Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Training to be Peer Guides

In every human being’s life, there are some ordinary, forgettable days, and some days that stand out because something unusual happens. And then there are days that get etched so deeply in one’s heart, that whenever one closes one’s eyes one gets transported back to those days, and relives it in its entirety. The details do not fade with time; if anything, they only become brighter and sharper, and one can think back to individual incidents that made the days as incredible as they were. It has just been two days, but I can safely claim that 28th, 29th and 30th November were three such indelible days of my life, memories that I shall cherish forever.

All of this began sometime last week when our History teacher informed us about a peer guide training workshop for an international travelling exhibition organized by the Anne Frank House of Amsterdam in collaboration with the Seagull Foundation for the Arts in Bhowanipur, Kolkata. The workshop was voluntary, and interested students had to submit their names. It sounded quite interesting, and History being my favourite subject, I instantly put my name down for it. A few days later, we were informed that three of my classmates and I had been selected from school to attend the workshop, which was to be held on 28th and 29th of November, from 10 am to 5pm.

On Thursday, the four of us reached the venue from school. They were depending on me for directions because I had looked the place up on Google Maps, and fortunately for us, we managed to reach the place without getting hopelessly lost on the way!

The first thing that struck me when we reached the place was that it was an old-ish, ordinary house. I felt a little let down, but my spirits quickly revived when on entering we were ushered into a room full of books and paintings. It had a wonderful smell so characteristic of new books and fresh pages, that no book lover could possibly remain gloomy in such an ambience. There were chairs laid out for the students. There were four participating schools: La Martinere for Boys, Lakshmipat Singhania Academy, one boy from Calcutta International School, and the four of us from Modern High School for girls.

After all of us had settled down, we were welcomed by members of The Seagull Foundation, and introduced to the two ladies, Ms Priya Machado and Ms Louise (I never caught her surname!), who had come down from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to organize the exhibition, and to Mr. Aaron Peterer, who was to conduct the training workshop. Aaron took over from there. The first thing he told us was that he was not a teacher, and we should address him as just Aaron, no Mr. Peterer or Sir. I mention this as though it was a seemingly insignificant incident, I kept feeling distinctly uncomfortable addressing someone years my senior by his first name, since by Indian custom I usually refer to someone his age as kaku (uncle) or at least dada (elder brother)!

Right from the beginning, the workshop was conducted in a very interactive manner. The first round was the introductory round, where Aaron divided us into groups according to our birth dates and made us share our names, their meanings and funny anecdotes about our names. It was while we were doing this that he reminded us of something very important, something that was the crux of the exhibition: whenever we come across a stranger, we can safely assume one commonality between each other, a name. No matter how different the other person is from you,she or he is bound to have a name, so why not concentrate on finding out more common threads between each other, rather than differences?

After that we were taken to the actual spot where the exhibition would be set up. Aaron showed us how to make the stands and set up the exhibition panels, and then we ourselves put up the exhibition. It felt wonderful, knowing that it was our own labour that would finally bring the exhibition to the visitors. The four of us Modernites worked swiftly and efficiently, and very soon we had set up all the panels in the last room. We were praised by Ms Machado and Louise for our work, and felt all proud and happy.

After we were done setting up the exhibition, we went back to our room. Then began the actual discussions about the subject matter of the exhibition. Aaron began by asking us the name of the exhibition, and it was extremely embarrassing because not one of us could recall it! The name was “Anne Frank- A History for Today”. That day, we concentrated mainly on Anne Frank’s life and the world war. We were shown a documentary film on Anne Frank’s life which showed us pictures from her childhood, her time in the Secret Annexe and the one video recording that there is of her: a chance video clip of her leaning out of her window overlooking a newly-wed couple whose video was actually being shot.

Afterwards we discussed the Second World War as the background of Anne’s story, and why her diary was considered to be one of the most important accounts of the lives of Jews during the Third Reich. We were then given a catalogue of the exhibition that contained details about the pictures used in the panels. Then, we were randomly grouped and asked to look at some of these pictures and select the favourite of the group among them. We had to prepare our own poster with the selected picture as the focal point, and think of questions we could ask regarding that picture. Later we realized that it was actually an exercise to introduce us to the methods used while guiding a group of visitors around an exhibition, but at that point none of us were too sure what to make of the whole exercise. We were given chart papers, colours and other art material to use for the posters. Aaron kept going around, inspecting each table. I say inspecting, but he was in no way strict or authoritarian. In fact, he seemed to be amused by our work. He kept hovering around my group’s table and smirking at our progress, and occasionally teasing us about our creative skills! He finally named us “the artists’ group”, because we were too busy drawing a border to the poster to actually come up with proper questions regarding the picture of our choice! The first day ended with our discussing the posters in front of the other groups, and Aaron asked us to arrive half an hour early the next day, which we Modernites were all too glad to do.

