You and me together, forever


This was Nonny’s entry for the Commonwealth Essay Writing competition of 2018. The topic was ‘Our Common Earth’.

Long, long before you came,
I floated gracefully
In the vast cosmic sea.

Long after you are gone
For a few billion years
I will continue to be.

Yet, in your hubris,
You try to save me.

Oh, the irony!

***

Once, I was whole
Home to everyone,
Owned by none.

Then you unleashed
A torrent of gore and greed
And you are not yet done.

But the lines you have drawn
On my beautiful face
Will one day be gone.

***

I dream of a time
When my air is free of your poison
My rivers are pristine again.

I dream of a time
When no one is caged
No sheep, mice or men.

I dream of a time
When exploitation will end
When nature will reign.

***

Someday, one day
Future will merge with the past
And my dream will come true.

Will you be there with me?
Will you be part of my dream?
It is up to you.

A Perfect School


This is a very moving story written by Nonny. Characters and settings are purely imaginary. 

I stare out through the car window which is rolled down, hot air upon my face.

The clock in the dashboard shows 11 am. At this time, I am supposed to be at school, sitting between Tanushree and Ankini. But here I am, staring at an empty field which seems to mirror the emptiness that I feel inside me now.

My dad is driving. He too, should not be here in this car. This feels unreal. He is supposed to be there in school too, taking my class, as he has always done in the last nine years.

I cannot accept it. Please stop the car, dad. Let us go back.

Give me back my school. Let us go to the class. Let today be just like any other day.

***

I close my eyes. I am in my class again. It feels good. But it’s painful too. In a corner of my mind, a voice tells me that I am better off forgetting. But I ignore it. Let me reminisce for a while. Let time take care of the business of forgetting.

 

***

My mind takes me to our classroom. It is a cloudy day. A light drizzle outside. My dad standing near the board.

He asks us to open the book, ‘Life is Beautiful’ — a screenplay by Roberto Benigni. This movie will be shown as a part of our history class. As a preparation, we are reading the screenplay.

We suggest we move out of the classroom and sit outside. The screenplay is great, but if we can watch the rain while we discuss it, it will be perfect.

My dad agrees.

He, too, would never settle for anything less than perfect.

 

***

I first saw this quest for perfection when I was just five years old, though I did not understand it then. I thought of it as love.

He was searching for a school for me in Mumbai. He visited many schools. None satisfied him. “You will not have fun in those schools,” he told me. “None of the principals talk about what they teach and how they teach. They only talk about their AC classrooms and large campuses,” he later explained to me when I was older.

My mom was exasperated. “What’s to be done? The world is not perfect. You have to make do with what you have,” she reasoned.

“If no perfect school is available, I will build one for her,” my father replied.

 

***

In a fit of madness, he left his job, left Mumbai altogether and came back to his ancestral small town to build a school for me.

‘A school where history is taught through movies, geography through stories,’one of the hoardings announced. ‘A school where students learn to question, rather than memorise answers,’ said another. ‘Preparation for life, not just for exams,’ the huge signboard at the school gate read.

He did live up to most of those ideals. School was fun. We read stories, watched movies, discussed news, forged friendships. The school became so much a part of my life that I would cry when summer vacation came every year.

When I was small I never fully understood, but it was difficult for my dad to create that perfect experience. The parents wanted textbooks. The teachers wanted an easier life. The society wanted rote-learning.

My dad was uncompromising. He reasoned with the parents, raged against the teachers, fought with the society. In the end it surely took its toll, but when he would come to our class, he was always in his best mood.

***

It is strange that how quickly a strength can turn into a fatal weakness. The very uncompromising nature that helped my dad build the school proved to be his undoing.

The beginning of the end came on a day that started like any other.

Every day, the school began with a ‘common meeting’ where all the students from class V onwards were present. This was a time when we discussed everything from incidents that have taken place inside the school to national and international news.

