Do not play the Great Game!


This is an amazing piece of writing by Ma’am:1_wk8A0w4oT-e54E38O5y9yg.jpeg

It is a time like no other.

You are about to start on the most important, most awaited and most respected race of life — the Rat Race.

If this word conjures mild negative feelings in your mind, blame your idealistic teachers, some unnecessarily wise people and some obscure columnists for that. They might have tried to spread fear and disgust against this greatest race. They might have gone as far as demeaning it or belittling it. They might have tried hard to convince you to do ‘meaningful’ work, whatever that is. I mean, every child knows that work must be necessarily boring, mundane, repetitive and meaningless. How else do you define work?

The Rat Race sees the largest participation all over the world. Of course, billions of people cannot be wrong. So, cast aside any doubt that you may have. Do not pause to think, just prepare to run.

Like all races of the world, the biggest prize goes to the fastest runner. The fastest runner will be awarded the golden opportunity of ‘settling’ in the dream land of milk and honey, which awaits you with open arms with its black luxury sedans, eight-lane expressways, overflowing departmental stores, glass-front skyscrapers and so many other wonderful things.

Comrade Rat, you just have to get a couple of things right — that’s it — your one-way ticket to paradise is confirmed. Don’t forget, rats all over the world are doing far more for far lesser prizes. It’s because they don’t know the correct techniques. But worry not, I am here to guide you.

I am sure you have been told and re-told about the necessary things you need to do. But this to-do list will help you to absolutely nail it and hence you should also nail this list in every possible place of your house (including the bathroom).

  1. Read not ‘for pleasure’, but for vocabulary, reading speed and scores.

Of course, reading textbook is different. They can make your grades look good. But which person, in their correct mind, can pick up a story book for fun? But alas! Those horrible things now stand between you and your dream. Sadly, the steps to paradise is marked with vocabulary. We can hope that the gatekeepers of heaven will eventually understand the futility of reading and reform the SAT test. But till then, you must put up with this nonsense.

So, dig out that useless device called Kindle, dust it and read. Even though you are forced to do this, never forget the true objective of reading. It is to gather vocabulary and increase your reading speed, NOT to get enjoyment out of it. While reading, if you happen to have the feeling of ‘enjoyment’, put down the Kindle, take deep breath and wait till the feeling passes.

2. Comrade Rat, beware of people called ‘friends’. Friends are enemies.

Self-optimisation is going to be the key ingredient for winning this race. Things like ‘friendship’, being ‘helpful’, ‘volunteering’ are severe roadblocks on your way. These will only reduce your scores. In order to win, you must demotivate friends (especially the ones who will also give SAT), be selfish and secretive, and never do anything which will not decorate your CV.

For example, you can sneakily collect past exam papers on the net, practise them before the mock tests to score highly. This will go a long way to make friends feel inferior. Or, if you have luckily come across an English or Math book which can help in increasing your scores, never utter a word about its existence to friends. Or, if your school teachers ask you to volunteer for the Contest Week or to take classes of junior kids, agree only if they promise you in writing that they will mention it in their recommendations. If they don’t give you a confirmation on this, feign a stomach ache or dysentery.

Don’t even write an article like this one because no newspaper or magazine is going to publish such a writing, so such an activity cannot add to your resume.

3. I still see you often indulging yourself in something called the Great Game. That treacherous game must be avoided like plague.

I will not have to remind you, Comrade Rat, the immense importance of the extracurricular activities. Every second of your life that’s not spent in collecting grades and scores (in SAT, APs, Subject Tests, Board Exams) must be spend in collecting achievements in extra-curriculars.

Think objectively and selfishly, Comrade. Does the Great game add to your profile? Does scoring a century in this school-invented game add to your list of achievements? The gatekeepers of paradise will laugh at you, Comrade Rat. Hence, never ever play that thing again. As per the colleges, it is not an ‘extra-curricular’ activity. Let me tell you what is.

If your parents are rich, go to Congo or Zambia — take a picture of you feeding the poorest child you can catch near the airport. The gatekeeper of the paradise are real suckers for that kind of stuff.

Or publish a book (it doesn’t matter if anybody reads it or not, so don’t bother about writing quality) — daddy can surely pay a willing publisher to help you. If unfortunately, you possess poorer parents, participate in every possible competition you can find — swimming, poetry, singing, dancing, story-writing, karate, weight-lifting or archery — try to win at least one of them.

In case of failure in everything, community service will rescue you. Go clean the tables in the town library or donate your faded and shredded clothes to homeless people. Those colleges really prefer self-optimising people who can pretend to be saints. That’s really the ultimate character trait to posses. If you are in doubt, look at the richest people in the world.

I think with these precious advice, you are now ready to embark on your journey. Cross your heart and make a solemn promise to yourself that you will never violate the instructions given here. Follow them blindly and the paradise will be yours.

All the best!

A letter to Sir


This is a nice letter of appreciation written by Goody Goody to Sir:

I have thought of writing something about you many times. Every time I open the word document or hold a pen between my fingers and start thinking about you, my thought travels a similar path down my mind. It starts with exploring the innumerable facets of you that can be captured. It ends with complete awe of your limitless capabilities and I am tentative to start, fearing I would fail to encapsulate everything about you, every person that you are, every role that you have played, every risk that you have taken, every battle that you have won, every moment that you have gifted.

Today I am determined to continue. Whatever little bit I can chronicle about you, that’s still better than not writing a word. Because –

Everyone must know about the different roles that you have played.

They should know you have been the most innovative teacher, finding out the best books and movies for us, carrying the discussion from pages of books to the outer world, from movies to real-life, and teaching them in the best possible settings, sometimes while watching the rain or sometimes while sitting under the sun. You would agree to our demands about discussing Life is Beautiful while watching the rain or discussing Catcher in the Rye sitting on the staircase outside the admin while enjoying the cool breeze. Those were some of the perfect times in our lives, reading the perfectly chosen books in the perfect settings with the perfect teacher.

They should know you have been the best of friends, sharing stories with us, playing with us, hearing us out when we had grievances, lending a helping hand whenever we needed. You would share stories from your IIT days and work days, drawing lessons, at the same time entertaining us. You would be the most excited player in the field of Great Game. Even when we were small, you would take us seriously and treat us as equals.

They should know that you are the best guardian, guiding us to the correct path, making us able individuals to face the difficult world. You knew how unhappy we would be in Indian colleges, so you took on the unknown difficulty of admitting us to US colleges or taking the unconventional path of keeping some of us in the school. You told us not to trust anything or anyone blindly. By discussing about work and about relationships, you prepared us for life. You talked about unhappiness and many ways it would find us. You asked us to have a higher cause than just wealth and fame.

Everyone must know about the different people that you have been in your life.

They should know that you have been a risk-taker, who chose to give up a settled life, leave a high-paying job, keep the luxury of metro-cities behind, and come to a small tier-III town to start your entrepreneurial venture.

They should know that you didn’t just choose to remain an entrepreneur, but you also became a social activist. You could have very well limited yourself to making the school successful, catering to the demands of the parents, but you remained firm on your stand about Engineering and IITs, letting no students take the path which has destroyed so many childhood and career. You even became a columnist, talking about how the craze for engineering career should stop. Through your relentless drive, you saved a lot of lives from becoming victims of  their parents’ unfulfilled dreams.

They should know that you are a free-thinker and a revolutionary who could challenge Indian education system. You reimagined the whole system; you banned textbooks in the school despite a lot of opposition, in the process even renouncing your own identity and claims to earlier fame. Because you valued the truth above all, so you were not even deterred to say that your academic credentials were products of a wrong system. You criticised IITs without choosing to make it your identity, you opposed the Indian exam-system even though you were a state-ranker in the same system.

They should know that when you taught history it felt like you have experienced it first-hand. When you taught movies it felt like you have been in the shoes of those characters. When you taught us math I saw you deriving the formulas from scratch in front of my eyes. You could have probably invented some of those formulas if you had chosen a different, more specialised path. You didn’t just teach these subjects, you put the insights gained from them to practical use, sometimes using Lenin’s strategy or sometimes Gandhi’s.

Everyone must know about the beautiful moments that you have gifted.

They should know that inside and outside the classroom it was a pleasure to be with you. You would always be entertaining us, making us laugh with your jokes, making us more knowledgeable about the world, coming up with great ideas or tweets right in front of us. Sitting right at the Theque, while listening to Bollywood music being played in the background, you came up with an explanation of why cheap music is produced more now as opposed to medieval times. Sitting right at the lunch table, you started a furious debate between bucketists and showerists, in the common meeting you started a debate between chair-ists and floor-ists, spoon-ists and hand-ists – all these were fun but at the same time intellectually stimulating as we understood how we are instinctively but unnecessarily drawn towards the Western culture.

And who can ever forget the joke “There is a bit of Horse in Mule”, when you wanted to say how Mule has become arrogant, similar to Horse. The double meaning must have gone past many present in the room.

They should know that you made our lives more enriched, more fulfilling by keeping us away from the addiction of smartphone and internet. We are not affected by fake news, our brains are not spoiled by playing endless video games, we are so much better off by not being part of the endless hatred being spewed on social media.

They should know you taught us to appreciate not only good movies and books, but also music. Who can forget those times when you played Mozart’s music every day before beginning the class? Who can forget the sweet melody of the Beethoven’s symphonies and Vivaldi’s concertos?

I am yet to say how smartly you solved the problem of recruiting teachers, how savvily you moulded the opinion of the people of this town, how you keep the non-teaching staff happy and united, how astutely you got your way even after keeping everyone happy.

In front of all your achievements, contributions, and the ones I couldn’t still capture, I feel too small to be even be a chronicler. A letter is not enough to tell about you to others; an entire book can be written on you, and maybe it will be written someday.

The uniqueness that we are part of:


This is a writing by Shruti about how our school is way ahead of even the best colleges in the world.

Our school is so unique that “no school in the whole world compares with it”. As you may be knowing, the quoted line is from our school’s official video. When I was re-watching it a month back, this line made me think — is it just that no school compares with our school? I felt that not only any other school but no college, no university in the whole wide world compares with it. It’s a strong statement to make and the validity of my statement could be doubted as I knew little of other colleges and universities. But now, a month down the line, I can tell with full confidence that wherever you go, anywhere around the globe, you would find no place like ours.

Before I say what gives me that confidence, I must give some background. Our Path 2 and 3 students will apply to the US universities, the best in the world. In the process of advising the students and figuring out who is going to find their fit where, I came to know those places better. Many colleges seemed to have their own flavours which is unique to their place. To my surprise, their uniqueness was strangely familiar; what they called unique was not new to me because each of their uniqueness is very much part of our lives here at our school!

Let’s talk about Deep Springs College which is the most unique among all (If you have any doubt, just google it). The unique feature is that its students are responsible for running the college. An integral part of their curriculum is running a ranch which means students devote a substantive part of their day to tasks like cleaning, cooking, farming, etc. The aim is to develop a sense of responsibility, ownership, humility in the students and above all, teach them to work for the community.

The parallels between Deep Spring and our school cannot go unnoticed. Our school is a student-run place with the students teaching junior classes, running the canteen, maintaining our social media presence, setting up the computer infrastructure, and taking part in variety of other activities. Through this work, the school fosters in them a strong sense of responsibility. Through the group projects, the school fosters in them the sense of ownership — to work for the benefit of the group instead of caring about self only. Working for the local people keeps them grounded, teaching them humility. Above all, it teaches them the value of giving back to the place they are from.

Let’s move on and look at another college named Davidson. One section of their home page reads ‘#DAVIDSONTRUE’ which says that Davidson wants to inculcate a culture of truth, sincerity, and integrity in their students. Their campus is governed by a system of Honour Code which means they expect the students to take responsibility of their performance with honesty and integrity.

