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  COUNSELING
 
Back to infancy -- they n
 
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
     
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  EDUCATIONAL  
     
 
Questions the point
  By Vaidehi Iyer  
  QUESTIONS play a large role in Githa Hariharans world. As a teacher and author of seven novels, Hariharan feels impelled to continually ask: "Shall we look at ourselves like this? How does it look? What is the view like?"

Hariharan, who has taught in the United States and India, sees the fact that students are more willing to ask questions as a sign of their need for change. As she told SPAN in Chennai just before the recent launch of her new novel, Fugitive Histories, "Very often, it's the whole point of a novel or a story of mine -- to simply know what question to ask, how to ask it, and in what context. In universities around the world, that's possible because students are curious and demanding. They are not taking anything for granted."

Born in Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, Hariharan grew up in Bombay and Manila, Philippines. After earning an M.A. in communication at Fairfield University, Connecticut, in 1977, she worked as a staff writer at a TV station, WNET-Channel 13, in New York City. She returned to Bombay in 1978.

"From the B.A. I did in Bombay, I received a sort of 'book learning,' and some of my teachers there had quite an impact on my work. One of them was, in fact, what I call the midwife of my first novel," Hariharan laughs. That teacher served as a sounding board through the gestation of the novel, The Thousand Faces of Night, and helped her edit the draft.

In that book, Hariharan drew from the freedoms and struggles of her life as a student in the United States, and how it leaves a person with a new perspective of life. Devi, one of the protagonists, returns to India and tries to reconcile to tradition after experiencing more independence in the United States.

"When I think of my student life in America, I not only think about my university... but also about my practical experience of being there," Hariharan says. "I lived and worked in Manhattan and I learnt...to live alone as a woman, which was very important to me and has served me well. I learnt the great pleasures of solitude. I learnt to enjoy museums, bookshops, art, and the amazing creativity you see on the streets of America."

After holding the World Literature Residency at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in 2004, Hariharan served in 2006 as a distinguished Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. There she taught a course she had designed, called The Edges of Nation Making: Perspectives on Modern Indian Literature.

"At Dartmouth, I could set two very difficult exams and tell the students, look, you could perhaps learn something from the exam itself," she says. "I see the exam as one more chance. If you missed something in class, if there was something you didn't understand, we could discuss it again. A real open book test was pretty difficult for me to set, leave alone for them to answer. It wasn't like writing a term paper. They had to choose the questions they wished to answer, and that was not an easy task. I thought they were extraordinarily lucky, that such an experiment was possible and that they could be a part of it. The kinds of connections they could come up with were amazing."

Hariharan, who has lived in New Delhi for more than 20 years, spent the past year, ending in February 2009, as writer in residence at Jamia Millia Islamia university. She feels that writing itself is an educative process and tells her students that it would be difficult to write if they were only Xeroxing from situations and characters.

"I think, in my first novel, I was trying to find out how to enlarge what seemed like very small, uneventful lives. Quite accidentally I stumbled upon myth, fable and the tale as a literary strategy, and I went on to add nuances and dimensions to these characters, plus populate the world of my novel with a lot of voices," she says. "And from that, I learnt that my interests, abilities and agendas as a writer include looking at the dangers, possibilities and mysteries of multiplicities."

Though she enjoys teaching tremendously, Hariharan says her experience is very intense as she does it only occasionally. "Teaching for me is a time to examine all the ideas that I usually examine in indirect and sneaky, artistic ways but, in teaching, I am actually looking at them with all the lights on...," she says.

Hariharan notes, however, that there is a kind of careerist thrust in the current generation of students. "They might be asking you about writing but what they really want to know is how you found your agent or how you got yourself published," she says. "There is a kind of impatience that distracts from the purpose of learning the craft of writing. This is not so much a critique as it is something I say with a certain sense of sadness."

Wishing that Indian writers could teach more, Hariharan explains that people like her, who are not teachers in a conventional way, face limitations "because we don't have Ph.D.s and did not set out to work as teachers for a number of years." She notes that this is a problem in India, but not in certain countries like the United States, where writers can teach not just creative writing but even be attached to an English department and teach a course in literature.

