Friday, January 16, 2015

Letter to Metamorphia

16th January 2016

Dear Metamorphians,
I have 87 days left with you. Typically, we make around 1000 choices in a day. In these 87 days, we have over 87000 choices each of us can make.

You have the choice to listen and learn or talk and waste your and your friend's time. You have the choice to work hard everyday by doing your classwork, homework, group-work and preparation for procedures or to be lazy and give up on your dreams. You have the choice to come to school everyday and celebrate your remaining time in Metamorphia or sleep at home. You have the choice to eat well and stay healthy or eat street food and fall ill. You have the choice to ask a question or to remain confused and lost.

You have the choice to work together as a team to help everyone achieve their goals or work against each other so that no one achieve their goals. You have the choice to show respect and earn some respect or hurt someone and get hurt in return.  You have the choice to react when someone provokes you or to show self control and bore the person till he/she gives up. You have a choice to show honesty in your words and actions or say lies to escape consequence and become a weak person.

You have the choice to become a wise leader or a member of the herd. You  have the choice to show your friend the way to make the right choice or see your friends make the wrong choice. You have the choice to be nice and spread happiness or be kind and spread sorrow to your loved ones and friends.

You have the choice to move your family out of Shivaji Nagar into a cleaner place or stay here forever.  You have the choice to go to college and earn a degree or diploma or drop out of school and work as a labourer. You have the choice to travel the world or stay stuck between your city and villages. You have the choice to become a person who changes the world  or become an average person who only earns respect out of fear. You have the choice to make a difference to the community or become like one of them.

No one can take this choice away from you.  No one can take Bhaiyya away from you but time. No one can take this time away from you but you.

I hope we have ALL become an excellent class again. I hope we ALL achieve our goals. I hope we ALL have a fabulous Maya musical. I hope we ALL show respect to time and have fun on Fridays. I hope we ALL act with values without thinking about reward. I hope we ALL keep trying in the face of failure. I hope ALL of us always make the right choice, with or without me.

Remember, we have just 87 days left.

Kapil Bhaiyya

Thursday, January 08, 2015

For a Peaceful Planet

I often have tell students in class to show self control when they have a strong urge to retaliate when someone hits them or abuses them. "It is only fair," they say, "that a person gets what he deserves." I ask them to express their feelings politely rather than create more animosity. Telling someone "I feel angry when you hit me" is a far better way than hitting them back. It may work if the person guilty of the act is conscientious. It gives the the chance to correct himself, to apologize, to come clean. "Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone deserves a second chance." After repeated interventions, most children do understand.

On some occasions, I am asked to arbitrate on the matter. In that case, I use a system of a classroom trial, where there are witnesses on both sides being asked to present their view. There are pre-defined rules and consequences in the classroom that the students are aware of. The consequence is not differentiated between the one who initiated the act and the one who followed in the act. If I differentiate then, in a way, I am accepting a justification for the violence and unkindness of one over violence and unkindness of the other.

I have a simple philosophy. Violence as the preferred way to attain justice creates a vicious cycle of hate and anger, that amplifies from one round to another. When truth in its incomplete form is accepted and systematically taught, it leads to dogmas propagating and spreading in the society causing further marginalization of the free minds. Communities grow up feeding on the idea of religious or regional fundamentalism. When such communities meet motivated, misguided and gifted people like Hitler or bin Ladin, they are mobilized into forms (like terrorist organizations) that unleash their anger on thousands of innocent people.

My student Firdos had once said "In my community, children are friends and grown ups fight." The simple statement had such a deep meaning,not only in the context of Shivaji Nagar, but the world itself. Children are born without these prejudices, but are systematically brainwashed - more so in communities where exposure to media is incomplete, comprehension of information is poor, scientific thinking is absent and the wisdom to independently choose the right path missing. The difference between an Ajmal Kasab going to a college and an Ajmal Kasab becoming a terrorist could have been that one mentor, that one teacher or that one parent who could gift him the voice of reason.

9/11 shocked me. When the attacks of 26/11 happened in Mumbai, I felt deep anger and hatred. But the question in front of me was "Who is this anger and hatred directed towards?" On reflection, I realized my anger and hatred were not directed towards the terrorists, their country or their religion. My anger was directed at the ignorance that led them to believe that walking on the path of violence and hate could lead them to finding their own peace.

People, like you and me, have  the skills, knowledge and exposure that is not ours to keep. If we have inherited our world, it is our responsibility to leave it in a better place. One of the ways to do this is to use whatever intellectual wealth we have to impact lives of the tens, hundreds, thousands or millions who don't - any amount of difference that you will make is going to be significant.

