Blog Archives

Keep the faith! In support of 17000ft’s incredible efforts in #education

My life is truly enriched by a few passionate friends. I’m not only driven by their energy and dedication as seen through Facebook updates and media coverage. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in their journey, be the listening ear to their struggles and sometimes, like now, a helping hand as well. Take the case of 17000ft Foundation, started by Sujata Sahu and Sandeep Sahu.

Sujata and Sandeep were my next door neighbours. In the the two years or so that we shared a floor, I was thrilled to be occasionally admitted into the fun and frolic in their menagerie of a house (5 kids, 2 dogs, and some more in the nooks and corners). Somewhere between the chatting and eating and drinking (oh yes!), we discovered a shared passion for the social sector and I saw in my friends a will to change the status quo that most of us simply accept.

Both of them were passionate trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts and I remember envying Sujata her solo trek in Ladakh. Then the flash floods happened there and talk changed into action. Sujata, then a teacher at Shriram School, ably partnered by Sahu, plunged into Mission Julley. I’ve written before (read here) about how they came in with a refreshingly practical perspective to ‘aid’, throwing existing systems out of the window and adopting a hands-on approach that directly and effectively reached remote communities. By the end of this endeavor, the duo was hooked. Despite all odds, they decided to look at transforming the experience of schoolchildren in the remote areas of Ladakh. 17000ft was born!

From mapping schools in the State to bringing in infrastructure, from setting up libraries to training teachers, 17000ft Foundation has worked hard to bring meaningful and practical value additions to how Ladakhi children learn. They also run a successful Voluntourist Program that helps bring a little revenue to the Foundation, but more importantly, leverages on the enthusiasm and knowledge of trekkers and vacationers to contribute to the development of this remote mountainous region.

Sujata and Sahu, at a remote village in Lingshed, a quiet moment after a 7 day project to trek to a school where they setup a library and provided furniture

Sujata and Sandeep Sahu at a remote school in Lingshed, Ladakh

Breathtaking, but so so far. This is a school with only 14 children!

Breathtaking, but so so far. This is a school with only 14 children!

This school has 19 kids

This school has 19 kids

The last mile connectivity - 1 day drive, 2 days on horseback and the final mile by the students as they carry their desks and charis into the school

No mean task!  Furniture took a day’s drive and 2 days on horseback from Leh to reach this school. In the pic, students carry their desks and chairs into the school

Pleased as punch! Teachers pose with their new library. They were as eager to read as the kids were!

Pleased as punch! Teachers pose with their new library. They were as eager to read as the kids were!

Kids posing at a school in Chushul on the China border

Kids posing at a school in Chushul on the China border

High connect is essential to succeeed. 1700ft works with schools that are small in size but spread over a large difficult region

High connect is essential to succeed. 1700ft works with schools that are small in size but spread over a large difficult region

17000ft, which already reaches out to 25,000 schoolchildren and covers Leh district is now expanding to Kargil district as well. Behind the success of 17000ft, I know, has been the anxiety and toil of its founders, who have braved personal uncertainties and risks to make this possible. Like any other not-for-profit, funding challenges and the need for recognition are two sides of the same coin and I see Sujata and Sandeep struggling to keep that coin in circulation even as they work on logistics and operations on a day-to-day basis. Sujata pinged me on Facebook Messenger yesterday with an astute obervation. “More than anything else, people need to talk about and write about the not for profits they know,” she said. “It’s not just about visibility and funding, endorsements helps me keep the faith, something I’m in the danger of losing every now and then.” I, for one, am not about to let Sujata lose her faith!

Help 17000ft keep the faith!

While I do my bit by blogging about their incredible work, Nalina Suresh, a friend and ardent supporter of 17000ft has been running marathons to raise funds for the Foundation’s work. On the 23rd of this month, she is running the Delhi Airtel Half Marathon for this cause as well. Click here to donate and help build libraries for schools in Kargil!

To remain connected, do like their FB page and follow them on Twitter

Advertisements

Let’s try non-judgemental ways to engage with young people

I find it curious that Orhan Pamuk features as sixth in a list of authors young Indian urban readers intend to read in the near future, after Chetan Bhagat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amish Tripathi, Charles Dickens and JK Rowling, in that order. I do not know what that aberration means (I see Dickens as one too, but can still be explained by a classic hangover!) and whatever little Indrajit Hazra’s article in August 4th’s Hindustan Times (the survey is conducted by partner C-Fore) publishes is not offering clues either.

The events of the past few months have made me change my views of how I see the world around me. Like the Chandravanshis in Amish’s Shiva trilogy, I now accept that each human lives in his or her alternate reality. The reading preferences of the youth are an alternate reality that we snobbish literature enthusiasts may scoff at, but it is a reality nevertheless. Hazra offers explanations even as he looks down on these reading choices, telling us that the Indian market is going through a phase before it inevitable matures into a more evolved market that presumably will prefer more refined literature. He implies that it is important to be able to consume more thought-provoking literature, for “we are what we read”.