"I think it's a great pity that we don't have more openness for that kind of thing here. I think it's a great shame for students. It's a loss for them and fellow faculty," she says. "And, of course, it's a huge loss for writers because I think it's wonderful to be occasionally attached to an institution and it's absolutely wonderful to be among students. They always give you much more than they receive." (Courtesy: SPAN)
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Vaidehi Iyer is a journalist and editor based in Chennai.
 
   
Classrooms for peace
  By Deepti Priya Mehrotra  
  IN 2002, Gujarat was the site of one of the worst communal riots in India's history, with tensions between majority and minority communities continuing to simmer long after the immediate violence. Complicity of the state in the violence and systematic hate campaigns against the minority community were so blatant that commentators often use the term 'pogrom' to describe the events of those stormy days. What made things even worse was the fact that many of those at the receiving end of the violence were from the poorest sections of society.

It is against this dark backdrop that Samerth, an Ahmedabad-based NGO, has tried to make a difference. Founded in the early nineties to promote participatory development among marginalised and vulnerable communities, it is one of the several organisations in Gujarat that has been working towards bringing about reconciliation and peace in an atmosphere of distrust and disquiet.

Elaborates Samerth founder-trustee Gazala Paul, a post-graduate in Coexistence and Conflict Management from Brandeis University, Massachusetts, "In rural Kachchh, our main thrust is on sustainable livelihood practices while in urban Ahmedabad our focus is on conflict resolution, peace building and education. We work extensively in 'bastis' (slums), through educational interventions for children and youth, and livelihood restoration for women."

Working towards the economic restoration of riot-affected communities since 2003 in the Juhapura, Sarkhej, Jivraj and Vejalpur areas of Ahmedabad -- for the benefit of both Hindus and Muslims -- Samerth members find that the memory of the 2002 violence still troubles people. Most of them are impoverished, largely because of the inadequate compensation given to them by the government in the aftermath of the 2002 violence and because of poor civic facilities generally.

The NGO has, therefore, sensitively developed interventions to overcome the deprivation and also the entrenched attitudes of prejudice and hatred. Realising that Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in the 'bastis' could provide a vital entry point to mobilise women of both communities, activists have enabled members to set up a savings and credit system as a means to supplement their incomes. They also make loans available to riot-affected families.

The encouraging response from women of both communities initiated a process of rebuilding trust between them and greater integration. But the most important initiative Samerth has launched is focused on children. It seeks to make an impact on young minds by coming up with out-of-the-box approaches. It has devised peace modules to tackle the effects of violence. Soon after the riots, the NGO ran playgroups in relief camps. "At that point," recalls Iqbal Baig, the organisation's Programme Support Coordinator, "Our focus was more therapeutic in nature. After the closure of the camps, we shifted the pre-schools within the communities. Ever since, we provide pre-school education and carry out peace education with school children, youth and adolescents, community leaders and the clergy."

A few thousand children -- with a fair representation from both the Hindu and Muslim communities -- actively participate in the 'peace classes' held in neighbourhood government and private schools in Ahmedabad. The peace modules tackle the biases and bring about a feeling of goodwill and mutual understanding. Quizzes and games, stories about eminent national leaders, exercises such as the 'spider web' and the 'tree exercise', all help children focus on topics of peace, non-violence, unity in diversity and social harmony in a creative and fun way.

Fatma Chopra, a field worker with Samerth, has been actively engaged in developing peace modules as well as teaching and conducting classes for young children. She also works at enhancing women's livelihood skills and is trained in teaching needlecraft. She explains, "Through our peace modules and quiz competitions, we try to develop respect and tolerance in the minds of children from different religious and cultural backgrounds. By 2007, we were conducting peace modules in 37 schools. Children get very interested in the approach and there were animated debates on diversity and multiculturalism."

But there have been challenges. Admits Nasrin Pathan, a peace educator, "Initially, schools were hesitant and refused permission. But we started inviting eminent personalities as observers. This helped create an environment of trust among the managements of these schools. Slowly more schools agreed to cooperate with us."

Currently, Samerth runs eight playgroups, exposing children to computers and other creative activities even as they get to understand the meaning and importance of multiculturalism. The NGO has also encouraged schools to form Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) as fora to discuss issues related to harmony and peaceful co-existence.