That day, as usual, we submitted our newsletters — a collection of news from the past week. After scanning through them, my dad picked up a news item, ‘Government makes B. Ed. mandatory for teachers in every school in the state.’

“What’s your opinion about this?” he asked the students.

“What exactly is B. Ed.?” one of the junior students from class VI raised his hand and asked.

“Yes, you need to know that, surely, before offering an opinion! It is a degree in education, giving a training to potential teachers. But that’s only in theory. In practice, it is the largest legalised scam.”

My dad has always been opinionated. Education was an area where his views were even more extreme.

“Most B. Ed colleges are just shops for issuing degree certificates. If they were working so well, why does India rank so low in any international ranking for school education? A lot of them get their affiliation through bribes, and then recoup the investment by selling degrees.” he continued.

This was explosive, even by my dad’s standards. I knew he had always been very annoyed with the regulations in education. I never understood the extent of his frustration.

“If most of these B. Ed. colleges are so corrupt, then why don’t they ever get caught?” one student asked.

“They are not caught because they are usually under the protection of some political party or other. That’s how most things work here. You don’t have to go too far to understand this. In this very town, there are three B. Ed. colleges, all owned by a local politician. I don’t want to name him, but it’s common knowledge.”

The meeting got over soon. We walked back to our classroom and opened our laptops to check Twitter. The senior students were encouraged to maintain Twitter accounts as part of the school’s effort to encourage students to express opinions about social issues. The best tweets written by the students were usually retweeted from the school’s Twitter handle.

That day, my Twitter feed was full of derisive tweets about the Indian education system in general and the local B. Ed. college in particular. The common meeting always provided a lot of fodder for lively discussion in our Twitter page.

‘B. Ed colleges in our town are like shops. However, they do not even sell useful products,’ one such tweet says.

I start typing a tweet of my own. ‘We need to educate our educators better.’

I hoped my tweet would be good enough to be retweeted by the school.

Soon, the bell rang. We closed our laptops and moved to the history class, where George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ was going to be taught.

The day progressed like any other. When it was finally time for us to head home, we walked to the school bus, laughing and chattering, unaware that soon all of our perfect lives were going to be shattered.

(The next day)

“All, open your economics booklets,” my dad asked, walking into the classroom. “Let’s discuss the topic, ‘Is greed good?’

Our school materials were mostly written by my dad. He hated textbooks.

Today’s topic discussed the economic rationale behind famous quote of Gordon Gekko, the protagonist of the movie ‘Wall Street’, who passionately argued that greed was the lubricant of a capitalist economy.

My dad asked, “Who wants to argue for this statement and who wants to argue against?”

My friend Rituraj raised his hand, with a mischievous smile. He had always been impish. “Why was he named Gekko? Aren’t house lizards called Geckos?”

The entire class erupted into laughter. However, the fun was interrupted when someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” my dad said.

Raja, one of the school staff, opened the door, looking anxious. ‘Could you please come outside for some time, Sir? It’s urgent.’

“Not now, I am taking a class.”

“But it’s urgent, Sir. I wouldn’t interrupt the class if it weren’t.” Raja said, looking even more nervous by now.

My dad reluctantly left the classroom with a slightly irritated expression.

We waited for him to come back to the class. After ten minutes or so, some of us got restless, starting to fidget or look out of the classroom window. That’s when Ankini suddenly said, “I can see him talking to some people near the school gate.”

All of us crowded around the window, trying to get a better look. I saw him talking to a group of seven or eight people. He looked angry. I could hear some fragments of the conversation. ‘No, I will not…this is a school, you can’t bully me…’

After some more of what appeared to be a heated argument, he came back to the classroom. With some trepidation, I asked him, “What happened? Who were those people?”

“They were some goons from the local political party,” he said, still looking angry.

There was a shocked silence for a few moments.

‘Why did they come here?’ Tanushree asked after a while. My sense of foreboding grew even more.

