The maya of education


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‘WRITE,’ she orders, and I’m once again that 31 year old on her first visit to a Delhi newspaper office – just write! I sit watching the laburnum outside the window and the sun sets and sets and sets again in a mind crowded as usual with Katha, the teacher training and ohmygod! salary cheques to be signed in a week, when Maya comes peeping through to ask, ‘Would you like to start with me?’

My mind slips to 2000. I have been smiling and saying tata-byebye to a couple of kids at the traffic light near our office. In time, the smiles and begging for money turn into small talk and soon Maya and her friends from Rajasthan are coaxed and giggled into making just one trip to the Katha School that nestles in the midst of the sprawling Govindpuri slum cluster.

‘Or me?’ asks Renu, as she drags me willy-nilly to 1995. It was Renu who made us shift our stand and philosophy. ‘We are not a parallel system to government,’ I’d insisted. ‘We get kids from nonliterate families into government schools.’ But determined Renu went from Katha to formal school and then, caught between a school’s grammar she didn’t know and a home where she was needed desperately as a breadwinner, decided to climb the tall wall behind our school and jump off it. Nothing happened to her. Something definitely did to Katha. The next week, we launched the Katha School of Entrepreneurship to take children like Renu directly to Grade X and, inshallah, Grade XII and college. It was the start of Katha’s seamless preschool to college continuum for children from nonliterate families, so that they wouldn’t one day say, ‘Why weren’t we given the education we deserved, not just what our parents could barely afford.’

What gets me through life are the Renus and Shazias, Sonias and Mitraphals. Forgetfulness comes from the Katha prize stories. Bhasha writers and translators come to sit nights with me to examine the colour of a cashewnut’s joint, the degree of darkness of its beige/brown/ sepia/sienna/pinkorange/grey. We play with words and metaphors, examining what makes a story tick, what makes a translation ‘literature in the making’. I go from real to imagined to the real again, infuriated, outraged, always angry, somehow coping with the misery of the now, through unravelling the human predicament in stories... rewriting the Our Father of my childhood prayers from the missionary school in Madras. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ It’s cheek asking God to excuse me just because I forgive another – but the word that trips out is stresspasses. Please god forgive me my stresspasses against those I love and don’t want to ever hurt and yet hurt again and again...


They’re dropping out of school like nobody’s business, children. No textbooks, I’d said in despair, thinking that the syllabus and curriculum and textbooks were the culprits. Fantasy was important for our children. So we created our own teaching/learning materials from stories our children tell us, stories from the bhasha, newspapers and encyclopaedias and what students see on the streets. We began with stories and made meaning with the kids, helping them make the connections from their experiences. Soon, the relevant education framework was in place. And Katha’s story pedagogy – story from their own spoken vocabulary, to sentence, to word and maatra in a spiral that made sense to them. Tamasha! the big fat elephant was working her magic...

1987. I had come to Delhi, straight from working in the slums of Chennai, sure that I would be useless for the five years of my husband’s transfer – for I knew no Hindi. But then one day there I was with kids in the government school, serendipitously. A turning point you could say, with a big fat elephant in the centre of it all causing the turbulence and the laughter. Tamasha! who soon brought friends Chichinda and Hulgul with her and the idea of a magazine for first generation schoolgoers to which she gave her name.

But maybe Katha’s genesis goes back to the time when I was in the districts of Tamil Nadu... or maybe it goes back to my father, a doctor who would put money into the pockets of his patients, urging them to go buy some milk and vegetables for their sick child… Personally, I had thought Katha was one of the bylanes I would take when I was not writing for my literary agent in New York, my publisher in London. Those manuscripts languished in some forgotten cardboard box as I got collecting stories from Indian languages for translation into English, writing stories for children for Tamasha!


It was to be a simple magazine for first generation schoolgoers. It would carry stories in translation and fun stories about X and Y chromosomes and ORS and why a girl is as good as a boy, why elephants need space, and trees made good friends, and things like that. But Tamasha! refused to stay small. A girl writes from a small village in southern-most Kerala: ‘I have only two rupees; Can you please send me Tamasha! every month?’ Another says: ‘My postmaster tells me Tamasha! I must see. Can you send me a free copy?’ An organization working in 135 villages in the Himalayan area wants complimentary copies. We provide some free. Some they buy, saying, ‘We shall circulate these to all the villages. Don’t worry.’ And a designer working with barely literate villagers in Rajasthan tells us that Tamasha! stories are useful in her work.

