Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Wake-Up Call and a Teach For India Fellow

This evening I went to watch a play at India Habitat Centre called Wake-Up Call with two other TFI fellows and a fellow’s friend who has been recently selected as IAS Officer. The play was based on Delhi Bombing and the acting was superb, to an extent that you wish it was your profession. The cries of family members who lost, the media reporters who needed ostentatious video feeds, a cynical beggar advising everyone to commit suicide and the gorgeous Vasundhara Das who encouraged people to live and cope-up, gave the play so much life that each member in the audience must be having anger towards the inconvenient truth of “Life is not fair”

When the play ended, Vasundara, in one of the most melodious voice I have ever heard, asked the audience if they wish to make a promise to themselves to take ownership of their country in any small but impactful way. That’s obviously a favorite topic of TFIers. We have reflected so much on these kinds of topics that we would be first to grab the microphone and speak about it. And so we did. One of the 2010 fellow spoke about how we are teaching in an under-resourced school and the kind of impact we daily make. The audience applauded and it was that kind of applause when you know it's for real. Another gentleman said that he has seen his neighbors washed his five cars wasting so much water and that he will never use water to wash his own cars from today onwards. The audience sighed. A lady spoke that after living abroad she has returned in one of the most posh colonies of Delhi and found that people have lost that sense of knowing thy neighbor, so she will work to bring that culture back.

Suddenly out of the blue, a gentleman asked what was the purpose of this play? His point of view was that we already know that we don’t do anything about anything evil in our country and that EXCEPT the gentleman who teaches for India, no one else is actually making a point here. Vasundhara replied with lot of grace that the idea is just to have mind over most important matters and that people don’t forget the losses they make because they have chosen to look the other way.

I just want to go back to the speech that Anand Shah gave, about which I wrote few days back. If there is a tree on the road then you really have to drive around it and you cannot ignore its presence. The word EXCEPT in the sentence of this gentleman was the real example of that tree. I saw a change happening. If it wasn’t for that fellow’s contribution, this gentleman would have said “No one is and no one will do anything about it. Nothing is practical and your play spreads no message and solves no purpose.”

The power that a walking TFI fellow can give to a platform like this, where only rich and famous who owns five cars and lives in the posh colony exists, is unique. For all the things that TFI has made me reflect, I think that one of the greatest powers TFI has is to bring live issues from floors of underprivileged to coffee tables of privileged, from “Nothing can happen in this country. You try to start and you will meet your end” to “Oh Yeah! We are doing it Baby and we will live long enough to tell you how!”

By the end of the event, I could easily tell there were more people who were envied of the job of a Teach for India fellow than the jobs of those brilliant actors. And that my friend was a real proud moment!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

New girl in the city

There is one stark difference that could be easily noted by someone who has migrated from Bangalore to Delhi. Delhi roads are wider but Bangalore homes have more colorful exteriors– purple, green, orange, even red. Delhi homes are black – People don’t prefer to paint their homes exteriors as they know the soot will reappear.
When I used to get inside a local bus in Bangalore, women would wait very patiently in a queue to get in when they could see that they aren’t going to get any seats. In metro today however, even though seating space in women’s coach was full and women who were waiting outside knew there is enough room for standing but they refused to wait for other women to step out and then an unnecessary deadlock was created. What does this tells about general mentality difference of women in Delhi and Bangalore?

A new girl in the city is facing a culture shock in her own country!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In pursuit of......

The door opened. I was looking down before stepping out of the metro  as I saw her footwears. Nice elegant leather sandals. I looked at her suit next. That was a nice choice too. And then I saw her face. A beautiful face but with tangible sadness. A very odd thought ran through my mind. When I saw the sandal, I thought someone wearing these kind of sandals should be a smart and a happy person. Why I thought that? And why despite of such an elegance, she looked sad.

I hopped into a rickshaw. I could only see a dark brown body soaked into a yellow vest struggling to pull the rickshaw. It looked like that the body had been overused and is exhausted of everyday struggles but still can’t give up. As the rickshaw moved ahead, I passed-by a funeral march. Someone yelled, “Do it before 5 PM or it will be postponed to next day!” A little distance ahead, I saw women crying, crying out loud, cries - some were real, some not-so-real. We reached a road adjacent to a park. A poor child with naked feet walking over a garbage dump with a kite clutched tightly. What happiness is he seeking? Sadness is all I am seeing. I reached home. The summer was too hard for the rickshaw-wala. He stood there waiting for his fare to be handed over. He was looking down as if he doesn't like serving someone this way, a job in which despite all his hard work, he couldnt keep his head high with pride.

Few years back, when I watched pursuit of happiness, I was moved when Will Smith said that he used to see people around him happy and he wanted to be happy too.

 But why I am seeing sadness all around. What I’m in pursuit of?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Ground Reality in the Interim

I have never been this consistent about blogging as I am these days but with kind of daily experiences en route sharing is crucial. The reality of being a teacher in low-income school has started hitting. After I reached Delhi on Sunday, I have been searching for a house.

I teamed with another girl  from TFI who was looking for a house too. As our first action, we decided to have a look at the schools in which we will be teaching. My school was closed. I could see a small green color gate. The school looked smaller than the most government houses I have seen all my life. We next visited my friend’s school and to describe it I need to change the paragraph and dramatize.

 We got off at the metro station. We told her school’s name. No one knew. We explained a landmark. Rickshaw walas started guessing. We hopped into one whose rickshaw-puller looked supremely confident in his claim. The streets were one of the most crowded streets I have seen in a while and one of the poorest too. . No doubt most landmarks and most schools were lost in the crowd irrecoverably.  I looked at my friend’s face. Her expression had started changing. She said “I have to dress really conservatively here. I don’t see women around”. It was majorly a Muslim area - an area where mostly shops were owned by butchers.  After fifteen minutes of bumping on what looked like the streets from “The Kite Runner”, we turned into Gali No. 9. As I think back now, I remember that “Gali” as a street from movie Dil Se with scary music in the background and camera rushing to nowhere.

