Hey, Mr. Teacher!

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a couple of school mates and one of my high school teachers. She happened to be one of my favorites in senior school and taught me Political Science – a subject I dreaded till I took her classes! (I’ll come to that later.) It was indeed lovely meeting her after so many years (close to two decades, I’d imagine!) – you know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you meet certain people.

Anyhow, she hadn’t changed much – she was just as spirited and passionate as she had been when I was younger. And she still treated us very much like adults and individuals in our own right (as she had when we were school kids.) I mean, when I look back, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to keep a group of raucous, hormone raged teenagers hooked to her lectures! But she did.

Maybe because of the beautiful stories she used to weave into her lectures. Or maybe because she was just different. (At least she did not think that we did not know what we were talking about and she did listen to what we had to say, which I must say made us feel pretty good!)  Whatever it was, it worked. My grades remained pretty good because of her, I am sure of it, as did my love for the subject. In fact, she was perhaps one of those rare teachers who taught us to think for ourselves, to look beyond the classroom and the books.

Good teachers, come to think of it, do that to you. They leave you with much more than just knowledge. Though you may not realize it at the time, they shape your lives in more ways than one, and their words stay with you long after the lessons are over.

The special ones have the ability to recognize your talent and the vision to nurture it. Just like fifteen-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen’s primary school teacher. She took special notice of her pupil’s exceptionally large hands and feet and realized that the girl had what it takes to be a winner. For all the brouhaha over China’s ‘medal factories’, it paid off. At the age of 16, Ye Shiwen has not only set a new world record, she has become a poster girl for aspiring swimmers. (Yes, I am aware that teachers in China are trained to spot school kids with special physical attributes, who are then packed off to training camps –  but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? If anything, it proves that there is at least a will to nurture excellence.)

It makes me wonder. Do we (at least in India’s current education system) have teachers who are capable or even equipped to spot talent? And if at all, are they even bothered to do something with it? Are they willing to look beyond the ordinary, to go that extra mile? Or are they willing to settle for mediocrity (as they have been doing for years) as long as the syllabus is complete and the grades are good? Are they ready to break the mold and create winners?

These are some thoughts that come to my mind. Partly because of that stimulating conversation over lunch; and partly because my son is about to enter school life and thus begin a new chapter in his life. As a mother, I truly wish for it to be a positive and enriching one.

‘Where the mind is without fear…’

India turns all of 65 years old tomorrow, the 15th of August.  People across the country are getting ready for the celebrations.  Not me, for this is one party I am giving a miss.  What are we celebrating anyway? Once again, our growing economy (which is swimming in troubled waters)? The inauguration of another glitzy mall or residential complex, read condominium with a Jacuzzi, a sun terrace and the works? Or our so-called medal haul in London? (Well, our performance in the 2012 Olympics is being cited as the best ever, despite the elusive gold. So it may actually be a cause for celebration given that the medals were despite the odds, despite the dismal state of our sports infrastructure or lack thereof, and despite the sheer lack of political will.)

For many of us, yes, these are indeed reasons to celebrate. For me, at this point, most of it is a lie. Where is the freedom when a woman cannot be safe in her own home, let alone her city? Four cases in point: One, the brutal murder of a young woman lawyer in her Mumbai flat a few days ago. Ironically, she was killed by the security guard of the society where she lived. Two, the barbaric and shocking  public molestation of a teenaged girl on the busy streets of Guwahati by a mob of 50 men last month. Three, the kidnapping and rape of a young pub employee of a Gurgaon mall earlier this year. Four, the abduction of a young woman from one of Kolkata’s best-known residential localities and subsequent rape just a couple of days ago. (This is the latest in a series of rapes that have shocked the city, starting with the gang-rape of a woman in a car in February).

And these are cases that were reported. Even as I write this post, a woman somewhere, in some corner of the country, maybe in your own neighborhood, is being molested or raped, or beaten, or murdered. For some, these may be seen as isolated cases. But seen collectively, these paint a pretty scary picture. (Scary enough to have prompted one of our national dailies to have taken up a campaign for the safety of women in the country.) It is a breakdown of our civil society and governance. Especially in cities that were previously considered ‘safe’ for women (the notorious distinction of being a rapists’ haven went to the capital city of Delhi till recently).

I have roamed the streets on Mumbai at night in the dreaded local trains and felt perfectly at ease. Guwahati, and most of northeastern India, I held in high regard for the women were treated with utmost respect and lived with a certain dignity, or so I believed.  Kolkata, the city of my ancestors, I believed to be the perfect place to bring up a family in, with its cultural leanings and progressive thinking. And Gurgaon, well, it has been home to me for over a decade now; and while its definitely more populated than it was when I first moved in here amidst nothing but vast expanse of empty fields it certainly felt more safer back then.

Today, I don’t feel safe in my own home; irrespective of the city I may live in, irrespective of how old I may be, irrespective of my ethnicity or religion. (Why, there are newborn girls, and even unborn ones, being killed, or abandoned or thrown in dustbins almost daily; and thousands forced to live a life of abuse because they don’t have a choice – sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at the hands of employers, ministers, caregivers, and worse still – relatives and even parents!)

So, I ask again, where is the freedom? Is this the India we woke up to, the one Pt Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of, on the night of August 14th, 65 years ago, the one poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote of in his classic Where the mind is without fear? While the events of the recent past may have shaken some of us to the core, I would like to believe that we have not fallen off the edge…yet. Small, but sure footsteps are being taken: a yoga guru’s crusade against corruption, the triumph of the individual spirit (@ London Olympics), the battle against polio. Let’s just take a minute and think of the India that our forefathers dreamed of, the country that we want it to be – a country where women are safe and free. Let’s not look the other way this time.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves of the words that were written by Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

 We need to wake up. Only then, will we be really free.