Nameless faces

Amarabalan.

That’s a name that stuck in my head all these years, even though I had forgotten the person. There’s very few of my classmates from school that I’ve managed to stay in touch with anyways. I don’t recall his name being mentioned in any conversation in all these years. Some of us went to school together for 12 years. And then others came in and went out of our class at various stages. Amarabalan and I were together from Class 1 to 5. I hadn’t heard of him ever since.

When I met him after all these years the other day, outside our school, I was in for a lovely surprise. And perhaps, a shock in some ways. He came, looked me into the eyes, and asked, ‘Bala, teriyuda da enna?’ *

What immediate caught my attention was his eyes.

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Most of the times, I forget names. They are most likely to be of people that I have had a happy time with, but perhaps relatively briefly. Mostly during my travels. In some town or sometimes just for the duration of a train, or bus, or even an autorickshaw ride. Nothing much more.

I tend to forget faces much less, though. They stick. I know you, I just can’t place some things. You name, may be one such thing.

This man was a rustic. We must have spoken for ten minutes  in all. In that time, the conductor had come in to say he must sit at the back of the bus. I had reserved seat in the front and the seat next to mine was vacant. I felt offended and told the conductor that he’s found a place to sit! Why make him get up? After that, I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, he wasn’t to be seen, until much later when the man had wanted to get off at, close to our destination. The bus driver just asked him to get off in the midst of traffic, hardly having pulled up the road properly. I was upset, but then I could empathise with the drivers too. It is hard. Roads are becoming like zoos.

In the brief minutes this man had spoken to me, I observed that he was a simpleton. Probably a farmer. ‘I am from Chennai, and I had come here on work. There’s no water there for us, back home. Out here, in Chinna Salem, there’s drinking water. The cattle, poor things, they suffer the most when there’s no water.’

Then there was Manivannan. This was most recently, and I had made a (physical) note of his name, and so I remember.

He had refused to turn on the meter, I refused to ride with him. He came back to me. ‘Meter pota 80, oru 20 kooda kudu.’ ** It was quarter to 11. The second time, I didn’t have the heart nor the energy to refuse. I had observed his frail body. He wore a long grey beard, and looked older than he probably was. He spoke a lot. I was tired and sleepy, so couldn’t register it all. He hails from a village in Perambalur district. If I remember right, he had come in the early nineties to Madras. A decade later, his family went back to their village. His two sons both go to college, I was told. I remember thinking that he had done well for himself. In a strange way, that made me proud.

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It came back to me, almost as if in a flash, when he stood there in front of me. Amarabalan, the name, and the face. I was in awe of the moment. I remember he had sharp eyes. He always seemed like looking at things keenly. A lot of times his forehead would be a little creased. Maybe it had something to do with ‘pepe’, a game where a group of people is after a tennis ball, throwing it around to hit each other. He was pretty damn good at it. And I used to get hit a lot, with the ball, especially by him. I must have been easy target. And sometimes, I also remember seeing fear in his eyes. I don’t remember him doing well academically, but he was a perfectly ‘normal’, ‘smart’, talented kid. He now teaches at a college. He didn’t speak too highly of his job. Apparently, he did more for the system, than for the kids. It was evident, that he didn’t like his work. And I wondered how much our schooling had to do with where he or each one of us was. After all, aren’t schools supposed to help us carve out a path for ourselves?

That morning, I had very mixed feelings. I was extremely excited about meeting everyone. They had all planned to go to school, something I was not very keen about, for some reason. I’ve felt the same way about college, too. Not that they were ‘bad’ places, not to me in any case. In fact, I am grateful for absolutely wonderful, beautiful, colourful times as a student. As I heard names, and saw a few faces standing outside the school compound, my mind was racing away.

