – that was no picnic.  The most testing part, however, was the barely hidden animosity and distrust with which I was viewed from day one, purely because I did not come from an Arabic speaking background.

It took a while for my colleagues to decide that I did not bite, that I am not toxic, and that I had not come with the intention of pulling off a bank heist.  However, by the time the event was over, I had made some casual acquaintances, some smile-hug-and-greet acquaintances, even a young friend with whom I had late lunches – and I forgot to mention, a girl who found my name fascinating: whenever she saw me, she would chant ‘Mini-Shiva, I like your name, Mini-Shiva’ with a huge smile.

Initially, however, I had cried – well, almost.  At my age, no less!!

The first two days of my project was to report on the first CANA conference of IBBY – International Board on Books for Youth, the UAEBBY chapter.  This was immediately followed by Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival that lasted twelve days.  In the course of these fourteen days, there were dozens of talks by experts, workshops, cookery shows and a lot of other very interesting things happening.  Which is what I want to share with everybody here.

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(To be continued…)

Close encounters of a different kind, again.

Mr. George is a school bus driver. He has been a widower for more than twenty-one years. His wife died twenty-five days after she gave birth to their second son, and now he has completed nursing. The elder one works in Dubai. Mr George says he did not consider remarriage for fear that his boys would not be treated well.

He is a happy man, without any complaints, and in less than fifteen minutes, he taught me a lot about life. He told me that he is thankful for what he has. “There’s no point in comparing ourselves to people who are better off than us – that will lead to misery. I’m just happy that I have what I have.”

He rues that today’s youngsters have a lot of knowledge, but no common sense. “Ask them where cow’s milk comes from and they’ll say supermarket. That’s because nobody has the time to hold their hands and show them goats and cows and trees anymore. We’re all busy…”

We parted as great friends, promising to run into each other some time. His USP in my eyes? He called me ‘moley’ (daughter) – nobody, apart from an aunt or two, calls me that anymore, at my age. 🙂

I’m grateful too – for Mr George and all the others I met today. I’m wiser, richer, humbler and happier because of them.

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An Open Letter to the KHDA

I discovered teaching only late in life, and since then have not looked back – teaching is my love, my passion. For my confirmation interview at the school I had been working in, I was asked what I liked most about my job. I didn’t have to think for even a moment: “The fact that I wake up every morning smiling at the thought of coming to work.” And it was from my heart. I woke up each day brimming with ideas to share with my students, anticipating their questions and preparing my answers… And I was blessed to get the same enthusiastic response from my students consistently, through the years. Then five years later, I quit. I quit because I couldn’t handle the stress anymore. My body was a wreck, and my mind was in a constant state of conflict – between what I knew I should be doing for my students and what I was actually doing for the sake of records. I prefer not to go into the details – they’ve been done to death here. My point is something else altogether.

An average class in an average Asian school has an average strength of 35 to 42 students. I was a teacher of English, and I had, on a typical day, six teaching periods of about 40 minutes each, handling four different classes across two different grades if I was lucky. (Teachers of other subjects had more teaching periods.) There was a year when I had to handle five different classes across three different grade levels – the less said about it the better. I was also a class-teacher, and had to handle the value education of one class at least. This means we had, at any given point of time, at least a hundred and fifty notebooks to correct, over and above other responsibilities. Then comes the inherent responsibilities of being the ‘English person’ – writing scripts for any given event, training students for public speaking competitions, so on and so forth. Tougher than juggling with 12 balls…

Student to teacher ratio stands at 40 : 1. The average teacher-time a student gets in a period is, in real terms, less than a minute. Now to look at notebook corrections – if a teacher is able to correct 10 notebooks a day, it’ll take 15 good days to complete one round of correction. What miracle can a teacher work, under these circumstances?

Those were the tangible issues. Now to the abstracts. A teacher makes around Dhs 3000 a month (add a couple of hundreds for seniority/experience) for all her troubles. The driver of the school bus gets paid more than her. And the whole world and his mother knows this fact, including students and their parents. And the teacher knows they know. She is well aware of the varying degrees of compassion/pity with which her profession is viewed, instead of good, old-fashioned respect that used to make everything worth it in the past. Imagine what it must be doing to a teacher’s self-esteem…

I choose not to go into the details of the demands that are made on the teachers in the name of inspection. I’ve been reading about those, and if anything, they are understated at times. When the KHDA first started its inspections, it had stressed on differentiation, and we had attended a spate of workshops on the topic. I remember this one cartoon that was shown to us time and again to stress the need to have a flexible teaching and assessment system.

I wonder if this isn’t exactly what the KHDA is doing now. They expect a classroom with the above-mentioned dynamics to work on par with others elsewhere that have a student teacher ratio of at the most 20 : 1, with all infrastructural and other facilities, not to mention teachers whose take-home pay is well Above Poverty Level. They’re expecting the fish to climb the tree at least as well as the monkey or else.

“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general,or myself?” (The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

If we take away all the extras and look at things at the grass-root level, here’s the gist of what is happening: A whole bunch of frustrated, over-worked, underpaid, stressed and resentful teachers trying to teach a bunch of confused, disillusioned and increasingly cynical (with good reason) children, who will eventually evolve into disillusioned, cynical and materialistic adults with shallow outlook and over-riding negativity. The very opposite of what the KHDA set out to do, I’m sure.

Dear KHDA, if you really want to change the education scene, please look at things from a different perspective. If it is records and documentation you want, ensure that the schools provide those at the end of each academic year. Walk in at random and do surprise inspections. Ensure that holistic education is transacted. Above all, ensure the welfare of the two most vital players of the education game – the student and the teacher. Ensure that teachers are treated and paid well. Ensure that fee hikes are not directly linked to inspection ratings. Understand individual circumstances and aim for supportive approach rather than being just critical. You might be able to work a miracle yet.

Please.