The next day we spent more time discussing the relevance of Anne Frank’s diary in today’s world, because that was the whole point of the exhibition. We discussed why Anne Frank should be called a history for today, and why our generation would do well to learn lessons from the past. We were shown another documentary called “Eye Witnesses”, where we saw the interviews of Anne’s father Otto Frank, and Miep Gies, one of the four of Otto Frank’s employees who had helped hide the Frank family and four other Jews in the Secret Annexe. Also, throughout the day we were given practical advice about being a good peer guide, and at one point were asked to make another poster and jot down all the qualities essential in a good guide. We were taught how to deal with “obnoxious students” who made it a point to disrupt the tour, and how to keep the audience engaged and interested. We also learnt that we should not simply lecture the audience about the panels in the exhibition, but rather ask them to participate by asking relevant questions and encouraging active discussions. Aaron told each one of us to mentally create a red thread with about fifteen to twenty five pictures in the entire exhibition to have a connecting line between the different panels, which would help us carry on guiding in case we lose thread at any point. He once again divided us into groups and asked us to practise guiding each other. By the time it was five in the evening, all of us were feeling quite confident about guiding. Just before dispersal, we were given certificates from the Anne Frank House for having successfully completed the training session.

The workshop had officially ended, but the exhibition was to be inaugurated on the next day, at five in the evening. All the Modern High girls volunteered to come. Out of us, the Anne Frank House representatives randomly chose me to read out a passage from the Diary for the inauguration ceremony. I was supposed to be there by four thirty, and accordingly I reached Bhowanipur around that time. Then, like the certifiable dolt that I am, I managed to lose my way and reached the house twenty minutes later! The Dutch embassy had already arrived for the inauguration, and Ms. Machado quickly showed me which passage I would have to read out. I practised a couple of times, and then went to look for my classmates, who I found guiding our school’s director Ms. Devi Kar around the exhibition. The inauguration started at around five thirty, and continued for about twenty minutes. I was called to read my part, and was greatly praised by many people. Then an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me. Among other things he asked me where he could buy a copy of Anne Frank’s diary in Kolkata to gift his grandchildren, and I gifted him an extra copy that I happened to have bought on the way to the Seagull Foundation that very evening! Afterwards there was a violin recital, and lots of tasty snacks. A boy from La Marts and I even had a glass of red wine each, much to the amusement of the adults present! The evening ended on a sweet note with me getting a picture clicked with Aaron, and one with Ms. Machado and Louise. The time had passed all too soon, and though I was happy, I felt more than a twinge of regret when I left the building for the last time.

This post will not be complete unless I dedicate a separate paragraph to Aaron Peterer. I have not attended many workshops, but instinctively I can feel that it will be difficult for anyone anywhere to conduct one as perfectly as Aaron did. Right at the outset he had made clear that he was not an official teacher of History, but in spite of that the two days with him gave me some of the finest History lessons I have ever attended. In fact, his training was second only to my father’s History classes, and that is saying a lot. The most wonderful thing about Aaron was how easily he made all of us feel comfortable dealing with him. He was cheerful and friendly, but not overly personal. He gave me the feeling that he was addressing me individually, and the wonderful thing was that all of my friends felt the same way. What better sign can there be of a fantastic teacher? He had this subtle way of instructing us without ever seeming to deliver lectures. And the best thing was, he taught us by example, and while listing the qualities of a perfect guide, many of us felt that we would have to add “like Aaron” at the end of our posters.

Aaron, if you are reading this somewhere, I would like to thank you with all my heart, and on behalf of all my friends, who no doubt feel the same way. The workshop would never have been a tenth as good as it was if you were not there to train us. Thank you, and God willing, may we get the opportunity to train under you many more times in future.

Aaron and I

Louise, Ms. Machado and I

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Palace of Illusions

I was recommended this book by a very unlikely source: my peers in school. A number of them were almost ecstatic about this book, and this put me instantly on my guard. I prepared myself for a light-hearted chick-lit, to be forgotten as soon as it is read. But when I finally laid my hands upon the book and read the back page summary, I was instantly hooked. The Mahabharata, my father always says, is one book that no Indian should die without reading. I have read the children’s version of the epic, so I know the outline of the story. I do appreciate the unbiased compilation of events listed in the original book, but reading the epic from the point of view of a character as powerful as Draupadi is a vastly enriching experience by itself.

The first thing that struck me even before I began with the book was its title. “The Palace of Illusions” sounded like a mystical title shrouded in fantasy. I wondered about the aptness of the name, given that it is a story of bloodshed and gore and the lust for fame and power. But with the progress of the book, I started realizing little by little why the name was very appropriate after all: the book increasingly filled me with wonder and made me question some of my basic thoughts and ideas about life and death. Are our lives really anything more than dreams, and the deaths that plague human life merely the passing of souls beyond the territory of the dream that is life? Just like Draupadi’s prized palace of Indraprastha, her greatest treasure and possession that begot such jealousy in the hearts of thousands, our lives are illusory and transient too. The things we hold on to most desperately in life are all temporary, and are washed away by the sands of time. In fact, non-scientific person though I am, I am reminded of the concept of atoms and molecules. Aren’t they mostly empty space surrounding a minuscule drop of tangible matter in their centres? Then, being made up of these same molecules, are we anything more than space ourselves?

