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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. - Friedrich Nietzsche

The Last Letter

November 13, 2015

He suffered for 10 years before deciding to give up his life in November 2014. A year before that he wrote this letter.

Tomas Young with his wife Claudia Cuellar

Tomas Young with his wife Claudia Cuellar

Tomas Young, a wounded Iraq War veteran and outspoken critic of war, passed away at the age of 34 on November 10th, 2014, just before Veterans Day, which is also known internationally as Armistice Day. This is the letter he penned to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2013, a year before he died.

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

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Tanika and the Muavo tree

October 26, 2015

by Grace Llewellyn, How to quit school and get a real life and education

picking applesON A SOFT green planet, a smiling baby was born in an orchard resplendent with every kind of fruit in the universe. The baby’s parents called her Tanika, and Tanika spent her days roaming the warm wet ground on hands and knees. Spotting a clump of gulberries off in the distance, she’d crawl after it and crush the sweet fruit in her mouth, red juice staining her brown chin and neck. A muavo would fall fatly from the high crown of the muavo tree, and she’d savor its golden tang. Each day revealed new wonders—bushapples, creamy labanas, the nutty crunch of the brown shrombart. The orchard’s fruit sparkled in the dew and sun like thousands of living moist jewels against the green fragrance of cushioning leaves.

As her eyes grew stronger Tanika lifted her gaze. The opulent branches above her hung heavy with fruits she’d never dreamed of, globular and glistening. Tanika’s mother and father wandered the orchard too, sometimes, and she watched them reach out easily and take a shining cluster here, a single green satinplum there. She’d watch them eat and imagine being tall enough to roam and reach so freely as they. Sometimes one of them would bend down and give Tanika one of those fruits from up there in the moving leaves. Fresh from the branches, it intoxicated her, and her desire to know and taste all the fruits of the orchard so consumed her that she began to long for the day she could reach that far.

Her longing strengthened her appetite, and the fruit strengthened her legs, and one day Tanika crawled to the base of a mysterious bush at the edge of the stream that watered the orchard. She leaned carefully forward and braced her arms as she positioned her feet. Unsteadily she rose and groped for the shrub’s pale fruit. Tugging knocked her off balance and she sat down hard in an overripe muavo, but she barely noticed the fruit squishing under her thighs: in her hands she grasped a fruit thin-skinned and silver, fresh and new. She pressed it to her nose and face before she let her teeth puncture it.

No sooner had she tossed the smooth pit into the stream, than she heard a rustling behind her. A jolly bespectacled face grinned down at her.

“Well, well, well! You’re a mighty lucky little girl! I’ve come to teach you to get the fruit down from the tall trees!”

Tanika’s happiness unfurled like a sail. She could hardly believe her good luck. Not only had she just picked and eaten her first bush fruit, but here was a man she didn’t even know offering to show her how to reach the prism of treats high above her head. Tanika was so overcome with joy that she immediately rose to her feet again, and plucked another of the small moonish fruits.

The jolly stranger slapped the fruit from Tanika’s wrist. Stunned, she fell again and watched her prize roll into the stream. “Oh dear,” said the man, “You’ve already picked up some bad habits. That may make things difficult.” The slapping hand now took Tanika’s and pulled her up. Holding on this way, Tanika stumbled along behind the stranger.

She wanted to ask questions, like, “Why didn’t you just show me how to pick those berries hanging above the bush where I was?” But she kept her mouth shut. If she was going off to pick the high fruit, she guessed it didn’t matter where, or that she’d sacrificed her one beautiful moonfruit. Maybe they were going to a special tree melting with juicing fruits, branches bent almost to the ground, low enough for her outstretched fingers. Yes! That must be it. Excitement renewed, she moved her legs faster. The stranger grinned and squeezed her hand.

Soon Tanika saw the biggest, greyest thing she’d ever laid eyes on. In quiet fascination she tripped along as they stepped off the spongy humus of the orchard floor onto a smooth sidewalk. “Here we are!” beamed the guide. They entered the building, full of odd smells and noises. They passed through a pair of heavy black doors, and the man pushed Tanika into a loud, complicated room full of talking children and several adults. She looked at the children, some sitting on the floor, some crawling about or walking. All of them had trays or plates in front of them heaping with odd mushy lumps of various colors. Also, some of the children were busy coloring simple pictures of fruits, and some wore pins and tags on their shirts displaying little plastic pears and mistbulbs. Baffled, Tanika tried to figure out what the children were doing in such a dark, fruitless place, what the lumpy stuff was, and above all, why her guide had stopped here on their way to the bountiful tree.