Sure, we are. But then, we are a young nation of wannabes. We are in a constant flux of identity–developing or undeveloped, rural or urban, lower middle class or upper, young or mature, traditional or modern, confident or uncertain, and so on and so forth. Young people have to negotiate complex relationships with themselves, peers, family and society. Young people are fundamentally different in the way they consume, process and engage with information and remarkably astute about the way they see the world around them. Yet, as has been so effectively put forth in the recently published ‘The Ocean in a Drop: Inside-out Youth Leadership’ authored by Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran, Kamini Prakash and Arjun Shekhar, the opinions of the youth apparently don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. We are not interested in understanding young people and their aspirations and worse, we are seriously afraid of placing decision-making in their hands. We prefer to see them as consumers and part of the workforce. We forget that they can be effective change-makers as well. We, the elders, hold the reigns. We expect too little from young people.

Then how can we blame them if their reading preferences are not up to snuff? It is unfair, isn’t it, to provide measured inputs, to box the thoughts of young people into regimented education systems, to prepare for a life whose purpose is to produce and consume, and then to judge them about their lack of interest in art and literature? Or indeed, about their lack of values or disinterest in serving society, accusations that I have heard often enough!

I observe a curious mixture of over-confidence and under-confidence among young people. On one hand, they can conquer the world, being confident of aspects like new technology that fall squarely in their domain. On the other hand, they are constantly searching for identity and trying to grasp the soft skills and the right attitudes that they instinctively know will serve as the icing on the cake in their pursuit for material success. The latter explains why genres like self-improvement, health and spiritual are so popular.

I am, however, heartened to read that 37% respondents read authors other than those six listed in the beginning of the article, showing variety. Entertainment (38%) features as the most significant reason to read, followed my ‘Material that makes me think’ (27%), ‘Easy reading’ and ‘Material I can talk about with friends and colleagues’ come in 3rd and 4th (23% and 12%). The motivations are still the good-old ones and that should tell us that things have not changed as drastically for the worse (ouch, there is judgement there!).

Clearly, given the right exposure and guidance, young people can be encouraged to read a wider selection of fiction and non-fiction. We have diversity in genre and language to offer in this country. New technologies have made reading material more accessible than ever before. Perhaps the most fundamental changes we can make is to allow young people more ‘free’ time to read and engage with cultural and creative aspects of life, to expand their minds, so to speak. Also, we must invest in cultural resources to do so- libraries, accessible and affordable spaces and opportunities for the arts to save us from going under the intellectual poverty line Nilanjana Roy so eloquently blogged about recently. I’m sure experts have many more suggestions, but as a parent of two kids aged 9 and 5, these are the two principles that I am actively trying to follow- allow them time and space, and expose them to culture and creativity. Let’s see how it goes!

Eat ‘n Read fun at Kitab Khana, Bombay

The second of my posts on Mumbai’s eating out experiences, this lunch was very different from the afternoon spent at LPQ. It’s right next to Flora Fountain, this treasure called Kitab Khana, a bookshop and cafe, the best of both worlds of reading and eating, housed inside a 150 year old heritage building._DSC8254

Run by the Somaiyas, who own the building as well, the shop was a treat to walk into. As an architect, I was fascinated and proceeded to ask a zillion questions and take many pictures. I learnt about the seepage problems the building has, the problems of renting out heritage spaces and the sheer amount of money and effort it takes to maintain a shop like this. Yet, in the manager’s eyes I saw the pride and the sheer love for what he does. The staff is old-world and affectionate, as I found out from the little chit-chats they had with the kiddos.

The bookshop has a gallery upstairs as well to browse in. Lovely!

The bookshop has a gallery upstairs as well to browse in. Lovely!

Catching up amidst heaps of books...

Catching up amidst heaps of books…

Column close up

Column close up

The girls got those little books with quotes....thrilled and comparing notes!

The girls got those little books with quotes….thrilled and comparing notes!

The cafe is small, but served an excellent selection of pastas, sandwiches, salads and desserts (couscous salad and blueberry cheesecake recommended). We were catching up with dear family friends and Aadyaa had spent the entire morning with them. Though the lunch was planned so that we could get Aadyaa back with us, she had had so much fun with her new-found friend Radha that she went right back home with them! The cafe at Kitab Khana seemed like an extension of home and the two girls danced, sang and chatted their way through the meal. For the rest of us, it was catch-up time as well. For Udai, it was  serious food time and he also had the opportunity to buy the next book in the Percy Jackson series. That one needs his reading fuel to be uninterrupted, or else we are in trouble!

Dancing, singing, eating all at the same time..

Dancing, singing, eating all at the same time..