We don’t call it ‘#LEVELFIELDTRUE’, but this unique feature of Davidson is very much present in our school. We also have instituted a system of Honour Code in senior classes successfully. Our senior students take internal exams completely un-proctored, they check it themselves, sometimes the answer key is also handed over with the question paper, with the expectation that they would not look at it before or during the exam.

Then there is Cornell College and Colorado College. They advocate the philosophy of ‘one course at a time’ — also called the Block Plan. That means students immerse themselves in one single subject for around a month and not dilute the intensive experience by studying any other subject.

This famous ‘Block Plan’ which makes them unique is part of our school’s philosophy too, though not officially called the ‘Block Plan’. Here the students learn only one subject for a month in a focused way and completely immerse themselves in it so much so that the subject becomes the topic of discussions beyond the classroom, often invading their informal conversations.

Coming to know of these colleges and what they stand for, I could finally validate my statement. No school and no college and no university can ever match up to the standards and values of our school.

I realized, all the world’s best colleges and universities rolled into one is our school. Maybe all of them combined would still fall short of this place. The best school, the best college, the best university is here, our second home, our school.

To Sir, with gratitude


Urgi’s heartfelt letter to Sir on the occasion of Teacher’s Day, 2019:

Dear Sir,

It’s teachers day today but I was wondering whether one day is enough to celebrate and appreciate all you have done for us over the last many years. Over almost the last decade that you have taught us, you have toiled for us and everyday, through bits and pieces, built into us the foundations through which we could become someday worthy and able members of society, capable of being successful in almost every endeavor that life throws at us.

There are not many people who can do this and it would be unfair to say that you’ve only been a teacher to us, in the conventional sense that is. You’ve been to us much more than that, to us you’ve been like a mentor who has prepared us for life by arming us with the set of skills that’s required for survival. To us you taught not only how to fight the battle of formal education, which is merely temporary in nature, but something much more permanent, the battle of life itself.

In many a ways to us you taught these various skills.

One such skill which you built in us was the need for thought. It was you who taught to us that in the end it was the thought that counted and the thinker that was rewarded, and so we must learn to think if we wanted to be successful in life. From a very early age this is what you prioritized in us and not something the other schools prioritized, to mug up and then throw up in the exam.

Having built into us the ability to think, to be our own person and not a sheep, you then tried to make us all into mature and responsible human beings. This you did through various ingenious ways. One of those ways was that you made us run the school with you so that we would develop some of the skills and organizational abilities needed to run, well, organizations.

But to get to the adult life in which the learning of all these skills would pay off we first needed to pass some hurdles. We had to first pass the barriers that had been put in place by society in terms of formal education. For this you taught us, and taught us you did phenomenally. Instead of making us memorize things that we could have then written in exams you gave us real learning. All the subjects that needed to be learnt you taught us the concepts and principles of and that too in the most interesting way possible. The results of these teachings were immediately evident as most of us ended up getting top scores and grades in almost every exam we gave.

In all the ways that I mentioned till now you’ve enriched us as a group. But to me personally you have helped a hundred times as well to become a better person in every aspect.

One such time was when last year I had gone off track by thinking of colleges as the ultimate destination for fame and glory in life, thinking of them as paradise even. But thankfully you became aware of the illusory bubble in which I was living and brought me back to reality.

This, though one of the greatest ways in which you’ve helped me, compares not at all when taking into consideration the inspiration you’ve constantly been to me throughout the last decade or so. Before there was the need to do well in exams for my own sake, my motivation to do better everyday came from you. In you I saw somebody I wanted to be like, somebody worthy of being like, somebody smart and compassionate and caring. To me as a result you were like a parental figure, a guiding force.

Finally, though this really could go on, the most fundamental way in which you have changed my life, and everybody elses’ really, is due to the fact that you opened this school. With this school you provided to us a magical and radical place in a place where tried and failed convention really had the upper hand. By opening this school you changed our lives forever.

So Sir, for all of this I’m greatly thankful. Thank you for teaching us the skills we needed to survive in this world. Thank you for providing us with a wonderful childhood by opening a school of wonders. And above all thank you for being such an inspirational parental figure who was always there for us. So Sir, THANK YOU for all this and with this I wish to say to you happy Teachers Day, though to me you have been a lot more than that.

To Sir

-From Urgi

Our beloved Common Meeting


This is Ma’am’s writing about our Common Meeting reminiscing some of the great enriching and fun-filled moments that we have shared together.

We stayed in the Karidhya Campus for not very long but we were perfectly at home there. The intimate structure of the building, the two small fields — where we played football and badminton, the middle courtyard — which was our cricket pitch, along with the forest outside was a very well-loved campus. The middle courtyard was particularly memorable for various other reasons.

The common tiffin time was great fun. We remember how the whole school used to have food together sitting along the corridors. The food would be over soon, but fun and frivolity will continue for a long time. There would be imaginary games where students will play perfectly synchronized cricket matches at the absence of any cricket bat or ball!

The 4 o’clock time was also very memorable. Again, the entire school will be congregating, chattering and bantering away; saying the last few things of the day to us and to their friends, the last few smiles and waving of goodbyes until we met again the next day. Through the lunchtime and 4 o’clock time, we all became close, and the whole school, irrespective of class boundaries, became a single group of friends.

Our shift to the current campus in Husnabad was exciting. This campus was a huge upgrade from our earlier school buildings. It was far bigger compared to both of our earlier campuses — in Dangalpara and in Karidhya. Our new campus had a large field in the middle of the compound bordered by the cottage-styled classrooms on two sides and the big L-shaped two storied building at the far end. We moved from a four-roomed school building in Dangalpara to finally a 20+ roomed campus with a lot of open spaces.

But as the space increased, the intimacy reduced. After the initial excitement of shifting to the new campus was over, we realised that students were becoming strangers to each other gradually. All the classes had separate tiffin time, inside particular tiffin rooms. Even at 4 o’clock, when the school will get over, students would be scattered all over the large campus — making it impossible to have some common fun or talk before we call it a day.

The idea of common meeting was borne out of this dissatisfaction of the students gradually becoming distant from each other. We decided the bring back the familiarity, to have some common time with the whole school (or most of it) — even if it is through some artificial structure of a daily meeting at a particular time slot. Hence started our Common Meeting.

We were not very sure what would be the topic of discussion in this new Common Meeting. What we were sure of was that we wanted to meet and talk to all of you together every day. We decided that if on certain days we run out of our usual banter, then our Plan B would be to discuss some EVS slides with you. Somehow in all these months and years, Plan B never had to be used. And now that we look back on all our common meetings we understand that between us we never needed a Plan B, the Plan A always worked and that is half an hour a day of talking to all of you together without any agenda, without any plan. The topics of discussions just appeared every day as we met you. We had to tell you so much about the world, about our country, about our town, our neighbourhood, about the school, about you. We never ran out of conversations.

The Common Meeting had a humble start — the sole objective of which was to keep in touch, was to keep the conversations going. But it became much, much bigger than that over the course of time. What did we not discuss in these meetings! Topics varying from why a student has hygiene issues to why poor countries have more corruption; from topics of economics to topics of relationship; from analysing the news of Suri to analysing the behaviour of global politicians. No discussion was off-limit and nothing was beyond questioning. Out of many memorable common meetings that we had a few that would always be close to my heart:

There was one where Sir read out and explained you the meaning of one of Wilfred Owen’s poem — Disabled. The poem was a very traumatic and moving account of an ex-soldier, crippled by the war. The common class, which is normally always full of laughter fell absolutely silent during this discussion. The usual chatter while leaving the room was also not there. We are not sure if you understood all the words and sentences of the poem but we understood that you felt something much deeper that day, that you grew up a bit that day. They say certain emotions cannot be seen or touched. But you did touch empathy that day, you did touch the sense of futility of war that day, you did touch a very pure side of yourself, which I hope have made all of you a little wiser and a little better people.

There was another very memorable and quite different incident that comes to my mind — when we had bought chairs for the Common Room. The Meeting which used to be held with you sitting on the floor was to change — from then on you would be sitting on chairs. I remember a fiery debate ensued between ‘floorists’ and ‘chairists’ about this. Strong arguments were made in favour of and against the new move of putting chairs in the room. Nothing has ever been so serious and so funny at the same time!

Then there was the ‘Clueless Contest’ — towards the very beginning. At that point we realised that most of you didn’t even know each others’ names. So a contest was organised to figure out who knew the least number of their fellow students. I remember Mars calling everyone Adrija, like choosing all Bs in a multiple choice question paper! We have come very far from those days, not only you know everyone’s names now, you also know their traits intimately.

One other day we wanted to show you the absurdity of Bollywood movies; and we showed you selected clips from certain blockbusters. By looking at Bacchan’s and Mithun’s heroics, and Shahrukh’s absurdly romantic expressions, the whole room burst into laughter. But there was a bigger point: that those movies feed us myths about justice and romanticism that’s harmful to us as a society. If the reality is grim, we need to see it in our movies, so that people are moved to do something about it.

In the common meeting we invented the ‘Mollie Disease’ (name given to the habit of endlessly wasting time), ‘Rajarshi Disease’ (when you talk more than you listen), — and often through these clear diagnoses, these diseases got cured. At least, you became more aware of your flaws and imperfections. You are not always able to change yourself or control your impulses, but due to the common meeting, there is better self-awareness in every one of you. As you got to know yourselves, you got to understand others and your surroundings better, resulting in many memorable tweets from you which were wise beyond your years.

There are so many more events that cloud my memory as I am writing this that entire volumes can be written about our discussions on these meetings.

We say to outsiders that the Common Meeting is our take on the traditional Assembly of standard schools. But that’s slightly untrue. The Common Meeting has no comparison, no equivalent anywhere in the world. Perhaps in a few years’ time, when some of you have already ventured out into the world, settling down in your new life, making new friends, trying to make them acquainted with your past life, with your roots, you might want to talk about this very exciting thing that happened every day in your school, the most enjoyable and memorable part of your school life — the Common Meeting; you might be able to tell them various anecdotes, various funny incidents, you might be able to sew various pieces of your memory about the Meeting and present to them the best that you can. Your friends will nod, show interest, be curious, they might say that they understand what you are talking about and they can understand it must be been a great experience to be part of something like this, but trust me, they will never know. The moments that we shared together in the Common Meeting has become a part of you, has made you but even then most articulate of you will probably not be able to put words to the magic that we have together been part of.

A Special Visitor


This is a nice short story written by Bhopul (Debarnab Chatterjee of Class XI, 2019) on a hypothetical scenario where a special visitor takes his class for a day. 

That day had started like any other day. School had always been a fun experience for us, but we had no inkling of what was to happen that day. It was probably the biggest surprise we were going to get in our lives.

Homo Deus class was about to begin. We took our booklets and sat down, waiting for Ma’am to come and start her discussion. Today’s topic of discussion was about the future of humanity due to the rise of artificial intelligence.

Ma’am came into the class and told, “Today I am not going to take your class. Today somebody else is going to take your class. Somebody more interesting. Who can it be? Guess?”.

Urgi’s hand shot up.

“Who is it, Urgi?” Ma’am asked.

“Sir, right?” Urgi answered.

Mule too raised his hand, albeit a little sheepishly.

“I don’t think it is Sir. Sir very frequently comes and discusses bits and parts of the booklet with us. I think it is somebody from outside. Probably one of Sir’s friends,” Mule said.

“Wait Mule… Sir comes and discusses only bits and parts of the book with us in this class. He doesn’t discuss the whole time. So probably he is going to take our class today for the entire two hours,” Mollie contradicted.