In this book, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gives us her version of The Mahabharata through the eyes of the fiery daughter of the king of Panchal. A woman in a man’s world, she is forever a misfit. She aspires to achieve greatness, and bring the prophecy that had accompanied her birth, about her changing the course of history, true through her own conscious actions. Never really wanted right from birth, she is feared, envied and shunned by women, and desired yet rebuked by men all her life. Her life follows a path of bitterness, glory, pride, loss and remorse, until she finally attains self-realization on her way along the maha-prasthan, the last earthly route to heaven. The most powerful woman of the age dies a lone figure on the icy crevices of the mountains, left behind by her five husbands, and finally comes to term with the purpose of her life and death.

Reading the book, my ideas about right and wrong were greatly shaken. I was forcefully reminded of a profound truth about life: it is very difficult to distinguish between the good and the bad. Life is not black and white; there are no clear cut heroes and villains in life. Thinking back, I cannot recall even one completely good character. Think about the atrocities wrought, the humiliations brought about by Drona, Drupad, Dhritarashtra, Kunti, you name it, to satisfy their own interests or through silent sanction. Also, quite often it is one’s weaknesses that make one great: Yudhisthir followed moral principles and tried to uplift his wife spiritually, yet it was Bheem who truly loved her.

Talking about Yudhisthir, I have always held a personal distaste for him. I think it has something to do with his unrelenting adherence to what he understood as dharma. To him, what mattered were only his principles, and not the emotions that his actions inspired in others. Even if others were hurt, he would go ahead with his strict moral code. In her analysis of her husbands’ characters, Panchali has repeatedly expressed her helpless rage at the false sense of honour that all them carried. I agree with her wholeheartedly when her heart raises questions about the necessity or glory of keeping one’s word, even at the cost of another’s life or honour. What moral code was it that allowed Yudhisthir to go ahead with the game of dice where he lost everything, even his brothers and his wife? And what honour was it that stopped any of the brothers and all the other courtiers from coming to Draupadi’s aid when she was being humiliated by Dushshasan in full view of all present? Are codes and rules and procedures really so much more important than human feelings? Are codes of conduct made for the benefit of human beings, or is it really the other way round?

The book is a superb study of human relationships. Panchali’s feelings towards her five husbands are as diverse as the people themselves. She is especially attracted to Arjun, the man who really won her at her swayamvar, and she almost challenges herself to win his special love and care. For Yudhisthir she holds a reserved and respectful, and maybe a little distant, love. Bheem, who she senses has fallen completely in love with her, she heartlessly utilizes and even exploits. Bheem, always so eager to please, so fast with his anger as well as his forgiveness, is almost a plaything to her. While reading the book, I had this sudden thought, that I would consider myself lucky to get a husband like him. Nakul and Sahadev are more like brothers to her, though she does share their beds.

And then there is Karna. The man with the ancient eyes: ignored and humiliated all his life. Abandoned by his own mother at birth, he is brought up by a boatman. His father’s identity is unknown to him, and this causes him terrible shame and suffering throughout his life. Even Draupadi, the woman he adores in his heart, rejects him at her swayamvar. Finally, at the eve of the great war, he is approached by Kunti, who at last acknowledges him to be her eldest son. This causes him more pain, as he dies with the knowledge that he had fought his own siblings. Throughout the entire book, he is the only character for whom my heart really reaches out. His pain is incomparable, except perhaps with Bhishma, the Grandfather.

Before I wrap up my essay, I want to add a few lines about the blue God. Krishna, our very own household deity. He was truly alive in flesh and blood. He led the war, but not without deceit. He remained aloof and detached to a large extent when he could have prevented the war. He could not justify the necessity of the war, the pain, the death, so that even the victors wondered, long after everything was over, about whether they had made the right choices. Divine thought he was, he died a rather pathetic death and his entire clan was wiped out, all by the curse of a mere mortal woman. And yet, in spite of all these uninspiring details about his life on earth, he is the beginning and the end. He is the universe himself. And it is to him that we will all go back when our time comes, just as Panchali did.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Silk Route and More

On Friday the 21st I had a rather new experience. The class eleven History students of our school were taken to the iLEAD auditorium to watch a documentary film on the Silk Route by director Goutam Ghosh, which was followed by an interactive session with the director and others. Such things are quite common in the schools of metropolitan cities, but since my previous school has always been a very determined frog in the well, we were never taken to such events in our entire school lives.

Students from at least ten schools in Kolkata had come together to watch the screening of the first two episodes of Goutam Ghosh’s five episode documentary movie ‘Beyond the Himalayas’. In 1994, the director along with a number of other people had made an expedition following the Silk Route through Central Asia all the way to China. The movie traces their journey and their findings in five successive episodes. Theirs was the first Indian expedition through China. Other than the director himself, two other team members of the expedition, writer-director-actor Mr. Jagannath Guha, and historian Mr. Phalguni Matilal were present for the interactive session that followed the screening of the movie.

I have not watched many documentary films, so I was a little skeptical about how the movies were going to turn out. But I was pleasantly surprised, and enjoyed myself over the next few hours. The first episode sketches the route taken by the explorers, starting from Delhi, from where they were airlifted to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. From there started their car ride, tracing the entire Silk Route. Samarkand and Bukhara are two of the oldest inhabited cities of the world, and are known for the important positions that they occupy on the trade route to China. The movie has successfully captured the dusty grandeur of these two ancient cities, alive as they are with the history of millennia. Both cities throng with historical monuments, which portray predominantly Islamic architectural styles.

