Saturday, 14 July 2007

remembrance of a thing past

As far as I can remember my childhood, I had always been amidst prayers and piety. All elders in my family were deeply religious; both my grandfathers would wake up early and conduct a full length puja in the prayer-room before going to work. It was convention that the eldest member in the family had to perform the puja and therefore my dad filled in my grandfather's role when the latter used to be away or ill. It was on weekends and holidays that I experienced the smell of my house in the mornings - the incense and camphor were so strong that I used to be woken up by their smell. When I was with my maternal grandparents, I would be woken up by my grandfather's chants. His voice was stentorian, passionate and pious but his way of recitation had also a deep sense of melody and meter. In contrast to my paternal grandfather who recited his prayers in a colourless monotone my mother's father used to sing his verses rather than chant them. I believe the tunes were his own compositions but what is remarkable is that they could easily diffuse into the memory of even a casual listener like me. I confess that I have never said a prayer sincerely throughout my life whenever I was asked to offer one either at home or in a temple. Post some recent reading, deliberations and introspection (more about them later) I consider myself an atheist and have successfully removed the last vestiges of God and the associated notions of intelligent design from my mind and my heart. But I was surprised today to hear myself singing out Kalidasa's Shyamala-dandakam that was one of my grandfather's favourite shlokas that he set to his own tune. Though I don't remember it in its entirety I still find it remarkable that these three-four verses flowed out of a long abandoned memory cave. The poetry sounded beautiful and the meter was perfect. I don't know the meaning of the words (indeed why would one bother to find out the meaning of a song which hitherto one did not even know existed in one's memory) but I confess that the words have a beautiful sound. Legend says that Kalidasa, India's most famous poet of the classical era was a dim-witted and illiterate simpleton who fell in love with a beautiful princess. When he expressed his love to her, she mocked his ignorance and humiliated him in front of the courtiers. He then went and cried at the feet of the village goddess and asked for redemption. He wept and cursed himself for a full three days at the goddess's feet. All of a sudden a flash of light appeared in the sanctum sanctorum and Kalidasa felt invigorated. Then, as if it were a miracle, he found that he could compose poetry. Shyamala-dandakam was his first composition that he dedicated to the goddess whose benediction had endowed him with the talent and the language that he had longed for. My grandfather, among all his stories that revolved around gods and their miracles told me this one too, enunciating that the Shyamala-dandakam was a symbol of knowledge that came from divine provenance. Reciting it daily, he said, would bring one intelligence and forbearance. My maternal grandfather is a remarkable man (every grandson would say this way about his grandfather but I wont say the same about my other grand-dad whose life and times have never taught me anything that I particularly treasure) and there is possibly no family member whom I respect and revere as much as him. Notwithstanding that I confess that I never believed in what he said about Shyamala-dandakam then or now or ever. But although he was unsuccessful in indoctrinating me with his piety, he did unconsciously manage to show me that beauty need not buttress itself on the stilts of faith.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Remedial math

I went to campus school sharp at 5:15 to find the other volunteers waiting for me. I was immediately informed that I would be teaching 9th and 10th class students in two back to back one hour lectures. This was supposed to be a math remedial class, primarily doubt clearing and problem solving sessions. I told them immediately that it would not be possible for me to commit to two hours every weekday and that I would like to take it slow. Sunita, the senior volunteer smiled a face that expressed both helplessness and deference, an subliminal way of saying that we are desperately short of volunteers but if you cannot do this, we'll respect that. I finally agreed to take math classes from 5 to 6:30, the first half for the 9th standard students and the second half for the 10th standard students.

