Children always surprise us: Notes from our weekend club- Apr 30, 2012

We have a weekend club going about once a month for a few children. Usually, one of the parents facilitates some interesting activity and this time I volunteered. The idea was to get the kids to think and write creatively, focusing on narration.

The children, seven children aged about 6-9, were first asked to talk about their current favorite book or story, highlighting what they particularly like. Words from their narration were written on chits, which were then folded and placed in a box. The chits were jumbled and each child picked about 4, using which they had to come up with a story of their own, in written!

The results varied, but some attempts were pretty amazing. Aarush, younger than the rest, made up for lack of writing speed with his brevity. He wrote :

Once aliens invaded the galaxy. they used to be eating dictnory’s for power. the aliens were as stupid as idiots. like if sombody said something to them they jumped about.

I’ve transcribed the spellings and punctuation precisely to indicate that skill levels have nothing to do with how well someone can narrate! This was simply amazing. The other kids were also quite appreciative.

Nitya’s piece was notable as well, in which she described the joy experienced by a geeky kid who got to spend a day with his favorite author Roald Dahl. Most interestingly, they “ate ice-creams, they went to a movie and had lots of fun.”

The second exercise split the kids into two groups. They were each given a picture cut out from Lonely Planet Magazine. They were to include the picture in a verbal narration. One group, which included Udai, Utsa, Aarush and Aryan (below), chose to each make a story; then they found a clever way to weave it all together into one story and they took turns to narrate different bits. Nicely and confidently done.

A confident narration of a story built through teamwork and consultation. Kids make this stuff look so effortless!

Sushant and Nitya (below), on the other hand, decide to dramatize their narration, even weaving the toy wooden horse into the tale and using it as a prop!

There was lots of movement, well delivered dialogue and clarity of sequence in this dramatization. Little Aadyaa (at the back) thoroughly enjoyed being a spectator in this entire workshop!

Medha, who had opted out of this activity, was a bit sulky at this point. To cheer her up, I gave them a short lecture-demo on how a solo actor can essay multiple roles on stage, or show the audience that there are other imaginary people with her on stage.

Four children chose to go solo with the ‘dramatize a picture’ format. Medha did a really professional puppet show (I was so engrossed, I don’t have pics!) using the little half wall in the room (she was quick to spot that opportunity, totally appreciate that!). All the others did a great job of incorporating the elements I had spoken of in their little skits. Pretty amazed we were to see how quickly they picked up the nuances and were able to translate it into their own imagination and the context of their narrative!

Well done, kids! We have a lot to learn from you all…..

 

Making math fun for young children: An inspiring talk- Apr 29, 2012

The first half of yesterday was spent attending the school PTM. Fortunately, in Shikhantar, its not a typical deal where you hear what the teacher has to say about your child, where she can improve, how good or naughty she is, etc. We usually have a short group session in each classroom where general observations and concerns are shared and curricular goals discussed. Then parents of a single batch are brought together to discuss something relevant to the age group. I always complain that many of these sessions become criticisms of modern parenting methods and laments on current lifestyles and not much constructive emerges.

This time was different as the session was conducted by E K Shaji from Jodo Gyan, an exemplary non-funded, non-profit organization that focuses on making math fun for kids. They work with kids in government schools and train teachers at some private schools including Shikshantar, which is a liberal institution, one of very few in perhaps the entire country that isn’t scared to break the mold and act in the true interests of children.

Shaji is an entertaining teacher, using humor, drama, narration and discipline in equal measure to hold his audience. He demonstrated simple ways to teach grade 3 kids the concepts of fractions and multiplication.

Here is some stuff that struck me particularly:

  • Concept of math for children is totally different from the adult conception of math
  • The entire objective of primary school math education should be to make children fall in love with math
  • To make kids understand math, it has to be set in a familiar context and have some emotional content. Also, the problem has to be worth solving. He demonstrated by narrating a story of a kid who loves cake going to another child’s birthday. There he finds several tables, each with identical cakes on them, but with different numbers of people, 3, 5, 7, 9 seated at each table…Where does he sit? I tried it at home and bang on…the kids knew the table with the least number of people would mean you get the biggest piece of cake! Ingenious :)
  • Challenge is what drives kids to learn. The idea to expand their horizons and make them see the limitlessness of math, not give them repetitive problems to solve…..