The school looked like a construction place. As we stepped in, a worker looked at my friend and said that you must be looking for the school right across the street, the bigger one. The classrooms were small, no sunlight. The construction sand was pervasive, no window. There were rickshaws parked in the room labeled library and construction material in the room labeled Laboratory.  “Welcome to the toughest school in the toughest locality.” I turned around to my friend. “If you could make a difference here in next two years, you can really make a great difference anywhere in the world.”

My friend was scared. Expressions on her face were of nothing. But the scarier part had not yet started. If she is working in a place like this, she really cannot stay alone and we definitely need to find the house that is close to some other Metro station so that she has less travel time. The hurdle was she is a daily non-vegetarian and I don’t even prefer eating eggs. With drastically opposite food habits, we deduced we need separate kitchens – separate houses. We got off to a Metro station where the broker from my contacts had to show us a house. As we got off, we looked at newly constructed DDA flats. We liked them. Just for having fun from our newly found talent of being enterprising during training, we reached out to the property dealers. One of them suggested to us to stay in an ashram and the other asked us to stay farther down the metro station. It was not we were having any budget issues. We agreed to pay them on par with other tenants. Somehow they were having difficulty in understanding what we do.

 “So you are teachers?”


“Government school?”


“How can you live in separate houses and pay this much rent if you are government school teachers?”

“We work for Teach for India and they will support us.”

“So, you are not government teachers? We need two referrers! We would rather give these houses to Government employees”

“We are serving the country. We are committed to teach kids in low-income schools”

And then I heard the scariest thing told to my friend “We don’t give houses to people from North-East”

And the trust issues in the capital city of the country where we have committed ourselves to serve the Nation continued….

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Last Lecture

“Why you have come all over from America to serve the country?” someone asked. “So that you can ask me this question” Anand Shah answered and this is how our last lecture in the training institute on a rainy Saturday morning began. It was the last time 144 of us were together after the valuable bonding of 5 weeks. Something powerful could only hold our attention as we long for celebrations (read as nostalagia) of our last day. And Anand’s mesmerizing talk immersed us completely for next 120 minutes.

Anand Shah told us his story. He was born and educated in US and has come back now to contribute in establishing a Higher Education Institute in India. Read more about Anand here 

Our first mental stimulant: Legitamize the idea of serving your country!
It is usually funny to tell I am here to serve my country. Nobody talks like that! Why?
Anand Shah threw a question in IIM-Ahmedabad once “Why were IIM, IIT established?”. The answer is “The founders of our Nation knew that we need world-class engineers and managers to build the nation. So, the idea was to create a force which SERVES THE NATION. He asked the IIM crowd again “Do you know how many people paid for you to come here? Many people, for whose villages had to be built, paid by establishing these institutes by sacrificing what they deserved. So I ask you would you like to volunteer for one year of your life to serve your country and contribute in building it because that is what the purpose of the institute you are in. Don’t you think you should pay-off?” No hand rose.
Even at Teach for India we don’t hear these kind of answers a lot. People are hesitant to say “I am here to serve my Nation”.
Why serving the nation is such a hard idea after all?

Our Second mental stimulant : The world is so fast that there is no point having an urge to go behind where everyone is going
“Why people go to IIT-IIM or Why over 6-7 lakh people compete for IIT-JEE and CAT every year?”
“Why someone who joined Lehman Brothers in 2005 got assured that his life is set and later found himself in the crisis in 2008”
Following the herd might be the right thing to do or say it better safe thing to do. To compete and reach to be in top 1% brings out the aspirations. People want to be more than what they are and they just go through the usual psychology of following the herd and work hard to be at the top of that.
Going against the herd might not be the smart thing to do always. But going with the herd has one serious disadvantage:

Our Third Mental Stimulant : Herd follows consumption.
Successful moments are those in which you are a producer. The blunt truth of following the herd is that you are consuming opportunities that others are producing. But when you are a producer you create a value nobody else is even thinking about.
“Why if there is a tree in a middle of road, you have to drive around it?”
The tree makes it presence feel.
Mahatma Gandhi might be an old school of thought but he stood like that tree. Steve Jobs might be a modern school of thought and he creates a value no one else was even thinking about. They stood for what they believe in These people are producers.
Who remembers who was Vice-President of Golman Sachs in Mumbai three years ago or the Head of Maruti Suzuki ten years ago. But people will remember Gandhi and Steve Jobs.
When you have a handful oh wheat grains in your hand, you have two options – send them to mill and once they are grinded you cannot tell what’s what or re-grow them and you will find a new value created if nurtured properly.

The fourth mental stimulant : The litmus test
Every morning when you wake up and look in the mirror, can you say “I am doing the right job.” Will we, the trained teachers, after 60 days be able to say that? Will I be able to know always in middle of my class “Why am I doing what I am doing?’

Will I always have a moment of being a producer for next two years for 40 students I teach? There are very big questions that we will be confused about in next two years.

For 144 of us, the moment of reckoning has come.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The fountain of heads

The window panes were broken. Slow. The fan-outlets on ceilings were missing the company of their friends. Sweat. The board was too small. Constrained. There were no benches for students. Floored (literally)

The sense of urgency. Fast. The students finally learnt what is subtraction. Relief. The capacity to learn. Infinite. The energy and love received . Floored. (Metaphorically)

Harbored Roared laughed.

She recalled she stood still on the Harbor of her first school. She Roared with joy when now it is at the end..for she loved what she did....

She will miss her first fountain of heads….