From Bukhara they travelled on to Fergana, which is the old capital of Babur’s kingdom in present-day Uzbekistan. Fergana is also claimed to be the Zoroastrian homeland by Zoroastrian literature. It was from Fergana that the travellers left Uzbekistan behind and crossed Kyrgyzstan to enter the Xinjiang region of China through Kashgar, where the oldest Indian handwritten manuscripts have been retrieved, and Hotan, which is famous for its jades. This is where the first episode ended.

The second episode deviated a little from the main theme, and followed the route taken by Hiuen Tsang to and from India. The episode was called On the Search for the Buddha, and it spoke of Hiuen Tsang’s journey to the birth land of the Buddha, his studies in the great Nalanda University, and his return to China to develop his own school of Buddhism there. It was shown as a journey to India by London-based producer Mr. Michael Haggiag, who was member of the original expedition, and his wife, after the expedition itself had ended. Mr. Haggiag and his wife visited Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, and it was through their eyes that the episode has mainly been depicted.

The movies as a whole were enlightening. There were so many new things that I came to know from them. For example, Hiuen Tsang is actually pronounced as ‘Xuanzang’ in Chinese. Also, the best among jades are not the ones which are a lush green, but those which are the palest and nearly white. The monks in a certain Buddhist temple in Xinjiang chant the original Sanskrit verses brought back by Hiuen Tsang as a tribute to the great traveler scholar. It was from the Chan school of Mahayana Buddhism that Zen Buddhism of Japan has been derived. The Taklamakan desert, through which the expedition journeyed, is a Persian saying that means “He who comes in does not get out”.  That now, is a really ominous name for you!

The movies were no doubt interesting, but it was the interactive session with Mr. Jagannath Guha that I enjoyed the most. Mr. Ghosh arrived late and was too stiff, and Mr. Matilal was a reticent sort, so it was Mr. Guha who did most of the talking. He shared with us many small anecdotes that had made the expedition so memorable for him. Someone from the audience asked him about how he got over the language barrier during their travels. He just shook his head and said, “But I didn’t!” He went on to tell us how body language was often the only means of communication between the natives and the travelers, and how they had at times had to resort to base tricks like bribing the policemen with cigarettes to get themselves out of fixes! While answering the queries of another member of the audience, he talked to us about how little awareness there was about India among the population of China, her largest neighbour. Of course, here he spoke of their experience of 1994, before the era of the internet. I suppose the conditions are much better now. According to him, the travelers were gaped at like extra terrestrial creatures. Some of the children on the road used to pull the hair on his arms in wonder, as they had never seen such a hirsute person before. Some old ladies rubbed his skin to see if his dark skin was painted. The ‘smarter’ ones asked the travelers whether they were from Africa!

While I was enjoying myself hugely during the event, it was highly evident that most people were not. The girls sitting behind me continued to chat and giggle among themselves throughout the entire program. After the short lunch break, I changed my seat in the hope of finding a little quieter seat somewhere. But soon, the girls sitting in the row a little way apart started fiddling with their mobiles and talking loudly. In fact, at one point a teacher of their school came up and took away their cell phones after reminding them none too gently that they had come to watch the movie, not play around with their phones. Some of my own classmates, as soon as the second episode got over, started sighing deeply and loudly expressing their thankfulness at the ‘boring’ show being finally over. I wonder why these people had opted for History in the first place when they are so fundamentally apathetic to anything outside the syllabus.

I returned from the show feeling satisfied, but I know many of them were just glad that the show had come to an end. In this context, I would like to mention a very common complaint among students about the bland and mechanized manner in which classroom teaching is done. I completely agree, newer and more interesting methods should be employed to enrich the learning experience. Having said that, I must also say that the students themselves have to be more receptive to new experiments in order to make the innovative ideas work. The primarily uninterested attitude that I saw among most of the students in the show explains why teachers and school authorities often show no interest in providing such educative and entertaining experiences for the students. Our school is trying, and so are so many others. It now rests on us students to make the best of the opportunities that we are being provided with.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A New Beginning

My ICSE examinations ended on the 20th of March. It has been only over a month now, but it feels like another lifetime. 20th March was the last time that I went to the school that I had been going to under duress for the past twelve years. Unsurprisingly, there was not even a twinge of remorse in my heart. I was hugely relieved to be leaving that accursed place at last. Wild horses will not be able to drag me back there again, once I have collected my ICSE marksheet.

As soon as ICSE ended, I had to get busy with my admission in class eleven. I had applied to one renowned girls’ school in Kolkata, and their admission process began right after ICSE. During that period, we had to run back and forth between Kolkata and Durgapur half a dozen times. I had applied only to one school, and fortunately I got admitted there itself. After returning to Durgapur, mother and I packed our bags for the final time, and went away to start our new life in Kolkata on the 10th of April.