Shaji emphasized the role of practice in being able to develop math skills. He also enlightened us about recent research that shows that even right brained people, previously thought to be not as good at math at the left-brained variety, go on to become brilliant at math if they have good math teachers during pre-primary schooling.

Essentially, the foundations of good math are being laid in nursery and kindergarten, through conceptual clarity. I picked up a couple of Jodo toys yesterday for Aadyaa who is 4 and I’ve had several at home for Udai as well. They are simple and allow young children to make endless patterns, strengthen their fine motor skills, make connections and have a lot of fun while at it. Its like having many variations of Lego-type blocks (which I think are the best ever toys for kids!).

Kids make patterns, learn basic counting, motor skills are developed in fitting and pushing out the circles.....

An assortment of shapes in different colors and sizes....helps understand shapes, size, scale, pattern making....An astounding fact from Jodo Gyan's research: Majority of kids in Indian schools said a square standing on a corner was no longer a square; 16% thought the length of the side had changed!

For grade 3, they have games focused on place value, fractions, multiplication, division…strengthening concepts that are essential to moving to more abstract mathematics and algebra in middle school.

We spent our Sunday at home playing another math game, that coincidentally my mum got back with her from a recent trip to the Netherlands (that’s where one of the institutes that collaborated with Jodo Gyan is based; 55% of their content is adapted from R&D in Netherlands, Scandinavia and Belgium). I played Rummikub too as a child and it’s great for developing the concept of sequences and its super family entertainment. Like Scrabble, it will challenge all age groups. In the first round today, Udai seemed to be just abut getting comfortable, but I predict many hours will be spent playing Rummikub in the soon-to-commence summer vacations!

All racking our brains....Amma, Rahul, Udai

Ma as well...Aadyaa on the other hand, is busy waking up zoo animals on the ipad :)

 

Warning consumers, driving away listeners on FM radio- Apr 28, 2012

FM radio station 92.7 has been making long public announcements informing listeners about cases they have filed against media and advertising companies that have not paid them huge sums of money after using airtime on behalf of their customers. In one case, the agency’s customers are a long list of real estate developers. Yes those same guys who hogged all radio advertising at their peak in the pre 2008 era and from time to time since!
The announcements go out in legal sounding Hindi in a somber tone. They hog several minutes of airtime and even patient listeners like me are left wondering how long they are to wait for their best set of favourite Hindi film oldies, for that is the staple this station plays. For most people I know, the announcements simply means they switch to the next station! So while I empathise about the many millions lost and I hope the wrongdoers are taught a lesson, I don’t quite see how this sort of thing makes business sense if it drives away listeners!

Of malls, empty ones and those that entertain! Apr 27, 2012

A few days ago, I decided to park in the basement of a new, large mall in Gurgaon. When I say new, I guess it must be a year old. We give retail spaces a long birthing period here in Gurgaon now. Earlier, no sooner than a mall opened, shops would mushroom inside and it would become the latest hip destination for people from within and outside the city to hang out in, mostly without purpose!

So this ‘new’ mall, which is called MGF Mega City Mall and has Lifestyle as its anchor tenant along with SPAR Hypermarkets, looks like this…..

We (Aadyaa and me on our way to the building next door that houses our bank!) come out of the elevator, cannot find the exit, there are no people to ask….you get the drift!

Here on Sohna Road, where I live, they continue to build retail space. A short stretch of about 3 kms now has 4 malls, only one of them with any decent level of occupancy. Its a depressing situation and I avoid going to malls like the plague (except to watch movies, because there is nowhere else to watch them!)!

Last Friday, a few of us families took our kids to the set of malls at Vasant Kunj. We did the very mall-y things like rides in the kiddie amusement center, spent time at the play area, walk around aimlessly, eat, check out the loos! I have to admit it was fun, mostly because of the company and because the malls had open shops in them, and people! Duh!

Mishu and Myrah enjoying the car experience!

Udai waiting for the roller coaster ride to begin...

Aadyaa driving a stationery car and Myrah in the back seat

Aadyaa climbing, papa watching....roz ki kahaani :)

Hey Hansa! What're you doing in there?