Through the day and until the following morning, I had a blast of a time with friends. With most people, it felt very easy. Just very easy, it was that simple. There’s something about childhood friends. I just felt like, if any of them needed me to, I’d just stand up for them. No questions asked. Each of us had parted at different points of time. A handful of them, I have since been in touch with. Every one of the rest, was a delight to meet. A lot of the girls felt the boys had changed in many ways, including having grown taller! And more than one of those pretty ladies told me that day, that I had changed to have become a lot quieter. I was quite an extroverted child. We were always up to something. We played, out in the open. A LOT.

Every one of them has had his or her life. They’re all doing their things. Some work for others, others make others work for them. Many of them have been married. Some had really grown up kids! I remember all of them as being unique. And when it came to school, I look back and think that it was mostly about coping. Parts of it were fun, no doubt. I remember liking some of the subjects too. And then there was time with friends – playing, just meeting, talking, flirting with the girls, during outings and what else not.

One of them had travelled roughly 3000 km, all the way from Assam. ‘I loved school days. Mostly my friends. I love you all. I had a tough time trying to study, though. I couldn’t get a lot of what we were expected to learn. You did,’ he told me. I was shocked to hear that after all these years. In my student days, I remember I had thought this fellow coped better, honestly. I really didn’t study all that much.  We had a lot of other things to do, like I mentioned earlier. And then there were things like reading, music, ‘extra-curriculars’, or Scouting. I guess for me, they were all key parts that not only helped me learn a great deal more, they helped me cope with the whole idea of a classroom.

Back then, I was a mixed bag. I did a lot of shit. I remember one teacher. She got hold of me while I was returning from the playground. I think it was my last year at school. She took me around, and showed me to a few of her colleagues, and exclaimed, ‘Look at his shirt. They’re supposed to be grown up, and look how they play so much to soil their shirts.’ I used to like her. I think I coped fairly well with the studying part. I understood things, mostly. Or so I thought. And then I had learnt some tricks that helped me do well in examinations, thanks to my teachers. I was even appointed ‘monitor’, in my primary classes. Looking back, the term looks abhorrent. Later, it became ‘leader’. Just as ‘miss’ had become ‘madam’. In both cases, the connotation of the terms didn’t change much. My job was to ‘shepherd’ others and let the teacher know who the rogues were. Each of them would then punish us appropriately.  I wish someone explained the meaning of the word ‘leader’. I look back with a measure of guilt, that all I did was to be policing, and I never thought of helping my buddies out. It seems to me that we were taught competition more, than cooperation. All the cooperation, we mostly learnt ourselves, outside the classroom, mostly in playgrounds and so on.

I look back at my experience at school & college, and it makes me want to cry. Especially because I am now exposed to ideas around education. I wish kids don’t have to constantly struggle at school. I wish it wasn’t just about coping, but truly learning and discovering oneself. This isn’t to say that I had ‘bad’ teachers. As I remember it, most of them were perfectly nice people. Most of them perhaps wanted good things for us. Yet, I can’t help but think how limited they were in their views & consequently in doing their jobs. And I won’t blame them at all. Every teacher is but a product of the same system that is badly in need of transformation. All these thoughts are without doubt, in retrospect. Especially given that I’ve come to understand education somewhat better.

I am grateful for my work now. It adds a lot of meaning to my life. What keeps me going, is that somewhere, we may trigger some teacher may open her eyes, and change her mind a wee bit. It may just be trifle, yet I find it important to keep going. If we want a better world for ourselves & our kids, then there’s no better place than to start with our schools. Else, schools will remain places where thousands of nameless faceless entities do nothing more than struggle, and somehow find their way out. And it is high time that changed. So that another Amarabalan can discover himself.

* ‘Do you remember me?’

** ‘If I use the meter, it will come to 80. Give me 20 more.’

 

Life as an adventure

“Do you still make such adventurous trips?”, he asked. I had just narrated to a colleague how I once ended up in Shirdi without much of a plan, with not even a pair of clothes to change into. I did not bother to clarify what he meant by that. I wondered what the import of his question was. Perhaps he meant that I had mellowed down over time.

During the initial days at EZV, I had a once to make a trip to Kochi. It was for a workshop, to kickoff an engagement with what is now a big and very popular organisation. Everything was set, we had prepared fairly well, and for a change, I was well in time to catch my train. I can not remember now, but there was some goof up with the tickets – either they simply weren’t confirmed or we had got them booked for the wrong date or some such thing. Essentially, the TTE told me that I could not travel on that train. I wasn’t going to take such a verdict sitting down. Back then, I don’t remember if flying was so common that it may have occurred as an option. Evidently not, for I boarded the general compartment, which was packed. I found enough place right next to the door, to stand, with my bag placed overhead. There were a bunch of college kids who would want me to go inside, but I wouldn’t oblige. I made the 12-odd hours of the journey, standing right there, and I completed my work the following day too. When I hit the sack the following night, it had never felt better.

There seems to be the adventurist, throbbing with life, deep within me. He may have mellowed, as my colleague I described above seemed to imply, but he refuses to die completely, and perhaps never would. For this person, adventure is a deeply satisfying aspect of life. And part of it lies in the surprises that life has to throw. Some of us choose to embrace these surprises, and seek adventure in them. So, when one year after another passed for me, in EZV, some of my closes friends and family members, including my father, were surprised. Perhaps, rightfully so, for they knew this part of me that seeks thrills and therefore must keep moving on.

It is past midnight now. I sit in the waiting room of a railway station, having traveled from one town to another, waiting to get to yet another. And as I do, I reminisce, that what neither they, nor indeed I had expected, was in the manner in which these thrills were to be found. The work trip mentioned above, is one of the many trips I had made on work. The aspect of travel, which I had earlier written about, is itself perhaps just one aspect of this adventure.

I read somewhere, a long time ago, that ‘One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure‘. It resonates a lot with me, and I suppose it is this part of me that may never die. I am grateful to EZV, for the varied pursuits that it has afforded me. Indeed I am grateful because my fortunate association with the organisation itself has been an adventure; it has been one hell of a ride. And, I can’t wait for more to come, at EZV and beyond, for as long as I breathe, everyday shall be lived as an adventure. Now, if the reader will excuse me, I am off to board the train & experience the adventures that await me with another group of teachers, tomorrow.

We care

Just as I sit down to write, the electricity goes off. I attempt to continue in the dark, but it isn’t particularly easy. The mind plays truant, and says perhaps I ought to skip it. Just this one night. After all, it isn’t easy typing in the dark. At least, I have an excuse. The mind is always finding excuses not to do things that are worthwhile, rather than to do them. I don’t know why it is so. I try to ignore these thoughts and go on. I want to keep the promise I made to write a post a day, for a month.

As I sit in the dark and think, I can hear the sound of raindrops in the silence of the night. Quite inevitably, I am reminded of the floods in this city resulting for excessive rains last year. I realise I am not the only person. I see newspaper reports & social media updates where people say the same thing. The NDRF has already brought in boats I am told. Apparently as a precautionary measure. Understandably so. People are scared.

It was the second or third day. I fail to remember exactly. Most communications were lost and we all sat tight, grateful to have some kind of shelter and food. Some of us did our bit to help out too. Somehow, someone got in touch and told me that a few of us decided to meet up at work, and discuss the situation we were faced with. I had been out, packing food to be distributed, with a group of people I had never met before. By the time I joined the team at our office, they had already started.

From what we heard, the situation was grim. Everyone present had some idea or the other as to how we could contribute. “Why don’t we start with EZVians?”, Chitra said. That seemed like the logical thing to do. We found a white board, and listed the names of all our colleagues from Chennai and divided them among a few of us present there. Each one of us was supposed to call or speak to others or in whatever way possible, determine the safety of the names on our list.

Most EZVians, we were given to understand, were safe or managing in some way. Some did have water enter their homes, but had been managing, hoping the level doesn’t rise beyond a point. Some had left the city, given their streets if not homes were uninhabitable. Yet others, none of us present that afternoon had any idea about. We gave ourselves till that night, to speak with other colleagues or friends who may have some news of these people. If we couldn’t know, a team would visit them the following day. I was amazed at people volunteering the make these visits, given how pretty much the whole city was flooded

We realised the following day that one of us was practically homeless, with 2 ageing parents who needed medical attention. Homeless, because apparently in a matter of a few minutes, water had entered the entire house and every little thing in it was drowned and rendered useless. When I took this up with Chitra, she spontaneously offered our official guest room to be let out to this colleague, while the house would be repaired and made inhabitable.

This is just a little example. I can think of several such incidents. It isn’t just extending financial or material help, but way beyond to just emotionally support EZVians who are in need of it. EZV not only cares, but finds special ways to demonstrate it. And as I have described above, this spirit of caring for each other just rubs off. I am grateful for being a part of the caring organisation, that is EZV.

Of discoveries – accidental and historical

“Did you know that Aurangazeb had laid siege this fort, for close to a decade?”, he asked me. I did not, actually. I had vague memories of visiting the place more than once, as a child. My mother reminds me that we went there as a family, which I am unable to recall in much detail.

What started, for me, as an unknown journey, turned out as all such sojourns do, into a most delightful time of learning – about places & people – historical, and more contemporary. In the end, it was as much a journey within, for the so called travel was only a context. All life is but a journey of continual exploration of the recesses deep within us, with every passing day taking us into a deeper, yet unexplored part of ourselves.

I did realize too, and thanks to one of the finest storytellers I have had the good fortune to meet, that history isn’t all that boring. I took time to remember my own school days, and realized, not for the first time, that I never liked it back then. As it turns out for many of us, the subjects / disciplines that we most like (and by extension, dislike) are influenced largely, though certainly not only, by those who taught us these in our youngest years. As I remember it, the subject was then presented as a large collection of so called ‘facts’ from the past. And I did not understand the need to know, leave alone memorize these.

Today, thanks to my own inclination to read fueled in part by my avowed profession, I know that there is a lot more to history than what it seemed back then. Another chance encounter, this time with a book, led me to delve deeper.

The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.

Much as it may be a somewhat strenuous read, especially to the ‘non academic mind’, I would still recommend it to anyone interested in History. And I digress, as the train of thoughts flow from an account of my travels, to stories of the place to history in general.  It did occur to me, as I was listening from my friend on nuggets of rich insights from the past, that History was also about stories. Who doesn’t like a story? And I thought it ironical that such a wonderful opportunity for learning, must be squandered away by schools in the name of education. In my case, it was ironical that having lived in its vicinity all my childhood, and having been ‘educated’, I still was unaware of the most fascinating stories behind what was apparently termed as the ‘most impregnable fortress’ by none other than the Chatrapati himself.

As I learn more, I have learnt that learning, if anything is a joyful process of discovery. And that most importantly, this quest in many ways, innate in human beings. If anything, educators need only find ways of fostering this quest in young minds.

As it happens, there was more learning in store for me. I discovered, as a subject, a participant in discussions thought not necessarily as one who may be actively engaged in it myself – photography. I had not indulged in it very much, except having used a ‘point and shoot’, at various points in time. I never wanted to shoot pictures of friends & relatives, of people posing. I remember, during my early travel with friends from college, when people would not be interested in my photographs. To them, they were simply ‘picture postcards’. I must have dozens of them, lying around somewhere, all in print. Those were the times when one would click photographs and wait nervously for them to be developed and printed. Another vestige from the past.

This time around though, I learnt that not only did I not hestitate, but I actually enjoyed ‘posing’. I write this, as I view some of the pictures that were clicked, and I see varying degrees of candidness in each of them. Much as I had indeed posed for them, both the subject and the artiste straining to get the right pose now, the right lighting then, and much time passed in between those moments. Looking back, it was perhaps a discovery that the joy lay in the entire process – of clicking away, posing, trying, and watching the product of our creation. Much as the artiste may pride himself on his work, I discovered, that in those moments, the artiste, the tool and the subject, all merged into one a blur. And in that blur, there was learning for me.

IMG_2527 - Version 2Picture Courtesy: Atul Sabnis