“Okay…No need for so much of speculation! You will get to see who is going to take your class today, very soon,” Ma’am shouted, silencing the whole class.

Just then the door opened and a man walked in with Sir. At first glance I didn’t understand who the man was. But now that his face could be seen, I saw that the man was none other than the author of Homo Deus: Yuval Noah Harari himself.

Harari had always been present in our classroom. The man Harari may not have been there, but his ideas had dominated our classrooms.

My other friends, having understood the magnitude of the situation, gasped in surprise. After all it had been our dream to have an interactive session with Harari, or at the very least meet him.

Harari was wearing a grey blazer, which seemed too big to fit his measurements. He wore matte black shoes. He was wearing spectacles behind which twinkling and radiating intelligence, were two eyes.

Sir introduced us to Harari and told him that we were very big fans of him. On hearing that Sapiens and Homo Deus were a compulsory part of our school’s curriculum, he smiled broadly. He seemed delighted when he heard that some of us have also read “21 lessons for the 21st century.”

“Will you please introduce yourselves to me?” Harari asked. Everyone began introducing themselves by telling their names and the class they study in.

I had the impression that he was going to be an authoritative figure; after all, he was the author of such great books. But he seemed to be just the opposite — it seemed as if he didn’t like so much attention. He seemed satisfied to be here but he seemed awkward at the same time.

Ma’am gave him the booklet. He seemed to be impressed by the format of the booklet. He asked us what we were supposed to discuss. But the whole class seemed to be against the idea of discussing Homo Deus. We were more interested in just talking to him, talking about him.

“Can we not have the discussion today and instead just discuss about different stuff?” Urgi asked Ma’am.

“That’s not a very bad idea,” I said, voicing my support for Urgi.

“He’s here for a day. So shouldn’t you discuss his book with him rather than just talking?” Sir said.

“His book already explains his ideas beautifully. So shouldn’t we just use this opportunity to get to know him better?” Aritra said.

Sir seemed to accept this proposal, albeit with a bit of reluctance.

Immediately after Sir and Ma’am had taken their seats and Harari had taken the microphone in his hands, there was a show of hands. I could see that Mule was raising his hand with an impish grin on his face. He was the first one to ask — “We read in an interview that you don’t kill mosquitoes, but just catch them and send them out. Why do you do this?”

“I’m against the killing of animals in general, mosquitoes included.” Harari replied to Mule’s question.

“Why did you write Sapiens in the first place?” Arnab asked.

“Well, as many of you may be knowing, I teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I am a professor of history there. So, in one of my classes I had wanted to teach them about the history of humanity. As a reading material for the class, I had written some notes for the students. Later on these notes were compiled and published as the book ‘Sapiens’, that you read today.” Harari replied.

“You seem to be against the usage of smartphones and internet. But, do you yourself use smartphones?” Penta asked.

“I’m not really against the use of smartphones. They are the most revolutionary invention of this century — so far — and the internet has immense potential for doing good to society. However, all technology really does is to provide leverage. It will do good or bad depending on what we want it to do. Since it is in the interest of the most powerful people of this age to use technology to exploit, that is what it does. I’m not against the internet; it is merely a tool. But to answer your question, no, I don’t use a smartphone,” Harari replied.

Everyone was quiet for some time after Harari’s reply, trying to absorb and understand what he just said. I broke the silence by raising my hand, and asking, “How do you manage to undergo the two-months long rigorous Vipassanā meditation?” Urgi whispered to me, “Good question. We can’t survive without talking for two hours in the computer lab. How can he survive for two months?”

“I come to Mumbai to do Vipassanā meditation for two months every year. I find meditation to be particularly soothing. It helps me track my thoughts and helps me to understand myself and the world better. Once you start following your thought, meditation will seem easy,” Harari replied before seating down.

Now Sir came forward and told that Harari had to leave Suri to catch his flight to Mumbai. Harari had come here en-route to Mumbai, where he was going to do Vipassanā for the next two months.

Harari told that he was delighted to interact with us and would have liked to spend some more time, but he had to leave due to his tight schedule. He further mentioned that if possible, he would like to be here with us next year too.

***

Though this account is fictional, and Harari has not been here in the school in flesh and blood (and unlikely to be here in the future too, as he hates travel), he has always been teaching us. So are other stalwarts like Richard Dawkins (whose book Magic of Reality forms the basis of our First Science Lessons), Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson (through their TV series Cosmos), Jawaharlal Nehru (his writings inspired our First History Lessons).

If you want great teachers, you just need to reach out to them through their books!

Twitter@school: An ode to our tweets


This is Sir’s writing about how some of his and (earth’s) tweets capture the history of the school. 

I remember I was once coming back from Calcutta with a couple of students and Sayoni — and on the way we typically stop to have tea at a place called Balaji Food Park. Nothing special, just a roadside restaurant, like many others that dot the NH2 near Shaktigarh.

As we neared, we put the location in the map so that we don’t miss it and drive by. Very soon, Google announced, ‘You have reached your destination’.

‘Not really, Google! This is not our final destination. But what do you know anyway!’ I said.

But then Sayoni said, ‘But isn’t every destination that you reach a temporary one?’

We pondered for a while to decide how to respond to this deeply philosophical point — and then as always, said, ‘Tweet it!’

Most of our tweets happened like this: during the course of regular conversation. We never sat in front of the computer thinking, ‘well, let’s write a good tweet now.’

Sometimes you all have been collectively witness to those conversations — during the common meeting. Several of the incisive lines about the IIT and people’s obsessions with engineering careers came effortlessly as I spoke in front of you, most memorably:

And also:

Tweets flowed during our morning tea meeting with some of you, during our long walks on the tennis court road in the evening, during our weekend adda at the Theque, and in the classrooms.

But most often, they flowed from frustration, desperation and suffering, as most good art does. As we contemplated how ‘our dream of creating perfection will always be foiled by the imperfect world,’ we wrote, deriving an unlikely lesson from the sublime movie ‘Black Swan’:

Just a few days after, on 18th Dec, on a similar melancholic evening, as we pondered the ingratitude of the people while we work hard to improve their lives, we understood how Dr Struensee felt in his final moments:

Well, December 2017 was clearly a bleak month, for some reason we don’t remember now. That should give us some persepective. Things pass, as Buddha said.

During some other despondent times, we contemplated whether there is any point to all this at all, whether we will ever make any difference in spite of our superhuman efforts, and wrote this:

Class 12 sometimes had to bear the brunt of this frustration. Once after I scolded the current class 12 severely, and as always, regretted it later, not because they did not deserve it, but because I love them:

While we are on the topic of scolding, I must mention that my scoldings can be brutal, but they are also beautiful, if you are not at the receiving end of it. In the common meeting you have been witness to one of the best lines delivered during a rebuke:

Though, I personally, have always tried to be an example that you canfollow, and that is the spirit behind writing a lot of these tweets: so that you can learn to analyse the world around, have deep conversations, learn to form elegant sentences. My philosophy about teaching was most succinctly explained in this tweet, which I have always tried to personally live up to:

In terms of my own inspiration, there have been many sources. I have been inspired by Yuval Harari’s intellect, Richard Dawkins’ reason, Roger Ebert’s openness, Mahatma Gandhi’s brilliance, Willy Wonka’s humour, Shakespeare’s insights and Rumi’s poetry — just to name a few.

But my favourite hero is a local one: Vidyasagar. As I fought against many entrenched beliefs to build this school, I found inspiration in this courageous man because of whom many of you girls are even able to receive this education. Though his efforts were superhuman, by elevating him to the level of a god, we have made him distant. As a result, most people have no idea about the amount of struggle and frustration he bore in a lifetime, the amount of resistance he encountered and overcame.

I must thank my other Bengali hero, Sunil Gangopadhyay, for giving us a glimpse of the real Vidyasagar, through his seminal novel ‘Sei Somoi’. Sunil’s Vidyasagar was not a god, but a man of flesh and blood, who we can empathise with. It is Sunil who made him accessible and a source of inspiration to me. While reading Sei Somoi, I wrote these two tweets:

Inspirations can sustain you through difficult times, but during other times you need coffee and adda to revive yourself! The coffee shop Theque, though much reviled as a cause of poor results of certain students of our school, has been the place where we spent many good hours, having great conversations.

Many tweets were coined sitting right there, particularly the ones related to smartphone obsession. Once in Theque, we saw the couple on the next table are not talking at all with each other, each busy swiping and scrolling on their smartphones, and I said:

In spite of all this criticism of smartphones, I was soon considering gifting a smartphone to one of our high-performing school staff. Goody Goody protested by writing this gem:

In case you are wondering, the smartphone was finally gifted, in spite of this elegant protest.

These tweets capture only a minor fraction of the colourful history of the school, but I do hope they capture some of the energy, enthusiasm, inspiration, despondency, frustration and fun of building it. We experienced life to the fullest, with all its rainbow of emotions in the last ten years, and the tweets are but a reflection of that rollercoaster ride.

The outcome of all this emotion, effort and experience is nicely captured in this tweet:

May I always keep it so, with your help and support.

House of Sand and Fog (2003)


This is an amazing review written by Hulk (Debarghya Mukherjee of Class XI, 2019) on the movie ‘House of Sand and Fog’. 

For some people, a house is a place to stop and rest at night. For some others, it is a means to build for the future. For others still, it is a place of refuge, comfort, and familiarity. And for a few, it is much more than any of that — it is a key to identity and a reminiscent from the past. The dilemma faced by the characters in Vadim Perelman’s masterpiece ‘House of Sand and Fog’ is that a small, county bungalow is much much more than just bricks and concrete to all of them.

Kathy Nicolo, a recovering drug addict, has been recently dumped by her husband and left to fend for herself. All that she has in the world is a house left to her by her father as an inheritance, and that is now being taken away from her. A bureaucratic botch-up resulted in her being held responsible for unpaid taxes that she doesn’t owe. The county evicts her from her house and puts it up for auction. Things escalate so quickly that she has no time to contact a lawyer. The house is soon sold at a fraction of its original value.

The buyer is Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian immigrant who moved to the US with his family some years ago. Back in Iran, he was a high-ranking air force colonel, a genob sarhang, personally acquainted with the shah. But, with the shah deposed during the Iranian Revolution, and with his name on the death list, he is forced to flee for his life. He ends up as a garbage collector in California. Buying Kathy’s house gives him an opportunity to plan for the future. By reselling the house at a far higher price that he bought it for, he can make a good profit and fund his son’s college education.

The problem, of course, is that Behrani’s opportunity comes at Kathy’s expense. As far as he is concerned, he has legitimately bought a house with noble plans of making a profit and funding his son’s college. All of that, however, is lost on Kathy. She views Behrani as a thief. She finds comfort in a sympathetic police officer, Lester, who falls in love as much as with her desperation as with her beauty. To prove his love for her, Lester takes reckless decisions, such as harassing and threatening Behrani. Of course, instead of resolving matters, this only exacerbates the matters.

This is a story where nobody is to blame. Kathy has done nothing wrong, and so has Behrani. She has been the victim of an incompetent bureaucracy’s blunder. He has purchased the house legitimately and has his own reasons for not giving it up. The fault in both of them is their unwillingness to view matters from the opposite sides, and because of their high tensions, they act in ways they both regret. Behrani refuses to yield the house to Kathy in spite of her repeated attempts, and Lester, allied with Kathy, makes a grave mistake that would significantly change the lives of all three of them.

House of Sand and Fog, to its credit, depicts a balanced portrayal of either opposing side. Neither side is lionized or vilified. Both protagonists are presented sympathetically. The characters are depicted as real people, complete with all the virtues and vices one might expect of a common person under such circumstances.