 

Rampant redevelopment of Delhi’s residential colonies cannot be the sole mode of housing supply -Apr 26, 2012

I walked through Pamposh Enclave in south Delhi today, a route we take often to get to our office in Greater Kailash Enclave. An astonishing number of private homes in this quiet, sleepy residential colony are being torn down to be replaced by larger, higher, swankier builder floors (commonly used term for the conversion of a single family home into a set of apartments, usually three or six depending on the size of the plot).
Something fundamental is changing in these localities. Built perhaps in the 70s, Pamposh (which means lotus) was an enclave of migrants from Kashmir. These Kashmiri Brahmins imbued the place with the elegance and charm of their community, which largely comprises highly educated people, many of them doctors. The edges of the colony abut major roads and have already seen commercial development in the last decade, but of late the redevelopment mania has reached its innermost lanes. Two major changes are immediately seen. The increasing density achieved by replacing one or two families with a minimum of three brings more traffic and poses a greater load on infrastructure. The increase in volume and height dwarves the trees and changes the experience of walking and living here. The buildings bear down on you now, whereas they appeared receded before.
The other thing hard to miss is the new aesthetic that uses wood, glass and steel as its vocabulary. As blind an aping of modern architecture as we see in the pseudo Greek and pseudo Gothic elements in homes around the city.
You see a seemingly more professional approach to construction (cordoned off sites with large logos of construction companies and developers) co-exist with sites that follow the most primitive practices (mixing cement haphazardly in small basins, slathering plaster willy nilly, etc).
It is alarming that a city as large as Delhi has this type of redevelopment as the only type of housing supply to its middle and high income groups. A much scaled down and poor quality form of the same accommodates Delhi’s swelling numbers of low income residents in urban villages and unauthorised colonies! And then there is the mushrooming of satellite towns (Gurgaon, Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad) that are growing so fast they are unsustainable and barely liveable!
This city cannot go on like this. Urban land that exists within city limits desperately needs to be freed ( through densification, reasoning, etc) to allow for a more sensible housing supply scenario. The government needs to think this through and develop a vision for Delhi that takes in the needs and desires of its citizens. They say Delhi belongs to those with a heart (Dilli dilwaalon ki) and our hearts do not deserve to be broken!

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Social prejudices are rarely broken by rational explanations: Vicky Donor makes a brave attempt! Apr 25, 2012

Let me tell you at the outset that I am biased here. Vicky Donor has been written by Juhi Chaturvedi, first cousin to my closest friend Nupur. Juhi was a role model for us when we were in senior school in Lucknow. She was studying art and everything she did was cool; her photography and her dark room, her paintings fascinated us tremendously. She was driven, even then. Later, Juhi and me bonded over the fact that our baby girls are about five weeks apart in age and I would hear stories of her struggles with managing motherhood and two careers, her advertising one and her scriptwriting one- a superwoman, no doubt!

Last night, as I watched Vicky Donor, her first script to make it to the silver screen, I could only think about the toil it must have taken to make it this far-the sacrifice, the hard work, the points of conflict and low self confidence she must have been through to finally be able to bask in the warm light of success. Way to go, Juhi!

Coming back to to the film, it deals with the subject of sperm donation. In the course of the film, the script moves the subject from a taboo, unspeakable issue to Vicky’s family appreciating what he has done for humanity, the gift he has given childless couples, etc. The film is well-researched and intends to get people thinking about a subject rarely on anyone’s horizon; but I doubt social prejudices are broken so easily.

In India, and in other conservative societies, issues related to sex and fertility are sensitive subjects. The cycle of life dictates that women are meant to bear children. The fertility of men is rarely questioned, even though low sperm count is becoming common thanks to the stresses of modern, urban life, the onset of lifestyle diseases, higher incidence of cancer among younger people, etc. Add to that the growing number of dysfunctional marriages. Yet, couples dream of having children; not always because they genuinely love kids and want their own, but because of social pressures to show the world theirs is a normal, ‘complete’ family.

Another reason why sperm donation is particularly repulsive to Indians is because in ayurveda (first seen in writings around 600BC), conservation of semen (or virya) is considered essential to maintain masculine strength and health. The loss of the fluid is considered debilitating and believed to drain away well-being and wastage of semen is considered a reason for many sexual malfunctions, including impotence. With this baggage, it would take a lot for a nation that is reluctant to donate blood fearing loss of strength, to be all right with donating semen!