“Apparently, they have been sent by the local politician we talked about in yesterday’s morning meeting — the owner of the B. Ed colleges. They are agitated about the tweets that some of you wrote yesterday. Also, the discussion about their college in our morning common meeting must have reached them through some of the junior students who probably went back home and told their parents.”

“So what did they want?” I asked.

“They wanted me to call a meeting of the students and the parents and tell everyone that whatever I said yesterday was wrong and baseless.”

“What? They want you to call a meeting of the parents and apologise?”

“I am not going to do that, of course. I have the freedom to say whatever I want inside this school. Why should I be bullied by a couple of thugs?” my father replied in a slightly raised voice, full of suppressed indignation and rage.

A silence descended upon the class. Quite worried by now, I wondered if the school might be in danger.

Rituraj, now serious, voiced my thoughts, asking, “But what if they come back and vandalise the school, now that you have refused to do what they said?”

“They won’t dare to. Whatever they say is just bluster. I can’t give in to empty threats.”

The discussion ended with that. I tried to put this incident out of my mind, hoping that my dad was right.

***

By the time I reached home, I had almost completely forgotten about my worries.

I sat down on my desk and started doing my homework when a notification sound rang on my phone. It was a message from the school number. Frowning slightly, I opened it:

‘School is closed for all classes tomorrow. Notice about when the school will re-open will be given soon.’

What could this mean? My dad was clearly still at school. However, that in itself was not unusual. He often returned from school just before dinner, finishing off various work there. I decided to give him a call.

As soon as he picked up, I asked, “What is going on? Why was the school cancelled?”

“I had to cancel school because those goons who came to the school today are threatening to create trouble again, saying that they will not allow the school to hold its classes since I refused to listen to them.”

These words hit me like a blow. This was much worse than I expected. How could things have gone downhill so fast, in a matter of hours?

“How is this possible? How will they prevent you from holding classes?”

“They can. If they threaten to vandalise the school, then I will not be able to take the risk of conducting normal classes.”

“But there has to be some solution. Can’t you negotiate with them?”

“I am not going to give in to their demands by calling another meeting. What is the point of this school if it is run according to somebody else’s wishes?” he said angrily.

There was a pause. After a few moments of silence, my dad finally spoke again. “Some of the kids’ parents might intervene, though. Let’s see if they can sort it out peacefully.”

My hopes rose again. Maybe all was not lost. Some of the parents had a lot of influence in the town. If they supported us, then maybe the school would be able to come out of this crisis unscathed, and everything would go back to normal.

But that was not how it turned out.

A group of parents negotiated with the local party. They pleaded with the party, asking them not to resort to violence. The party members did not have any problem with the school, but they were adamant about my father. They hated him for defying them.

A compromise was reached. The school would continue to run, managed by a group of teachers who worked for the school.

My father would have to leave.

***

I had to leave without saying goodbye.

My dad did not want to fight the decision of the parents. “Let them run the school the way they want,” he said.

I did not understand then that that was not a one-off statement. The fight had gone out of him.

He wanted to create perfection — but to create perfection, you need to compromise, which is the antithesis of perfection. I guess he could not accept that contradiction.

I hated the city life. I hated the new school. But most of all, I hated to see my once energetic father slowly withering away.

I buried myself into the textbooks of the new school. Board exams were approaching. It was a blessing in disguise. Though I never liked exams and textbooks, for a while they let me focus on something else. They let me forget, if only for a few hours at a stretch. But every once in a while, the exam of life threw its questions at me.

My dad wanted to build the perfect school to prepare the students for life, not just for exams. But the exam of life is far more difficult, one you cannot prepare for in advance. Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. I could never imagine that for me the syllabus would turn out to be so difficult, the question paper almost impossible to solve.

***

(25 years later)

I could never forget the school.

Perfection, once attained, is something you forever long for. In my heart, there was always the yearning for the perfect experience that was so abruptly terminated. But unlike my dad, I could survive that trauma.

Maybe because I was younger, and a young heart, however broken, can mend. Maybe because I was not the one who put in years of work to make the school happen.