It didn’t take us long to realize that we could not talk of a magazine for the first generation schoolgoer without, at the same time, thinking about the vast number of children who just could not read! And the magazine which had started out in April 1988, soon had a society to bring it out, with an overarching mission: To enhance the joy of reading and the love of books.


By 1991, the ‘I’ was becoming a ‘we’, a group of keen-type editors hobnobbing with a book-loving elite from many languages, searching for a good read that could sit cheek to jowl with those written in English from India and abroad. We soon had thousands of translators strengthening the bhasha story pool in India. From the many languages came fresh voices that foregrounded a new kind of intersection of memory and regionalism.

Each language in India is a catchment area for collective memory; so, while western culture is rooted in the Bible, the Indian is rooted in the stories that link us and make our diversity itself a non-divisive tool. Stories were tripping in from dalit, folk, tribal languages, enriched by peoples’ memories, migrations and self-determination. They set to rest the widespread fear of fragmentation of cultures, erasure of traditions and the threat of linguistic divides, and came up with sort-of answers to troublesome questions: Is our diversity the cause of division? Could a keen literary understanding break down the social, gender, historical stereotypes from fragmented cultures, the inconsistency between the subculture and the national? Could a reader recognize that translations help her appreciate a past and a present which she would otherwise have no recourse to? We weren’t a boulder to make an impact. But a small pebble can make a lake ripple, right?


There have been so many beginnings at Katha. Endless journeys that take off one from the other, insinuate one into another, suggest a thousand impossible, undoable actions and solutions for things cultural that lie deep under the sun-hardened skin, mixed irrevocably in the civilizational centuries-old blood. Is this why being in Katha has aged me 200 years? Is this why the 20 years seem like twenty minutes? And I hear my friend Krishna Sobti’s voice with the laughter that often swallows the words and leaves just a twinkle in the eye to carry the meaning through: ‘Memory is a rare gift. Whatever we remember of an intense moving experience becomes a part of our personal text. Writers like me touch the pen, praying to God – bless me with ears that hear flowers, sunshine, moonlight. Give me eyes that can see a sigh of joy, the anguish of sorrow.’

How do we make each of our teachers Krishna Sobtis, be ‘unknown to herself’ and so be present to her students, to what she is creating within the classroom?

Each year we provoke debates about diversity and identity in today’s India with hundreds of teachers working in our schools. Every other year we invite students from a hundred colleges across the country, questioning at many levels complex issues of onus and ownership, and homogenized narratives. They storytell experiences, delve deep into arguments that a just India can emerge only when those in the margin have been given a voice in a global language, even as we retort to the theory of dependency of minority languages and the hegemony of English. And side by side we start off two ventures to address the two sides of the language argument: The English Academy and the Translation for Equity Network.

1999! We celebrate the magic of 9,19,99,1999. Katha’s 9th volume, with 19 stories; Katha’s 99th book, offered in 1999! I believe fiction is for relaxation, for fun. But slowly comes the realization that it has helped change the realities that politics and economics have created for India. Can it, without placing quality fiction in the stranglehold of ‘reform literature’, also be a tool for transformation of the self, and through this, hopefully, of society? And my friend nods. ‘We had literature before we had literacy,’ says Dilip Chitre, writer, poet, translator. ‘Even today, some half a million people gather at Pandharpur to worship Vithoba. They sing Tukaram’s abhangs, dwelling on words, exploring the many meanings.’

Interactive storytelling is unique to India. This the young in non-personal Internet-linked spaces will recreate. I see our kids chatting through their computers in our schools and I am sure.


Yesterday I saw Maya again. Maya smiles her saucy smile at the crossing, but it isn’t Maya. She’s back in Rajasthan at her sasural, the new Maya informs me with the same confident smile – and here she is still refusing to get into the school on wheels with its computer and printer, still dodging the Tamasha! van that used to try and pick up Maya and her friends in 2001! Maya and Sita Devi run and hide when they see the van, though school’s fun they say. The conundrum has no answers. Is there something in their happy-go-lucky Rajasthani hearts that does not like them to be in one place for long, that does not focus on things ‘irrelevant’? Or is it a mind thing? Is there something called a nomadic brain, I wonder. Surely people who for generations lived a life of movement and wandering must have a different chemistry that runs their lives? What makes the question more pertinent is the fact that it seems that the boys who have run away from Bihar to make Delhi their home, are different. They want to study, but are not allowed by their contractor for even a half-hour. A classic example of cultural identity.