This movie can be mistaken for a thriller. However, it is far too complex to allow such simple classifications. This movie draws from a vast ocean of human emotion. And in return, pays you with an unforgettable, enriching experience. This movie shows how a simple, reversible misunderstanding escalates to an irreversible disaster. I am sure this movie will leave an indelible mark on your mind just like it did to mine.

Making Things Official


Mule (Parthib Chandra of Class XI, 2019) has shown the talent of writing great short stories every now and then. This is another exceptional piece of writing by him. 

Flashes. Shutter-clicks.

They don’t care about this. They don’t give a shit if I jump. They stare at me because I am a matter of entertainment. A welcome deviation from those frozen routines.

Car honks. Look up, oh my god…

“This is the Evening Republic News, and I’m your reporter, Rohit Dutta. We have a man standing on a window ledge, ten floors above ground, about to jump and take his own life. There is a huge crowd here on Park Street, as you can see, waiting for the man’s decision. We have rescue parties coming, but wil…”

A gust of wind. Fear.

What am I afraid of? I should be afraid of what my life was becoming — or rather, being made into. I should be afraid of these vile, greedy dogs who would love to tear me to pieces at every opportunity. I shouldn’t be afraid of nothingness.

Old men: “What has even become of this world, people taking their own lives left and right…”

They disapprove. This is “sin”. I have no right to take away a life, even if it is my own, because it is a sacred gift. But of course, it’s quite alright to confine it in a twenty-by-twenty cubicle for half the day, have it slave everyday in a white shirt in front of some glowing silicon magic contraption in said cubicle, make it bear the stench of a million people compressed like garbage in a metal cuboid travelling across half a city, home to work, work to home, and, god, what a home.

What a home.

I had bought that china tea set because it caught her eye, and she was the noor of my eyes, and I had just gotten my first salary. Little did I know that that china set was destined to become, one day, an airplane, flying across my dining room, crashing on the wall, as I watched my life go tumbling down like the twin towers. There was nothing left. There used to be happiness, but now there was nothing left.

Happiness?

There was happiness in friends, in family, in thought, in myself. There was happiness in the world, in the birds, the trees, the walk in the park we took every Saturday licking ice-cream or sipping Star-bucks. Then everything changed. Reality became an illusion, what was true now had to be imagined. Friends became Facebook, family went far away, thought had no time, myself became machine. The world started passing in side vision. Life started passing in side vision.

Dead. Just dead. All dead.

The world used to be an amazing place. Fun used to be an amazing thing. Not a day went by without my kid brother coming home from school and asking me, why this, why that, how can this be, not a day went by when he didn’t want to learn, make sense of the world. Not a day went by without at least one of my friends calling up to discuss some literature, some movie, some insight they collected from somewhere. Not a day went by without enrichment, joy — the good kind — and wonderment. And now everyone’s gone, dead, just pleasure-seeking-bots. My son isn’t like my brother. My colleagues are not like my classmates. My boss is not like my teacher. I’m not like I was. The whole world is dead, because nobody loves it anymore, nobody cares anymore. Me too; no denying that. I’m gone too, I’m dead too.

So, just, no point keeping the charade on, I guess. What? I’m only making things official here.

For you


Ma’am’s writing about the school and Sir:

I was of only 21 year old when I joined The Levelfield School, back in 2012. The school was by then two-years old and located in a two and a half roomed tiny building in Dangalpara. To tell you the truth, even though I had already read many good things about the school, the look of the building did make me a little sceptical about the quality of education here. Coming from a metro city myself, a supposed good school conjures the image of a large building with multiple facilities. I would, however, later on hear from many of you how some of your best memories are from that tiny school building. And within the first few months of my job I too understood how not even the largest building of the world can equal the quality of education imparted here.

I joined towards the end of the ongoing summer vacation where all the teachers were preparing for the classes of the imminent new session. That was my first proper interaction with Sir (I met him briefly and formally for my interview before that).

Most of you don’t have much experience of how schools normally function. From my own experience I can tell you that a Principal of a school is always supposed to be in his own office, occasionally taking a stroll to scare students into maintaining some temporary discipline. And you can almost never see or even know who the owner of the school is.

But there was Sir, sitting with the teachers, on the floor, discussing the story of A Little Princess and teaching us how to take a class. That was the very first of many, many such sessions that he would personally conduct. If he was training us on Kakuro, he would also solve them with us. If he was training us on writing concise and precise answers, like we would expect you to write, he would also write with us. He could have used only this one booklet as an example to show how to lead a discussion in the class but he painstakingly discussed every English, Math and EVS material with the teachers so that we teachers would discuss each of those stories, each of those sums with the students in the exact way that he would have done himself.

That is the thought behind pretty much everything that has ever been done in the school. He loves all of you so much that he wanted to explain the beauty of every story, wonder of every puzzle, the story behind every social phenomenon to each one of you personally. Through all the teacher-training sessions and later, by writing the Math and English explanations in Delta himself, he was attempting his best to be present in all the classes, to personally teach every one of you. We, teachers, in our varying abilities have tried to emulate him, to give you a feeling that it is indeed him who is talking to you.

The story of why Sir set up the school is well known to all of you. He thought many things were not right about our education system because in spite of 17–20 years of ‘education’ it was still producing unskilled, unthinking and unemployable young people. But once he started the school, he could gradually fathom how many things were wrong in almost every level of education. Right from the ill-chosen story books to mind-numbing textbooks, from the misguided dreams of your parents to the red-taped bureaucratic difficulties of getting affiliation, his arena of struggle became larger and larger over time. He understood the outside world is so full of flaws and imperfection that he must, all his talent and might, protect you.

If you look at all the activities of school over the years, through these lenses, you will be able to understand the thought behind them better. In the initial years, Sir wrote or re-wrote all the reading materials for you so that you don’t stumble upon difficult vocabulary and lose interest in reading. He personally read all the books and watched all the movies before making them school materials to make sure they will be interesting for you. He searched all over to find the most exciting and intelligent puzzles for you. He personally made all the sums of the word-problem booklet to make sure they are just appropriately challenging for you. He repeatedly asked your parents not to expose you to television, mobile phones or internet so that you don’t dumb down. He spoke to your parents on multiple occasions to make sure they don’t direct you to the wrong direction of tuition classes or textbooks so that your childhood and brain are not ruined.

In the later years, he struggled against much more difficult things so that you can have an uninterrupted happy childhood and hopefully, in the future, a meaningful life beyond the school years. Then the struggles were about finding and having a exam-board that will not jeopardize your childhood; they were about finding and making sure that you can get admitted to the best colleges of the world where the experience will be somewhat akin to the world-class education that you received here; they were about directing you to the kind of profession which will ensure both wealth and happiness for you. Sir’s love for you is so all-encompassing that not only he tries to create a perfect life for you inside the school, he keeps thinking about how you can continue to have the perfect life even after you leave the school and enter your adult life.

Even though it was quite a task to get the more conventional CBSE affiliation, we still decided to junk it and risk the scepticism of the parent community and went for the Cambridge affiliation. It was done so that you can continue learning the way you always did in this school and don’t have to cram textbooks from a young age.

He held numerous meeting and wrote several articles for your parents so that they don’t force their age-old engineering-medical dreams onto you. Although what the students do after graduating from school is not the concern of any school, but Sir could not bear the thought of you being miserable in some college or some job in any part of the world, at any time of your life. That was the reason why he designed the Paths.

There are many more things he didn’t need to do, and still he could have made enough money and fame for the school. Instead of personally running it, he could have appointed a Principal to run the school, like almost all school-owners do. He may not have spent so many hours in training the teachers or making Delta or could have left the job of teaching to private tuitions, as most schools do. He could have used some books from some random publisher as school teaching materials instead of making each one of them personally. He could have inflicted the textbooks onto you from class six, according to your parents’ wish. He could have given IIT-JEE coaching to you and placed most of you in the IITs or similar engineering colleges — actually, it would have been far easier than preparing you for SAT, a multitude of Subject Tests and APs, Cambridge board exam and it would have made your parents’ happier. He could have made his life easier and made the school far more acceptable with the parents by doing all these and you wouldn’t have understood a thing, because you wouldn’t have known any better; because the world and particularly a country like ours know nothing better.

But he did all that he did only for you, because he loves each one of you more than anything else in the world. Now that you all are almost grown up and have the maturity and ability to understand all these, a good way for you to appreciate and acknowledge his struggle for you would be in the attempt to be like him. Though, it’s not really possible to emulate him wholly, but all of you can try to be interested in helping and improving other people, to be interested in meaningful work, to be excited about other people’s talent. No matter what work you do in the future, try to make a bit of the world, irrespective of how small it is, as perfect as he made the school.

What makes our school perfect?


As part of a recent writing exercise, many students wrote about what part of the school experience is truly special and unforgettable. This is Sir’s response to their writing:

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In many years that I ran the school, I have never stopped being astonished at the forgiving nature of children.

There are many occasions when I have rebuked you. Sometimes I even expressed my displeasure and disappointment in quite harsh words. I am quite articulate, and the downside of that articulation is that my rebukes can be quite brutal. Of late, those sharp words have often been directed at you for not reading with pleasure, for not reflecting and introspecting, for having shallow conversations, for being mentally lazy – overall for not engaging with the world around.

Overall, of late, I have not really shown much affection towards you. Displeasure took precedence. Common meetings, which were earlier full of laughter, became a somber occasion. From my side, there was a feeling that if you do not appreciate those great tweets, if you don’t engage during those great movies, and if you don’t love those great books, then you don’t really love the school.

However, as I read through your writing about what it is that you love most about the school, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the common meeting still remains your favourite (in spite of my repeated scoldings during the common meeting). You fondly talked about discussions on movies, tweets, Sapiens and Mughals. Many of you talked about the ‘perfection’ that our school represents.

That got me thinking: what makes our school perfect? What is it about our school’s idea that’s worth preserving? Most outsiders might think it is the great scores in IGCSEs, APs, SATs that makes our school great. Most of them would think the US college admissions will further cement that greatness.

However, our school was always great, always perfect, even when it was located in a small rented building in Dangalpara. Maybe it was even more perfect than it is now. What made our school perfect was that I was always happy seeing the students in the morning, and students were happy entering the school, and that happiness came from the classroom experience. I did not care about scores. I knew that the scores, results, university admissions will happen when the time comes. I wanted to create a place where you feel happy learning. I wanted to create a place where you feel loved.

And it was out of that love I did everything. My dislike for textbooks came from that love. I wanted to protect you from textbooks and exams as long as possible. I wanted you to enjoy reading, so I simplified many books so that you are not deterred by difficult words. But of course I wanted you to learn new words too, so we set out to make vocabulary discussions fun: so much fun that they inspired a couple of pages in my ‘Superschool’ story.

Even that story was written because I wanted to entertain my class. We always read stories about other people’s lives, but our lives here are also fascinating – and my students that time demanded that I write about ‘us’.

We conceived the Twitter initiative so that you can first enjoy writing short, stylized sentences before you have to write long, boring essays for exams. We made many interesting exercises like Pair Pattern or Multiplication Kakuro so that you do not find Arithmetic to be a series of mind-numbing calculations.

I wanted you to know history, but not complain about the subject like the way we did in our childhood days. So we dug out books like Mughal series, Century Trilogy, or Animal Farm, or movies like ‘Life is Beautiful’ or ‘Danton’. Every bit of the school, every material, every class was planned so that you feel happy learning.

So that’s really at the crux of the ‘perfection’ that many of you talked about in your writing: we created a place where you feel happy learning. We created a place where you feel loved. That’s the reason for all our hard work, all the battle with the society.

And it felt very good to see that you understand it at a deeper level, so much so that all the recent rebuke could not eclipse it. You instinctively knew that the scolding was not really for the scores, but it was an appeal to you to enjoy the truly enjoyable things about the school: beautiful literature, the insightful discussions, and the great movies.

May we together always try to preserve this perfection. From our side, we will try to keep the school experience as happy and enjoyable as it always was. From your side, you must remain curious about the world, responsible about yourself and others, and as nice and innocent as you always have been.

 

The Superschool


The Superschool series is written by Sir.

Sir writes, “This was a story about the school, and the class I took, that I started writing in 2014–15, intending to publish as a book. With so many other pressing work claiming my time, this was never completed. But I thought I will put up the unfinished work anyway, a bit of it everyday, for our students to read. If you like it a lot, maybe I can be persuaded to write more!” 

‘Bring out your sentence homework,’ I say.

This is one of the few conventional stuffs that we do — students have to write sentences using the words given.

‘The first word is — absorb. Anybody has a sentence on it?

Urgi raises his hand. His enthusiasm never diminishes, no matter how many bad sentences he writes.

‘I absorbed the lizard which was walking on the classroom wall.’

The class erupts into hoots of laughter, shrieks, screams. ‘That’s observe, Urgi, not absorb,’ I say. ‘And it is evident you observe lizards on the wall, rather than listening to the classroom discussion, otherwise how could you write sentences like this?’

‘Well, next one — extravagant– who has a sentence on that?’

Absolute silence.

‘We did not understand the meaning of this word,’ Fluffy volunteers to explain, bravely.

‘Well, you are being extravagant when you spend excessive amount of money for something.’

‘Like the Shah of Iran, who used to take bath in milk?’ Bhau, always the first to connect issues, apply concepts.

I talked about the Oscar winning movie ‘Argo’ once in the class, and talked about why Iranian people were furious with the Shah because of his excessively luxurious ways.

‘Yes, yes, but it was not the Shah of Iran who bathed in milk, but his wife.’ I corrected.

A torrent of comments.

‘But why would somebody like to bathe in milk? Won’t it feel sticky?’

‘Yeah, and she would smell funny!’

‘I want a WC which uses milk to flush.’

This comment takes the class to a frenzy of imagination — a bathroom where there are separate buttons in the WC, giving you various options for flushing, one with milk, and another with Pepsi.

‘Why Pepsi? I like Coke!’

‘You are not going to drink it, it’s just for flushing!’

‘Well, well,’ I find it difficult to stop the flurry of comments. Raising my voice over the din, I say, ‘Well, such a bathroom will be called an extravagant bathroom.’

‘Shah of Iran did one other thing — he supposedly got his lunch flown in by concord planes to Iran — such a thing can also be called extravagant.’

‘That day we saw a picture in the newspaper where a politician was wearing a garland made of 500 Rs notes,’ Bhau says, ‘such a thing may also be called extravagant.’

‘Correct,’ I say, ‘now let’s move on. We can’t be learning only one word during the whole class.’

***

Cloudy day. Light drizzle.

The students come to me even before the afternoon class begins. ‘Sir, let’s go out somewhere.’

‘No, no, we are always going out. We are hardly staying in the class. The parents are complaining.’

‘Oh, you always say that. That’s just an excuse. Only you are complaining.’

‘Ok, ok, we’ll see. We can go out after the school, if the weather stays like this. But now we have to work. Come on, get inside — open your ‘Life is beautiful’ booklet.’

Life is beautiful, an Oscar-winning movie by Roberto Benigni, is a favourite with the students. We discuss the screenplay first, then show the movie. The dialogues are full of humour, and of course, we can sneak in some history of World War II and the holocaust without the students noticing it.

But today they are in no mood. Goody-Goody crosses out the ‘beautiful’ in the booklet name, to change it to ‘Life is disgusting’. A few others see her and follow suit.

 ***

Newsletter class.

We wanted our kids to know important news around the world, but newspaper articles are too difficult for kids of class IV or V. So we collect a few articles, simplify the language a bit, and give them to read as a weekly newsletter. This class always produces a lot of lively discussion.

Today’s first news item — ‘Woody Allen refuses to screen his latest movie in India’. The director felt that the anti-tobacco scrolls during a couple of smoking scenes in the movie will be distracting for the audience. Since those anti-tobacco scrolls are mandatory in India, he refused to screen the movie in India.

‘So what’s your view on this?’ I ask. ‘How many of you support the idea of the anti-tobacco scrolls?’

No hand is raised. A very anti-government class, I think! But lack of support could also be due to lack of opinions, lack of a desire to speak up. So I decide to stir things up a bit.

‘Many movies show a lot of violence, killings. Shouldn’t the government also make it mandatory to write: ‘Murder is an evil activity’ during those scenes?’

Now they get the idea.

‘Yes, and during chase scenes — ‘Running around in busy roads could be injurious to health’?

‘And when lovers hug and kiss on screen — ‘Kissing is not recommended for kids and teenagers’?

‘Ok, enough, let’s not go to that direction,’ I say. ‘At this rate, the scrolls will be running for the whole duration of the movie, along with the subtitles.’

***

Teacher’s meeting.

We meet everyday after school to discuss how the day went, and to prepare for the next day. This is also a time when we talk to the new teachers about the way we teach.

‘Are we really following the syllabus prescribed by the board?’ a new teacher asks.

That’s a question that has been asked a hundred times — by parents, new teachers, visitors to the school. It bothers me that people are so caught up in prescribed syllabus that they forget what real learning is all about.

‘For the elementary level, say from LKG to class V — there is nothing like a syllabus prescribed by the board. Obviously, there are milestones — you are supposed to learn multiplication by class III, fraction by class IV and so on. But primary classes are more about developing skills, so that you can tackle more mature subjects like history or science in the middle school. You need to be good at reading and writing, good at calculation and logic, good at applying concepts to solve problems. Those are the skills that we prioritise.’

‘But the textbooks prescribed by the board will be followed in higher classes, right?’

‘Yes, sure,’ I reassure her, and she seems satisfied.

In reality though, I have no plans to follow any board textbooks till class VIII. Obviously, I need to get my students prepared for the board exams, so we have to do the standard syllabus from ninth standard, but before that I am determined not to put them through the standard grind. I will plot, conspire, lie, delay — I will use every strategy in the book, every ‘art of war’, so that dry, outdated textbooks are not unleashed on our children.

***

‘All — please submit your homework, put it on this desk,’ I say.

We did not have any homework for our students in the first couple of years after the school started. Kids studied only at school, and the results showed that lack of homework was not affecting their learning. In standardised tests, most of our school students ranked among top 15% nationally — and the school itself was ranked among the top-10 schools based on its results.

Still, the parents were not happy. It seemed just the output is not enough — you need to demonstrate ‘input’ too. How would they learn if there is no work to be done at home? How did we learn during our childhood, for god’s sake?

May be you did not learn much at school, I wanted to retort. Do you want your kids to have the same life that you had? Do you feel proud of making no difference, working in a government job where young kids, sometimes without a college degree, are changing the world? Do you want your kids to stay rooted in age-old thoughts, prejudices and superstitions while the modern world passes you by? Or do you want them to be in sync with the changes, or possibly even bring about some of them?

But I say nothing. At least these parents were enlightened enough to send their kids to a school which is so obviously different, I reason with myself. I cannot have a school without students. Without students, how can I prove that this is the only method that works? I need their support. I cannot afford to piss them off — at least not too much. I express my thoughts politely, reasonably –while seething from inside. One day people would see the light, I say to myself.

But that does not happen. The questions continue. ‘When will you give them books?’ they ask.

‘I thought something with printed letters inside is called books,’ I say. ‘We have many books at school that they read.’

Then I get the point. I see the light, instead of them. Books are defined as something that you memorise at home. Books are not something you learn from. Books are not something you read for pleasure. So whatever we teach at school cannot be classified as books. After all, if kids are enjoying reading them, how can they be books? Books have to be boring, mind-numbing, full of jargons and definitions.

I do not give in to their demand for such ‘books’. But they are insistent about homework. Now the questions are phrased differently. Our children do not know what to do with so much free time at home. They watch TV, they jump around. Evolution is working backwards — they are transforming into monkeys. Please give them something to do at home.

In the end I give in. I try to find some stuff that they can do at home. Yes — handwriting. That obsolete skill. Parents complain that in our school no ‘writing’ is done. They actually mean handwriting. Why not give that as homework and make parents happy?

Only handwriting will not keep kids busy. Come on, one page of handwriting per week? Are you crazy? They will finish it in half an hour. What about the rest of the zillion hours per week?

So we create a math homework booklet, for each class. Again, obsolete, mind-numbing, calculation oriented activities are given as homework. School does not want to inflict rows and rows of multiplication and division sums on the kids. But the parents complain that kids are forgetting basic calculation. They cannot seem to do a three-digit by two-digit multiplication quickly. Other schools are far more advanced. Their students can even do a five-digit by four-digit multiplication.

They can use a calculator, I say. Or an excel sheet. Do you do multiplications every day, I ask the parents. When you really have to do it, do you not use a calculator? Is it not enough that they know how to do it?

Anyway. We create the homework booklet — full of dreadful calculations. Parents are happy. Two pages from those booklets have to be submitted every week.

Today is one such day.

Everybody submits — but not Hulk.

‘What happened, Hulk? Where is your homework?’ I ask.

‘I went to a marriage function,’ he says.

‘Your own, or somebody else’s?’’

‘Not my own, obviously.’

‘Then this cannot be allowed as an excuse. I could have excused your homework submission if it were your own marriage.’

‘But the marriage party was in Calcutta, I came back only yesterday evening.’ Hulk replies.

‘Well, then you should have stayed up late and finished the homework.’

‘I stayed up late, but still it was not finished.’

‘Then you should have woken up early today and finished it.’

‘I woke up at 5:30 today, but then I had to come to the school for the extra class.’

‘Oh, I guess then you really need more than 24 hours a day. You know there are planets where you have more than 24 hour-days? May be you should go to those places. Why did you come to the extra class anyway?’

‘I missed a few classes before the puja vacation, and I need to catch up on the history booklets.’

‘Oh, what’s the status on that? How far has the class progressed on history?’

The class says that they are on to Russian revolution, where Hulk seems to be still stuck at American Civil War.

‘Which part of American Civil War? Has Lincoln been assassinated yet?’

‘No,’ Hulk replies.

‘Well, then assassinate him soon. What are you waiting for?’

Everybody laughs. Hulk remains serious. The prospect of assassinating Lincoln does not cheer him up.

***

‘Open the Big Questions booklet. Turn to the page, Do miracles really happen?

Tamoghna raises his hand. He is a new student in our class. His father recently got transferred to the nearby Bakreshwar Thermal Power Township.

‘Sir, which subject is this?’

This question stumps me. The Big Questions booklet contains questions like,

  • Are rich people happier?
  • Will it be good to live forever?
  • Are the great stories like Mahabharata or Illiad true?
  • Why do wars happen?

Now, which subject is this, really? I understand Tamoghna having a problem with our approach. Till class IV, he studied in an ICSE board school in Kolaghat, another thermal power township. Like all schools, there must have been rigid routines and clear subject boundaries. If we are doing something in school, it must be under one of those subjects, right? How exactly should I make a child understand that in real-life, problems do not come neatly packaged in narrow subject boundaries?

‘Tamoghna, in this booklet we discuss topics which are not directly under any subject, but still important enough to discuss. Broadly, you can consider this a combination of history, science, philosophy and economics.’

Tamoghna’s face lights up. Looks like in this school I’m getting to study more subjects than I did in my old school, his expression seems to say.

More subjects are always better — this is a lesson I learnt of late. In the parent-teacher meetings, a standard question is, ‘In this school, kids seem to be studying English most of the times — what about other subjects?’

‘Yes, when will history and geography be introduced?’ an eager mother of an LKG child speaks up.

Suddenly, there is a clamour for history, geography, science, computers — as early as possible.

‘In the XYZ public school, they teach computers right from class I,’ somebody says.

‘And St Xaviers school has eleven subjects, including moral science,’ another person says.

I let them speak for some time. Finally, they look up at me expectantly, waiting for an answer.

‘How do you expect them to study any subjects at all, if they do not first learn the language well? Right after you were born, did you study geography? Or you just learnt to understand and speak Bangla? For them, English has to be like their mother tongue. If they cannot read English fluently, how will they read history? In which language?

‘And what is the hurry? The board prescribes that social science and science are introduced only from class VI. Primary level, till class V, is a time to prepare the child. They should learn to speak, read, write. They should develop a logical and analytical mind. That’s all the goal we should have till class V. Other subjects must come after that.’

‘But at least computers can be taught earlier, no?’ a father of a class I student asks, hopeful that at least one more subject will be added to the measly list of English, Math and Environment Science. Only three subjects? How awful is that? My neighbour’s kid is learning double of that.

Double, yes. Learning? No.

‘Yes, you can teach painting in computer, or playing games. But if you have to teach something real, like using internet, or using MS Office — then we must wait till their language skills are better and they are more mature.’ I answer.

‘Yes, in the other school they only teach them to paint during the computer class,’ he sheepishly admits.

I know this is not the end of it. In the next parent-teacher meeting, the same questions will be asked. May be by the same set of parents, may be by some other group. Sometimes I feel like recording my replies to the standard questions of homework, textbooks, more subjects. Well, you have a question about homework? Let me press button one on this record-player. About textbook? Let me press button two.

***

We are nearing the yearly ASSET test. We put our children through this test every year to benchmark their performance compared to the rest of the country. This is similar to the standardized tests that are quite common in US or other developed countries. In India, the concept is fairly new — ASSET is just 10 years old. But looking at their success, several new wannabe players sprouted up, offering ‘cheap’ assessment services to schools. The schools themselves of course know no better to assess the assessment services.

ASSET checks a student’s basic skills — ability to read, ability to apply common sense to solve problems. The other assessment services have memory based questions that test knowledge. But most schools are not enlightened enough to differentiate between the two approaches. They get swayed by fancy names. Some of the tests have an ‘Olympiad’ or ‘International’ inserted in their names. Obviously, something that is of ‘international’ standard cannot be bad, right?

Naming is a big scam, particularly in the domain of education. There are international schools which have neither any international student, nor international teaching methods. There are schools which exploit the names of famous people of the past, like Tagore. Tagore would be turning in his grave if he could see what kind of education most of those schools impart. There are schools which use the name of Rishi Aurobindo, or Swami Vivekananda. If you run out of ideas, put a saint before an English sounding name. St John’s School, St Francis’ School, St Paul’s School. Something with such a name must be providing quality English medium education, parents think.

I wonder why they did not (dis)honour Mahatma Gandhi by using his name in schools. I find it quite baffling why they named so many roads after Gandhi, but not schools or colleges. May be Gandhi had nothing useful to teach us. May be he is not too fashionable, with his loincloth and focus on cleaning toilets. Or maybe he walked a lot on roads — so it is better to name roads after him.

But I digress. My students say I can never stick to one point, and they are right.

Coming back to ASSET, thankfully it scores in terms of how many students sit for it. With lakhs of students all over India sitting for it, it comfortably beats those other con-tests. We cannot make parents understand the finer points related to why ASSET is better — but at least we can tell them that ASSET is very popular. That sells. For anything to be good, it has to be liked by a large number of people.

So by definition, anything new cannot be good — because new things are not yet liked by a large number of people. ‘Is your method being used in other schools, or is it entirely new?’ parents ask fearfully. It is futile to tell them something new may not necessarily be bad. So I take a different track. ‘Yes, most schools in US or UK teach in this way,’ I respond. Finally, I discover the golden balance of being truthful as well as politically correct.

I digress again. Come back to ASSET, for god’s sake.

In the class, students show me the question paper of an assessment that was recently taken by another school. An International Olympiad. The biggest Olympiad, the question paper proudly claims. Biggest among how many, it does not say. It must feel quite lonely at the top, when you win a competition where you are the only participant.

They are eager to show me the questions from this test. There is a question about clock in the mental ability section:

A clock hand is currently at 6. It then goes 90 degrees clockwise and then 135 degrees anti-clockwise. Where is it now?

‘Has the clock gone mad that it would behave in this way, swinging like a pendulum? Why would a clock go anti-clockwise at all? It would cease to be a clock then.’ I retort.

The class sees the merit in my argument. This question is not worth solving, they decide. They move on to another question.

‘Sir, see this question — who is the father of computer? There are four choices. Do you know which one is correct?’ Motu asks me.

‘No, I don’t know who the father of computer is, but I know who the 100,000th great-grandfather of computer is. According to the theory of evolution, it must be a monkey.’

‘And one billionth great-grandfather of computer must be a virus,’ Aranya takes the argument forward.

‘Such an evil grandfather, instead of protecting its descendants, it attacks them!’ Bhau says.

Jokes apart, it is really a sad state of affairs when we ask our children to memorise who the father of computer was, but do not teach them how to use computers. Einstein was right when he said, ‘Only two things are infinite — the universe and the human stupidity. And I am not sure about the former.’

But then Einstein was right about most of the things.

*** 

From class VI, we encourage our students to read newspaper. It is actively driven by the school — we select a few news items from Times of India every day, students are supposed to read them back home. We discuss them in the class in the next day. It is perilous territory — newspapers are full of news items which children ideally should not see. But the world too is full of cruelty and violence — newspapers just reflect the state of the world. If we shield our children from everything — we have to ask them not to use internet, not to read books and confine them at home.

Today’s main news is about Aam Aadmi Party, which recently won elections. ‘Arvind Kejriwal sets up Junta Darbar’, it says. The chief minister of the newly elected party decided to meet common people regularly in front of his office.

‘Do you think he is doing the correct thing?’ I ask.

‘Yes,’ most of them answer. Some, like Sreedutta and Vulture are silent. Sreedutta always waits for everybody else to offer their opinion. Vulture normally does not have any opinion.

But most of the class seem to approve of the chief minister’s decision to personally meet common people. The newspaper, too, is full of praise for such a novel and down-to-earth gesture.

‘Think about this school,’ I say. ‘Let’s say the school does not function well. The teachers are not teaching well. The teaching materials are full of mistakes. The transport does not run on time. The toilets are unclean. Who is at fault?’

‘You!’ everybody shouts this time, including Vulture and Sreedutta.

‘Not me, not me. I am not so incompetent. Let’s say there was another director running the school. He brought the school to such a condition. So now I, who was just a teacher before, have been promoted to the position of director — just like Kejriwal.

‘Right after the day I’m appointed, I announce, any parent who has a complaint about the school can come and meet me every day between 9 am to 12 noon. Your child did not understand multiplication table? You can tell me. The boys’ toilet stinks? Raise the issue with me. The school bus reached your stoppage twenty minutes late? Talk to me about it. Would that be the correct approach?’ I ask.

‘You will be wasting a lot of time talking to the parents, and will not be able to spend much time running the school,’ Aranya says.

‘Exactly. My job is to hire the correct people, to set up proper systems and processes. If I do my job well, there would not be so many complaints in the first place. I was working in the school before — so I know its problems. What’s the use of wasting time hearing about them? In Kejriwal’s situation too — he knows what the problems are. He should get down to solving them.’

‘Looks like a young girl came to him complaining that her boyfriend is refusing to marry her,’ Motu reads out from the newspaper.

This gets the class energized.

‘Menelaus could have gone to Kejriwal, complaining about Helen leaving him and going away with Paris,’ says Nonny, referring to the battle of Troy.

‘But Kejriwal is taking complaints only from common people, and Menelaus was a king,’ Fluffy, always with an eye for details, points out.

‘And Menelaus did not know the way to Delhi,’ says Goody-Goody, always eager to provide some help to her best friend Fluffy.

‘And he had a thousand ships, but Delhi had to be reached through land.’ Points out Motu, using his recently acquired Geography expertise.

‘Ok, enough, enough — you people specialise in talking nonsense,’ I try to stem the flow. ‘Digressing is not what we teach in this school.’

‘Are you sure about that?’ asks Bhau cheekily.

I give him a stern look and he promptly lowers at head, pretending to focus on the newspaper. ‘Kejriwal also promises to reduce electricity prices by half and give free water,’ he says seriously, pointing at the next news item to be discussed.

‘Yes — this is something various governments often promise and do — to give things away for free. Is that a good thing?’

‘No,’ Aranya says, ‘he will anyway collect the money from the people later on through taxes.’

‘Yes — it’s like giving with one hand and taking back with the other,’ I say. ‘Again, coming back to the school analogy, will it be good if next year I halve the school’s fees, or better still, make it free?’

‘No,’ this time many more students respond. ‘It would bring down the quality.’

‘Yes — if I have to run it at half the current fees, then either I have to pay teachers much less, which means I will get lower quality teachers, or I need to pack more students per classroom. Either way, the school’s quality will suffer.’

Everybody nods and understands. It’s easy to teach them this concept. It’s not so easy to teach the same thing to the parents, though. My mind races back to the last parent-teacher meeting — where we discussed the fee structure of the school.

***

‘Our school is the Bradman among schools,’ I thundered at the beginning of that meeting, using a cricket analogy.

In Test Cricket, I explain, there have been many great batsmen — our homegrown Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, past greats like Gary Sobers and Len Hutton and modern legends like Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis. They are among the top-10 batsmen of Test Cricket. Most of those top-10 batsmen averaged around 55–60 runs per innings.

But Bradman was unparalleled — he stood head and shoulders above the rest by scoring at a rate of around 100 per innings. He averaged an astounding 67% more than the other greats.

‘Levelfield too’, I assert, ‘scores much, much higher than the other top-ten schools in the ASSET test — making us the number one by a wide margin. Your child is studying in the best school in the whole country.’

 

I look at the faces in the audience. No shock, surprise or joy. Your claim is so far from the truth that it does not even merit disbelief, their expressions seem to say. Come on, we are talking about a school in Suri. Here, if we just achieve mediocrity, it would be considered good enough. Extraordinary things do not happen here.

‘No fee is high enough for the best school in the country,’ I plod on, ignoring their scepticism. ‘The best things cannot come cheap.’

A hand is raised from the audience. ‘Will the fees again be raised next year?’ he asks. Don’t waste our time beating about the bush — come to the point, his tone seems to suggest. Tell us how much we have to shell out of our pockets.

I feel exasperated — but I manage to keep my cool. Sidestepping the question, I respond, ‘An average parent spends about Rs1.5 lakhs on sending his child to IIT or other engineering coaching centres. He also spends around Rs 50,000 on his child’s MBA entrance coaching. But you are fortunate — your child will be able to take a shot at those exams without those extra coaching, and extra spending — because at Levelfield, we teach them in a way that equips them for those future challenges.’

The crowd looks bored. They are not interested in future savings, when money is taken out of their pockets now. I try another line of reasoning.

‘Imagine your child studying in another school in Suri. Even if she is intelligent, she would get no more than 80–85% in board exams. She would be good at rote-learning, but poor in problem-solving, so she will not get through competitive exams. She will not be able to speak English well, so will not be able to get a private sector job after her graduation. If she is lucky, she will finally land a government job, after years of sitting for various examinations — and will earn a mediocre salary — and will forever be confined to a life of mediocrity.

‘Now imagine the same child at Levelfield. Confident, English-speaking, in sync with the demands of the modern world — the whole world will be open to her. Which one of the futures do you want for your child?

‘No, we want you to maintain the quality, but please keep the costs reasonable,’ somebody from audience says.

Very sensible, right? The best of both worlds. Cheap and high-quality. My inspirational speech seemed to have no effect. No belief in the basic economic laws.

Disappointed, I mumble, ‘Yes, I will see what best can be done,’ and conclude the meeting.

***

Computer class.

 

I ask the class to do some basic internet search — find out three great quotes of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Shakespeare and Rumi.

Rumi is a great poet from the middle-east, whose poems typically adorn the first pages of books of celebrated Asian writers like Khaled Hosseini. If you are not familiar with Rumi — do not feel bad — it seems Microsoft Word is not familiar as well.

Bhau raises his hand after a couple of minutes. ‘Sir, Microsoft Word gives a red underline to Rumi — indicating a spelling mistake. It claims that the correct spelling should be rum.’

Rumi is lucky. Everybody imagines being named after various types of liquor. ‘I wish my name were Vodka, instead of Bhau,’ Bhau says.

Nonny finds out a quote of Einstein which she wants to share with the class: ‘Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.’

The class is appreciative. Einstein was a cool dude, it seems. Nonny’s respect for science and scientists shoot up.

Soon they find Shakespeare to be a cool guy as well.

There’s many a man who has more hair than wit,’ Fluffy likes this one from Shakespeare.

‘I am not such a man,’ I say, regretting it immediately.

‘Is that due to the fact that you have more wit, or less hair?’ Bhau asks innocently.

I need to teach him to respect elders. ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,’ I say, quoting Julias Caeser.

They find many more lovely lines of Shakespeare.

“The fault, dear Brutas, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” Based on this yardstick, they agree most of their fathers are not wise.

At the end of the class, they are in love with Shakespeare. Can’t you teach us Shakespeare, they ask me.

‘Ok — I will teach you Hamlet, which is my favourite.’ I say. Ours will be the only class in the world where Hamlet will be taught to students of this age.

***

Our first batch of students will reach class ten next year and will sit for the board exams. Before summer vacation, we call a meeting of their parents.

‘We will have a preparatory exam right after the summer vacation,’ I announce.

Everyone perks up. I know nothing stirs the attention of parents than a talk about exams.

‘The reason we will have it after summer vacation is to ensure that they utilise the long vacation. I see a lot of them waste time chatting on the internet during vacations — that must not happen.’

Trrng…a WhatsApp notification sound rings from the phone of Dos’ father. All the adults in the room look embarrassed. Only Dos’ father is unperturbed. Children in the room looks jubilant — their expression seems to say, it’s not only us who do it.

Vulture’s father raises his hands. ‘Sir, will you mind if I ask a question?’

‘I cannot say whether I will mind or not unless I hear the question,’ I say.

He plods on, fearlessly. ‘I saw the marks in the weekly tests of Chemistry. Can you tell me why is there such a large difference between the top students and the bottom students?’

Existential question. Why is there such a large difference in wealth between Bill Gates and me? Such questions are beyond the syllabus, as far as parent-teacher meetings go.

I rephrase him, ‘I think you are really asking why Vulture is there at the bottom of the list, and not towards the top, right?’

He seems unhappy. He did not want his son’s performance to be brought into focus.

Aranya’s dad rescues him by asking a different question.

‘Sir, will you give them some coaching for the KVPY exam?’

‘Is it something to do with Kishan Vikas?’ I ask.

I am stunned that Aranya wants to do something with farming. I always taught them that Agricultural revolution has been the undoing of humankind.

‘No, no, it’s not Kishan Vikas. It’s Kishore Vaigyanik.’

I quickly check it on my phone. It’s a test that acts as an entrance exam to institutes like IISc, Indian Institute of Science.

I hate these entrance tests and the coaching culture they spawned. I suddenly wish it was really Kishan Vikas, instead of Kishore Vaigyanik.

‘No,’ I flatly declare.

Aranya’s father looks quite disappointed. I give him some reassurance. ‘We will teach them well in the school. They will not need any special coaching for anything.’

He seems happy again.

But that was a lie. I have no intention to inflict ‘science’ on our children in 12th standard. They will study it if they are genuinely interested — but not to fulfil the unfulfilled ambition of their parents who could not become the engineers or doctors that they themselves wanted to become.

***

Board exams are approaching, but the class has never entered the labs. We had many theoretical discussions about the lab though — mainly about how to enter it, and who will guide us after we do enter.

‘Under Motu’s able guidance we should be able to do the experiments,’ I suggest.

‘What makes you think Motu will be an expert?’ Nonny counters.

‘Because he is good at pouring things. He really poured tea very well from the pot to the teacup yesterday. Chemistry lab is all about pouring.’

Everyone concurs. Pouring is all that counts. It’s all Motu’s responsibility now.

‘What happens if we pour wrongly?’ Aranya asks.

‘Anything might happen. Explosions, earthquakes, who knows? We cannot trust anyone other than Motu.’

‘Is physics lab also about pouring?’ Bhau asks with mock innocence.

‘No, it’s all about making circuits. But there too, explosions are the final result.’

I think I manage to sufficiently reassure them here. It cannot be so very difficult when there is only one result, right?

‘How do you know so much about explosions?’ everyone asks.

My mind races back to my IIT days, in the Electrical Machines lab. We had to make some real wirings based on circuit diagrams. I did not mind making those circuits. What I really disliked was pulling down the main switch after the circuit was made. All hell would break loose. The resistors would start burning with lots of scary sounds. On top of the scary sounds of burning and explosions, the professors would bark loudly too, blaming me for this mayhem.

Since then I never liked to enter labs. But now, for the sake of my students, I have to do it again.

‘How did you manage to pass the course when you were always wiring circuits wrong?’ they ask.

‘Oh, we mostly had group projects. And I had partners who could do circuits.’

‘But why would they choose you?’

‘Because I provided interesting companionship. Take them out for tea, bread-omelette, amuse them with stories.’

The class understands the value of conversation and interesting companionship. At least, our discussion about labs resulted in some valuable life lesson.

***

In our school, students always loved history. History meant movies like ‘Downfall’ or ‘The Pianist’. History meant literature like ‘A fine balance’ or ‘Animal Farm’. History meant endless discussions about why Dara Sikoh lost in the succession battle against Aurangzeb. History is fascinating.

But suddenly, after reaching class 9, the students started disliking history.

The reason is the history textbooks. Though our school is affiliated to the CIE board, and textbooks are supposed to be more interesting, but in the end, all textbooks are tools for passing exams. They are the enemy of learning.

Anyway, I manage to persuade the students to open the history textbook. Today we will discuss Russian revolution.

For a while, it is interesting, till the time we get into the nitty-gritties of the civil war. I see most of the students’ eyes glazing over while I am discussing the attempted coup by Russian general Kornilov to overthrow the provision government.

I think now is the time to ask some questions to wake them up.

‘Bhau, tell me about the reasons behind why the Kornilov affair failed.’

‘Uh, Kornilov? Who did he have the affair with?’

The whole class erupts into laughter. Though nobody else has any clue about the real Kornilov affair either.

But at least the question woke them up. Or was it the answer?

***

We continue to study Russia under the communist rule. The actual history is quite interesting, but the blur of dates and names in the textbook takes all the fun away. Students yawn. Some asks what’s the meaning of it all. I see that they get very philosophical when they study boring subjects.

 

A few days later, we successfully survive Stalin’s bloody purges and Khrushchev’s skirmishes with the West and reach the era of Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev’s time in Soviet Russia is called the era of stagnation — because no economic growth took place during that time.

I ask, ‘What did Brezhnev mainly do during his tenure?’

Pope replies, ‘He stagnated.’

‘Oh, he did not stagnate, his country stagnated. Normally when a country stagnates, the leader prospers!’

This provides some comic relief. The class comes alive. Someone points out, other than stagnating, he also gave a doctrine, called the Brezhnev Doctrine. This sounds interesting. A summary of one’s policy insights, articulated in the form of a clear one-line statement. Must be earth-shatteringly wise.

‘When enemies of socialism threaten one socialist country, all socialist countries must collectively defend that country.’

Oh oh. Such insightful doctrine. The class is disappointed. Brezhnev was a certified bore, clearly. But maybe other Presidents and Prime Ministers did better than this. Everyone starts checking Wikipedia in search of insightful doctrines.

Someone finds out that almost every American president gave a doctrine too. Nixon doctrine, which seemed equally insightful as Brezhnev, argued for the ‘pursuit of peace through partnership with allies.’

Kennedy doctrine called for ‘Containment of communism.’

Bhau says, ‘Let’s check out Bill Clinton’s doctrine. He was an interesting man. Maybe he gave a doctrine about the Monica Lewinsky thing.’

We are in for a bitter disappointment there as well. Clinton doctrine also turns out to be equally boring.

‘Let’s make our own doctrines,’ Nonny suggests, ‘We will fill the doctrine-gap in the world.’

‘Yeah, my doctrine is that I will always remain smarter than my smartphone,’ Bhau says.

‘I will always work harder,’ Motu says.

‘Harder compared to what or who or when?’ everyone asks.

Motu is nonplussed. It seems he needs to refine his doctrine more so that it can withstand rigorous scrutiny.

‘Yes, let’s do it as a homework,’ I say. ‘You all will write your own doctrines. Maybe it will not be published in Wikipedia, but it will surely be better doctrines than those presidents.’

The End

We all hope Sir will write more of these amazing stories. 

Why college education may be obsolete in near future


This is an article by Sampad Ghosh (Dos of Class 12, 2019) about how the three main purposes that colleges serve – filtration, education, and placement – may become obsolete in the near future. 

College education is thought to be the ticket to a higher level of life. Most people even define their identity based on their colleges — IITian, Stephenians, Xaverians. During class XI and XII, millions of students all over the world slog, worry, and cram ceaselessly to get into the college of their dreams.

But we must pause to think — is it really worth it?

Before you attack me for uttering this blasphemous thought, let me clarify that I am one of you. I am in 11th standard, and have recently given my SAT for admission into US universities. I am also currently studying for my AS and A levels, taking numerous AP (advanced placement) subjects, in addition to preparing for SAT subject tests. All this workload often makes you quite philosophical, and you end up thinking — what’s the meaning of this all?

It is that introspection (and a bit of analysis by my teacher) that led me to the conclusion that the college education is possibly going to be obsolete, in not so distant future. To understand why — let us think about why colleges exist in the first place.

You might think that the reason for their existence is obvious — why, they provide education, you might say. But it goes deeper than that. Colleges actually provide three different services — filtration, education and placement.

By selecting students through their various selection procedures, colleges act as a proxy for quality. You know a typical student of, say Princeton University, will have a SAT score of 1500+, which means he/she is proficient in reading and basic problem solving. You know that IIMs have a group discussion and interview process among their selection criteria in addition to an aptitude test — so you might assume that a typical IIM student may be able to orally communicate well. In addition, by knowing the pecking order (ranking) of the colleges, you broadly understand the pecking order of the students as well.

All that is useful information — because when companies hire, they cannot put all the billions of employable people in the world through a test or interview process. So when they look at your CV, from the name of your college they can make certain assumptions about what sort of capabilities you have. Though it’s stereotyping, and like all stereotyping, it often gives wrong information, but still it helps them to sort out a huge mass of probable hires into a manageable few.

Colleges also provide education — you learn some general and specialized skills, depending on what you major in. This is the role which is the least useful one, because colleges in most part of the world has not really moved in sync with the changing times. Most colleges have curriculum that’s not directly relevant to what’s needed in real life and workplaces. For example, most colleges (even the best ones) do not train people much on ‘soft’ skills. Rather, they prefer ‘hard’ academic disciplines, which have less use for most people.

The third function that (some) colleges perform is placements — helping the students and the potential employers connect with each other. This stems directly from the filtration function — companies know the kind of talent they want to hire, so they can swoop down on a certain set of colleges and finish their hiring process by selecting among a shortlist of eligible candidates.

Now, if you really look at the technological trends over the last couple of years, you will see that all these functions may soon be performed better by other entities.

Let’s take filtration first. Currently the college rank, your IIT-JEE rank, CAT percentile, GRE or SAT score, CGPA — a combination of these variables quantifies your capability. But very soon, better measures may be available. For many jobs, internet is already making it possible for us to rate providers. If you see an Uber driver with a 3.9 rating, you might decide not to ride with him. Before buying products from Amazon, you check the seller’s rating, not his CGPA. In many freelance work platforms, rating matters more than the college degree or SAT score.

Now these ratings or scores are scattered among various places — your academic scores, your business ratings on Google app, your credit score, your seller-rating on Amazon etc. But very soon — all these may be integrated into a single score — indicating your competence and trustworthiness. An episode in Black Mirror, called Nosedive, shows us how such a world would look like. But you do not need to really look at a futuristic TV show for such a world — China is already implementing such a social credit scoring system on a vast scale. If such a comprehensive, precise score is available, who needs poorer substitutes like your college name or SAT scores?

Let’s now talk about the second function colleges provide — education. In most ways, this has already been obsolete in most parts of the world. People learn through on-the-job trainings, through coding boot camps, through online courses and apps. Colleges might teach you Physics, Chemistry or History, but what’s truly needed in the jobs are being taught in the companies themselves, or in apps like Udacity or Duolingo, or in a coding boot camp in California.

The third service colleges provide — placements — may also be obsolete as online job aggregators become more efficient and ubiquitous. In the future, even the concept of permanent jobs may not be there, as we move to an economy where people get paid for pieces of work that they do: the gig economy. Our networked world and vast computational abilities make it possible for projects and people to be instantly connected. In such a world, colleges being the intermediary between people and jobs will be a quaint idea.

All these thoughts make me quite unenthusiastic about all the studying that I need to do — not just to get into colleges, but also inside the colleges!

Memory-Lane


This is a very entertaining story by Sohom Mukherjee (Urgi of class 11, 2019) where he talks about a non-school day in our old school building, the Karidhya Campus, reminiscing the sweet memories of those times. 

The bus was rumbling down the road, carrying inside it energetic children who were all too busy chattering among themselves. I was one of them.

The day was warm and we were heading towards school. There was Bhau and Koka sitting two seats ahead of me and laughing, presumably because of a joke that Bhau had cracked. I was sitting in the back seat with Vulture and Motu. Motu, always excited about fast cars, was telling me about a car and how it reached from 0 to 60 in three seconds. I was not really very interested in this, especially right in the morning, but I was listening to him anyway.

The bus started slowing down and when I looked out of the window I saw the yellow school building. Today was Saturday and we were primarily going to the school to play. The bus came to a stop in front of the massive black gates and people in the front seats started getting down. Me, Motu and Vulture got down last.

Immediately after getting down I started running towards the main building. Then I remembered suddenly that Sir might catch me running and make me hold my ears. I stopped in my tracks and looked around to see if Sir was anywhere nearby. After confirming that he hadn’t seen me, I sighed with relief.

I and all the others then walked into a room in the corner and kept our bags. By this time a lot of non-school transport people had also arrived, including Sampad, Soumi and Nikhil.

Our school building was unlike other schools. It had a courtyard in the middle and surrounding this courtyard were classrooms and few other rooms. These other rooms included a games room, a library, a computer lab and also Sir’s offices. It was in this courtyard that we all gathered, awaiting Sir’s instructions on what to do. In reality, however, we didn’t really want much instructions, all we wanted was for him to pronounce the magic words, ‘You can play now’.

After some time Sir came out of his office and Bhau bravely asked him what we would do, knowing fully well that Sir knew that all we wanted to do was play the whole time. Sir announced that we would read for the first one and a half hours and then we could play for the remaining two and a half.

I could see some disappointed faces, and one such face belonged to Nikhil. To be honest I was both disappointed and relieved. I was relieved because I would feel a bit guilty if I played the whole time from morning to noon. But at the same time I was disappointed because I did want to play the whole time and was not really in a mood for much else.

Everybody headed towards the library to collect a book and I followed them. But instead of reading in the library Sir told us to read out in the open, sitting in the corridors which ran in front of classrooms. This was so that he could catch us if we started talking in the reading time.

I went into the library and picked a big looking book called, ‘India after Gandhi’. This was so that others would get impressed looking at me attempting to read a big book. I was about to sit down and start reading the book when Sir called out to me.

‘Urgi, go keep that book and choose a simpler one, you’re too small to read that now’.

‘Yes Sir’, I replied.

Instead of impressing others I had made a fool of myself. I went to the library and kept the book back. This time I chose a very thin looking book, it was an abridged version of Martin Luther King’s biography.

When I went out Sir was still there and when he saw the book I had chosen he said, ‘That book is appropriate for you’.

I sat down and started reading the book. But reading it wasn’t my top priority though, I wanted to read it fast so that I could put a tick on the box called ‘have read’ for this book. I then wanted to move on to the next book and do the same. So I read the book very fast, but in reality it was more like flipping pages. I was done within twenty minutes. But I couldn’t change the book without Sir’s permission and so I waited for him to come out of his office and he did after some time.

‘Sir, I’ve finished this book, can I take another ?’, I asked him. But instead of answering me he came over and took the book from me.

‘You’ve finished this book ?’, he asked and I answered yes.

‘Then tell me what was the most famous thing Martin Luther King said’.

I had no clue about what the answer was but I had some vague memory about something about an elevator.

‘He said that blacks and whites weren’t allowed in the same elevator’, I answered. Then I immediately heard a few chuckles and knew I had said something wrong and so I quickly corrected myself.

‘Oh sorry, that’s not what he said, he said that blacks and whites weren’t allowed to sit in the same seats in a bus’.

‘You’ve read nothing, go read this book again’, Sir said.

So I started to read it again and this time I had the intention to read it properly. The story got extremely interesting as I read it and I got completely immersed in it. This time it took me about fifty-five minutes but I had read it properly and remembered everything.

Sir was talking with Riku uncle when I finished reading. After he finished talking I called out to him telling him that I had finished reading. He again came over.

‘So what was the most famous thing Martin Luther King said ?’, he asked me again.

‘He said in a speech the famous line “I have a dream”’, I said confidently this time.

‘Good’, he said, ‘seems like you have read it this time’.

By this time the reading time was over and Bhau came and asked Sir if we could start playing. He said yes. We then quickly gathered and decided that we would play cricket today. The teams were decided. I was with Koka, Vulture, Sampad and a few others. The other team consisted of Bhau, Motu, Nikhil and some others.

It was decided our team would bowl first. Motu went to bat first for their team. He started of very well and it looked like that if he kept on playing like the way he was we would lose the match. Koka even reorganized the fielders but it was to no effect.

Then it happened; disaster struck for the first time. The door to Sir’s office was open and Motu hit the ball directly inside. I could hear a few things getting knocked over.

Everybody fell silent for a long moment. But then Koka went to get the ball. We felt sorry for him for we knew some scolding was awaiting; he knew that as well. He walked to Sir’s office as slowly as he could get away with and then poked his head inside and asked Sir for the ball. What surprised us most was that he got no scolding at all and came back in one piece.

We resumed playing, but it was only after we all agreed that Motu couldn’t bat anymore. Bhau came to bat after this but he got caught out after two overs. After that the rest of his team got out quickly, scoring only few more runs.

It was now our team’s chance to bat and there was real chance that we could win the match. From our team Vulture went to bat first. But he didn’t perform very well and was out in an over.

By this time we were all tired from playing under the sun and it was decided that we would take a break and then continue. During the break, however, all we did was horse around, shouting and running here and there. Koka tried to drink some water from a wide mouthed bottle and spilled half of it on his shirt.

After the break we resumed the game and Koka went to bat for our team. He was much more promising than Vulture. By the end of Koka’s second over he had hit a string of fours and sixes and we were well on our way to victory. But then it happened again; Koka hit the ball hard and it went straight inside Sir’s office. Then followed the ominous silence again and this time it was much longer than last time’s. Nobody wanted to go ask Sir for the ball this time for they knew that the consequences wouldn’t be a miracle like last time. We all knew miracles were rare.

Bhau then took a step forward and everybody was relieved that somebody else was taking the risk. He slowly went up to Sir’s office and asked for the ball. After seeing that he was standing in front of Sir’s office for a moment too long we thought that he was getting it. But surprising us yet again, he came back unscathed, smiling even. We gathered around him and asked him what had happened. He said that Sir was a bit angry but had given him the ball back and told him that it should not happen again.

We again resumed playing but now we were all extremely wary of hitting hard. It was decided Koka, like Motu, would stop batting.

I was the only one left who had some chances of making us win the match and so I went to bat. The start was bad and pressure was mounting up. Koka quickly came over and told me to keep my nerve.

The last over arrived, I scored a four and immediately there were lots of claps from my team. But then I couldn’t hit again and the pressure went up a notch. Koka called me and told me to focus on the ball but at this point it wasn’t much of a help.

The game was very close to the end and if I scored a few more runs I would be able to bring victory home. But I had another hidden agenda up my sleeve: I didn’t just want to win the match but wanted to win in a heroic way by scoring the few final runs by hitting a six. Nothing less than a six would suffice, I told myself. So when the next ball was bowled I focused and hit with all my might and then the next thing I remember is running into the games room and closing the door shut. The ball had gone inside Sir’s office again!

In the game’s room we started talking about what we’d do next and who would go and bring the ball, if at all. It was decided I would have to go and I resigned myself to my fate.

I slowly walked towards Sir’s office dreading what was to come next. When I reached his office I poked my head inside and asked, ‘Sir can I have the ball back?’.

I saw that he had the ball in his hand and instead of scolding me or giving the ball back to me he got up from his chair and walked towards me. I thought at this point that I was going to get some serious scolding and we were all going to get some punishment.

But instead he just walked out into the courtyard.

‘Ah, none of you seem to know how to play any cricket’, he said, ‘all you seem to do is hit the ball in random directions. Come I will show you how to play some cricket’.

I didn’t say anything because I was still a bit scared but by now I was also confused, where was the scolding?

‘Where are all the others?’, he asked me and I answered truthfully that after hitting the ball we had all run into the games room in fear of getting scolding.

‘Oh, get them out and I will show you all to play some cricket like I used to in my childhood’.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, he was going to play cricket with us instead of scolding us for repeatedly hitting the ball inside his office. I was so relieved that I wanted to dance.

I then went inside the games room and called the others and they seemed not to be able to comprehend the situation, but I couldn’t blame them for it.

We all started playing cricket and Sir showed us how to bowl and bat properly. But the situation had turned so unreal, not because he was playing with us for he did that often but because we had gotten no scolding at all for acts we thought were criminal, that we were all a bit ecstatic and none of us could really focus on the game.

After some time our playing for the day ended and we boarded the bus home, but the memory of this day has stuck with me ever since.

 

***

This story was a mix of reality and imagination of a time long in the past, times often referred to as the Great Game Days. These were the times we fondly look back to, remembering the intimate nature of the school back then and all the fun we had in it. We’d just come to the school, have fun classroom discussions, play, watch movies and go back. It was nothing like the present with days filled with exams and textbook based learning. All we did back then was lead a purposeless hunter-gatherer life.

But those days are gone now, no matter how much we want it back.

Oh, how much I miss the old fun filled school.