Though I had to leave the school, the school left its mark. I found it easy to join and prosper in the civil services career. My school did prepare me for life. In the school, I learnt to be socially aware. I learnt to question and debate. All these skills came to use as I moved through the ranks to finally became the Education Secretary.

I dare say it was not accidental that I reached that post. I very much worked towards it. Because there was a debt I had to repay.

***

Today is the culmination of my last two years of work.

I am to brief the cabinet on the Education Reform Bill, which I played a big role in drafting. The bill abolishes the requirement of B.Ed. degrees for teachers. It makes the teacher salaries much, much higher, making it possible for successful people from all fields to join teaching. It gives teachers and schools wide-ranging autonomy to design courses and curriculum. It proposes to create a nation-wide common skill-based test to evaluate schools and students, instead of the prevailing affiliation process.

It was not easy to convince everyone for the reform. But I coaxed, reasoned, made promises, struck deals — and finally everyone who matters is on board.

I am still worried. What if there is some last minute glitch? Some unanticipated question?

But things go smoothly. The minister’s pen finally touches the sheaf of paper and he puts down his signature.

This bill still has to be cleared by the houses of parliament and implemented on the ground, but at least the first battle is won.

All schools can now prepare students for life, without being hamstrung by outdated syllabus and meaningless regulations. People wishing to build a great school do not have to battle the entire society, its laws and mindset.

My perfect school was struck down, but I hope many others will rise in its place.

 

***

I stare out through the car window which is rolled down, hot air upon my face.

The clock in the dashboard shows 11 am. I am going back to my school, again.

Tanushree and Ankini will not be sitting beside me there today. Neither will my dad be teaching. I wonder whether even the building exists any more.

As I reach the town, the driver asks me, ‘Where should I take you, Ma’am?’

I smile. I direct him to the familiar road I had taken a thousand times in my childhood.

Will the building still be there? I don’t worry about it. I don’t feel sad.

Because the school may not have survived, but its idea did. And soon it will spread everywhere.

Finally, I can say goodbye.

What should you do with your life?


On the occasion of Children’s Day (2018), Sir wrote a very valuable piece advicing the students to choose their careers wisely, instead of just crazily running behind glamour and money.  

This children’s day, let’s talk about a time when you will no longer remain children.

Some of you dread this possibility. However, most of you are eagerly looking forward to it. After all, your education has been a preparation for adulthood — and you are excited that you will finally be able to reap the benefits of this investment: this unique education that you received.

Your talk and writings reflect this hope. You anticipate being leaders of corporations, famous movie directors, top bureaucrats, celebrated authors and successful entrepreneurs. Nothing will please me more if many of you indeed attain such glory and success. After all, that will provide the most convincing proof that our unconventional education is what education should truly be.

However, what I wish for you most is not success and glory, but happiness and contentment. And I am worried that with your sky-high expectations, you are setting yourself up for a life of misery and dissatisfaction.

It is time to remind you of the three basic rules that I discussed in the common meeting:

1. Life is suffering.

2. Extraordinary success is rare.

3. We all are grains of sand.

No matter how talented, wealthy or powerful, no one is going to escape misery. Being children, with your whole life ahead of you, you are understandably hopeful about your future. But tone down those expectations. Expect difficulties instead. Failure, disappointment, disease, bereavement, conflict — these are sure to come in everyone’s life. If you expect them, you will be more prepared to deal with them.

You not only do not expect much difficulty in your life, most of you expect to reach dizzying heights of success. At this point, it is important to remind you that out of the 7 billion people on earth, only a minuscule percentage become CEOs of big corporations, successful entrepreneurs, famous authors and movie-directors. How small is the percentage?

1%?

No. Think smaller.

0.1%?

No, think smaller still.

0.01%?

That’s 700,000 people. Do you think there are that many top CEOs, movie directors and famous authors? Not at all. Let’s take CEOs first.