But before she had time to think, two things happened. First, one of the kids took something metal and used it to scoop a lump of dull pinkish stuff into his mouth. Tanika opened her mouth in panic to warn the kid. Maybe there was something wrong with him; he was much bigger than she was, old enough to know better. But just as she began to yell, a new hand, slick, pulled her up again. “OK, Tanika,” said the cheery woman that went with the hand, “This is the cafeteria. We’re looking forward to helping you grow, and we’re certain we can help you learn to pick tree fruit, as long as you do your part.”

Tanika felt confused. She didn’t see what this place could have to do with picking gulberries, and at the moment she was particularly hungry for more of that shining moonfruit. But she had no time to think. The slick-hand woman put Tanika on a cold chair at a table. “Here,” she said, and nudged a box of crayons and a black outline of a plum at her. “Today you will color this, and it will help you get ready for eating tomorrow.” Tanika started to feel foolish. She’d never guessed that learning to pick fruit would be so complicated. She colored the plum with all the colors in the box, trying in vain to make it round and enticing like the fruits of the orchard.

The rest of the day passed in a daze. Tanika was made to color more of the pictures, and to her disgust most of the children ate the formless mush on the plates in front of them. Some of the fat and greasy children asked for more and stuffed themselves. Whenever this happened, the adults ran in and put gold stars all over the kid’s arms and face. Many things happened—children fought, napped, sat quietly fidgeting with the stuff. Finally, the jolly man took Tanika’s hand and led her out of the dark building. As her bare feet met the orchard grass, she caught the scent of ripe labana. She asked the stranger if he would get one for her, but he merely laughed.

Tanika was far too confused to put any of her questions into words. By the time they arrived at the tree where Tanika slept with her parents, the evening light had turned the leaves to bronze, and she was exhausted. Too tired to look for fruit, she fell asleep and dreamed fitfully.

In the morning her mind was clear. She still wanted to reach the high fruit, but she did not want to go back to the noisy smelly dark cafeteria. She could already reach the bushfruit; maybe in time she’d grasp the high fruit too.

But when the spectacled person arrived, he told her that she’d never reach the trees without many years in the cafeteria. He explained it—”You can’t reach them now, can you?” and “Your parents can reach them. That’s because they went to the cafeteria. I can reach them, because I went to the cafeteria.” Tanika had no time to think this through, because he’d pulled her to her feet again and they were off. She hadn’t had time to find breakfast, and her stomach rumbled painfully.

Tanika went in the room and sat down politely. “Please,” she asked one of the adults, “Can you help me pick tree fruits today? That’s why I’m here, and also today I didn’t have time for breakfast.”

The tall lady laughed. “Well, well, well! Aren’t we cute! Tree fruit! Before you’re ready for tree fruit, you have to prepare!” She disappeared behind a curtain and returned carrying a tray with a scoop of greenish stuff. Tanika jerked back. She looked around wildly for an escape route. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a boy watching with soft dark quiet eyes. The lady grabbed her hand.

“Don’t be afraid, Tanika,” she laughed. “How will you ever work up to eating tree fruit if you can’t handle plate fruit?” She put the tray on the table, and took the metal thing, spooning up a piece of the stuff and holding it in front of the small girl. Tanika pushed the spoon away violently. Then she put her head down on the table and cried.

The lady’s voice changed. “So you’re going to be a tough one, Tanika? Just remember, you’re only hurting yourself when you refuse to eat. If you want to succeed, you’d better do as we ask.” She walked away.

When Tanika stopped crying, her stomach was desperately empty. She sat up and looked at the tray. She was afraid of the stuff. She bent down to smell it and caught a faint, stale whiff of limbergreen berry. The smell, even distorted, was a familiar friend. She picked up the spoon and ate her first bite of cafeteria food. Tanika was relieved. Although the goop was slimy, far too sweet, and mostly tasteless, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. And it did seem to be made from limbergreen berries. She ate it all, and felt a little better. The lady came back. “Very good,” she smiled. She stuck a green star on the back of Tanika’s hand. “We’ll do some more exercises and then later on you can try something new to eat.”

Hours later, Tanika had been the apple in “Velcro the Stem on the Apple,” and had drawn a muavo tree and listened to an older student explain what fruits contained vitamins P, Q, and Z. Apparently she had done all these things right, because the lady came back and put more green and gold stars on her hands and cheeks. Some of the children looked at her angrily, though, so perhaps she’d done something wrong.

At this point a man rang a little bell. Immediately all the children sat down at the tables and folded their hands neatly. A girl grabbed Tanika’s hand and shoved her onto a chair. Then six children walked into the room carrying stacks of trays. They put one in front of each child, and Tanika saw that each tray contained five purple and blue wafers. “Yum!” said the girl next to Tanika, “Violetberry cakes!” Tanika jumped. She’d seen her parents eat violetberries, and also seen the accompanying ecstasy on their faces. She easily pictured the graceful coniferous trees on which they grew.

She picked up a wafer. It was warm, but not with the gentle warmth of the sun. She put it in her mouth. Dry, sandy… she chewed obediently but sadly. This was it? Disappointment sank her stomach and she put the cake down, mentally crossing violetberries off her wishlist forever.

In the end Tanika was made to eat the violetberry cake—all five hunks of it— before the spectacled man would lead her out the door. Her stomach throbbed all the way home. That night she crawled into her mother’s arms and sobbed. Her mother rocked her, then whispered something to Tanika’s father. He disappeared, and returned a minute later with an armload of tiny, glowing violetberries.

“It’s time,” said her mother sweetly, “For your first fresh violetberries.”

Her father dangled them teasingly above her lips, but Tanika only cried harder. The berries’ fragrance, though delicate and sweet, clashed with her distended heavy stomach. She was far too full, and it was violetberries’ fault. Both parents teased and offered, but they finally gave up. Her mother laid Tanika down to rest alone, and the two adults stood whispering while the moon rose, worry in their voices.

At the cafeteria the next day the adults met Tanika with an unpleasant stare. “You’re making things difficult for yourself,” scolded the woman with slick hands, “Your parents have reported that your attitude at home is not meeting standards for girls your age. You need to eat much more thoroughly.” A girl brought a plate crowded with dried out, wrinkly little fruits. Tanika ate them, tough and tasteless. Her stomach hurt again. After they dissected a preserved bushapple, she ate another tray full of canned gulberry. Then she went back home and slept.

Days passed, and months. Tanika ate obediently and earned lots of stars. There was a picture of a bright green tree painted on one of the walls, and when the whole roomful of children ate their food quickly, the adults had them play a game. They taped three or four cut-out paper fruits to the tree, and then the kids were made to take turns jumping or reaching to try to take them. Whoever reached a fruit got to keep it, and also was called a winner and plastered with dozens of gold stars.

One day when the spectacled man walked her home he told her the cafeteria would be closed for two days for cleaning. He handed her a little white carton and said, “Be sure to eat all of this while I’m gone, and I’ll pick you up in two days.”

As he waddled away, a strange inspiration seized Tanika’s brain. She touched her swollen belly and flung the carton away. Out of it tumbled cakes, red mush, hard little biscuits smelling flatly of labanas.

When she woke the next morning her stomach rumbled and she got up to look for breakfast. Leaving the clearing, she accidentally kicked a biscuit. Out of habit, she picked it up and almost put it in her mouth, then caught herself and aimed instead for a bush full of gulberries. Furtively she snatched a handful and crushed them to her lips. Sweet and wild, they made her want to sing.

Tanika’s father saw her then, and called excitedly to her mother. Both of them ran to their child and squeezed her. “Look what you’ve learned at the cafeteria!” cried her mother. “My baby is growing up!”

“Be sure to eat all your homefood,” said her father, “So you won’t be behind when you go back.” Then his tone of voice changed. “What’s that?” he said. He sprinted off and grabbed up the white carton. Tanika watched in horror as he searched the orchard floor. A few minutes later he returned with everything— biscuits, cake, mush.

Tanika ate it all.

The cafeteria opened again and Tanika went back. Every day she ate faster, and gradually stopped resisting, even in her own mind. One day she reached the highest paper fruit on the painted tree. All the adults patted her head and she could barely see her brown skin under all the gold stars. She started walking to the cafeteria every day by herself. The adults started giving her food for the evenings, and usually she’d eat it like they said. One day, walking home, she flung her hands to the sky and they touched, accidentally, a muavo hanging down from its branch. Tanika jumped back. “I can pick it,” she said slowly, “It worked.” She thought for a minute. The cooks had said it would happen, someday, if she ate what they gave her and jumped as high as she could during the tree game.

Tanika gracefully severed the muavo from its stem, examined it, and tossed it neatly into a shadow.

She wasn’t hungry.

Story of Tashi Passang

October 17, 2015

Today is not so different from yesterday. Today too we suffer from the baggage of our beliefs. So tied down some of us are to our beliefs and identities that we fear anyone who is outside our circle. Hatred creeps in slowly and so does anger towards anyone who does not abide by our belief system, anyone who hurts us. Only a few of us are able to resist this hatred and anger. Only a few are able to love a friend and foe alike.

Here is the story of Tashi Passang, an old Tibetan monk. The story has been taken from the book, Nine Lives, by William Dalrymple.

“The words reached Lhasa (capital of Tibet) that my mother had died. She was not old – no more than fifty. But she never recovered from the beatings the Chinese gave her, and she died as a result of the internal injuries she received for what I had done. Of course, I wept when the news came. For days I was too paralysed with sadness to think of anything else. But I was worried too, because I now felt a real hatred for the Chinese. Violence may be justified by our scriptures in certain circumstances, but anger and hatred [towards anyone] are always forbidden.” – Tashi Passang.

Tashi Passang, was born in Tibet in 1936. Like many in eastern Tibet, his family lived a semi-nomadic life. At the age of 13, he decided to become a monk. “The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride and attachment. Of course no one can do this completely. But we try.”

In 1951 Chinese Army, called People’s Liberation Army, invaded Tibet under the pretext of reforming and modernizing the country. Many a monasteries were destroyed and ancient religious texts burnt. When Passang’s monastery came under pressure from Chinese, he decided to give up his monastic vows and take up arms to defend his people and his faith. He took up his old rifle that he used to use to protect his herd of yaks and dri when he was a shepherd and ran off from the monastery. Chinese went to his home and tortured his mother for days so that she would reveal where her son had gone, or so that he would come and give himself up. But Tashi Passang, then 16 years old was hiding in the mountains and it was months later he came to know of what had happened to his family. He went to Lhasa joined the Tibetan resistance movement. He became part of the group that was responsible of taking Dalai Lama safely to the border into India. This is when he received the news that his mother had died. He wanted to fight the Chinese but of course he and his fellow monks with their old rifles could not stand against the tanks and fighter planes of the Chinese. They too along with Dalai Lama crossed the border and came into India. Living in exile, in a small wooden hut in the Indian Himalayas Tashi Passang now around 80 years old, prints prayer flags in an attempt to atone for the violence he committed after he joined the Tibetan resistance. He has become a monk once again and spends his time praying.

“My conscience was very troubled by what I had seen and what I had done… the war never seems to be about right and wrong. It is because some politicians that people have to suffer and to kill. Compared to Tibet there are relatively few prayer flags in Dharamsala, and many of them are badly printed, often not even written correctly. I knew all the mantras from my training as a monk and decided I would try to make well printed flags. I thought I could now live a calm and peaceful life. Every day now, I recite the mantras of repentance. We are told if you really regret your actions, and repent… it is possible for bad karma to be removed.”

“I am especially fortunate that of late I feel I have conquered the hate I used to feel for the Chinese. Dalai Lama is always preaching that it is not the Chinese but the hate itself that is our biggest enemy. Ever since the Chinese tortured my mother, I felt a deep hatred for them, and was always striving for violent retaliation. Whenever I saw a Chinese restaurant in India, I would want to throw stones at it. Even the colour red would make me boil with anger at what Chinese had done. But after I heard Dalai Lama say we must defeat hatred, I determined that I would try to eat a Chinese meal in a Chinese restaurant to cure myself of this rage.”

“So one day when on pilgrimage in Bodhgaya, I saw a small Chinese restaurant by the roadside. It was run by two Chinese women – an old woman of seventy and her daughter who must have been around forty. I went in there one evening and ordered some noodles. I must say they were delicious. After I had eaten, I thanked the mother and asked her to sit down with me so we could talk. I asked, “Where are you from?” and she replied, “From China. It turned out her father was killed by the Mao’s soldiers at the Cultural Revolution, and her relations had fled to Hong Kong and then to Calcutta. By this stage she was weeping as she told me how her family had suffered. I told her my story. After that we both burst into tears and hugged each other. Since then I have free from my hatred of all things and people Chinese.”

The Peace of Wild Things

August 14, 2015

by Wendell Berry, the farmer poet.

ladybug

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Parrot’s training – the golden cage

July 1, 2015

Here is the video link of the story.

Parrot’s Training is a short story that challenges the notion that improved technology, more computers and screens, better child friendly techniques and hands on activities and not “Freedom of Self” is the answer to the problems in education system. The story here was adapted by Manish Jain from Shikshantar and then partly modified by me.

The original story was written by Rabindranath Tagore, in which he had warned us of the dangers of Schooling almost 80 years ago.

In ‘The Parrot’s Training’, we are told of a golden cage that is built to imprison a wild and uncivilized parrot so that she could be properly educated. The benevolent King wants to do everything he can to civilize her.

She was inducted into the usual school curriculum. First, the teachers tried teaching her using the usual official textbooks. Days went by but that did not seem to work. Lots of different teachers were called to attend to her. Some became good friends but were not able to really entice her towards learning all the stuff in books. Different means were employed. Someone suggested that the place should be made more interesting for the parrot. Then teachers came together to brainstorm on some creative means to make things more interesting. More activity based things were introduced to teach her the required concepts. A UNICEF project came with all kinds of child-friendly and joyful techniques. The cage was decorated with many colourful pictures and charts. There was a blip in interest, but it died as soon as it came.

The king was very concerned. So he called educators from all over discuss the case. The solution was simple. More investment was required. The World Bank was approached. It gave a loan to the king to build a bigger cage with a nice toilet and better facilities. A software company gave the parrot a laptop with free internet connection. The news with her picture with ipad was all over in the papers. But still, there was no considerable difference in parrot’s attitude towards learning!

Finally the intellectuals came in and debated for days. It was decided that researchers from the Harvard researchers should be invited to conduct studies on the parrot’s brain and multiple intelligences. They came and as a result many papers were published, and many a books were written. The parrot’s case became famous, and she was all over in books. However, her personal condition only worsened. As her distress increased she was given mindfulness training. They also taught her about child rights. Some suggested that she should be allowed to question. So be it. She was allowed to question but within the structure and not question the structure itself. 

Some concerned individual advised the parrot needs sometime alone, to figure out things for herself. Not understanding what he or she truly meant, an hour of silence and meditation  and another for diary writing and introspection was included in the already overly packed timetable.

The only thing parrot was not allowed to do was the little thing she so dearly wanted to do – to leave the cage. Whenever she tried to break out she was put in back. In fact, she was scolded for being ungrateful and impertinent. Time and again she was reprimanded, “We are doing so much for you, spending so much on you and you do not even care.”

Over the years parrot did end up learning a few things but lost the interest in learning itself. She slowly became dependent on the very cage she earlier wanted to break out from. She internalized the fact that the people around her were indeed doing a favour to her; that she and eventually her children too needs support of this wonderful cage.

One day the cage was accidentally left open but she was afraid to venture out. Her dreams were reduced to being a rat in the rat-race. She was busy Slowly her spirit withered away. In the end, a lot of people made a lot of money on the parrot’s education, everyone benefited except the parrot.

The Little Match Girl

June 23, 2015

A short story by Hans Christian Andersen

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening– the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.

Little Mach Girl 1
One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself. So the little maiden walked on with her tiny naked feet, that were quite red and blue from cold. She carried a quantity of matches in an old apron, and she held a bundle of them in her hand. Nobody had bought anything of her the whole livelong day; no one had given her a single farthing.

She crept along trembling with cold and hunger–a very picture of sorrow, the poor little thing!

The flakes of snow covered her long fair hair, which fell in beautiful curls around her neck; but of that, of course, she never once now thought. From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose, for you know it was New Year’s Eve; yes, of that she thought.

In a corner formed by two houses, of which one advanced more than the other, she seated herself down and cowered together. Her little feet she had drawn close up to her, but she grew colder and colder, and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money: from her father she would certainly get blows, and at home it was cold too, for above her she had only the roof, through which the wind whistled, even though the largest cracks were stopped up with straw and rags.

Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. Oh! a match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it. She drew one out. “Rischt!” how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. The fire burned with such blessed influence; it warmed so delightfully. The little girl had already stretched out her feet to warm them too; but–the small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.

She rubbed another against the wall: it burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into the room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums. And what was still more capital to behold was, the goose hopped down from the dish, reeled about on the floor with knife and fork in its breast, till it came up to the poor little girl; when–the match went out and nothing but the thick, cold, damp wall was left behind. She lighted another match. Now there she was sitting under the most magnificent Christmas tree: it was still larger, and more decorated than the one which she had seen through the glass door in the rich merchant’s house.

Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when–the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven; one fell down and formed a long trail of fire.

“Someone is just dead!” said the little girl; for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now no more, had told her, that when a star falls, a soul ascends to God.

She drew another match against the wall: it was again light, and in the lustre there stood the old grandmother, so bright and radiant, so mild, and with such an expression of love.

“Grandmother!” cried the little one. “Oh, take me with you! You go away when the match burns out; you vanish like the warm stove, like the delicious roast goose, and like the magnificent Christmas tree!” And she rubbed the whole bundle of matches quickly against the wall, for she wanted to be quite sure of keeping her grandmother near her. And the matches gave such a brilliant light that it was brighter than at noon-day: never formerly had the grandmother been so beautiful and so tall. She took the little maiden, on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high, and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety–they were with God.

Little Match Girl 2But in the corner, at the cold hour of dawn, sat the poor girl, with rosy cheeks and with a smiling mouth, leaning against the wall–frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. Stiff and stark sat the child there with her matches, of which one bundle had been burnt. “She wanted to warm herself,” people said. No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.

Here is a musical made on the same story (song: Silent Night)

Learning? Yes, Of course. Education? No, Thanks.

May 18, 2015

Transcript of the TEDx IIT Kanpur talk. Here is the Video

I spent the first six – seven years of my life in a very small town near Lucknow. I remember of it as a small place, where we knew so many people around. We knew the vegetable vendors, the rickshaw pullers, the gardeners, the maids, the neighbours, school teachers used to live just nearby. Later when I read Malgudi days by RK Narayan, I was reminded of the little town it was. And then when in class 3rd we moved to Noida, partly the face of growing Indian metropolitan. We moved to an apartment and started going to a big and famous school there, Delhi Public School. I liked going to the school but mostly because I had many friends there. I do not think it was particularly because I enjoyed the learning environment there or the structure of schooling. I did enjoy going to bookstore once a while and buying a book of my interest. Sometime in class 7th or 8th, I bought a book on Tagore and his life and really liked it. I too wanted to do something good for the world. But soon the pressure of doing well in class 10 and then putting in everything into preparing for ‘the’ engineering took over. The engineering books took precedence and those other wonderful ones were left out to gather dust in some other corner of the room. At times during preparation for exam I would think that once I get over with exams I would go back to the books I so loved living life the way I wanted to. But that was not how it was supposed to be. I got through the examination and soon was being hailed as a hallmark of brilliance. The overwhelming congratulatory awes, that I received for next 5 years dragged me back into deception. Soon I was doing things I simply never connected to, running after things I never even wanted to have in the very first place. I now wanted to start a company, do an MBA from a reputed school, because that is what I thought was the in thing. It is quite interesting and also disturbing to see the uncanny ability of the world to pull you away from your own self. After completing engineering, I took up the job with the World Bank, only later to realize that our definitions of ‘doing good’ were quite different. Slowly the discontentment started to grow. It was here when it started to hit me how I had lost myself in this mindless pursuit. I call it mindless not because there is something bad in this kind of approach to life, but because it was not what I wanted to do. A year later I finally decided to leave the job, the degrees, the worldly definitions of success and failures, to once again try and listen to myself.

Like I mentioned, sometime in class 7th or 8th I had got hold of a book on Tagore and his life. I had read how he had quit school and learnt things he really wished to; about a space he created for children called Shantiniketan. Back in school I liked what I read but the thought of doing the same never occurred to me. After leaving the job trying to figure what my heart was into, I wondered what if I could spend my life working towards one such space too, a learning space, a space unlike a regular school.

I say unlike a regular school because there were so many things that out rightly baffled me about the present day schooling system, things that I wanted to understand and if necessary question. I wondered –

Why is it that the children from age 3 years onwards (and now-a-days 2) have to go through a rigid regimental system where the learning is not self directed, wherein they are not taking part in designing their timetable and curriculum, for on an average 20 years to prepare themselves for life?

Why in the current system, all children of similar age groups are put together in a class when all of us outside are always learning and living with people of different ages and hate being evaluated on some straight jacketed norms?

I somehow knew this – that, no the present schooling system was not the best that we could have come up with to educate our children. We who have come up with wondrous symphonies, with unbelievable art work, innumerable myths and stories to explain the mystery of human life, could have come with something way way better, something much closer to the way all of us learn, something that gives space to our curiosity and not a system that systematically destroys it.

I spent around three years going around the country – spent time in monasteries, villages, time with tribal folks, seeing how different people understood education so differently. Interestingly, through my journey, more than the experts, meeting and getting to know the so called “illiterate and uneducated” people helped me understand some of these questions better.

Jungle walk

Trip with kids to a nearby forest

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When I was young, i.e. in school, whenever we went to visit our grandparents in the village I looked down upon the villagers. I felt that our family had overcome all that and hoped that someday these people would also break out of poverty and ignorance and move to cities.

Two years ago, when my grandfather passed away, I went to my village and spent about a month living with my grandmother. There are three things I noticed. All through the time I was there not for a moment was my grandmother alone. She always had 10 to 15 women, her friends, from all over the village sitting with her and listening to her. They would finish their work early in the morning, and then come and spend whole day with my grandmother, telling her all sort of stories, not allowing her to feel low for even a single moment. How could someone spend so much of their personal time to help someone else? Having spent my childhood in Delhi, I was an alien to this culture.

Second was this deaf and dumb friend of my father and uncles, our neighbor. I saw how my uncles were communicating with him in sign language. I asked them, ‘When and from where did you learn the sign language? They did not have an answer. After sometime they told me, “Well we grew up playing together. And we learnt. Isn’t it obvious?” It wasn’t obvious to me. Learnt perfect sign language just by playing together! The incident taught me how easily one learns the things they really need.

Third thing I had noticed was the abundance of knowledge the people in village had – knowledge about the local environment, about the flora around, knowledge about their health and well being, knowledge so deep rooted and yet so fluid and free. It troubled me to see how despite the knowledge most of them had internalized the labels we had given to them of being ‘backward’, ‘poor’, and ‘uneducated’. How they had internalized the fact that learning is something that happens only in schools and colleges and that because they had never been to one they were the ‘ones left out’.

And this I saw was the case with the many vibrant and rich communities, who despite the richness of life saw themselves as uneducated just because they had not studied rhymes and algebra in school.

There is this small tribe called Yanomami, somewhere near Venezuela. They live in large, circular, communal houses. They do not have a chief. Decisions are made by consensus, frequently after long debates. No hunter even today ever eats the meat that he has killed. Instead he shares it out among friends and family. Children are not treated in a special way but as individuals. They share the responsibilities and learn from the society around.

A few years ago I would have called these people “backward” for their alternative ways of life or nakedness, or if nothing else for their lack of material possessions, that they have tried and failed to keep up with the “modern” world, that they have little understanding of cars, hospitals, and banks. I would have also tried to set up a school for their children, to teach them stuff we know and our way of life. Today however I can understand José Mereilles when he calls these other cultures, “the last free people on earth” — free from the influence of governments, the subliminal powers of advertising and the media and particularly free from the thoughts of others.

A few years ago, I met this lady who had spent some time living and working with tribal communities. Over a few years, she along with few others worked out a different way of engaging with the kids from those communities, a way that came out of their way of understanding the world. These she presented to the concerned officials. However her ideas were not accepted. Concerns, about teaching the kids about self-reliance and other things that were an integral part of tribal culture, were expressed. “But that’s there in their stories, songs… that is how they have been learning to live within the community”, she said. They said, “We understand but it is all too complicated. We have a set curriculum on what children in every grade are supposed to learn and it works everywhere. Why don’t we just stick to it? We can if you wish include some of their poems and stories in the curriculum”.

These instances made me see how the present education system is, knowingly or unknowingly, destroying the diversity of life this planet has, killing the many ways of knowing and learning and promoting one and the only way.

Belgaum trip

Learning about weaving and hand-looms from a tribe in Belgaum

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The other thing I started seeing was how the current system is feeding us with this idea that we need help of institutes to be taught how to learn and think. A young girl from SECMOL, an alternative learning space in Ladakh, was one amongst many who showed me how that is not so true. How learning is innate, so natural to us. How we love learning provided we are free to choose what we wish to learn and how we have unnecessarily complicated it. She told me how as a kid she loved learning about different kind of plants. She would go around the fields with her grandfather and they would discuss so many things. How in a few years she learnt so much about various herbs and their uses. It all changed though when she started attending a nearby school. Suddenly all that she knew about the plants around became useless. There were whole other things she had to learn but could not relate to. In class 9th her elder brother who was working in Ladakh told her about SECMOL and she decided to run away from her village in Jammu and join it instead.

In one year that she had spent in SECMOL, where she was free to learn things she was interested in, she learnt how to take care of the solar electricity system of the place, learnt about the plants around, and about Ladakhi people and their customs. One evening while having dinner, I asked her, what was it that she enjoyed learning the most there. She said, “The best was to take care of the plants and animals. I learnt how to milk the cattle, take care of them. Since I was a kid I always dreamt of doing it perfectly one day.”

I like how Aaron Falbel shares his thoughts on learning. He writes, “Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with. It is utter nonsense, not to mention deeply insulting, to say that people need to be taught how to learn or how to think. We are born knowing how to do these things.

A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, which I believe is even more basic than his freedom of speech. No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. If we take from someone their right to decide what they will be curious about, or if we tell them you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us we destroy their freedom of thought. I know many of us would not agree with this. How can we let the children decide? We do not trust them, just like the colonists did not trust the aboriginals in Australia and the Natives in America. But I ask you to please think about it – don’t we feel we should at least let our children participate in choosing how and when they want to learn what.

The other day I was going through this article by Marc Chehab – It asked what will happen if a child realizes this that ‘What we see arrives faster than what we hear’ Himself or herself

For someone to arrive at this conclusion autonomously is utterly profound. It’s also radically corrosive to power. It’s profound because it may lead to some very deep reflections on their place in the world; and it’s corrosive to power because it teaches them that whether something is or isn’t true does not depend on what a teacher or a book says. It depends solely on whether it’s actually true – on whether what you see does in fact arrive faster than what you hear. It read how Socratic reflection is still being punished for the same reason that Socrates was executed for: because the communities that surround the education system are scared of the consequences of letting pupils think freely, because for the socio-economic system to survive you need obedient people with more or less no urge to question. We do not need musicians and artists on the street but workers in the industry. Not people who have found their own meaning but who have learnt the meaning we wish to teach.