Through what I do, I have chosen to give children an excellent education. What will you do to save our world?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

For the sake of others

I am neither a misanthrope nor asocial. I am not driven by rebellion or non-conformance either. However, I am strongly driven by values of secular humanism, chief among them being fairness, simplicity, respect, integrity, wisdom, efficiency and scientific thinking. I also judge my actions by a simple thumb rule. I always ask myself "Is what I do thoughtful, helpful, inspiring, necessary or kind?". If the answer is no to any question, I choose to avoid the action. I call this the "THINK" rule.

During the months leading to my wedding and the weeks following my wedding, I have often heard the phrase "man is a social animal" being used as a driver of certain actions that seem illogical but indispensable part of our fabric. In addition, many practices are disguised under the veil of apparently righteous terms like "culture" and "tradition". Many of these actions or practices surrounding the wedding strongly challenged my value system. I was able to reach a mid path on many of the practices I objected to. However, some of my objections were vetoed due to my lack of seniority in the household despite the logic being sound.

In an ideal world, I would have preferred having a court marriage or temple marriage in presence of my parents, closest relatives and friends. This would be the wedding that would minimize effort, money and time and would significantly enhance the quality of time spent with my loved ones, including my wife to be. After the wedding, I would want to spend some time relaxing at home or away from home, bonding with my spouse and her first family.

India, on the other hand, is still a collectivist society where decisions are taken incorporating everyone's view. Everyone's view in turn is governed by societal acceptance and image. No where is this seen more than in a marriage. While I am not against maintaining an image in the society that is a reflection of who you aspire to be, I am against maintaining an image that is corrupted by my community's perception of how an ideal wedding and its participants should be.

For example, I do not see the reason why a bride must conceal her flaws under tonnes of make up. I do not see the sense in buying and wearing dresses that will probably never be used again in a life time. I do not see why hundreds of people, some of whom have never visited your home, need to be treated to a lavish spread of food. It is absolutely fine to indulge in these practices if you think they will make the wedding memorable. However, if you have strong logical reasons to reject them, then you shouldn't blindly follow them for the sake of society.

Moreover, the problem with the community perception is it hasn't changed with time. The reason behind some traditions no longer exist - which makes the same traditions irrelevant in today's society. However, we not only continue following these traditions but also impose them on others, just because they have gone on for centuries.

For instance, calling the community to the wedding was a norm because in olden days, everyone stayed in a close knit village. You interacted with everyone on a day to day basis. Bonds were formed not just because your were related by birth but because of mutual coexistence in a restricted geography.

The people who now form a part of the guest list, technically are not a part of your community because community is defined as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. Apart from their lineage (because my great-grandfathers lived in the same town in Pakistan), many people neither live in the same place nor have anything remotely in common with my family or me. Yet, we are expected to be a part of their celebration and they are expected to be a part of ours.

What has made the practices worse is the impact of carefully planned marketing driving comparative materialism through the roof from one wedding to another. It is true that people have spend $500 Mn on Indian weddings, which is about as vulgar as wastage could get in a world where inequality is in extremes. You don't need to hire a Mercedes for the bride and groom nor do you need to buy expensive jewellery because someone else from your social strata had it at their son's or daughter's wedding.

When you indulge in tradition and social norms with understanding the rationale, the marriage changes from being a happy union of two people and their families to an exhibition of materialistic power and an exercise in branding.  These practices are the cosmetics that whole families together put up to conceal their insecurity of being rejected by the society, many of whose members wouldn't turn up to help you on a rainy day.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014: Gratitude

2014 has been the year that tested my tenacity in more than one way. The year posed many challenges on both the personal and professional front, which took away incredible amount of energy from me. I wanted to end the year on a high, but on the contrary, I am feeling at my lowest ever. My marriage, being the largest exercise in managing egos of diverse stake holders, took away my focus from my classroom. My students, who were on the path of transformation, have now lost the momentum towards their goals thanks to my distracted inputs and the absence of my co-teacher and thought partner.

I am mentally tough and well planned, which has helped me deal well with the stress, but I am disappointed with the permanence of the outcomes which my dedicated effort in the classroom have yielded. Everyone tells me that I have fared fairly well considering the circumstances. For me, these two years were not about surviving, they were about pushing the limits of my belief, of what I can achieve. I have managed to achieve push boundaries for myself, but that hasn't been the case for my kids.

The crucial thing is the year is still far from over - I have 3 months left. I need to plan and carefully channelize my energy towards effective inputs that have a lasting impact on my kids. Before that, I need to get back into a positive frame of mind and there is no better way to do that than showing gratitude.

I am thankful to my wife Pallavi (she is now :) ) for understanding why my work is my first priority during the fellowship duration. I have never been forced to choose between my students and her, because she has always been willing to sacrifice our time together for the sake of my students. She is truly my "giving tree".

I am thankful to the Jafari team who have become my strongest pillars of support. Without them, I would have found it incredibly hard to maintain my sanity. I am thankful to Sarvesh, who has made a huge sacrifice for the sake of my school team. I am especially thankful to Piyali and Neerja for being patient listeners and selfless friends. I can't even express how much Rajesh's presence and advice means to my team and me, despite him having moved on from Jafari.

I am thankful to my children for showing love and patience in what has been a difficult two months. The warmth with which they welcome me when I returned to school motivated me to work even harder for them. They have been open and honest in their feedback and constructive in their inputs. I am thankful for writers of songs with meaningful lyrics because they help me bond with my class better.

I am thankful to Saba madam for showing me what grit and selfless commitment looks like. She is an inspiration. The educational scenario in India would be different if many more people had a mindset similar to hers.

I am thankful to my younger sister Niki. Her high standards of achievement and focused inputs always encourage me to push myself to excel at everything I do.

I am thankful to my friends and family, who have repeatedly compromised on their time with me when I was faced with unplanned demands on my time. Among them, I am especially thankful to Ankita who has been superbly supportive and a real best friend, despite the distance that separates us. Like Pallavi, she never has had any expectations from me, but has always been there when I needed her.

I am thankful for the challenges that have come my way, for they have taught me the value of optimism and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

I am thankful for my ability to plan and prioritize. For the first time in my life, there have been phases where I haven't had a plan in mind and these phases have been the ones that have disappointed me the most. Henceforth, I will always plan both on the personal and professional front - before I start execution. Efficiency and effectiveness are always a turn on.

As much as I am saddened by what happened in Peshwar, I am thankful for the attacks because they have reinforced my belief in what I do and what I want to do for the rest of my life. Coming around my marriage, they have made me see the importance of events like wedding ceremonies that bring people together, rather than divide them.

Monday, October 06, 2014


Having finally got a holiday, I decided to catch up with Haider. I had received mixed reviews about it, but since it is a Vishal Bhardwaj movie, I was willing to take my chances. I was not disappointed. The adaptation of Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet' in the context of Kashmir's history was masterful. The story was stretched unnecessarily at certain points in the plot, but the execution and performances were so stunning that I was not complaining. I am not going to review the movie in detail in this post. Instead I want to capture the feelings which Tabu's portrayal of Ghazala evoked in me.

Ghazala's role is a complex character. She is torn between her love for her son, her commitment to her husband and her passion for her lover. At no point does she have all three of them due to which she is always left wanting in the movie. The void itself is difficult to portray because all these relationships are defined in a manner that would be considered unorthodox in India.  Apart from her unfulfilled relationships, she is also in the dark about the complete truth, which makes it difficult for her to fully support one of the many narratives that exist in the story. Moreover, the setting of Kashmir of the mid-90s where the people live in the shadow of militancy and military brutalities takes a further toll on her life.

In a recent post, I had spoken about excellence and Tabu sets the benchmark in excellence for modern day actresses. Not only does she looks incredibly beautiful as a Kashmiri woman, she portrays the many shades of Ghazala with relative ease - the fear of losing her loved ones, the passion of a lover, the compassion of a mother,  the duty of a housewife, the indecisiveness in choice and the courage to do what is right. She does all this putting on a believable Kashmiri accent. While I don't have a clue about acting, I don't think even an accomplished critique can do justice to Tabu's performance.

When a great director, a great actor and a great character meet, magic happens. You don't have to be a student of the art  to recognize the brilliance you are witnessing. You just have to surrender your senses and soak in the emotions. Tabu makes you empathize with Ghazala's predicament. You want to help her but you can't. You want to give her a shoulder to cry on, but you can't. You want to scream out the truth to her, but she can't hear you. You only watch. You only wait to know what becomes of her, despite it being a slow paced movie. You remain mesmerized in her life.

Not discounting a fabulous performance by Kay Kay Menon and a career best by Shahid Kapur, it is Tabu who keeps you engrossed in the movie, making you take notice and applaud. You leave the theater with part of her soul latched on to yours and her words playing on a loop in your mind