Alternative Schools

A Krishnamurti School concerns itself with education of the total human being. Knowledge and intellectual capability alone are not sufficient to meet life’s challenges. Learning to enquire, to observe oneself, to relate with other people and the earth, is the core intention of the school.

Towards the end of last year, Uttara asked me to share my thoughts on my early education in India. We both went to Krishnamurti schools which are Alternative/Progressive schools in India that were really ahead of their time and she wrote an incredibly detailed blog post about the landscape.

I didn’t have a lot of time since I was just starting my crazily intense graduate program, so I sent her a quick note which she reproduced in it’s entirety. Here it is –


– sense of self; not defined by the crowd. they really encourage this. it is awesome

– respect for authority, but a good amount of disdain for it as well. they used to allow us to walk out of class if we wanted. it goes to #1 as well.

– learned in a non-traditional way – going and examining leaves for science class. walking outside. unheard of in the traditional sense.

– exercise. daily instead of weekly at most regular schools.

– arts and craft – also a lot of exposure to this and very non-traditional stuff. i used to learn how to model in card board, papier mache, photography (at 7/8 years old). i mean, seriously, they made this part of the education, not something that was tacked on because it had to be.

– singing – lots of singing. singing classes, singing bhajans, singing carols. it was awesome.

– it just felt free and enjoyable. i used to love to go to school. i used to cry if i couldn’t go. now, there’s a reversal if there ever was one.


– unfortunately we live in a world where competition exists. where public exams exist. where there are, in fact, losers and winners. so, in this regard, the school was like an unreal bubble.

– it was really bad at preparing students for exams. i finally got taken out of my alternative school at the end of the 6th grade – when the first batch went through their public exams and things didn’t go so well. I went to a regular school with lots of mid-terms and test. i was paralyzed and had no clue how to take these simple little tests.

in retrospect, leaving KFI when i did was the perfect right thing. just like spending my youth there was also the perfect right thing.

I still agree with everything I said to Uttara. In fact, since September, we’ve had to go through the ridiculously gruelling pre-school process for our twin boys in New York City and as I went through the process, I’ve had occasion to think more about my own experience and about a progressive/alternative education. My time at KFI till the 6th grade was the most enjoyable time of my life. I loved school, played every day, had science class under the trees, lived life, loved life. We were really children without a sense of pressure.

I also feel that KFI enhanced my creative side. My love for photography was born there. An incredible teacher taught me photography and made me fall in love with the power of the image. He pushed me, he challenged me and he didn’t treat me like a 3rd grader. It was amazing. I am in film school today in part because of him. So, Damayan Anna, if you are out there somewhere reading this, a huge thank you!

The lack of pressure of academics and constant mind-numbing deliverables is something that you can never find in the real world or in a regular school. If childhood is to be enjoyed why not let children actually have a life where they don’t have to be “realistic” for a the first few years of life?

But herein lies the rub. When do you do the shift and how do you do the shift? Because at some point, whatever said and done, the real world has not come around to seeing things the way of the Progressive educational system. My sense of self and sense of confidence took a real beating when I changed schools. I moved in the 7th grade and went from being carefree and not thinking about “my worth” to being graded in a system I had no clue how to survive in. But fortunately for me, it was early enough before the public exams in the 10th grade. I learned to cope and, slowly, to do well. But in a system that grinds that students, that values different things. Sure you can excel at debates and writing and extracurricular activities, but you also have to be a scholastic machine in a way that the system expects. IF you can be both, you are a super-star. But purely being creative is not enough.

This is not an issue just in India. I recently saw Gotham Gal’s post about her daughter Emily’s angst around the SATs. Emily goes to LREI, a progressive school in Manhattan. In the US, if you go to a City and Country or an LREIs of the world where you are happy and creative but want to go to a college that requires the SAT, the reality of the process hits you because the school so far hasn’t been focused on students learning that way. It’s hard and horrible and Emily articulates the problem well. Fortunately for Emily once she gets through the SAT, she can go to a college that values her abilities and evaluates her the way she’s used to.