Color me yellow!! Me, Juhi, Rachna.. photo credit: Udai

Color me yellow!! Me, Juhi, Rachna and the superb aam panna.. photo credit: Udai

The bookshop seem through the cafe openings...do not ask me what Udai is doing here!

The bookshop seem through the cafe openings…do not ask me what Udai is doing here!

Hands up for dessert!

Hands up for dessert!

Nupur, amused

Nupur, amused

Contemplation time

Contemplation time

A little nook above the cafe for the little ones

A little nook above the cafe for the little ones

Blueberry cheescake, Rachna bossy's awesome nail colour...things that fascinate Udai?

Blueberry cheescake, Rachna bossy’s awesome nail colour…things that fascinate Udai?

Enjoying the direct simplicity in Jeffrey Archer’s writing: Clifton Chronicles

I can be a literary snob, turning up at my nose at people who read Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steele. But I have my bestseller favorites as well. Jeffrey Archer certainly is one. A master story teller, he never fails to create stories that keep you hooked. I finished reading ‘Only Time Will Tell’, the first book of the Clifton Chronicles on Diwali day. Amid all the madness of Diwali, I found myself stealing time to take in a few pages. What is it that makes some books so addictive and engrossing?

Archer’s formula appears, to me, to play on our close identification with certain values that we consider admirable, that evoke warmth within us. Values and traits like moral uprightness, bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, humility and I could go on and on, conform to our sense of ‘right’ or ‘good’. Archer creates a central character who is disadvantaged in some way (in this case, Harry Clifton is a fatherless, poor child). Then he builds another set of characters who play key roles in helping the hero overcome his difficulties (in this book, he uses the character of Harry’s mother to deliver a strong commentary on motherhood, female strength and the ability for the poorest and weakest to dream big). The negative character in the story is also human, in the sense that his scheming and meanness are all born out of certain explainable circumstances and of course, that famous English concept of ‘weak character’.

Add to this compelling set of people who push all our right emotional buttons, Archer sets a strong historical and social context. The 2nd World War is about to begin while the English are still reeling from the people they lost in the first. The play off between the upper class and working class backgrounds of the people in the book adds layers to the story (friends, lovers, colleagues from the two opposite ends of the social spectrum) and people everywhere in the world can relate to the conflicts this sort of situation creates.

And finally, Archer absolutely excels in using simple English, sticking to short sentence constructions but never boring the reader. In fact, brevity is something I really admire in him for we know too many authors who ramble on and on! Cannot wait to get my hands on the 2nd book.

Crossed 20,000 views on this blog today! Aug 22, 2012

20,084 to be precise at the time I write this. To be frank, I didn’t know or think of what this meant until I recently saw someone on twitter getting all excited about crossing 10,000 views. I swiftly looked at my WordPress stats page and saw a figure of nineteen thousand something…then I began to get excited about this.

My attitude towards my blog is mostly to churn it out everyday and be true to what is top of the mind on each day. But I will not deny writing everyday has done wonders to my self-confidence. Page reads and comments, likes on Facebook do drive me to write. No, I do not see likes as a sign of loyalty by my friends. I am lucky to know people who will actually like only what they like. But its given me a lot of insights on people. I am often pleasantly surprised by reactions. For instance, I didn’t know a certain friend felt so deeply about parenting, or another someone loved music so much and was indeed a singer herself!

Many a time, I am corrected by a reader for factual errors or judgements made on erroneous or one-sided information. That kind of reaction gives me a lot of encouragement because it tells me that some people read my blog closely, not skimming down the length of it but actually evaluating what I have to say.

Negative or positive, reactions boost my self esteem immensely, as a writer and as a person. Today someone gave a very backhanded compliment. He said, “You’ve kept your standard. Your writing is hasn’t deteriorated at all!” I was proud I felt not a flicker of annoyance! And that’s the best thing I’ve got out of my blog. An ability to see humor in everything, an ability to observe the details, a keener sense of the life I am living. For those of you who feel like life is a haze, try blogging! You might find you have something very worthwhile to say.

Swapping books and other fun stuff in the spirit of green! April 1, 2012

Today’s afternoon was well spent at Gurgaon’s Rajiv Gandhi Renewable Energy Park attending a unique event that called upon us to carry our old books there, swap them and participate in a range of workshops geared at promoting a more sustainable and enriched lifestyle.

For me, the event was a super success. I managed to give away 45 books of mine (and mum’s) that occupied space on the shelf (I chose ones I didn’t enjoy too much or the one-time read variety, but all in good condition). In return, I got to choose 11 other books I haven’t yet read!