This was the first time that I was living away from home, away from daddy. So one can imagine what a hard time I had adjusting in the new environment for the first few days. But there were a lot of things that needed to be done, so I could not spend too much time being sad. We have a flat in Kolkata. It is a new flat, and had been quite bare and unfurnished. The first week or so was spent only in buying furniture and tidying up the house. Naturally, we found that we had brought more books than anything else from home!

Then we had to buy new school books and the new uniform. My new school has a very smart uniform. Side-pleated blue skirt, pink striped shirt that does not have to be tucked in, and laced black shoes with white ankle socks. I was lucky that the regulation shoes were actually of a sort that is worn by boys, because, big-foot that I am, back in my old school I always had to get those girly buckled shoes especially made for me by the shoe-makers! The new books were exciting, and also a little intimidating. There is this common belief among idiots that students of Humanities and Commerce do not have to study much. For them classes eleven and twelve are basically fun and games. I always knew this to be a myth, yet it was only when I got my own books that I realized just how big a lie that is. For someone who only wants to scratch up a pass-mark, there is not much of a load. But if someone wants to do well, studying the Arts involves putting in lots of effort and out-of-syllabus reading. My school offers a wide range of elective subjects for the plus-twos. My own electives are not strictly Humanities-based. It is in fact a cross between Humanities and Commerce. I have opted for History, Literature in English (that’s besides compulsory English), Business Studies and Economics. My third and fourth electives are mainly theory-based, so learning by heart covers most of the syllabus. But with History and Literature in English, I am increasingly finding myself looking up all sorts of reference works and background detail on the net and in books. I know I am one of only a handful of girls in class who are doing this, but I’m sure we’ll get the reward for our extra effort in the form of wider, more in-depth understanding of the subjects and better results during examinations.

My first day of school was 16th April. My mother accompanied me to school, because I didn’t know Kolkata roads, but also because she knew that I was apprehensive and nervous. Till class ten, my schooling experience had been nasty. So naturally I went to my new school expecting the worst kind of experience possible. But thankfully, I was proved completely wrong. From day one, I have been having a lively experience there. Only eight girls from other schools have been admitted in class eleven, two for Science, three for Commerce and three for Humanities. On our first day, the Head Girl and her assistant, both of whom are in class twelve, took it upon themselves to familiarize us  with our new surroundings. We were first taken to the Principal’s office where we were told our sections and our Houses. There are eight school houses named after eight flowers, and I have been put in Gulmohar House. We were then taken to our classrooms and introduced to the old girls. My class teacher, who is also our Economics teacher, warmly welcomed us to the school. Later, the entire class eleven was taken up to the MACE hall, which is an air-conditioned assembly hall, for a back-to-school talk from Mrs. Dutt, our Principal. There, the new girls were called to introduce themselves in front of  the entire class.  After that, it was a cake walk. The old girls made conscious efforts to make us feel at home. After returning to class, they asked us about our old schools and friends. They were especially curious about me, because I was not from Kolkata. In fact,  I am still answering some question or the other about Durgapur and my old school every single day!

My new school is very different from what I have seen in the last twelve years. Till now, I had known school to be a place that should be avoided as far as possible. Here, I am going to school of my own will every day. The school is a huge building, and it has five stories including the ground floor. My classroom is on the third floor. We have single chairs with one broad arm as a writing desk. Each classroom has a computer, a projector and a screen. The rooms are hot, but since we have only forty five students in class, fifteen girls less than what we had in my previous school, the heat is not unbearable. We have different classrooms for different subjects. There is no unpacking of bags; we roam about with them all day. It is more similar to college that way. The MACE classrooms on the fourth floor are air-conditioned, and we have History and Literature in English classes in them. It is a relief to enter the cool rooms, but we have to pay the price for the comfort. I am going around with a perpetually sore throat and a runny nose, thanks to the constant fluctuation of body temperature!

The school has a good library, from which we can take books of our own choice, unlike in my previous school, where just half a dozen books were given to us from which we had to take one! Another plus point is that we are allowed to use the library even during free periods, with permission from the substitute teacher. There are also endless after-school clubs and activities, ranging from social service to book- and movie appreciation to public speaking to cookery! A number of games are also played in the school, and the basketball team, the badminton team, the football team and the soccer team have won numerous prizes in and around Kolkata. I have not yet joined any such activity, but will be auditioning for the book and movie appreciation club this Monday. The school has a canteen which serves lip-smacking (though strictly vegetarian) food at surprisingly low prices. In fact, these days I have almost stopped taking my lunch from home. The canteen also has an ice-cream parlour which is certainly contributing to my perpetual cold!

More about the school later. Kolkata, as I am increasingly find out, is very different from Durgapur in some ways, and totally the same in others. I travel by bus mostly, and all sorts of people travel with me. There is no ego issue about using public transport among people there, unlike in Durgapur where parents are horrified at the thought of using and letting their children use transport that are for the masses, because apparently that undermines their ‘status’ and ‘position’ in society! Also, people here seem to be much more helpful in general. Being new to the city, I have often had to ask people around for locating the right buses, areas and whatnot. Till now, I have been willingly helped, sometimes even without asking. In school, I see that the students and teachers alike have a much better grasp of everyday English than in Durgapur. Daddy says that it is so in every metropolitan city. It is not that everybody speaks refined and poetic language, but at least they are fluent and can get across with ease. I have also found something which is a personal relief; the number of tall girls is much higher in Kolkata than in Durgapur. In school itself, there are many girls almost or as tall as I am. There is even a girl who is taller! In Durgapur, I always stood out uncomfortably because of my height. Even in Kolkata I stand out in a crowd, but at least I am not stared at like an unusual specimen from the zoo!

But the mall-culture is virulent here. It is there in Durgapur too, but in Kolkata, especially among the girls of my school, malls seem to be the reason why they are alive! They see me as a weirdo of sorts because I have made it clear on the first day itself that I do not like malls! They rolled their eyes in disbelief when I said I do not enjoy shopping. I read in school all the time, and just like in Durgapur, they think that I am crazy. One girl actually told me not to read so much as I would die if I did! Even in Kolkata, ‘having a boyfriend’ is considered a very exciting thing, mainly because it has to be done in secret! And just like their contemporaries in Durgapur, they are looks and gadget-obsessed. Spending money (earned by their dads, certainly not by them) seems to be a favourite pastime. I have noticed another very disgusting habit among the girls: it seems to be the ‘done’ thing to get boys to pay. If they are going out with their boyfriends, it is understood that the boy will bear all the expenses. Even if it is just a friend from school, he will have to pay for whatever the girl is doing. When I expressed my disgust at this custom, they gave me one of their pop-eyed stares again. Anybody who knows me well will know that I will never have someone else pay for me without giving something back in return, girl or boy alike. I wonder why they find this shameful practice ‘cool’!

Another, and perhaps the biggest difficulty in my present life is living away from daddy. Ever since I had any consciousness of my surroundings, I had been used to seeing him at home. Unlike most other daddies, he is a stay-at-home dad. His not being physically around all the time is quite unnatural to me. I don’t think I have taken in the full import of the situation yet. Now, I am coming home to Durgapur every weekend, so I am away from him for only five days a week. Also, we talk over the phone and chat over the net numerous times each day. But two years from now, I will be going much further away, and we’ll probably meet just twice or thrice a year, if not once! I wonder how both of us will cope then…

Anyway, my days are a mixture of nice and not-so-nice experiences. Having been brought up in a small town, it is not exactly easy for me to adjust in a metropolitan city. But thankfully I am not doing too badly, and I have had a lot of help too. My thanks to all the dadas and didis and classmates who are constantly writing to me and calling me over the phone. This strong reminder of home helps me overcome the periods of homesickness and loneliness. This is the beginning of a long and arduous journey, and it will be many years yet before I can settle down and make a home for myself again. But with the amount of care that I am receiving, I am not afraid to face life. So, thank you again, all my well wishers :)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Defective Darlings

I could not resist putting this link on my blog. Do go through this list.Only cold heart monsters will be able to come away without wanting to cuddle these 'mutants' of the animal world

And they say that only those who are 'normal' are lovable!

Ps: I don't mean the crocodiles and alligators though. Nothing can make me love those ugly, overgrown lizards!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

An Essay

[There was an essay competition held in the school sometime last year. It was conducted by some national organisation whose name I cannot recall right now. I found the topic a little strange and very vague: "If it is necessary for us to change to become what we want to be, why not initiate that change immediately, that which needs to be done at the earliest". I participated in the competition more due to the teacher's insistence than from my own wish. I was not very happy with what I wrote. I have written far better pieces than this. However, I'd like to know my readers' comments on the essay.]

To Change the World, I Change Myself

When I was in primary school, I was one of the most careless girls in the class. On an average, I would lose a dozen pencils and erasers in school every month. My mathematics examinations routinely went badly because I would fill the papers with careless mistakes. My evenings would be spent bulldozing the house looking for exercise books I had adeptly misplaced. Then, when I was in class five, something clicked within me, and I asked myself, “What exactly do you think you are doing? You are turning out to be a good-for-nothing little brat. Is that how you want your parents to think about you?” This is it, I decided. Things have to change.

Today, I am a much more disciplined and well-organized person. I rarely have to hunt around wildly for my belongings, and my grades have improved considerably. I have been able to bring about these changes in my life by some observations and realizations, like, one of the commonest of human flaws is that one often forgets that one is guilty of umpteen shortcomings, and starts imagining oneself as perfection personified. However, that is arguably the biggest barrier in one’s pursuit of perfection. According to the Bible, the seven deadly sins are anger, pride, envy, lust, avarice and gluttony and sloth. Every human being carries the seeds of these sins. Only when one accepts and identifies one’s imperfection can one begin making a conscious effort to eliminate one’s flaws and work towards a more fulfilling life, and ultimately, towards attaining salvation.

Very few of us are fortunate enough to know exactly how we want to spend our lives and see ourselves ten years from now. Gerald Durrell, the renowned author and naturalist knew at the age of two that he wanted to spend his life with animals. Sachin Tendulkar knew his life had to be spent in the cricket stadium, Lata Mangeshkar knew she wanted to sing throughout her life. But most of us commoners have only this vague notion of wanting to be ‘successful’ in life. Most of us love to think of ourselves as ‘different’ and ‘special’, but in reality, most human beings are not only perfectly happy being mediocre and common, but try desperately to follow the herd and be exactly like one another. Very few people have any definite dreams and visions: they simply spend their lives drifting around and being carried by the current like a leaf in a river. These are people who are blissfully unaware of their flaws, and have no intention of being woken up to reality.

Even for those of us who are not so indifferent to our flaws, another great barrier to betterment is procrastination. Yes, this is THE word. The word which we fear and despise, the word which all of us knows to be an arch enemy of progress, yet the word which finds a silent yet substantial position in most peoples’ lives. All of us know that ‘tomorrow never comes’, yet we keep waiting for that tomorrow to get our work done.

As a sixteen year old student standing at the close of school life, if there is one thing that I have come to understand well, it is that it is on myself alone that I have the greatest amount of control. It is only myself whom I can mould to my liking to a great extent. Gandhiji once said, “Be the change that you want to see around you”. I try to follow his dictate and live the kind of life that I would like to see others around me leading. For the last few years, I have been trying to live by a routine. Sure, there have been blunders and slip-ups, but I have not given up, and I count that as part of my success.

However, my quest for a better life has certainly not ended. This is only the beginning. Very soon, I shall be leaving the haven of my parents’ protection and entering the real world. There are so many things that I would like to change about the way my society, my country works. For example, most western countries are so much quieter, cleaner and greener than ours. When Indians are told about these bitter truths, they grow green with envy, yet only a handful of people actually do anything to change the circumstances. It is thanks to them, people like Bittu Sehgal, Subhas Dutta, M. C. Mehta and Chandiprasad Bhatt that the country is not entirely engulfed in ugliness and dirt. I aspire to follow in their footsteps and contribute something to the social and cultural development of India, and I am proud to say that I have begun already. I make it a point not to accept polythene bags from shopkeepers, and turn off taps and switch off lights and fans whenever they are not in use. I know these are small steps, but if enough people can be persuaded to follow these small steps, India will become a much greener and lovelier country.

Sherlock Holmes, probably the most famous of fictional detectives, once outraged his friend and assistant Dr. Watson by saying that he had not known that the planets moved around the sun in the solar system, and had no remorse whatsoever for not knowing it. To Watson’s shocked exclamation of “But every schoolboy knows this!”, Holmes had replied that he was not every schoolboy; he was the great Sherlock Holmes. This can be dismissed as an unsavoury show of pride, but I will always maintain, it is the Sherlock Holmes’ who matter in this world, and not ‘every schoolboy’. That day in class five, I had decided to start being what I wanted to be afterwards in life. Hopefully, my decision has allowed me an access to the world of the Sherlock Holmes’ and the M. C. Mehtas, and when the day comes when my life’s movie flashes before my eyes, it will be worth watching.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Vacationing in Delhi-Agra

A very happy New Year to everybody. As promised, my first post this year is going to be about our trip to Delhi and Agra. The trip was short and we didn't go to very many different places. However, it was also one of the best trips we have ever been on.

Vacations for my mother and I started on the 20th of December. We went to Kolkata two day before daddy to get on with the job of furnishing our new flat in Kolkata little by little. The Volvo ride was comfortable, but there was tremendous fog almost the entire way. It looked like a solid wall of dull grey, and visibility was not more than a few feet. It was not too small a miracle that the driver managed to bring us safely to Kolkata in scheduled time driving at 140 km/h under such conditions! Anyway, we did reach home unscathed, and spent the first two days furniture shopping. Dad arrived on the 22nd.  We stayed in our flat for two more days, during which Rashmidi and Sayanda, Abhirupda (who happens to live ten minutes away from our flat, in the main bazaar area) and dad’s old friend Mr. Subhasis Graham Mukherjee paid us visits. It was lovely meeting them, especially Sayanda and Rashmidi. And Rashmidi, the doll you gifted us is exquisite. Someday, you’ll have to teach me how to make them (she made it herself, and I’ll be putting up a picture of it as soon as possible), though I doubt I’ll ever be able to make them as well as you do.

We boarded the Rajdhani Express from Sealdah the next day and it started on time. If only we had known that we would have to stay cooped up for eight hours more than the official time! That night was a very comfortable, happy night. I had boarded the Rajdhani after a gap of four years, and I was really enjoying watching the scene outside the window while the train moved at its best speed. We had a side berth, and I had managed to fight my mother off it, so I had all the privacy I wanted in my cosy little nook. I woke at about 6 o’ clock next morning to find that the train had crossed Kanpur on time. I went back to sleep and woke again at about nine. By that time the train was moving like a snail and kept stopping for long periods in the middle of nowhere! We knew then we would be late, but didn’t think it would be eight hours late! I had P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Code of the Woosters” to entertain me, but at one point even Jeeves was failing to keep me occupied. So one can imagine our relief when we finally arrived at Delhi station to be welcomed by Saikatda, Subhadipda, Akashda and Arundhatidi!

We stayed that night at Arundhatidi and Akashda’s place. We were meeting Arundhatidi for the first time, and all of us were a little worried about how it would turn out. But Arundhatidi blew away all our concern and made us feel at home at once. They were the perfect hosts, and we spent a very enjoyable evening there. Next morning we had to wake up really early, at five-thirty, because our hired car was to come at seven to take us to Agra. Poor Arundhatidi and Akashda also had to wake up for our sake. As someone who herself hates waking up so early, I completely empathize with how they must have felt, especially Arundhatidi who said that, like me, she prefers working late into the night and waking up late in the day.

The drive to Agra was very enjoyable. As a rule, I do not fancy car rides much, but I loved this one. The road was fantastic; in fact, at one point I started wondering aloud whether we still really were in India or not! Then, after a blissful three-hour ride, we were in Agra, crawling through the bazaar towards our home stay. Saikatda jokingly said that now we were certainly back to our motherland again!

Before going to the home stay, we visited Itimad-ud-Daulah’s tomb. It was bitterly cold, and I kept shivering violently while I video-recorded the compound. The homestay was delightful. We were warmly welcomed by the owner and guided to our room. By a lucky surprise, we found a smaller bedroom attached to our own, so Saikatda too could stay with us. Then I discovered that I had made a perfectly moronic blunder. I had forgotten to bring the keys to the suitcases! Thankfully, our car’s driver, Iqbal Singhji, was able to break the small locks on the suitcases later in the evening, so we were saved from too much trouble.

The first day in Agra we visited the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Both were exquisite, though frankly speaking, I was much more awe-struck by the virile splendour of the fort (and next day, of Fatehpur Sikri) than of the Taj. It was gorgeous, one cannot deny that. But then, the day was foggy, and there was a terrible crowd, so we saw more of human beings of all possible colours, shapes and sizes than of the grand Mughal architecture. The next day we went to Fatehpur Sikri. Throughout our tour of the place, I kept mentally going back to the days when the emperors and the saints actually walked there. There were a group of Sufi singers who were singing praises to Khwaja Salim Chisti in front of his Dargah in Fatehpur, and the haunting notes of their songs aided to my already colourful imagination, and soon I was all but away in another century of elephant chariots and oil lamps under every archway…

We returned to Delhi on the 28th. On our way back, we visited Sikandra (Akbar’s tomb), and Mathura. Visiting Sikandra had a very sobering effect on me. The place has the kind of quiet grandeur that makes you feel that you need to bow down before the greatest of the Mughals, the Shahenshah of India, who is resting there. Mathura was a typical Indian holy city: dirty, crowded, ugly and with far too many restrictions. It was my mother’s enthusiasm that had caused us to go there, but even she got irritated with all the security measures (they do not allow ladies’ hand bags inside the temple premises, and mom would never let go of her bag!) and we came back without entering any of the temples.

In Delhi, our hotel room was beautiful. It wasn’t huge, but it had a very big “honeymoon mirror”, which enhanced the sense of space. But since it was exactly opposite to our bed, I had to wake up each morning with the very unwelcoming sight of my after-bed hair!

We stayed in Delhi for nearly three days. The first evening we didn’t go anywhere, just rested. Akashda had come to visit, and he and daddy went out for a short drive. Saikatda headed back to his hostel, and that night I missed him very much, I had gotten so used to having him around. The next day was my birthday, and it went very well indeed. Akashda and Arundhatidi had come over, and Saikatda too (he kept coming all that distance from his hostel every day, poor fellow). That day we went to Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. I liked both places very much, though Humayun’s tomb came with the added pleasure of having a huge garden to walk about in. Akashda says he likes to visit the place often, and if I ever live in Delhi, it will probably become one of my favourite haunts too. Next we went to Delhi Haat, where we had Dal Bati Choorma for lunch, and then to Sarojini Bazaar, where I bought a long-yearned pair of boots for myself. After returning to the hotel, we, daddy, Saikatda and I had red wine as my birthday treat (the others had opted out), and then it was time for them to leave. A lovely day had come to an end all too soon.

We started 30th with a historical walk down Chandni Chawk guided by Akashda. We had nihari at Karim’s, and then went back to the hotel.  Around noon we were joined by Aranida and Dipanwitadi. We had two cars with us, and mom, Dipanwitadi and I went with Akashda in his car. I must say I really loved being driven around by him, because Akashda with his calm smile and priceless jokes kept us so well entertained. I do hope he’ll be taking me around again in the future. After going to the IIT for Saikatda to keep his rucksack, we went to Baha’i Temple where we were joined by Subhadipda. We didn’t enter the temple because as in the Taj, the crowd was overwhelming. From there we went to Tughlaqabad. The ruins were beautiful, and given a chance I would have spent all day there. From there we came back to the hotel, stopping for some time in Janpath for shopping.

Our train was on the 31st, and if truth be told, I had actually been hoping that it would be at least a little late, because I was enjoying myself so much. But Rajdhani did itself proud that day by leaving exactly on time and bringing us to Durgapur only half an hour late. Ah well…

This trip has been a huge pleasure, and mostly because of all the dadas and didis who came over to be with us. Saikatda, the trip to Agra (the entire trip, to be fair) would never have been as pleasurable if you hadn’t been with us. Akashda, Arundhatidi, Dipanwitadi, Aranida, Subhadipda – thank you for being with us. It was all of you together who made the trip the beautiful memory that it will always be. I hope we have many more such vacations with all of you in the future.