It’s a complex issue, and its heartening that the medical community thinks attitudes have changed in the past few years. Men in childless marriages are slowly coming forward to accept donated sperm. Experts, however, say that it is not donated sperm but intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) or in-vitro fertilization, in which a single sperm is injected directly into one egg, that is the way forward for men with low sperm counts to father children. There is, I hear, an even greater demand for donor eggs, which is an even more loaded issue. How will society accept a woman donating her eggs to help childless couples? It could go either way. Personally, I think women being perceived as givers of life, it should be an easier pill to swallow, but its controversial, I agree.

All in all, kudos to Juhi and Shoojit (and John) for tackling a tough subject. Amid the laughs and the songs (which I thought were rather redundant and actually made an otherwise pacy film lose its momentum), it would be worth it if the film makes even a tiny chink in the attitudes of Indians and towards taboo subjects!

Inspiring stories about innovation in the local context- Apr 24, 2012

It’s always heartening to read stories about win-win situations. Here are a couple of heart-warming stories that tell of the innovation possible in a local context. A highly developed sense of community as well as dedicated city governments can change a lot, especially in terms of impacting quality of life!

#1 Incentive to recycle and support local produce: Mexico City

An initiative where citizens can use points from recycling waste to buy fresh produce from farms around the city

Read here

Quote I picked: “Collecting and sorting recyclables is already a big business in some developing countries, but it’s not a habit for many households.”

My take: True enough for India, famous for the kabadiwalas and ragpickers, yet failing miserably in recycling and segregating household waste….

#2 Of Love Affairs and mangroves: Phillipines

The city organized weddings for those who cannot afford it themselves, in exchange for the couple planting mangroves to restore the city’s wetlands!

Read here

Quote I picked: “Since the Love Affair event started in 2003, more than 800,000 mangrove shoots have been planted, giving the area an uncommon green curtain when viewed from sea.”

My take: It is this kind of engagement that integrates social need with environmental need that really spells success. I rue this lack of innovation among local governments in India.

 

While we judge foreigners writing on India harshly, Indians writing on India can be hypocritical as well! Apr 23, 2012

Patrick French, author of ‘India: A portrait’ wrote an enlightening piece in this Sunday’s Hindustan Times. He wonders why the Indian establishment of writers and critics is so touchy about foreigners writing or expressing themselves about India, when the same bunch are happy to be feted and accepted in the international media?

To me, the touchiness that Indians exhibit has always struck me as a peculiar trait. We simply have no sense of humor, especially when the joke is on us. That is true of Indians as individuals as much as it is true of us as a society, as a nation. So it isn’t surprising that we are sensitive about what people of foreign origin write/think/say about us, while we feel at liberty to create and believe in stereotypes (and make fun of these!) about the rest of the world.

However, the piece really got me thinking about Indian writings about India. There is this particular type of writing that is about India, but very obviously caters to a foreign audience. The type that picks on the quirks and then explains them in a terribly simplistic fashion. And the type that caricatures a very specific situation, but makes it sound like a norm. The type that paints India in a deliberately negative or ridiculously positive light for dramatic effect alone. I am all for artistic license and freedom of expression, but when you read stuff that is being written with the obvious thought of packaging it for those who do not know India first hand, exploiting the fact that India is a hot flavor in the international market and there is tremendous curiosity for things Indian, it gets a bit much! For those of us who live here and can see through the gimmicks in these books, they can be a humiliating experience.

And where is the category of Indian writers who live here, but write in the global context? Because India sells easy, do we writers in India not bother to step outside the context we are familiar with and create characters and narratives set in other geographical and cultural contexts? Are we then scared of the criticism, the quality of our research? Are we defensive as well?

The strange episode of the driver who ran wild- Apr 22, 2012

My family has been through a strange experience this past week. We’ve had the same driver for near on five years. He’s from Pataudi, a tall, wiry young man, always smiling and enthusiastic, resourceful and agile. He started working for us as a bachelor and we’ve seen his ups and downs and shared them, in a sense- his marriage, two kids, run-ins with his parents and his brother, the usual travails of life! Just as he has seen ours, my daughter’s birth, moving house, panicky drives to hospitals, birthday celebrations and the like. It’s been a relationship. We’ve always trusted him, even with our children, and to be fair, he’s never really broken that trust.

