Archive for May, 2012


AMDG

Chandra Observatory launched in 1991, at the time the heaviest payload, designed for 5 years, still going strong …pic from NASA

It is striking how well drilled Indian students are in learning and knowing about the lives of the towering figures of Indian History. Gandhi, Ambedkar (the Dalit author of the constitution), Roy, Nehru, the list goes on and on.  I was surprised yesterday in the Hostel with a conversation I had with a very bright student who has just returned. I had put up a display of images of the Solar System, rockets, astronauts, observatories and satellites, with a special focus on Indian hardware.  One of the three space observatories left is the Chandra X Ray Satellite.  NASA named this satellite after a great Indian physicist Chandraseka and it allows us to collect data from deep space.  I was trying to explain this to a gaggle of students who were pressing around, and one older girl knew all about him. I was surprised and very impressed.  Knowledge of these great figures serves to instill national pride and shared identity, a unifying factor to combat communal violence.  However as one of the Jesuits said to me, the education system, still heavily based on rote learning is not geared to encouraging a similar creativity and ingenuity in the majority of students.  Widespread corruption in the examination system is also preventing good practice and good schools to be identified and copied, especially in areas far from the metropolis.

My favourite among these Indian giants is the poet and educationalist, and author of the National Anthem,  Rabindrath Tagore (right).  He is known in India as ‘gurudeb’ – the great teacher.  I remember discovering his poetry at university and at once being mesmerised by its beauty and mysticism.  Tagore won the Nobel  Prize for Literature in 1913 after  Yeats did a lot to get translations of his work published and promoted on a visit to London.   He was knighted in 1915 but repudiated the honour four years later after a terrible massacre by British troops.  Like Ghandi his thoughts on Christ have always fascinated me, although remaining a Hindu he admired Christ greatly. However he did not admire Christians whom he identified with the British Imperial power he was working to overthrow.  In a letter to E J Thompson he said  ‘Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

I am currently reading a biography of his – so imagine my delight when I found out that he was sent to a Jesuit school – St Xavier’s in Kolkota. It would be nice to say he loved school, this was by no means the case. He hated formal education and being a ‘mere pupil’.  In fact he was sent to St Xaviers as a last desperate attempt by his mother after other institutions had failed. At least it had some impact on him, in a previous school ‘the presidency college’  he only lasted one day! When his mother died he gave up school for good at the age of 13. Ironically he became one of Indias greatest educationalists setting up his own school in Santiniketan. In his memoirs, however I have discovered one reminiscence which I find beautiful ….

2010 – 150 year anniversary

One precious memory of St. Xavier’s I still hold fresh and pure—the memory of its teachers……. This is the memory of Father DePeneranda. He had very little to do with us—if I remember right he had only for a while taken the place of one of the masters of our class. He was a Spaniard and seemed to have an impediment in speaking English. It was perhaps for this reason that the boys paid but little heed to what he was saying. It seemed to me that this inattentiveness of his pupils hurt him, but he bore it meekly day after day. I know not why, but my heart went out to him in sympathy. His features were not handsome, but his countenance had for me a strange attraction. Whenever I looked on him his spirit seemed to be in prayer, a deep peace to pervade him within and without.We had half-an-hour for writing our copybooks; that was a time when, pen in hand, I used to become absent-minded and my thoughts wandered hither and thither. One day Father DePeneranda was in charge of this class. He was pacing up and down behind our benches. He must have noticed more than once that my pen was not moving. All of a sudden he stopped behind my seat. Bending over me he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and tenderly inquired: “Are you not well, Tagore?” It was only a simple question, but one I have never been able to forget. I cannot speak for the other boys but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even to-day the recollection of it seems to give me a passport into the silent seclusion of the temple of God.

Teachers often do not realise the impact they are having for good or ill, and what we think is success or failure might turn out different in the grand scheme of things!

——————

Educating Tribals

AMDG

The school and college are buzzing again as term started yesterday. It will take a few days for all the children to return, time keeping and calendars do not exert a big influence in village life.  The Jesuits have been pleasantly surprised by the numbers of new students and there are talking about opening a fourth class for the youngest children – we will have to find a temporary classroom somewhere.  All of this is a great sign that the value and importance of education is beginning to take root in families that have been illiterate for generations.  What has been particularly striking for me, as the parents accompany their children into school for the first days, is the amount of Lambadi women.  As you can see by the photograph their dress, with the mirrors, long hair and jewellery is very striking, easy to notice amongst the throng of parents.  When I asked the headmaster, Fr Rohan, he told with a proud smile that over a hundred of the students are from Lambadi families.  The Lambadis are one of 645 ‘Scheduled’ tribes in India. These are indigenous people who now account for nearly 8% of India’s population, and along with Dalits are the poorest people in India.  A nomadic people, the Lambadis where originally forest dwellers, when India had extensive forests, deforestation has forced them out and now many are nomadic cattle grazers.

Some of our proud Lambadi students on culture day

I have to confess when I first stumbled upon some local Lambadi villages on my evening cycle ride I was a little scared. Their appearance makes quite an impression, particularly with the mirrors glinting in the sun.  I asked one of our social workers  about the mirrors and she said it was to do with warding of evil spirits.  However this now seems untrue, the mirrors are actually to protect the women when they stumbled upon wild animals in the forests.  With the men folk often away hunting – the women could not call them for help, however the many mirrors would reflect multiple images of wild animals thus scaring them away. During the British Rule both the Dalits and the Tribals were known as the ‘Depressed Classes’ however things are changing. Much of what we know about these tribal cultures is due to the pioneering work of a Jesuit, Fr Lawrence Desouza, living and working with them, often under the auspices of UNESCO, he published many books about the different tribes, his obituary is here – click.  Now in India there is a big movement to protect their cultures, in school we have a Culture Day once a year where students are encouraged to dress in their costumes and they take pride in their beautiful and distinctive music and dancing.

When I asked how they were doing in school, their performance is average.  Having been told that their parents have a reputation for being very loving of their children ( as they are not tainted by any sense of inferiority from the caste system) I was also surprised to be told that they are often getting into fights, and many complaints have been made about their filthy language.  Surely this doesn’t add up with coming from these loving families – I though to myself. Ah – I was told – with a grin, they are not Hindus, in fact their religious beliefs are animist.  There is no taboo about drinking alcohol, so they brew it themselves and the men and women often get drunk and end up fighting.  The children are just copying that behaviour.  I suppose that the light and the shadows of tribal life!  A good note to end on is what Fr Eric told me about a Lambadi women who came into his office this week.  She wanted to enrol her daughter into school, and was prepared to pay what it took, passionately she said, I want to give her a chance, I don’t want her to be like me!

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AMDG

Jeans or Sari? In the cities the growing use of Western Style dress is a hot topic for debate

I have just spent a busy 24 hours in Bangalore accompanying one of students who may be getting surgery to straighten her spine.  As I had other jobs to do, we took one of her teachers with us so that they wouldn’t be alone.  It was a bit hectic, we had to rush around the city in rickshaws, meeting the doctor, getting an x-ray, going to a hospital to sort out the post-op care.  Both the teacher and the student were only visiting Bangalore for the second time,  and it was clear they preferred small town or village India to big city in India.  What was particularly interesting was their commentaries and chatting about the amount of girls and young women they saw in Jeans or western style dress.  There was a big discussion about Sari v Jeans and Sari definitely came out top in their eyes. This lead to a few long conversations about the role of women in India and it certainly was sobering and the question of fashion soon seemed to become irrelevant.

Back in March 2010, the Economist ran a striking cover story about what it called ‘Gendercide‘ responding the famous Indian Economist Amartya Sen claim that 100million baby girls have been killed through sex-selective abortions.  Because of a variety of factors, the dowry system, traditional prejudices, need for physical labour, inheritance law, girls are clearly seen as less preferable to boys. As well as this ancient preference for a son, there is a modern desire for smaller families and cheap and widespread availability of ultrasound technology. This combined factors has led to a dramatic rise in sex selective abortions.

Unlike China, India’s democratic roots  and civil service have set up an impressive infrastructure for elections and also data gathering, particularly through the 10-year census.  The data is seen as reliable and detailed.  It also very revealing.    Currently in India the sex ratio according to 2011 census is 914 women per 1,000 men. It was 927 women per 1,000 men in 2001. According to The World Factbook this is the third most distorted sex ratio in the world after China and Armenia and it seems to be growing.   The census data also reveals how cultural prejudices affect this.  In both rural and urban India the Sikh community has the most distorted ratio (895  girls per 1000 boys).  This is followed by Hindus (935),  Muslim and Jains (940),   Buddhist (955).  It is only the Christian community that has more girls than boys (1009), but indications suggest that even that may be dropping.

Obviously the effects of this ‘gendercide’ could be profound on the community.  In Northern States in India where the practice of sex selective abortion and also infanticide seems most common, they are already having to ‘import’ brides from other states.  Son preference is most prevalent in an arc of countries from East Asia through South Asia to the Middle East and North Africa – however it seems highest in Asia. In fact it is only South Korea that seems to have recovered it sex ratio to from that equivalent to India in 1990 to approaching a more normal level today. The economic rise of South Korea, the only country to go from being an aid recipient to an aid donor in one generation, is well known. But is a change of culture that is leading to girls to be valued more.

This is another reason why education is so important, and the work being done here in Manvi so impressive.  But there is still a lot to do, the Jesuits here have set up an impressive network of womens groups in the villages, such as the Devadasis pictured on the right.  They value education more and will encourage the girls to go to school.  But still there are deep problems.  In a dramatic incident last week our social workers who have been developing a malnutrition programme had to rush a seriously malnourished baby girl to hospital.  There is a lot of confusion around the case, they suspect food provided for her had been sold on, that the child may have HIV, and that the grandmother seemed to be blocking any effort to help her survive. From the (foriegn) social workers perspective, the family seemed happy to let her die.  There is no proof to any of this, but it would not be a surprise in a culture where the difference between a boy and a girl can have a big effect in the lives of the poor. What is needed is faithful presence and the slow continuous work of changing hearts and minds.  The British Governments arm for development (DFID) are offering large amounts of funding targeted at getting girls into and keeping them in education. It is called the Girls Education Challenge, and in a new departure funds that would usually go into government budgets and be wasted due to corruption are now being offered to the private sector.  The Jesuits who already educate over 9,000 girls in Karnataka state, with over two thirds of them being from low caste and vulnerable backgrounds are well placed to use this funding to expand their educational work.  In fact that was my other business in Bangalore.

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