But what is the meaning of identity in India? Do these children belong to that invisible minority called the Developing World Child – begging perpetually, crying for sympathy? I think of Maya with her generous smile that shows teeth that are still baby-big for her pert face. The Rajasthani child, even when she begs, does not seem to give up her pride. Like the camel she befriends almost naturally, there is a pride she seems born into. She accepts her place in the traffic light islands of Delhi as easily as she does in the sands of Sum. And she sleeps under the fly-over as naturally as she would under the million stars of the Thar desert.

There is a smartness to her that has been gained from years of wandering, making do with very little, knowing the inside-outs of life on the move. Many homes and yet none to call her own. The confidence that comes from this must be great I think, I who have never lived without a proper roof over my head. But I suppose if you have nothing, you can lose nothing. Their knowledge is transient and shifting, their memory makes the myths and shapes them into stories to fill the large nights, they make their extensions and connections that have carried them through the centuries. Yet, it is this very knowledge that works against them now maybe, making them unfit to cope with the transience of a globalized world.

We create a system. And allow it to become self-perpetrating. We cannot devise a learning system for children in our slums or streets because we don’t even know how they think or what they want. They could be from Mars for all we know. When we think we can only think of children who will eventually end up in colleges, IITs and IIMs, good-and-kind willing.


I see her sitting on the outdoor swing, the oonjal, Sister Subbalakshmi Ammal. Frail, sparrow-like eyes, darting, the sandbrown sari of a widow. She is so small that her feet barely reach the floor and she has to sway her body in small jerky movements to energize the swing. Behind her the bougainvillea of Madras bloom shamelessly. In front of her me, looking with six year old eyes of awe, knowing now she will look at me, now she will laugh and I will too, with her. Sister Subbalakshmi, the child widow. She made a difference. She changed the world order for women. She started a home for young widows and deserted/battered women. And she managed without much money. Can we? I look at our teachers who talk of himmat and atmavishvas and standing on their own feet. They send their children to school; school fees have to be paid. Can’t talk volunteerism with women who barely get one meal a day, can we? Sister, of course, had people like my grandmother, women from ‘good families’.

Katha Khazana does happen! I still remember the inaugural day. September 1990. We have a mela. Dancers and rope walkers, magicians and snake charmers, a merry-go-round and the littlest of giant wheels. But I’m thinking reading. We tuck a small book stall into a corner of the maidan that was next to our ‘school building’ and lay out books bought in the market and tagged at a rupee each. We were mobbed. Children came clutching ten rupee notes in their fists. And these were children who had never been to a school, or had dropped out of it so long ago that they had slid back into illiteracy.

Reading, we say, if only children will read well and for fun and at grade level. Katha was started with the mission goal of enhancing the joys of reading. And as we stepped into the new decade, century and millennium in 2000, the mission never seemed more urgent or more distant...


But each year like a miracle, the Katha Prize Stories bring in fresh literary landscapes from disparate corners of India. Soon, Katha is conducting grameen sahitya sabha workshops outside Imphal, readings in Vijayawada, writer meets in Mumbai, Agartala, Bangalore... And every story that comes in through the search for excellence and the Katha Prize Stories route goes into storytelling in the classrooms: a mass collaboration programme that put all the stories we have in the common domain. Mauni, Basheer, Ismat Chugtai, Naiyer Masud, Afzar Ahmed, Paul Zacharia, Ambai, Krishna Sobti, Shühozelie Liezietsu, James Dhokuma and other voices from the Northeast that surprise us so consistently because only the Northeast is blessed with a myriad voices that only singing pines and undulating lands and mighty rivers have ever heard... Tenydie, Khasi, and Mizo add to Katha’s 21 languages for the 21st century... We go to Rajasthan with retold stories for children and they ask, ‘Is an elephant a fat camel with a lonnnnnng nose?’ And in our schools in Arunachal Pradesh, the children giggle over an elongated elephant with a huge mountain on its back!

Each one of our women in the slums dreams of giving her children books to read. If they don’t, it is because they can’t. And so in 1991 starts the skilling/reskilling of 100 women/year which would swell to 91,500 by 2008. But 6 December 1992 intervenes. The Goldilocks debate on education: what’s not too much and not too little – what’s just right to keep children with us till grade XII turns into the Ayodhya dilemma. We who had sat on self-defensive fences for far too long, saw the Govindpuri population of 50:50 Hindus and Muslims turn against neighbours... We watched helpless, then came back to a solution that will work, god willing, over time. And that’s how active tolerance and mediation strengthened Katha’s economic and social resurgence agenda, the large idea that a school must foster the renaissance of its community.


Last year, we did a survey to see where we stood as we embarked on Katha’s third decade. We spoke to about 400 of Katha’s 2004-2008 graduates and found they earned a collective Rs 4.5 crore in 2008. And our women? We asked about 1200 of them what their combined earnings were. Rs 40 lakh or so each month they say. And when we started out in Govindpuri, the average family income was Rs 600-Rs 800 per month! The efforts of Katha to see the school as the centre of community activism, of community resurgence and economic revival had paid dividends. And the best part of it is that the women have learnt to meet their councillors, the executive engineers, for water and basic utilities. Their environments are no better, but they’ve learnt to make government work. They’re forcing government to look at people; lives of the 40-50 per cent population landmass that is an eyesore, economically distant from the power centres. Strange. Why don’t we see that actually they are the closest to power, and help most to build?

There are some 330 million children in India in the 0-14 age group. This number is likely to remain the same over the coming decade. Of these nearly 75 per cent go to non-English medium schools. What will happen to nearly half of all the 7-14 year olds who cannot read simple sentences – the one out of every two who drop out at/before grade VIII? So instead of closing the gap, is English widening it by the day, putting equitable quality education at a distance from the majority?

The work force in 2020 is going to be made up largely of today’s primary schoolers, coming from across many divides. How is India going to manage to bring its full child potential to contribute to the 2020 and beyond economy?


When you work with children who stay in front of your eyes making the dream behind their eyelids sweeten yours, nothing stays small. Or simple. We’d gone from five to 350 to 8000 children in 96 schools. Through 17 years, about 50,000 kids had gone through Katha into sustainable futures and suddenly, an idea brightens our horizon and in 2007 we step into enhancing reading for all children. Today we have 108,000 children across 50 slums, 50 MCD and 50 directorate schools. And in 2009? It is doubling to 200,000. Team Katha cannot wait. We are beginning to see Delhi’s MCD children step-changing with Tamasha! She’s back with her stories... Happy books for happy, eager children. To understand children like Maya we need to get away from standardized views of poverty. But the questions continue to come thick and fast, about education in general, and specifically about the education of children in poverty. How does one ramp up quality even as we reach out for quantity? Or get all children reading well and for fun?

How do you catch a butterfly so gently that it can fly away soon, free?


I sit here scribbling and looking over old notes to see what I should write about. Heat just seeps in through the windows and the chiks and burns the bangles that touch my skin. But the squirrels are out there, choosy-busy on the laburnum, hanging precariously on slender branches that swing with the breeze, looking for nectar. Birds come by to knock on glass panes to see if they can be let in as the desert cooler whirls and whirls in endless churn. And then comes evening to sit on the quiet balcony at the back of the house under the drumstick tree’s small-leaved clumsiness, and I sit too, thanking cloudwisp and breeze as I bid god speed to the sun with the message that she be a little more charitable the next day, a little less hard working.

I watch TV, waiting for ideas for this essay, waiting for Manmohan Singh or Kapil Sibal or anyone talking of the country’s youth potential, to mention the atrocious fact that one out of every two children drop out of school before they reach Grade VIII, while beyond the narrow corridors of power, a world of galis linked by thousands and millions more lead to jhuggis without windows or toilets, shacks with earthquake-inviting fragility that merge and mingle and amaze with 108,000 children scurrying, beckoning, grinning, working, followed by hundreds... thousands... 330,000,000 and there are all of us teachers and mothers and others all running scrambling, stories pouring out of our ears and noses and tips of our flying hair...