The issue is larger in India. In India, when a kid trained in a progressive school meets reality, reality is in the form of the public exams – the national exams that grade students across the country. A huge deal. And then college, where there are no real progressive colleges that I know of. So even if a child goes to a progressive school, at some point, they have to shift their learning method into the “regular” mode. Maybe the progressive schools in India have morphed since I went there to cope with having to deal with the “evaluations” that exist outside. That would be the smart thing to do.

J&G are still very young but it’s something we think about for them. What is the right answer? To me, there’s no question that at a young age, Progressive is the way to go. We managed to get them into a progressive pre-school. But do we shift at some point? Or do we hope that they are natural test takers? Or do we say, “ok, fine, struggle with the SAT, but enjoy school” and that’s that? What if they want to go to college in India? More questions than answers. Will the world move to a more progressive model? Here’s hoping.

SMS instead of voicemail

I’m in India and I have my Indian SIM card in my phone. The thing I don’t have is voicemail. I investigated turning it on, but I got a long and convoluted set of options from the cell phone company that I couldn’t comprehend. So I just lived without it.

I actually love it.When people want to reach you and you’re not picking up, they just send you an SMS and tell you who they are and what the deal is. It is perfect –

You get a message you can read faster than listening to the voicemail.

By default it is pithy instead of a long, rambling message.

The phone number to call back is right there and you don’t have to write it down.

Landlines would have to be enabled to send SMSes in order for this to really work (think doctor’s office or some service provider calling) but I’m a fan of eliminating voicemail as a concept entirely and replacing it with text messages. Once landlines are enabled, I don’t see the downside. Already, companies like Simulscribe transcribe voicemail and send it to you in an email because it is easier and more convenient for people to read the message, thus proving the concept. Eliminating the concept of voicemail entirely would be awesome – one less thing to check.

The one downside to my cell phone service in India is that I don’t have call waiting. And it appears that many people don’t. So if someone is on the other line, you get the busy signal and you have to keep trying or they won’t even know that you tried to reach them.

Oh wait… I guess one could just send them an SMS instead!

Being thankful

Thanksgiving was spent being glued to the computer. Monitoring the #Mumbai twitter stream, tweeting like a maniac and watching NDTV and CNN-IBN online.

It didn’t feel like there was much to be thankful for.

Like so many have said, this felt more personal than any other terror attack. I never spent much time in Bombay before I met R. But Bombay is as much home for him as NY is. He spent a year living and working in the Oberoi Trident and every time we went to India, we went to Bombay. We stayed at the Taj. We stayed at the Oberoi.

The last couple of times we were there it was to contemplate moving to Bombay. I hated the thought of it. I’d just gotten my mind around living in NY and now I had to move to a(nother) dirty, crowded, overwhelming city? No, thank you. I still remember a late night drive from the Oberoi to Oval Maidan to get advice from a friend on how to deal with scary prospect of having to live in Bombay.

Circumstances changed and we never ended up moving to Bombay, but R spent a lot of time there each month. And every time he was there he did a dozen meetings at the Oberoi and the Taj.

Because of the limited time I spent in the city, because of the fact that I’d stayed in the two hotels briefly, because of having eaten at the restaurants, this felt so personal.

But imagine if I had grown up there. Imagine if it was part of my life – woven into the fabric of my being. That’s what it is for a lot of people in Bombay and it is those people and the people who were caught in the nightmare who have the right to feel truly overwhelmed.

When R heard the news, he smsed everyone he knew in Bombay. Almost everyone smsed back. One of our friends did not. So I emailed her just to check in. She emailed back. She’d been a hostage for 11 hours. One line in her email has stayed with me all day and will stay with me for a long time to come – she spent the 11 hours “… waiting to be slaughtered”… But providence in the form of the commandos, or destiny or fate stepped in. She walked out of the Taj alive.

2008 has been an incredibly difficult year personally. One filled with minor and major struggles including a very serious health issue of an immediate family member that we are still dealing with. But this Thanksgiving, there’s actually a lot to be thankful for.

I am thankful my friend is alive and okay.

I am thankful so many were saved in Bombay.

I am thankful R’s trip to Bombay is this week and not last week.

I am thankful that J&G are in my life – adorable and incredible.

I am thankful that we identified the health issue when we did and am hoping and praying the person recovers completely.