I presume you don’t want to be the CEO of a company where you are the only employee — you want to have some employees to manage! So let’s talk about a reasonable size: a 2000-strong company. In the US, there are only 4794 companies with more than 2000 employees. So we can say there are only about 5,000 attractive CEO jobs in the US, and possibly 20,000 worldwide.

How many famous movie directors do you think are there in the world? This is an even rarer breed than CEOs. Again, given that you don’t want to be a movie director who did not ever commercially release a movie, less than 1000 will be a reasonable number here.

How many successful authors are there? Again, numbers are difficult to come by, but Wikipedia’s list of notable 20th century writers contain a sum total of 1113 names, most of whom you have not heard of. That’s only about 1000 reasonably successful writers over a century.

Well, let me not belabor the point. We are not reaching anywhere close to that 700,000 figure. With all the extraordinarily successful people combined, we might just reach around 70,000, if we are lucky — 0.001% of human population.

No matter how much I believe how special you all are, how very talented, I will be astonished if there is even one such success story among the 120 students that attend the common meeting every morning. Because that would mean our common meeting room has a 1% ratio of extraordinary success: 1000 times more than the rest of the world. Even with the great education we have imparted, I think that’s highly unlikely.

Let’s face it: SUCCESS IS RARE.

In addition, success is often counterproductive! Not all of those ‘successes’ that we discussed — the CEOs, movie directors, authors made the world a better place. Some exploited workers to amass wealth, some fed us simplistic stories to perpetuate harmful myths. Many of those who ‘changed the world’, mostly changed it for the worse. Only a rare few left a positive imprint in addition to being successful.

So success, in itself, may not be something to aspire for. In any case, extraordinary success is unlikely to come to you.

It is time for a bit of humility.

It is time to acknowledge we all are grains of sand.

It is time to note that most of you will just ‘get by’.

However, ‘getting by’ itself is an achievement in a world where more than 4 billion people live on $10 or less per day. That probably explains why a lot of you, and your parents are so excited about the possibility of studying in a top university. Though the graduates from even those top-50 universities of the world only command a mediocre $6,000 a month salary, that’s an exciting number compared to the abysmal $10 per day, which is the level most of the world population is at.

We live in a world where barely getting by will earn you bragging rights among neighbours and family members. You don’t need to be super-wealthy, you don’t need to achieve anything of note. The education that we provided you will equip you to get into one of those universities, get a mediocre job, earn a moderate sum of money, and that will put you above most of the humanity. That is the root cause behind the feeling of superiority most of you are going to experience even after leading a mediocre life.

You have the extreme poor to thank for this feeling of superiority. It is they who would give you the bragging rights without achieving anything of note.

Now, does that sound too inspiring?

Now that I have put your ‘success’ in perspective, perhaps you can try to aspire for what truly counts: happiness.

Let’s get this clear: happiness comes from work. It comes from being in the ‘zone’, it comes from accomplishing something challenging, it comes when your work makes a difference.

True happiness does not come from recreation. You may argue that you may feel happy at the company of a friend, but true friendships are also forged while working for a common cause.

Happiness is when what you love to do, what you are good at, and what the world needs are in harmony.

The Happiness Diagram

Happiness comes when you are in the overlapping area in this Venn Diagram: let’s call it the ‘Happiness Intersection’.

Now, if we reverse this diagram, this is what you might get:

The Pain Diagram

If you are at the intersection of work that you don’t like, work that you are not good at, and work that the world does not need — it’s guaranteed that you will be miserable.

Let’s call this the ‘Pain Intersection.’

I see that a lot of you are running fast towards this intersection. You are not thinking deeply about where you are going and whether you really want to go there.

To earn some minor bragging rights (relative to the abysmal standards of the most of the world), you sometimes feel pressured to do things that are conventional. You want to study, give exams, get a job. If the job sounds good (say, investment banking, or consulting), and if it’s in a place whose name sounds good (New York, or London), then you think you will be happy. But what will happen is this:

You will do work that you don’t like to do: Building spreadsheets with fake numbers, cold-calling, attending boring meetings, commuting long hours, having soulless conversations with colleagues will be the main components of your day.

Not just you, no one likes them. That’s why the world is full of dissatisfied employees.

You will do work that you are not good at: In this school we did not teach you the art of flattery. We did not teach you unquestioning obedience. We did not teach you to be a hypocrite. We did not teach you to accept the ways of world, no matter how nonsensical it seems.

Well, those are some of the skills that you have to be good at to survive in the world that you covet. But sadly, we are sending you out there without much training on those areas.

You will do work that the world does not need:In this world that you are thoughtlessly running towards, you will try to prove your identical soap or shampoo is superior to another. You will try to pitch to a client to raise capital that he does not want. You will sell yet another civilization game to bored teenagers. You will manage money for people who have plenty.

Having reached this Pain Intersection without much thought, you will then wonder what went so wrong in your life. Why are you so miserable? Maybe a job-change is in order? Or maybe you should leave this city and relocate elsewhere? Maybe you just need a vacation?

Well, none of those will provide you with any succour. Even after the job change, the relocation, and the foreign vacation, dissatisfaction will continue to reign.

Because you are firmly lodged at the Pain Intersection. And it’s almost impossible to get out of. By then, to earn further bragging rights, you have bought a car and spent a fortune (according to your standards) furnishing your house. You have to think about your child’s education fees. You have to send some money back to your parents.

No matter how much you hate it, you wake up on Monday morning and board that transit, with thousands of others who are in a similar mess. But that’s cold comfort.

It is at that point probably you think about those common meetings long time back, where you were warned about precisely this fate. Those days seem to be from a past era, a time of happiness that you can never touch again.

You think, how did it ever go so wrong? In those idealistic times, you did think about writing stories, analyzing movies, opening schools, spreading awareness about evils of technology. What happened to all those ideas?

Probably they were not very well thought through. They were fashionable at the school, so you parroted them. You did not think deeply about what made you happy. You did not think much about what you may be passionate about, what you are good at, and what the world needs.

We did lay out a path for you which incorporated these three areas. We knew that you love the school and would be happy spreading the kind of education it imparts. We knew that you would be good at it, being the products of this very place. We knew this is the education that the world needs.

In Path 1, you could have done all these that you dreamt of. You could have been an app developer, a movie critic, an author, a social commentator, an entrepreneur, an activist, a teacher, a psychologist, a leader — all rolled into one.

In the school, we developed more apps and softwares than many technology companies. We showed you, and the broader world, that movies can be educational. I personally wrote many articles which were instrumental in changing the mindsets of people. At every common meeting in the morning, I explained our society and the world to you. As I ran this school, I understood the finer points of business that are not taught in MBA schools. As I spoke to your parents in large gathering, I led them to dream bigger.

I have been an app developer, a movie critic, an author, a social commentator, an entrepreneur, an activist, a teacher, a psychologist, a leader — all rolled into one. Because I chose the perfect path, I have contributed to the world, I have been happy, and I have been successful.

You could have been all of those too.

More importantly, you would have been valuable to the world, you would have lived among people who you love and who love you.

Though happiness is always elusive, but maybe, just maybe, you could have found it.

***

Thankfully, this future is imaginary. You are not yet in the Pain Intersection, and it is within your power to prevent it from happening to you. After all, it’s your life, why should you sacrifice it for minor bragging rights granted to others?

You must aim for happiness. You must aim to be at the Happy Intersection.

All of you cannot choose the perfect path. We do not have that many positions. But you must aspire for it. You must work towards it before it’s too late. You should acquire skills, be responsible, be kind, and work actively to be the ‘chosen ones’ when the time comes.

Those of you who will not get the perfect path must also think deeply about what you like, what you are good at, and what the world needs. Maybe you will be able to create your own perfect path, like I could.

I wish you all the best.

Thank you, Sir


This is a letter of gratitude to Sir from X (Ankini Banerjee) where she talks about how the experience of the last 9 months offered by Sir culminated into a great positive change in her personality and a phenomenal result. 

To the greatest teacher there could ever be —

I don’t think I can ever forget that dreaded text message we all received from the school just two weeks before the critical exams, saying that all classes had been cancelled for the remaining days. It was as if lightning had struck. Our preparation wasn’t even close to the finishing line — we hadn’t even begun our English and History writing classes, and a bulk of Physics C: Mechanics was untouched. It felt so cruel back then. I remember thinking, ‘How could Sir just cancel all classes on a whim? Doesn’t he care about our results?’ But, as I later realised, this incident was a live demonstration of how cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same colour.

When we all came to school a few days later for an Economics mock test, I was scared. Ever since we had first gotten a severe scolding from you back in 2014, I have always had a subconscious fear of coming to school. Different people have different reactions to harsh criticism, and mine, though not intentional, was awfully wrong. I had gradually forgotten to see you as someone who cares about us and wishes the best for us, as the teacher we all loved. In my anxious mind, you had become a strict, authoritative figure who was to be feared.

That day too, I was terrified. I almost expected you to lash out at us for not having a sincere attitude towards work. But what happened instead was completely unexpected. You didn’t have the slightest hint of anger on your face, not even a look of irritation. There was only an expression of pure disappointment. When we approached you, you even spoke to us, but in your voice was that same coldness, as if you had finally given up on us. If you wished, you could have scolded us again, and we probably would have been forced to work, simply because we were afraid of you. But I am grateful you didn’t, because it made me realise that you weren’t some stern, frightening person, waiting to scold us at every possible opportunity. You have feelings too, and obviously you would be disappointed if we, who have seen your struggle up close, became a hindrance rather than your support in your battle to create the perfect school. Your reaction made me regret all those times when we had disappointed you, and I, instead of trying of empathise with you, had just feared your wrath, and fallen sick repeatedly and missed school. But I think after that day, I have gradually learnt to control my irrational fear of you.

I am certain you could have made us achieve these fantastic scores even if you had just continued to take our classes for the last few days, but then we would have remained a bunch of immature, irresponsible kids. With our lax attitude, not only would success have eluded us, we also wouldn’t have been able to bring about any positive change in the world.

The entire of the previous 6–9 months have been intense, but I believe that the last few days have been the most enlightening and transformative. As we gradually learnt to cooperate with you, we realised that enjoyment could be derived from work itself. Towards the beginning of our intense preparation, I often felt indignant towards you for putting us under so much pressure. I would think ‘Why can’t we have a little bit of fun?’ But honestly, coming to school every evening to practice Literature papers with you was fun. Writing AP English essays together everyday and then reading your perfect answer was fun. Of course, it was not the kind of frivolous fun that we had always created for ourselves. It was a fun that was accompanied by hard work and satisfaction. You have always made our school time pleasurable through interesting discussions, movies, and books, but who would have thought an intense exam preparation could be made enjoyable as well?

We all know that there is only a single person on Earth who could teach Physics, Literature, Economics, Chemistry to such a high level yet so simply. But what makes you the greatest teacher is the fact that you taught us to dream, and aim high. All 5s in APs, and perfect scores in SAT subject tests would have really remained a joke to all of us had you not shown us that it was achievable. We often rank each other according to academic performance, calling some students “better” and others comparatively “weaker”. But I don’t think such a ranking should even exist, because our scores, our achievements are all yours in the first place.

I know I have already said this, but the last few months, as well as making us achieve academic success and growth in character, has also made me personally closer to you, and to all of my friends. Last year, I had shown a selfish streak when I didn’t share an important piece of information related to the board exams with my classmates. I was under the misconception that achieving success alone, and excluding others from it, would be fulfilling. But the last few months, as all of us worked together, I learnt that happiness is greater when shared with close ones. