Over the past six years, I have been actively involved in Education. Teaching Writing & Communication Skills across the learning-landscape, from junior school, through to college, and to seniors; I have been blessed to have reached out to a truly diverse and growing student-base.
Another area I have tried to make a contribution to Education, is Writing. I have written extensively on Education & Parenting across a slew of Newspapers, Magazines, Publications & Portals, On & Offline.
Despite the above, I had, until recently, begun to feel that I was not doing enough. That there were larger, more pressing issues & challenges related to the Education Sector, that needed Attention, Focus, Dialogue, Discussion & Solutions. This burning urge to play a more catalytic role, to Advocate, and facilitate Advocacy, compelled me to seek a partner, an individual and an organisation with shared Values, Concerns, Passions, Outlooks & Philosophies. From a few earlier interactions, I remembered fondly, and deeply respected Vikram Rajola and his amazing rural-education-augmentation would through his foundation In-Deed (based out of Jodhpur district), and it was like a eureka moment.
My ‘hunch’ that he’d be interested in what I was proposing, was confirmed in one phone-call, a conversation that lasted minutes! We decided that we would jointly initiate an ongoing series of talks on Pressing & Pertinent Issues within the Education Sector. And literally a week ago, The Inclusive Education Dialogue was born!
That we are largely on the same-page, with little or no conflict principally, aided in us instinctively agreeing that our very first Panel Discussion ought to be in view of the impact of Covid 19 (pandemic) on Education, more specifically, focusing on the Millions of Indian Students who DO NOT, or CAN NOT, at this point, continue their education, through Online Learning (as many are doing in urban centres). Our first Panel therefore, titled ‘Reaching The Unconnected Millions’, was formulated.
Earnest endeavours are recognized and rewarded because worthy people happily join you in them. And we are absolutely delighted, humbled and privileged, that an especially eminent panel of experts has joined us to kickstart our talk-series, and to each of them, we are incredibly thankful.
The core idea of The Inclusive Education Dialogue is to keep shining a light on Education Sector Issues that have been sidelined for one reason or another. The word ‘inclusive’ will ALWAYS be elemental to our choice of issues. And through discussions and debates, we seek solutions, perhaps even on-ground actionable pilot programs, that emerge from these intended deliberations.
The Inclusive Education Dialogue may be a modest enterprise; it is fuelled by immense sincerity, zeal, passion, and commitment. Join us as we embark on what will hopefully be a longstanding value-addition to Education. Follow our Talks & Panels, watch them, listen to them, spread the word!
Sunday morning, the innocent yet utterly delightful novelty of sleeping in for that extra couple of hours, rather than his brisk two-hour walk. Kabir relished every minute of the incremental rest. Then, like clockwork, he jumped out of bed, into the shower, dressed in his Sunday best, decided to walk Rover just before Tara, Trishna and he, would set out for brunch. A ritual, the young family had so enjoyed, each weekend. Their favourite haunt, Anokhi café, where Kabir could partake of a few Vegan & Gluten-free options, Tara would religiously order her Margarita Pizza that she’d share with their daughter, and then while Kabir would devour his Vegan Chocolate Pudding, his well-earned indulgence after week-long abstinence, the mother-daughter duo would wolf-down the highlight of their meal, the famed and quite sublime, baked cheesecake!
As Kabir descended from his apartment, alighted the elevator with Rover leashed, it hit him like a ton of bricks. Lockdown. Quarantine. His world, their world, the world’s world, had come to a standstill since the past month. Because of the alarming spread of Coronavirus, the entire world, India rather strictly so, had imposed what can only be described as a national curfew. The pandemic that Kabir’s mind had unwittingly erased from his consciousness was staring him straight in the face as he signalled his masked & gloved building security guard to open the gates that would otherwise never be shut!
The human mind is a fascinating and mysterious creature. In Kabir’s case, as he now, rather with a sullen demeanour of a defeated sportsman, ambled along with Rover by the pale and vacant roadside; he wondered if he was in denial of the lockdown, of being forced to give-up ‘normality’? Or was it merely force of habit, that had jolted him into Sunday-morning Brunch-action, despite knowing fully well that there had been no such outing for an entire month now! He felt a feeling he hadn’t before felt. His fingers twitched as beads of sweat formed across his brow. His heart felt like it was the erratic drumbeat of a teenager learning how to play, loud but inconsistent. Rover’s ‘job’ done, Kabir promptly turned back towards his apartment building, desperate to have a lie-down.