I am thankful to have R in my life.

I am thankful for my family and their love.

It is easy to be thankful in a great year. This thanksgiving tested that. But even in the bleakest of times, it is important to me to realize that I am so fortunate. Important to me to pause and appreciate what I have. So even though this post is late, it was something I had to do.

Despite everything going on around us, I hope all of you have a lot to be thankful for as well.

The web’s M.O. (from the Sonal Shah episode)

Apparently the web has gone into shoot first, ask questions later mode. And too damned bad for anyone who stands in the way.

So Obama names his transition team and in it is a South Asian – Sonal Shah. Her bio is impressive –, Goldman Sachs and the founder of a Peacorps-like organization, Indicorps, focused on India.

First – Euphoria.

Then, a scathing article about Shah’s politics – attacking her for being part of the despicable and detestable Hindu far right. But the article does not actually provide any fact-based backup for these claims. Instead it points to the associations of her parents. Guilt by association.

Shah is instantly condemned on blogs and in newsgroups – the very same blogs who would defend Obama against the Rev. Wright association (hmm…) Do any of these people fact check? No. It is left to Sonal’s acquaintances, friends, colleagues, and calmer, saner minds to defend her. A gentleman who started a volunteer organization in Pakistan based on Shah’s Indicorp stated categorically that “Sonal Shah has wanted nothing but the best for Pakistan and its Muslims”. Would that be her approach if she were a Hindu fanatic?

Sonal herself issues a statement denouncing the policies of the Hindu far right and disassociating herself with those policies.

What then? Do the people who jumped on the “oppose Shah” camp apologize? Do they even admit they might have over-reached? Oh no! That would be… too civilized. They offer no apology. They move on.

Could Sonal have been more careful about which groups she associated with her efforts to do real good? Sure and it is a very valid point. By the same token though, those who are ready to tear someone down should be more careful to check the facts.

In this day of instant opinions it is incredibly easy to cause irreparable harm. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?? There are two sides to every story – why not wait to figure out both before hanging someone up to dry?

In the instant and constant news cycle, it sometimes makes sense to wait a while before forming an opinion and publishing it for the world to see.

Saving Languages

TEJGADH, India — In an academy deep in the agrarian countryside of western India, five students were writing briskly in ruled notebooks. They were in their early 20s and newly enrolled, but there was no discounting the gravity of their assignment: When they are finished, the world will have five more documented languages.

This is so positive and exciting. India has been pretty pathetic at archiving her history – museums, libraries, documentaries are all below world standards. That is such a pity given the richness, depth and diversity involved.

Modern India has 22 official languages that are recognized by the Constitution and there are over a thousand dialects. The Adivasis are India’s tribal people. As the younger generation moves to cities and towns, they steep themselves in the prevailing language in order to integrate and survive. But in doing so, the Adivasis are at risk of losing their language as well as their culture.

He created the school, known as the Adivasi Academy, with a burning question on his mind: Why do we wait for cultures to die to memorialize them?

“There is a continent of culture getting submerged, and that’s why I wanted to take the plunge,” Mr. Devy said.

With financing from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic groups, the Adivasi Academy tries to preserve a culture by steeping a new generation of villagers in their own quickly disappearing traditions.

I’m glad Mr. Devy is doing this – just like the world tries to save species from going extinct, we owe ourselves the effort of saving cultures from vanishing. And along the way, the younger generation embraces its heritage…

“If a community has a strong sense of identity and a sense of pride in that identity, it wants to survive and thrive,” Mr. Devy said. “The new economy is important. The old culture is equally important.”

IPL and International Cricket

Cricket has morphed over the years. It started off with Test Cricket – where the game is played over five days. Then came the One Day International – just a day’s worth of play where each side bowls 50 overs. And now the shortest version of the game yet – Twenty20 Cricket where each side bowls 20 overs and the game takes about four hours in total.

All three versions of the game are still played. The purists view Test Cricket as “real” cricket. The One Day International is the most common version of the game and the Cricket World Cup that occurs every four years is based on this format.

Twenty20 Cricket, though, is where all the action is. And this is where cricket is innovating and changing the most. For the first time ever, cricket has introduced a franchise model. India now has a version of the NHL or the NBA – the Indian Premier League (IPL).

There are eight franchises and each one is comprised of both Indian and international cricketers (from Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the West Indies).The IPL’s season is just six weeks long. After that, the player return to their national teams and go back to representing their countries.

Up until now, cricket has always been about national teams competing and so it felt really odd to watch the first game of the IPL. But I quickly got into it.

In normal circumstances, Matthew Hayden (an Australian batsman) whacking a six would be a bad thing since it meant India was being pummeled. But now the crowds go crazy because Hayden is part of the “their” team. It is quite cool really.

I think a huge side benefit of the IPL will be the improved interactions in “regular” international cricket. Crowd behavior, or rather, misbehavior, will hopefully improve. Once you’ve cheered for Matthew Hayden or Andrew Symonds as “your guy”, how can you really boo him  when he represents Australia?

There are also relationships being formed within the teams. When you become friends with someone, you can certainly play against them and be a fierce competitor. But it is very unlikely that you can sledge your friends and cross the line into disgusting behavior. In case things do devolve, as in India’s recent tour of Australia (a low-point in team interactions), there will be multiple relationships than can be leveraged to resolve the situation quickly. Hopefully all the good bonding going on between the players in IPL will ensure that future series are more about the game and less about personnel friction.

IPL – bite-sized cricket with some cool side benefits.

Oh, I am cheering for the Chennai Super Kings, my home team. And at this point, the only undefeated team in the league!!

Double Standards?

Nutjobs of the world, unite! Wait, they already have… unfortunately! It is the turn of our Muslim brethren to step up to plate with the attack on Taslima Nasreen.

Unfortunately, media double standards have also leapt to the fore. And societies… Why aren’t artists and writers and creators of all kinds protesting what happened to Taslima Nasreen? Why aren’t they on the streets in protest? Why is everyone so much quieter now versus when what happened in Baroda?

Why is that? Because she’s not technically Indian? B.S. The Indian government won’t even give her permanent residency when she’s running from a fatwa (shame!)

Because she’s Muslim and her attackers are Muslim? Hmm – minority groups don’t get profiled in the press for their bad behavior any more? If that’s what secularism is about, what a load of bunk!

This is a just as much a violation on the freedom to create as the situation in Baroda. Let’s treat it with the same disdain and disgust, please.

Barkha Dutt has a great piece on this. Thanks to Sepia Mutiny for the tip.

Updated on August 14th

More reactions from Abi, who disagrees and makes some valid points that people have indeed protested this incident. I do agree with Abi that the timing is a bit ridiculous from Barkha Dutt (demanding a reaction within a day). Maybe it takes time to build… maybe people are jaded and tired of protesting all the nutjobs that are floating around… We’ll have to see how things unfold.

MumbaiGirl has more links to bloggers talking about the issue

Insanity in Baroda

I started this post with

There are nutjobs everywhere. Every religion has them. Hindu right-wing nutjobs, Muslim right-wing nutjobs and Christian right-wing nutjobs…

and went on to talk of a Christian University which expelled a student for making a gay film

The poor Hindu nutjobs were feeling left out. So they upped the ante – significantly. Forget expulsion – a BJP leader storms into an exhibit of student works at Fine Arts Faculty, M.S. University, in Baroda and has a student arrested. Final year Masters student Chandramohan was arrested for offending the religious sensibilities of both Hinduism and Christianity.

So, the rest of the students protested brilliantly – by holding an exhibition on the history of erotica in Hindu and Western art. I mean, come on people, have you not seen temple sculpture?? Devas are happily copulating – it is fantastic!!! A celebration of life, for god’s sake (or for God’s sake?) It is one of the things that I think is so cool about temple architecture – that it deals with real life. Of course this exhibit is shut down as well.

Artists around the country are showing their solidarity with Chandramohan and the Dean of the college, who refused to back down (you go, Dean!).

  • The chronology is detailed here.
  • Read Ranjit Hoskote and Gulammohammed Sheikh’s thoughts here.
  • And the images that caused all of this are here and here.

Here’s my way of giving these right-wing nutjobs the bird – an image by another beleaguered artist – M. F. Husain.