Paul explains, "In Gujarat, we have experienced a sequence of communal violence, which has left deep scars on the hearts and minds of people. As a result, the minority community members are huddling together in different settlements like Juhapura, forming ghettoes. The lack of trust between people is so sharp that inter-community interactions had virtually stopped. This isolation allows conservative and regressive elements to take control and curb reforms and progress. We work in such an environment and it is very difficult. We have reached out to other NGOs to build alliances to counter communal prejudices, and tackle issues of injustice and negligence. We are also making efforts to strengthen the network for wider reach and impact."

Thus, the organisation, which now also specialises in providing training sessions on conflict transformation and peace building, has built alliances with bodies such as the Ahmedabad Women's Action Group (AWAG), Sanchetana -- and the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), which had already set up SHGs.

In order to dispel divisive myths and stereotypes, Samerth has widely disseminated amongst children, teachers and parents, the Gujarati translation of a study on multicultural traditions that it had conducted in association with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Titled 'Gujarat Unknown -- A Study on Syncretic Traditions', it traces the syncretic and multicultural traditions through shrines, anecdotes and experiences and observes that communities in this region had coexisted for centuries and had carried out livelihood activities together, particularly in rural areas. These translated booklets are proving effective in building a general appreciation of how cultures have influenced each other and how reinforcing diversity is a precondition for human existence and an effective democracy.

According to Paul, "It has taken enormous energy and hard work by the Samerth staff to convince the schools, youth and 'basti' women to allow us to dwell upon issues of communalism, secularism and peace. But the processes of reconciliation are certainly taking place and we are very happy when we see the children responding and changing."

Rehana Sheikh, a peace module teacher, shares, "If we go to the six schools of Vejalpur, Jivraj and Sarkhej areas, the children there have become friendly and talkative. They share stories of violence and show a genuine interest in other religions and customs. Some of them have even become torchbearers of the movement against communal feeling."

Samerth's members are conscious, of course, that their outreach is quite limited considering the scale of the problem. But they believe that trying to get children and young people today to value secularism and diversity will make a big difference tomorrow, so that events like the 2002 riots never come back to haunt Gujarat. (Women's Feature Service)
 
   
A Teachers' Day special
  By By Balvinder  
  THE University Grants Commission (UGC) has recently recommended a considerable hike for college and university teachers in regard to their pay packages.

However, most of the states have yet to implement these new and liberally enhanced recommendations for one or the other reason. The few states that have implemented or have agreed "in principle" to adopt the teachers' new pay pattern have modified the recommendations as per their own whims or financial conditions.

Small wonder that one keeps hearing, from media reports, the sharp shrieks of agitating teachers from various states. Some of the agitating teachers' organisations have, reportedly, gone to the extent of observing Teachers' Day, September 5, as a black day.

It is another story that Mr Kapil Sibal, our Minister who looks after education at the Centre, is daydreaming of streamlining our dubiously downgraded education system.

Now, it is the teachers who are agitating. A bit later it would be the turn of the students to go on agitations on as silly a pretext as the decreased size of the 'samosas', due to a sharp rise in the prices of all its ingredients, in the college/varsity canteen.

All this means that education remains at the LOWEST of the priorities in our educational institutions of HIGHER learning.

Always worried and agitated over pay hikes, or seniority and designations, teachers today seem to have lost their interest in actual education for which they are appointed.

The following recent example that exposes well the sad state of affairs in our institutions of higher learning should be an eye-opener for one and all, including Mr Sibal!

The Vice-Chancellor of Panjab University, Chandigarh, debarred a local government college lecturer from undertaking "any remunerative work of the university, for a period of two years", vide his letter No. 6275-6309 DRS/OSS-II dated July 27, 2009.

The punishment, in effect, is a boon in disguise as the teacher would not be allowed even to act as an invigilator during examinations, a duty which every teacher despises the most.

For, those who manage to wriggle out of these invigilation duties, there are so many other ways and loopholes too for that.

However, one would surely get goose pimples when one would know why this particular teacher got that profitable punishment from the university, while the local Education Department remained dumb over the 'routine' issue.

While distributing packets of answer books of a university examination for their evaluation, this studious looking lady teacher, in History, was inadvertently handed over a bundle of Geography papers, which she 'duly' marked.

One can well imagine how sincerely or minutely she must have marked/evaluated papers of her own subject. However, none bothered about this fact and did not order any re-evaluation of all her earlier insincere and thoroughly callous evaluation work done at least during that particular session.
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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