The bell rang and just as Kabir was entering, he saw Trishna right in front of him. The curious toddler asked, “Papa, why are you all dressed up? We cannot go anywhere till the Coronavirus goes away, can we?”
Kabir’s own petulance, in the few moments that followed his daughter’s comments, turned into a huge smile as he said to Trishna, “But that does not mean we can’t have a yummy Sunday brunch at home missy!”
Taking his daughter into his arms, Kabir changed Trishna into a lovely floral frock, and along with Tara, the trio prepared a delectable brunch-menu, laid a special table on their balcony, and play-acted the entire brunch scenario, complete with Kabir taking the ladies’ orders, bringing out the food to the table, down to presenting a made-up bill to Trishna. The little girl’s delight was palpable as she revelled in the food, her parents’ company, and the sheer novelty of a Sunday-brunch at home.
As Trishna went to the ‘pretend-counter’ of the ‘café’ to pay the bill, Tara and Kabir held hands under the table, and looked at each other, smiling.
A few days back, this girl, out of nowhere, reached out to me on social media, said she was a young artist, only just beginning her journey of discovering the artist within her. I was intrigued, and as is usually the case, immediately set-up a meeting at a mutually convenient time; anything I can do to help, guide, mentor someone is always a priority. She was to bring me an original Madhubani Painting of hers, along with some hand-painted Post Cards. I was excited.
However, nothing could quite have prepared me for the amazing woman I eventually met. Sapna Mahto, unassuming yet confident, humble yet immensely gifted and creative; our half hour meeting has left such an indelible impact on me, I just had to share her story with all of you.
Sapna is a Visuals Arts Graduate from Rajasthan University. She is venturing into the world of Art through her limited yet beautifully conceived repertoire of Madhubani Paintings. In order to preserve the heritage of her origins, she also paints these lovely Madhubani motifs on Journal & Diary Covers and Postcards. She is also working as a Graphic Designer in a reputed Digital Communications Agency. And she happens to be, the daughter of someone who works as domestic help! A significant piece of information that she delivered to me, most nonchalantly!
Based on that last, tiny truth about Sapna; one could undeniably say that she has shattered many glass ceilings. What strikes you more though, is the ease with which she wears her society-imposed ‘tag’. That she has, as if with a single brush-stroke, erased the stigma that you and I often unconsciously harbour, a specific, prejudiced way in which we ‘perceive’ certain communities. It is this enviable, admirable, effortless, effervescence, an inner light in this young woman that shines forth, and makes the darkness of societal bigotry, just pale into oblivion. And it is precisely this quality of Sapna’s that had a profound effect on me.
We spend a large part of our lives just worrying about how we are perceived by the world. We go to immeasurable lengths to come across a ‘certain’ way. Especially in India, peoples’ concerns largely centre on ‘where one is from’, ‘what family one belongs to’; particularly in a small city like Jaipur, NOT belonging to the ‘right’ kind of family can spell immediate social doom. It is terribly ironic that we, the ones who hardly ‘accept’, are then so concerned with being accepted into a city’s elite. While the hoi polloi toils away at the everyday grind, our burdens seem to be much more banal – did I go the right school? Did I wear the right outfit? Was I noticed at that party?
Our shallow worries, of which I am as guilty as the next person, make me feel ashamed of myself, when I meet someone like Sapna Mahto. What this young woman has endured, battled, conquered, and triumphed, are circumstances we cannot even begin to fathom.
Whether we admit it or not, most of us do not see the less-fortunate, coming up. We go about our lives so wrapped up in our own heads and messes that we rarely pause to think of the lives of the people who serve us, who cook and bring us our daily bread. By consequence, there is little or no mind space for their children. They play with our kids but even that is disallowed beyond a certain point because we fear that it will either ‘spoil’ or dilute our own, or will be seen by someone and secretly ,or openly, be derided.
Meeting with Sapna has literally been an awakening for me. It has put so much prejudice I have seen within my own family, into perspective. It has made me immensely proud as an Indian, as a citizen of this city, and as an Educator who seeks to espouse an ethos of equality among his students. I have learned so many lessons, and I can only say, that more power to Sapna. She has shattered ceilings, provoked thought, inspired me, and filled me with her eternal glow.
It is approaching 6 months since I quit Smoking! It is a surreal feeling, to have come out of such a chronic and longstanding addiction. To mark this momentous goodbye, some words come to mind….
she was quite a fella
fingers wrapped around her
addicted to the grotesque smell of her
funky, insane, insatiable
a fool in love
Sexual Abuse is a brutal reality of our life and times. The irony in our country is that anything relating to sex, sexuality, or even remotely body-related, is swept under the rug. Parents, a vast majority of us, are squeamish about the subject, preferring instead to let children ‘figure it out’! This can have catastrophic consequences.
So what are some ways of preparing children to prevent them from suffering Sexual Abuse?
TALK Body Parts
This might sound basic and obvious but as parents, we hardly do. We just DO NOT talk! About what? About basic awareness. We HAVE to talk to our children about aspects relating to sex, sexuality and abuse – what’s alright and what’s not alright, starting, at the most formative years, with talking about Body Parts! Its about time we called a Penis a Penis, a Vagina a Vagina, as a matter of FACT, and with PRIDE. Children have to absorb these parts, thee words, and referencing them, as ‘normal’.
What we also need to talk and educate our children about, in a non-preachy way, is the distinction between body-parts that are ‘private’ and body parts that may be, situation-depending, exposed briefly. They need to be taught and oriented also about these ‘private’ parts being strictly OFF LIMITS, that there are Boundaries that MUST be maintained and never be breached – that it is ONLY for them, and perhaps one or two more specific people (while assisting them), to view/handle these private parts, and anyone else doing anything else is a strict NO.
In the event of a ‘breach-of-boundary’, the child must be made aware and must have had the confidence inculcated in them, to immediately REPORT the incident to parents/authorities and NEVER conceal it. Typical predatory behavior encourages secrecy, a trap into which most victims fall because that is how we are psychologically wired – to somewhere believe that it is ‘our’ (the victim’s) fault. This cycle of myth has to be broken.
In an increasingly digital & visual age, children must also be made aware and sensitized to the immense potential dangers of photographing/videographing their privates and sharing, even keeping those files with themselves as they might be targeted by potential predators, hackers, opportunists. It goes back to how emphatically it must be explained and understood, that private parts, are private! No child will voluntarily and willingly want their images to end up on any kind of public digital forum. It will be the single most humiliating thing to happen, something that can permanently scar!
TALK Situational Handling
The NO word – we say it as parents to our children through their lives, yet, ironically, we cannot teach THEM to use it, in any situation. We must be able to give them the courage, self-assuredness and confidence to be able to get out of tricky situations where they are potentially being sexually attacked/assaulted/abused, of first recognizing the act for what it might become or is, and then, irrespective of the assailant, saying NO. While one can appreciate that this may not work or be possible in every scenario, with perpetrators of these acts being overbearing at times, to be able to take some action, any action – to call attention to the wrongdoings, must be encouraged vociferously.
I worry tremendously about the world we live in, particularly since we have had our daughter, who, although is just two and a half years old; is already clear about Body Parts and what is private. I only hope that more and more parents will not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to this extremely vital education, and volunteer instead, to start talking, forthwith! It is the ONLY solution to preventing our children from being taken advantage of.
Made up of
Scans & scars
A big bottle of
Pain, left ajar
A spoon full of
A field-full of sour
Grasping at straws
Gasping for air
Inching toward the light
Cautiously, I dare…
Once it is done and dusted
All fixed, all busted
Sufferers become ‘Survivors’
Albeit bruised & battered, a touch rusted!
They begin a journey afresh
A reinvention, a rebirth, a rush
Outlooks, attitudes, purposes, readjust!
Mine though, isn’t a war won
Tis a battle on….
A twisted ‘present’…continuous
A perennially prickly thorn…acrimonious
The first to deplete… courage
The second… faith
A lengthy grocery-store bill’s worth
Adjectives I knew for positivity & strength
Banished, far away, sent
Hows, whys and whens
An unrelenting stench
Pause. Deep breath. Lament.
It happened. It will therefore end.
One way or other
Enemy or Ally
Friend or Foe
Black or White
Dark or Glow
Him or I
Time, shall I invest you in my sorrow?
Shall I bury you in my grief?
Shall I consume you in my wasteful feast?
Life awaits as life passes me by
My mother looks worried, doesn’t say why
My wife hides her anguish, her tears run…but dry
My child reaches out, even touches…but is now shy!!!
Shall I choose cancer? Or shall I choose a lie???
On a balmy Delhi afternoon in 1998, in the heart of tony Defence Colony market, a life-altering transaction was in progress, in plain sight. With a nervous twitch I concealed the contents of my purchase and returned to my first-floor apartment, to my bedroom, most specifically, to my bathroom, for even my help shouldn’t have spotted this clandestine guest I’d brought back with me. Seated, on the pot with my drawers on, I peeled off the cellophanesque wrapper. It emitted a sound of satisfaction, akin to one we’d learn years on as the familiar aural delight of an ‘unboxing’. I had no idea at the time, that THIS would become an unboxing I’d ritualistically, yet without thought, be performing for the coming two decades! One last tug at a partial shimmery half-cover and I was in! As I drew out my virgin stalk of nicotine, there was guilt mixed in with excitement, mirroring perhaps, the pleasure and poison the contraband itself encompassed. The flame emerged from a single click, the stalk resting cautiously between my school-boy fresh lips, and the tip turned a golden orange. The illicit affair, had begun!
Eons hence, on an unsuspecting, routine examination at an ENT’s clinic in Jaipur, as recently as the 17th of October, upon my wife’s insistence that the doctor pay heed to my very dull but persistent ache at the base of my neck, a sonography revealed, at 7:30pm, that there were small but multiple tumors, albeit unconfirmed for malignancy, strongly suspected to be Thyroid Cancer. The cigarette I had smoked earlier that evening at 5:30pm, as it turned out, would be, my last! And though it was later confirmed to me that smoking and thyroid papillary carcinoma (the type of cancer I have) had no proven connection, the sheer shock had made me end the ‘illicit’ affair. From 1998 to 2019, a shade over two decades in!
One can’t categorize a month and a half’s break-up as ‘long’ after a toxic relationship that endured half my life. Having said that, in the weeks following that ill-fated revelation of yet another life-altering day, the 17th October 2019, aside from my cancer being confirmed, undergoing a major total Thyroidectomy surgery (removal of Thyroid gland), prepping for something called RAI Ablation (that is removal of residual cancer cells by ingesting radio-active-iodine) and a stint of quarantine before and after my Iodine Uptake Test (to determine in the first place, if the body is absorbing iodine and what dosage of the actual RAI will be required bases residual papillary carcinoma around the neck); I have also had a significant amount of time to reflect. To introspect. To question. To seek answers, justification, explanation. Not ironically as much to why I have got cancer but rather for why I ever became addicted to smoking! What have I come to realize?
There are no straight answers. That human beings are complex, inexplicable, fallible creatures that are victims of their own demons and deficiencies. That on the one hand we can seem and behave confident, in control, while simultaneously be internally unraveling like an unstoppable row of dominos! How have I come to realize this? Because despite the fact that I had, until just prior to college starting in Delhi (and hence the smoking), been a reasonably self-assured and accomplished boy at school, having won accolades and responsibility alike; when confronted with the prospect of an alien, unprotected world away from my cocoon of celebration that was boarding school, I crumbled, came undone. Gone was that House Captain leading the young men of my house and school on to various victories, and in its place was a tentative, uncertain young adult who did not know if and how to fit in at university. Vanished, the school Music captain who performed fearlessly on stage, to packed audiences and won laurels individual and collective; replaced by an apprehensive, somewhat afraid college student who was entirely overwhelmed by the thought of this new present and a wholly unsure future.
It was bound to happen then wasn’t it? A crutch. A bolster. A brace. A cane. But one that provided respite on the inside, on the outside, symbolized, to the foolish (and we all are, that too not just in youth), power, coolness, personality, panache, pizazz. How terribly ironic, though true. The cigarette was the perfect antidote to my growing trophies of insecurities. It became like that adult version of a child’s favorite childhood blanket, with a minor difference. While the extent of one addiction’s damage was a bit of dust, the other’s was, death!
When I look back on these twenty-some years and analyze my addiction in a more nuanced manner, more insights come to light. I had begun to lead a ‘dual’ life. Whenever I was in these ‘public’ situations that made me anxious and I thought, arguably only in my own head, that I must seem ‘cool’, I’d smoke like a proud fireworks display. So, to my college friends and contemporaries, then to my post-graduate friends and contemporaries in Bombay, subsequently and similarly, through my Advertising years in Bombay, right across stints of more studying in the UK and the US, back to working in Films & Television in Bombay. It was increasingly and relentless. All this while though, the duality I briefly suggested earlier, was maintained. Almost no one in my family, close or extended, even knew of this chronic addiction of mine. I had, and would continue to conceal my heavy-smoking, like a state-secret. I was, as I painfully realized, obviously ashamed of it – duality hence proven!
Yet another agonizing recognition of myself that came to me was my own hypocrisy. You might be surprised to note that through my younger years and tenure at boarding school, I was the staunchest advocate of no-smoking, vehemently lecturing and reprimanding smoker-family-members and friends, and viciously chastising students I caught smoking at school, especially during my house-captaincy! But so hideous is human duplicity that on my first visit back to school after graduating, over a Founder’s Day, I promptly stooged a cigarette from a student I had hauled-up when I had caught him smoking while at school!
Ultimately however, in this labyrinth of regrettable consciousness that I have actively sought in the weeks since the discovery of my cancer and having FINALLY quit smoking; what I have lost the most, more than self-respect, confidence, pride, self-concept, is TIME. Time with myself. Time on this planet. Time with friends and family. The hours upon hours spent either physically in bathrooms or on balconies smoking, or the cumulative time invested in worrying about, bothering with, and strategizing how, when and where to smoke – it seems like an irreparable, irreplaceable, and absolutely colossal loss. And though I dismiss the suggestion that being an Educator, smoking somehow made me unfit, and disqualified me from being an appropriate mentor, with the fact even being held against me on occasion – I do believe that even with my students, although the classroom was one place I NEVER once craved a cigarette; I ought to have been more honest.
The cigarette and my two-decade addiction then, have come to manifest a metaphor that I feel is the ONLY way of describing this illicit affair – that she was a greedy mistress whom I, the weak, fell prey to, brought into my home, invited into my bed, and then cheated on the entire world, with her, and for her. On her part, nothing was enough for her. She wanted to be hers alone, to be the singularly worshipping, devoted, dedicated, loyal, consummate subject, and she, my absolute ruler, conqueror, empress.
During innumerable points through these twenty-two years, I, either by myself, or in coerced conjunction with friends or family, tried to quit. Girlfriends past issued me warnings, they didn’t yield any results. My wife, whom I made, most unfairly, solely responsible for helping me quit, did everything and more, and I kept frustrating her, disappointing her, deceiving her, letting her down. Patches, chewing gums, reducing intake, cold-turkey, every trick, every method, every recommendation, I tried, tested and failed at, miserably, repeatedly. Even the birth of my own daughter, and other marital milestones that had solicited promises of quitting, couldn’t give me the courage to see it through. Ultimately, after incredible, unimaginable anguish that I caused to my nearest family, it was, the shock of Cancer, that made me QUIT! It was ONLY earth-shattering news that thrashed me out of my addictive-stupor, my absentee-life, my unconscious-existence, and made the cigarette and I, part ways.
Have my insecurities also faded along with the smoke from my balcony? Of course not. Have my urges to have a last fling with my recent temptress ceased? Hardly. Would I rather be healthier, stronger, more present, and simply AROUND? Without question!
As an engaged, invested and student-centric educator, I always try and provide a Constructive Critique and Detailed Individual Feedback to learners who have been with me for a short or long-term program. I thought it might be a good idea to share with you all, other educators, students, parents and institutes, a sample of the kind/type of specific feedback/letter I share with them at the end of our ‘formal’ interaction/program.
Therefore here’s one that I signed and presented (hand written) to a student who recently completed a Communications Program with me. Hope you like it, and more importantly, see the merit in undertaking this sometimes arduous but entirely favourable exercise.
Competition, a word that instinctively solicits little respect or reverence in me. To my mind, the only USE of competition, is to track one’s own progress. Having said that, when I met the few of you initially, and realized what you had already, and were capable of achieving, especially unaided, un-nudged, entirely voluntarily, you inspired me to get involved. And so, in this instance, this competition, the World Scholar’s Cup, has been an initiator of a most happy and fortuitous encounter.
Through our many sessions, I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with all six of you, getting to know you somewhat as individuals, more insightfully perhaps, as a self-motivated, potent, erudite, free-thinking & acting group of young leaders. It’s been fun, educational, enlightening.
That you have all shone at the finals at Yale might have to others, to me, been most unsurprising. You each has the definite capacity to change the world, never forget that. And for both therefore, for your individual accolades at Yale, much more so however, for each of your individualistic outlooks, your strength of character, and your resolve, and the life-potential you so clearly embody and palpably project, I congratulate you.
I, nor anyone else, has had nothing to do with your success. It is all your own. Relish it, but learn from it. Cherish it, but don’t stagnate on it. Be proud of it, but not arrogant because of it.
A last piece of unsolicited advice from the old man… communication skills, a certain flair and proficiency in them, isn’t limited to one specific competition. They will serve you well, through life, and help you be the leader you are, in every life sphere. To inform, influence, and impact change!
Aarnav, to you I want to say, stay curious and quirky. If sometimes you get the sense that people question your methods and choices, IGNORE them. You strike me as someone with a vision for a future life that is as much about you the individual, as it will be about your fellow humans. Chase that vision, without a care!
Much love & luck
My wife and I were sitting one day, quite recently, and commenting on how we hadn’t been to the theatre to watch a film in a long, long time. In fact, since our daughter was born two years earlier, we hadn’t ventured to watch a film. When we tried to recollect when, before Krisha’s birth we had been to the theatre, we couldn’t recollect that either! Perhaps our absence from cinema halls had nothing to do with being preoccupied with our child in the first place! We decided to delve further.
The more we thought about it and discussed it, the more it dawned on us that the entire cinema-going experience, at least for us, had been replaced by a number of alternatives that were more accessible, more affordable, more pleasing, more entertaining, and just more convenient. First amongst these was the slew of online content options – what is technically known as OTT Platforms – Over The Top content that is streamed using high-speed internet through applications such as Netflix and Prime. Not only do these great content-providers offer a slew of brilliant series & films of varying genres and nationalities, they are accessible all the time, anywhere, with viewing possible on the largest of home-theatre screens, or on the go on one’s mobile, laptop and tablet devices. With India’s smartphone base having increased to a sizeable 250 million people in 2017 itself, and internet users poised at between 450-600 million people, we are part of a larger mass who is starting to consume entertainment at home, not at the cinema halls!
Another reason for our long disappearance from cinema halls, we felt, was a result of not having a great experience at the theatre itself. For my wife and I, we felt that many cinema halls attracted unsavory, rowdy crowd that we did not want to be in such close proximity of. At the other end of the spectrum, if we went to a high-end cinema hall with fancy seats and other amenities, a single movie experience for the two of us could end up costing over fifteen-hundred rupees, an amount not necessarily large in itself but compared with annual subscription costs of OTT platforms, a lot to pay for a single film.
Ultimately though, we concluded that the chief reason for our growing disenchantment with the Indian cinema experience is just the quality of films. Most content on OTT platforms is simply of a much higher quality, at least to the two of us. I appreciate that taste is subjective, it changes from person to person; but even if there are Hindi movies that are interesting and well-made, they are available soon after theatrical-release, on one OTT platform or another. So unless one’s a die-hard fan of a specific actor or director and must absolutely watch a new release at the earliest, the cinema-going experience has become redundant.
It so happens that one of my best friends from boarding school is an old-school, single-screen theatre owner in Dehra Dun. At his theatre Prabhat Cinema, I have had some of my best childhood memories. He would organize special movie screenings for the entire school sometimes, and regularly for our smaller group of friends. Those shared viewing experiences were always special, they made us bond. To that end, I understand the allure of a theatrical experience, and miss it even. But with screening technology having come a long way since, with our homes being turned into mini-theatres now, that ‘shared viewing’ experience too, can be had, at the click of a button, without ever leaving one’s homely-comfort.
I’m not entirely sure how cinema-halls are going to reinvent themselves in the face of such growing competition and with people going less and less to the theatres. I suppose a section of society will still want that as their familial weekend experience and activity. But to my mind, the cinema experience today has become irrelevant in the face of too many luring alternatives.