I didn’t go in expecting much and was pleasantly surprised to see the event was well organized, using volunteers from the city (who all wore green!). Things were kept super simple. For example, swaps were done by giving contributors simple hand written chart paper coupons which they needed to hand over to the volunteer at the desk from where you picked up the books you wanted to take away (one coupon for each book you could get). Similarly we got a coupon for each workshop we had pre-registered for. My children both attended a story telling session. And Udai learnt to make a bird house at another workshop which he attended with his grandmother and another friend. Other workshops included drawing, art appreciation, theatre  and creating stuff from waste material. A lot of parents we already knew happened to be there and the children were happy, despite the heat, in the wide open spaces and greenery that the campus offers. Aadyaa ran around, tried all the swings and was her usual monkey self!

I was heartened to see that a lot of the books sent in as well as picked up were for children. The event swarmed with kids of all ages, especially many teenagers. A few kids managed to read the books they picked up during the event and reswap them before they left! In fact, the event was free of charge and a lot of stress free and clean fun for all age groups. A great way to subtly send across messages that remind us to respect nature, indulge our creative side, do our bit to conserve energy and simply be more responsible human beings. Events like this go a long way in building a community of interested citizens. Kudos to the organizers for the efforts and hope for many more….

Books waiting to be taken home...the system was simple. You sorted the books by genre into boxes at the counter you drop them at, then they appear at another table to be picked up!

Workshops were organized by experts- enjoyable and well attended

And the book is to consumed with immediate effect-Aadyaa with Nani!

And there was an entire park of swings and jungle gyms right there....

Dadi, Serena and Udai make a bird house

 

Mixed feelings of delight and disgust @ World Book Fair, Delhi- Feb 28, 2012

So I finally made it to the book fair today, with mum. It was heartening to see the sprawling, enormous fair spread over many halls bustling with families, kids in tow. With nani and mumma wanting to buy kiddie books, we headed straight for Hall No 14, where the children’s book were supposed to be.

However, instead of seeing colorful story books and delightful fantasy, we were confronted with rows and rows of stalls displaying:

1- Bizarre, technical books and charts that would help your child practice cursive writing, read the alphabet better, learn the tables better, learn names of fruits, vegetables, animals and so on and so forth

Grammar, phonics, quiz, cursive writing- What, is your child not the best yet? Buy, buy!

2- Knowledge enhancing category of books ranging from plain boring to creative, curriculum related to the extra knowledge and trivia variety, many many books on science math and general knowledge particularly

3- E-learning software- We saw a screen with a voice that drones “billi, c-a-t cat, this is a cat”, with the picture of a, well, cat! We saw a stall where smart execs counseled (read gave them the spiel!!) parents about the merits of giving their children more exposure via their online programs, CD-ROMs etc. The parents looked completely zonked as if they were getting life’s gyaan and the kiddos were knee-high in most cases!

Parents begging to be conned, in my opinion

The sight of the above terrified me today. What are we wanting to turn our children into? What is this crazed competitive society we have created where kids barely out of diapers are expected to fill scores of cursive writing booklets and fill color into outlines of various objects and toon characters till eternity; then move on to solving puzzles, go through personality development modules, memorize general knowledge and trivia by rote, do math using a confusing array of techniques…and much, much more? Why are parents so paranoid? It’s not that these books and technologies aren’t necessary, but the sheer volume of labels, brands creating these had me stumped and the quality was mostly questionable, at first glance, with some exceptions of course.

I spoke with a sales manager with one e-learning stall who was giving me the ‘kids need exposure’ story. Kids already have so much exposure, I told him. What is wrong with growing up with less aids and more creativity using simple things like blocks, books, free art? Isn’t it all, ultimately, to sell your stuff? He gave up and grinned and waved me away! I was, in his head, the crazed, irresponsible parent, bent on leaving my kids in the dark ages!

Another thing that disturbed me was the emphasis on math and sciences and precious little focus on the social sciences, life skills, all round development for kids (the personality development modules did not inspire confidence; again, they looked like a con job to me!). After seeming to have come a long way, we middle class urban Indians are still stuck in the ‘sciencies are best, artsies are the losers’ trap..very sad indeed.

Lastly, the children’s fiction I saw confirmed my fears that we live in a firmly gender-divided world, from about age ten onwards. Except for classics like Ruskin Bond and Kipling, the new books were (mostly) geeky and techy and macho for the guys and flowery pink ‘n purple for the girls. Utterly disgusting, to say the least!

Genders firmly divided-flowers, butterflies and angels vs monsters, superheroes and giants- disgusting!

The stalls from Katha, Pratham, National Book Trust and some others were a saving grace and we managed to haul up a bunch of delightful books for both Udai and Aadyaa. The Indian publications are real value for money; the foreign ones often not worth the crazy prices!

As for us, we feasted on the Rupa and Penguin stalls and came home loaded with a satisfying haul of books for the entire family 🙂

Mum browsing

Fun elements like this orange Ambi and cheerful, helpful staff made Penguin's stall the most appealing to me

%d bloggers like this: