Tag Archives: education

The Venus Flytrap: Learning To Love

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It doesn’t matter, ultimately, what your marksheets say. Some doors will open because of them, others will open in spite of them, and still others will be slammed in your face anyway. So many students, actively having been taught otherwise, crumble under the pressure of having to prove themselves within systems that exclude more than they educate. So it’s refreshing that Kanishak Kataria, the IIT-Mumbai graduate who topped this year’s UPSC civil services final exam, is being discussed so much not for his academic achievement, but for a statement he made to the press when asked about the same. For what seems to be the first time anyone can recall, Kataria thanked not only his family but his girlfriend too for having supported his efforts.

It says so much about us, about the culture we live in, that what should have been an obvious and even casual statement was instead an unprecedented one. Noted activists celebrated it as a challenge to India’s caste-codified and otherwise constricted societies, in which love has neither place nor value. Others also applauded how so simple an acknowledgment proved how relationships, and by extent our general emotional lives, are no hindrance to hard work, or success. This small of note of gratitude delivered a double blow both to many families’ insistence that romance is damaging to studies, and to the profoundly toxic way in which young people are forced to hide their romantic and sexual selves, often to their own detriment.

And for once, it’s a beautiful thing that a woman wasn’t named, but was acknowledged for her role alone. She need not become his spouse, or follow any other trajectory that leads back into a normative model of societal expectations. Through her anonymity (which will hopefully continue, for her sake), Kataria’s girlfriend can be just that: a person whose support made a difference to him at this stage of his career, and because of whose existence we have another reason to talk about the deep linkages between love, caste, gender and social progress at our dining tables and our tuition centres.

As we don’t know her name – and have no right to know it either – she also avoids being identified forever after in reference to this relationship. This is a trap that even highly accomplished women, including human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and actors Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie, have repeatedly been dragged into, both in the media and in the collective imagination. The anonymous woman who is the girlfriend of the UPSC topper can go on to become anyone; if we ever learn her name, let it be for who else she is, not for whom she is currently dating. And as for Kataria – no matter what he makes of himself in the future, he’s already made a difference now. Not because of his academic ranking, but because he has shown students and their parents that all this is possible, at once: to be in love, to be open with one’s family about romantic relationships, and to respect and acknowledge people while also respecting their privacy, all while aspiring to (and sometimes accomplishing) great things.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 11th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Delta Meghwal

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Delta Meghwal wanted to study. She was raped, murdered and towed away in a garbage tractor.

Delta was the first girl in her village (Trimohi, Rajasthan) to go to secondary school. Then she went on to Jain Adarsh Teacher Training Institute. She was Dalit. She was 17.

On the evening of March 28th, the hostel warden instructed her to clean the PT instructor’s room, where she was raped.

Returning to her room, injured and terrified, she called her father. The next morning, she was found dead in a tank. Police then took her body to the hospital in a municipal garbage tractor. The autopsy showed that there was no water in her lungs. She did not drown herself.

Pause. You didn’t know. Now – do you care?

Delta Meghwal was an artist. A painting she made of a camel in Class 4 was hung in Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s office. Is it still there – reproaching the politicians who haven’t spoken a word about her murder?

She is not the first woman – artist or otherwise – to meet a tragic end because her talent stood at odds with what was expected of her. I don’t see Buzzfeed articles, neatly packaging tragedy for public consumption, with images of her paintings. I don’t see a government agency being set up in her name to provide arts scholarships for underprivileged girls. When her devastated father tells a reporter, “I shouldn’t have educated her… maybe she’d still be alive”, all I see is the story of Delta’s murder being used to frighten disenfranchised parents into wanting less for their children.

Most of all, I don’t see your 140 characters of hashtagged outrage. And that is what makes me sickest of all.

When Jyoti Singh Pandey – valorised as Nirbhaya – was raped and murdered, the entire nation grieved publicly. We observed candlelight marches. We claimed her as sister and daughter. We demanded that laws be changed. If that solidarity is reserved only for those whose backgrounds don’t discomfit our smug lightweight activism, it is no solidarity at all. It is ugly hypocrisy. There is zero meaning to your still angrily shuddering at the words “Delhi gangrape” if you ignore Delta Meghwal today.

The mainstream media is silent. In Barmer, Pali, Jodhpur, Bangalore, Delhi and Bikaner, photos of small demonstrations show mostly men, protesting caste violence. Where are the women, the ones who cried for Nirbhaya?

Talking about Delta’s death means talking about caste, and our complicity when we ignore aspects of any power system that serve us, but not others. It means being uncomfortable.

Now, when I hear the words “the Delhi gangrape”, I want to correct the grammar. That was a gangrape that took place in Delhi in December of 2012: in that same month, in that same city, there were others, mostly with fewer perpetrators involved.

That year, 24,923 rapes were reported in India (more – more than we know or want to imagine – were not). 98% of those perpetrators were known to the victim. We chose to focus on one case in the 2%, conveniently othering the rapists on the basis of class.

What about Delta Meghwal – has she been othered too?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Types of Joy

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Several months ago, I finally put my innate maternal instinct to good use, and began volunteering with children. Roped in by another artist with a community-minded bent, I started spending a little time every week with children between the ages of three and five in a slum in Chennai, mostly telling stories and introducing the vocabulary of emotional nuance to them. At the moment, they’re getting ready to perform a short play I wrote for them.

I’m not going to lie about my motives. Deeply disillusioned by events in my career, I needed something to renew my faith in human goodness. I did not, at the time, have the capacity to work with preemie babies, the orphaned, the ill or the disabled, but I knew I wanted to work with children, and the opportunity to teach was perfect. Their backgrounds are inconsequential to me: to treat them as disadvantaged when their spirits shine and their bodies are able is to condescend. A friend of mine told me shortly after I first began this work that it would be good for me to see other types of suffering. I thought about how gleefully I am grabbed and kissed hello and goodbye by those little ones, and I knew that what this work does for me is the opposite: it allows me to see other types of joy.

Soon, I was also conducting sessions for older students at a lower income group matriculation school, teaching them spoken English and, again, emotional awareness. Teaching was rewarding in multiple ways, my love for children aside. I felt I’d found a dimension to my life that was independent of my artistic work, which otherwise defined my identity. This has been my struggle for over a year now: finding stability that will ground the volatility of my nature. As I enter my mid-twenties, the need for a steady foundation has become my primary endeavour.

One afternoon last month, in order to observe and learn, I accompanied another trainer to her session with primary school students. During a particularly noisy few minutes, she told the kids to take a free-drawing break. At the end of the class, a little girl brought her drawing to me. “It’s my gift to you,” she said. Two boys tore their pages out and did the same. I protested, asking why they didn’t want to take their artwork home to show their parents – they were truly beautiful pieces. “But I have so many drawings at home!” said one. “This is for you”. None of them had even met me before.

I did not expect that what I needed for my jadedness, my disconnect from my own creativity, would come from this work. Yet there it was – the most profound insight, so simply evident. Art for its own sake: not for legacy, not for honours, not to make a statement or to buy a more comfortable rung on the ladder. Art for the sake of love.

At the end of what feels like a hopelessly difficult year, it is the kindness of those toward whom I had the conceit to think that my kindness could make a difference to that restores my faith. I had never imagined I could become a teacher. I am humbled, even more so, by what I have been taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Original Instructions

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In the small town of Gudalur, two and a half hours downhill from Ooty, there is a coalition of NGOs that, through serendipitous circumstances and sound intentions, run a school and a hospital for the tribal community. I’m visiting with my friend the American Badaga, tagging along on an Ooty-Gudalur-Coimbatore-Palani-Perumalmalai-Kodaikanal trip completed over just five nights, sleeping in a different place on each one. We’re there to look into alternative education systems; after the tribal school is an international school in the forest. Mostly, though, I’m there on impulse, just to get away.

The week before, I’d attended a lecture in Chennai by Vandana Shiva, the renowned physicist and activist. Dr. Shiva had spoken about the country’s agricultural crisis, encouraging the audience to “violate the contracts” that gave undue power to governments and organizations that contribute to the deterioration of the environment, and to suffering among the poor.

Yet, sitting by a window overlooking the filthy Cooum river later that rainy afternoon, coming down from the high that listening to an inspiring speaker brings, I was saddened to think that the only phrase that still haunted me was something said in passing as Shiva was introduced. Another world is possible. I so much wanted it to be.

It came to me again in Gudalur. I’d never expected that just a few days after the lecture, I would find myself reading on a rock under a tree on the far west of Tamil Nadu, wet earth under my bare feet, adivasi children singing nearby, a cow to my right and a chicken to my left. My troubles very, very far away.

I’m reading Cait Johnson, who posits that spirituality is essentially rooted in the elements, the same notion that had me head for the hills to hide among trees, and attend Shiva’s lecture. Whenever I lose my connection to my elementals, I seek to replenish them in nature. Johnson writes about “Original Instructions” – intuitive knowledge kept alive by people, like the adivasis, whose ways of life honour the sacred interconnectedness of all life.

Watching the good people of Gudalur – the teacher who speaks openly and without prejudice to a classroom about gay and transgender people, the Ayurvedic doctor seeking to both learn from and better equip traditional healers, the professionals who set up the Ashwini Hospital and Vidyodaya School and gradually ensured that autonomy over them returned to the adivasi community – my heart remembers its own Original Instructions.

Watching them, I remember that there are good people in the world, who do good work for its own sake. I had forgotten.

I have been heartsick for what feels like a long time, but isn’t. I have been disillusioned with my own journey. I have wanted to count to one hundred and bow out, like the poetess in Ana Enriqueta Terán’s mysterious poem. What I did because I thought it was in my blood, I’ve watched others do with a bloodthirst I cannot muster. I have felt time and again that I can barely co-exist in a world so cutthroat, let alone compete.

But this is what I know, after Gudalur: another world, in all the many variations Vandana Shiva may or may not have meant, is possible. In fact, it may already exist. All it takes is to get back there.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.