Why am I telling you all this? Because one fine day, about a week ago, things changed all of a sudden. He had an altercation with a security person in the apartment complex. There were fisticuffs, I had to intervene and talk to the security supervisor, who agreed to sort the matter out if the driver apologized. Well, he simply refused to do so!

Not just that. He lay outside the gate in wait and, aided by some friends, beat up the opponent after working hours the same evening! We heard of all this the next morning and of course, we had to consider him fired, since there was no way he would be allowed to work in our complex again.

If you thought the matter ended there, you’re wrong. While we were trying to make sense of his unexpected behavior (we actually thought he staged all this to escape paying us back the money we had loaned him; someone even told us he had landed a better job with Reliance and had nothing to lose, etc), he did the even more unexpected. He stole a bike from a neighboring apartment complex and tried to frame someone else by entering a faux name and number in the register. Unfortunately for him, CCTV cameras caught him in the act of driving out the bike and now he is on the run from the police!

Of course, we are carrying on as usual. There is a new driver in place and life goes on, but it shakes me up to think someone I trusted so much and who played a significant role in our lives ended up being a criminal! What had driven him to do this, I wonder? A fit of madness, a vendetta of some some sort, desperate need for money….could be anything! And us? We’re getting visits from the police, we’re being told to be careful..of what, I have no idea!

I wonder if the guy had been a friend or colleague and not a driver, would I so easily have dropped him from my life, not called, not tried to find out what drove him to this? ‘Don’t mess with the locals’, they say, here in Gurgaon, Haryana. This is a city where a 16-year old boy got kidnapped and sodomized in broad daylight two days ago! Where women get raped and assaulted and the police make absurd statements about their character instead of making the city safer. This is a city where its hard to trust…Yet, I feel bad for giving up on him…yet, I know there is precious little I can do here, but let things go…..and forget he existed.

And you know what, we do not have a single picture of him…after knowing him for five years…such are the manifestations of the class divides we practice, knowingly and unknowingly every day…..

Contrasting perceptions: A rising India and the ‘real’ reality of poverty- April 21, 2012

A reader’s comment on my post about Pune and its quaint bakeries got me thinking. The reader liked the post because it showed a positive, exciting side of India instead of the endless portrayal of the slums! A few days ago, my nearly eight-year old son Udai was wading through a pile of National Geographic back issues, in pursuit of some information for a school project. He came across a map depicting the world’s population by income; this was the issue about the world population reaching 7 billion. So Udai stared and stared and looked quite aghast. For the first time, he realized that India, compared to the rest of the world, was a poor to middle income nation. He also observed that there were only very tiny parts of the word (Europe and coastal strips in the US) that were very high income. And that Africa was the only part of the world that was poorer than India.

It is hard for children raised in privileged, urban families in India to perceive of our nation as poor. Even though they see the beggars and the slums, they also see an overwhelming bombardment of visual and audio information that portrays a bunch of upwardly mobile people buying stuff, going on vacations and having endless fun! In India, for Indians, the image of India as a nation progressing and developing is the image we filter out as the one we want to see. For the rest of the world, the poor, slummy image is what represents India. What a contrasting way to look at one reality!

Poverty is a harsh reality. No matter what the Planning Commission defines as poverty lines (and there is a raging debate about that), there is no doubt that the present and future of millions of people is in jeopardy because they are poor, with little opportunity to break that poverty spiral and access essentials like nutrition and education.

When I took my kids into the slums during the execution of the Jalti Jhopdi project in Gurgaon, I did so deliberately. To show them this other reality, the more real reality, so to speak. People often ask me what I aspire for my children. I have absolutely no pre-conceived notion of what I would want to see them do as adults, but I hope they will be sensitive people. If I were to push myself and zero down, there are two streams I would be happy for my kids to follow. One is the arts; to me, to be true to your art is to be truly free and give meaning to life, yours and that of others! I can see myself being very proud of any child of mine who is a practitioner of creativity (any sort will do-writing, painting music, dance, theater, puppetry…am not choosy!) The other is to be be in professions in which they can make a real difference to the lives of the poor, the underprivileged and the downtrodden.

I know this is dangerous. To pen this down is to set expectations for them, but I had these thoughts and I cannot deny them either!