I was told that the 9th class students are awaiting me in the classroom and I immediately requested one of the volunteers to brief me on the topics to teach and give me a copy of the textbook. He gave the usual sheepish smile of smug unpreparedness and told me that I could borrow a textbook from a student. With a sip of exasperation I stepped into the class to find a whole flock of chirpy 9th class students waiting for me. They were 15 girls and a mere two boys, all of whom got up and chanted "Good evening, Sir" as if it were an evolutionary response to the stimulus of seeing an authoritative figure entering the classroom. I was introduced by the volunteers as an expert in 'macs' who will teach them to solve all relevant problems in the textbook. They were reminded that it was their responsibility to ask me to solve all the 'hard problems' in the textbook. Once the volunteer left thrusting a bunch of blackboard chalks in my hand, I borrowed a textbook from one of the students. I admitted to the class that I had come unprepared and asked them for their choice of lesson for the day. There were shouts of 'Chapter 1' and 'Chapter 2' and I was most dejected to find that they were 'Set Theory' and 'Real Numbers' respectively. The venn diagrams and the number lines gave me a most tiresome feeling and I flipped on to chapter 3. It was on 'Surds' and I told the class that I would teach them chapter 3 since chapter 1 and chapter 2 were very 'easy' (Cantor and Dedekind would be turning on their graves for sure but I assure the reader that my reference was only to the way these two subjects were exposited in the textbook that lay in my hands). I glanced at the first few pages of the chapter and was just about to begin my lesson with the customary definition of the subject of the chapter when I realised that I had to tell them about rational- irrational numbers in order to define surds. I ended up telling them about numbers in general and also platitudes like "All surds are irrational, but all irrationals are not surds" (While chuckling silently the beautiful pun associated with the first half of the sentence). Then we went on to surds and I realised that they needed a recapitulation on the laws of indices too. The kids pressed me to solve problems on the board - converting mixed surds into pure surds and back, problems that applied laws of surds (I found it pretty difficult to convince that these were the same as the laws of indices. The silly educational board reverts back to using the antiquated square, cube, nth root signs in the 9th standard after teaching them indices using the standard and convenient one-half, one-third and one over nth power of numbers. Talk about falling over backwards!) - problems that absolutely made no sense and taught you nothing but nonetheless had to be worked out as drills. I felt they were reasonably smart kids who had unfortunately been brainwashed by the ritualistic approach of their school teachers and hence found it difficult to think and solve the problem. I gave them a couple of problems to solve on their own and could immediately discern by their struggle that they were desperately trying to follow each ritualistic rite from memory and hope that they would arrive at the magical answer.

Half an hour into the class, my volunteer friend knocks on the door and tells me that there a bunch of sixth standard kids whose teacher has bunked today's class. He asked me if it would be 'okay' if they just sat in the back benches and solved their exercises silently while I taught and posed their doubts to me in short intervals while I was instructing the 9th class directly. I said so long as they wouldn't get disturbed by my loud voice I dont have a problem. One small girl in that batch called me over meekly and showed out a problem in the textbook which demanded the expression of 3401 in powers of ten. I had only a minute to attend to her while the 9th standard class was busy copying down a solution I had wrote down on the board and I found myself helplessly explaining her the mantra for the solution - "Move rightward from the first digit to the units digit. Express the number as additions of that digit multiplied by ten raised to the power of the place". She seemed happy and satisfied and I kept wondering about the ordeal I'd have to go through if I started explaining bases to this little one.

When it was 6:00 I bid goodbye to this class and went to the 10th standard class. They were four boys who told me to teach them simultaneous linear equations in two variables. The textbook described a most tiresome and stupid method by sketching the lines on a graph and checking for their point of intersection. I decided to disregard it and explain the simple method of elimination of variables which was straightforward and consumed a lot less paper. I explained the principle in Hindi and gave them a sample problem to solve. They displayed struggle at the very first step and I finally yielded to the yoke of my patience and showed them how to eliminate x from the two equations. What remained was 4y - 5 = 0 and I looked at the four of them for an answer. Confidently one of them tells me 'y=9'. I was agape for this was something I would have expected my 9th class students to be very comfortable with. It was then that I realised I had taken for granted the aptitude of these kids and I felt bad about it. As if 'y=9' was not enough, another boy announced that it was actually 'y=20' with an air of pedagogy while simultaneously correcting his friend as he gave me the answer. A little probing made me realise that these guys had their basic arithmetic completely fucked up. And I now realise its going to be tougher teaching mathematics to these guys than it was to teach English to those kids from the vernacular medium.