And probably that is why, not just here but world over, schooling with a set curriculum, decided by the experts, and the powerful, is being seen as panacea, as a source of hope, as a means to promote this one single monoculture. Why else would a child in Ladakh, a child in Kerala, and the one in the Rajasthan (and possibly in Africa and Europe too) be studying exactly the same stuff, which has less to do with their own culture, their own little place and their own language and geography.

Lake

Like the Yanomamis I see that there are innumerable cultures, ways of living thriving in just nearby regions of where we live. I am not saying at the least that these cultures are perfect. No they are not. All I am saying is that all of these exist and all are special in their own way. However, as we talk here we can see a lot of them being schooled and homogenized in the name of development and modernization.

As I say all this please do not understand that I am against any form of teaching. I love teaching and I have enjoyed learning from some fabulous people. All I doubt is the space for it when the person being taught is not even asked or consulted – the space of ‘I’m doing this for your own good’ type of teaching. This kind of teaching might deem necessary sometimes, but to think that whole education environment should revolve around it, does not seem right.

One of my favorite quotes on Education is by Leo Tolstoy. He says “Education is the tendency of one person to make another just like himself or herself… Education is a compulsory, forcible action of one person upon another…”

Tagore writes of what he thinks education should be. He says, “I believe that the object of education is the freedom of mind which can only be achieved through the path of freedom.

Free birds

Drawing from these two thoughts I feel education would take a very different shape, if at all it does take some shape, from what it is today. If you ask me, I dream of a way of life where there is no compulsory schooling and different ways of knowing and learning are encouraged, wherein there are spaces where people come together to share and learn from one another, wherein artists, farmers, scientists, activists, musicians and people well-versed in any other discipline are willing to teach someone who wants to learn at a nominal cost, wherein the knowledge that would otherwise be freely available is not boxed in grandiose buildings and sold to people at exorbitant prices. A way of life wherein irrespective of their age everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.

At the end especially for those who think improved technology, more computers and screens, better child friendly techniques and not freedom of mind is the answer to some of these problems, let me end this by sharing with you a story that was adapted by Manish Jain from Shikshantar and then partly modified by me. The original story was written by Rabindranath Tagore, in which he had warned us of the dangers of Schooling almost 80 years ago.

Parrot's trainingIn ‘The Parrot’s Training’, we are told of a golden cage that is built to imprison a wild and uncivilized parrot so that she could be properly educated. In addition to the usual school curriculum, she was also expected to learn to listen and obey. She was allowed to question but within the structure and not question the structure itself. First, the teachers tried stuffing her with pages of the official textbooks. Days went by but that did not work. Then teachers, educators came together to brainstorm on some creative means to make things more interesting. More activity based things were introduced to drill the concepts in. A UNICEF project came with all kinds of child-friendly and joyful techniques. The cage was decorated with all sorts of colourful pictures and charts. There was a blip in interest, but it died as soon as it came. Again the educators came together to talk again. They decided that more investment is required in the system. Then the World Bank gave a loan to the king to build a bigger cage with a nice toilet. A software company gave her a laptop with free internet connection. But still, there was no considerable difference! Finally the Harvard researchers were invited to conduct studies on the parrot’s brain and multiple intelligences. As a result many papers were published, books were written. However, parrot’s condition only worsened. As her distress increased she was given mindfulness training. They also taught her about child rights. Some concerned individual advised the parrot needs sometime alone. So an hour of silence and meditation was included in the timetable. The only thing parrot was not allowed to do was the little thing she so dearly wanted to do – to leave the cage. Whenever she tried to break out she was put in back. In fact, she was scolded for being ungrateful and impertinent. Time and again she was reprimanded, “We are doing so much for you, spending so much on you and you do not even care.”

Over the years parrot did end up learning a few things but lost the interest in learning itself. She slowly became dependent on the very cage she earlier wanted to break out from. She internalized the fact that the people around her were indeed doing a favour to her; that she and eventually her children too needs support of this wonderful cage. One day the cage was accidentally left open but she was afraid to venture out. Her dreams were reduced to being a rat in the rat-race. Slowly her spirit withered away. In the end, a lot of people made a lot of money on the parrot’s education, everyone benefited except the parrot, who just became another brick in the wall.”

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