Monday, August 31, 2020

Seeking Perfection


“Are you a vegan?”, I asked a friend who is a great believer in leading a sustainable lifestyle.

“I call myself an imperfect vegan”, she replied before going on to explain how she had largely shifted to soymilk, but that she still occasionally consumed dairy products.

It obviously led to a much larger discussion on sustainability. On the carbon footprint of many food items which serve as substitute for dairy products. And on how soybean production may force farmers to shift from food crops to cash crops, and to clear more forest land for production.

It is not just about the crop. There is also the issue of the tetrapacks in which the soymilk is marketed; till they can go for recycling, the addition to landfills would have to be factored in before shifting to the alternative.

Towards the end of the discussion we concluded that perhaps the most effective way to turn vegan is to give up all milk products and milk substitutes, but that is not easy for most.

Therefore, we concluded, it was best to remain ‘imperfect vegans’. People who would like to embrace the vegan lifestyle, but who are not able to turn fully vegan just yet.

Which reminded me of another similar conversation that was initiated on Twitter a couple of weeks back- on how many of were ‘imperfect feminists’, because there are times when we consciously or unconsciously look away when some slightly ambiguous aspects of feminism crop up.

There are also the small and big compromises you make. The rituals you go through to maintain peace at home, even though you do not approve of it as a feminist. The toe ring or the loha-banda you may wear after marriage even though both have their symbolisation in women being treated as the property of her man. Doesn’t all this make you an imperfect feminist?

I held (and continue to hold) the contention that as long as we were committed to the general premise of personal, social, economic and political equity of the sexes, we are worthy of calling ourselves feminists. And as long as we are feminists, we shouldn’t worry too much about whether we were ‘perfect’ or not.

There are times, especially while discussing intersectional feminism, when we are forced to choose between two radically different viewpoints, and which we choose shouldn’t negate the fact that we are feminists.

There are many such examples, but an example that comes to mind is whether or not transfemales should use the washrooms meant for ladies. If they have had or in the process of having sex reversal surgery, certainly. But what if they have not initiated the process yet. Wouldn’t women who menstruate be uncomfortable with having someone who they consider a man using their washrooms? You can argue both ways, and it is this ambiguity which makes it difficult to define which position is more perfectly feminist.

During that same discussion, someone pointed out that ‘evolving feminist’ may be more descriptive than ‘imperfect feminist’. As long as we are open to listening to more viewpoints, and adopting from them what we need to, we are evolving rather than imperfect. That certainly made sense to me, and for a few days, I was tempted to start calling myself an evolving feminist.

Imperfectly Perfect

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that imperfection is not a flaw.

Imperfection is an acknowledgement that we are on the process of getting closer to perfection. It recognizes a journey, and gives due weightage to it.

Perfection, in that sense, is static. Once you decide you are ‘perfect’, you close yourself to exploring further nuance. You hammer your thought process down on others, without making any attempt to listen to theirs. Your way becomes the only way, and any further refinement is closed, because you cannot improve perfection.

Acknowledging imperfection is a sign of a maturity. Of accepting that we are not perfect and might never be perfect, but that at the current moment we are as perfect as we need to be.

Imperfectly perfect. That is what I aspire to be.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Learning during a pandemic

With nearly half the academic year over, and no sign of the pandemic letting up, the natural question that people have started asking is, ‘when should schools reopen?’

From the pandemic management standpoint, the answer is simple- not anytime soon.

But can the answer really be that simple?

Add caption

Despite restrictions on the activities that are allowed, the number of new cases is still going up every day. There is still very little awareness among the general public on how to adopt preventive practices.

At this stage, opening up schools can colleges can be calamitous.

When the first wave was over, schools and colleges reopened in some countries, but in almost all of them, they were forced to close down again after the number of people testing positive went up.

It is hard to keep the infection under control once schools and colleges reopen.

Maintaining physical distancing is hard given the space constraint. Even if you reopen with two batches and reduced hours, ensuring that the washrooms and common areas are kept sanitized is not an easy task.

Ensuring proper masking during the entire school hours is also not easy. Even if the mask is kept on, the danger of cross contamination is high, and students may not always know when to replace the old mask with a new one.

Students, teachers and staff would need to travel from home to school/ college which will put an additional burden on the public transport system.

The existing school transport may not be sufficient to accomodate students taking distancing into account.

Do we really need to worry about infections when students fall in a low risk category, one may ask. Low risk doesn’t mean no risk. And even if the students themselves are not at risk, they could carry the virus home and infect elderly relatives.

Reopening would expose teachers and staff to the virus, and many of them may choose to resign.

Reopening schools and colleges will be possible only after a proven, inexpensive vaccine is available, or if the virus mutates to become less virulent. Both these seem highly unlikely before the end of the academic year.

If we are looking at schools not reopening physically for a year, what does that imply for the students?

Studies have shown that a larger percentage of students from vulnerable communities have dropped out of the system.

One reason for this is because they do not have the technology to access online teaching. But the greater reason is that poverty and job loss is forcing families to get their adolescent daughters married and putting their sons to work.

Many of these students will not return.

Online classes is not an answer. Most students from low income households do not have access to a dedicated digital device, and even if they do, they do not have reliable internet connections. Going for online classes will only increase the divide between the marginalized and the rest.

The penetration of television is much higher, and the state governments can leverage on them to broadcast lessons. This too has a problem- frequent power cuts, and scheduling of lessons when there are multiple children per household need to be factored in. This could work.

However, is this the optimal utilization of the forced ‘gap year’?

One of the biggest failures of the education system is the huge gap in learning levels of students, both in literacy and numeracy. Many grade 7 students are stuck at level 2 competencies.

This academic year can be utilized for bridging the gap in learning levels. Curriculums exist which empower students to learn fundamentals of numeracy and literacy through self study. Volunteers can be engaged to assist where required. Paying an honourarium to the volunteers also helps generate livelihood.

If bridging learning levels is made the prime focus, the proposed objective can be to ensure that all students end the academic year with age appropriate literacy and numeracy skills.

Out of school children can learn outside school hours.

Any subjects taught through television would not be graded, and will only complement the basic objective.

With the pressure taken off the students, schools could also try to focus on their mental health. Already, studies are showing that students who were subject to bullying in school are now faring much better. This year can, therefore, be a great leveler.

Would there be any disadvantages to keeping physical schools closed for the academic year, and taking learning back to the home?

Yes, three.

Families where both parents work, and which don’t have adequate child care with suffer. There is no solution to this, except to mandate that work from home opportunities be provided for either parent. Alternately, children of such households can be allowed to spend the day in the school premises under minimal supervision and adequate distancing.

Lack of access to mid-day meals is the other concern. But in the current scenario, it would be impossible to cook and serve mid-day meals in any case. Increasing the ration provided to households is a possible solution.

In some states, the government school system was used to distribute menstrual hygiene products to adolescent girls. An alternate distribution channel has to be found for this and other such essential products.

The gap in learning levels is ignored because teachers have the course to cover. The pandemic has given a unique opportunity for students to bridge the learning gap, and for learning through self-study. If these two objectives are met, it might have served a useful purpose.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Let my country awake

Growing up in a mining colony in the 1970, your defining identity was that of an Indian. At home, we spoke different languages, worshipped different gods and celebrated different festivals, but outside, we were Indian. We spoke a mixture of English and Hindi, with assorted words from other languages thrown in. We landed up in each other’s houses without warning. We exchanged thalis of sweets and savouries during our festivals. And we often ended up celebrating different festivals with our friends.

“Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai. Aapas mein hai bhai bhai”, was not just a slogan for us. We genuinely believed in it. From the folk dances that we took part in during various cultural programmes, to the sheer diversity of food each of our kitchens churned out, to the festivals that were celebrated in the community center. Everything was a living personification of “Unity in Diversity/ Unekta mein Ekta”.

As we grew older and moved away from the projects, we continued to see the country through our ‘Indian’ lenses. The food we ate, the movies we watched, even the people we dated; everything was cosmopolitan, secular, Indian. Our Indianness was our identity, and we viewed current affairs through our secular lens.


Long after the Babri Masjid was brought down. Long after Godhra and its aftermath. Long after the Hindutva ideology established itself in the political landscape of the country. Long after all that, I continued believing that it was only a fringe element that supported the divisionary politics that were tearing the fabric of the country.

It was only since 2014, and, more specifically, after 2019 that I started questioning whether the secular nation I thought I had grown up in actually existed or if it was merely something I imagine. On the eve of the Bhoomi Poojan of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya,

I finally articulated what I had beenthinking for awhile- had the nation I loved ever existed, or had my image of a secular Indian just been a mirage?

My friends heard what I said and wrote in to tell me that they were happy I had articulated what they could never say. That they were mourning the secularism that they had grown up with but which no longer existed. “Thank you for saying this. If I said it nobody would have listened”, said three Muslim friends.

They had all grown up in colonies like the one I grew up in. Through their childhood and youth, they had never felt they were any different. So close was their belief in an Indian identity, some had even married non-Muslim men. Some of their closest friends were still Hindu, their families still went on holidays with Hindu families, and their children spent most of their waking hours with their Hindu friends. However, despite that, they could still sense the alienation. They recognized that things were no longer as they had been, and they missed those days.

It was heartbreaking to hear the words they left unsaid. These are the people who have lost most with the rise of fundamentalism. They had identified themselves as secular Indians, but were left bereft when that categorization was done away with.

But even in their heartbreak, I saw a glimmer of hope. They too were mourning a secular India that had once existed, but no longer did. But the fact that they felt the vacuum proved that the India I thought I grew up in had actually existed.

What never existed cannot be summoned, but what has been lost can certainly be reclaimed.

“Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Not in my Name

December 6, 1992.
I was in the final year of college when karsevaks climbed the dome of the Babri Masjid and brought it down. I watched in shock and horror, but there was little else I could do.
The press condemned it, there were editorials written, but gradually it died down.
Everyone I knew condemned the demolition of the mosque, and I certainly believed that the people who had destroyed the structure were a fringe element.
What I didn't realise then was that the India I had grown up in was changing in ways I couldn't fathom.

A lot happened in the years since then.
Hindutva established itself as a mainstream political ideology. Vigilante crimes against Muslims got normalised. The Ayodhya case dragged on in the courts.
Through it all, I hoped that at least in the Court, justice would be done.

November 9, 2019
Like many others, I was following the judgement closely. I was shattered when the final ruling was read out.
It has been the last chance for the nation to apologise for a wrong committed, and the nation had chosen not to.

In the months after the Ayodhya verdict, the Muslim community has been targeted in many other ways. The 'otherisation' has been normalised. Nobody even bothers to put up a pretense of 'secularism' any more.
The India I thought I grew up in is no more.

August 5, 2020
In the numbness that follows grief, the Bhoomi Poojan of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya is just one more nail in the already sealed coffin of secularism. I no longer even relate to it.
And yet, I will reiterate; the temple that comes up is not in my name.


Related Posts with Thumbnails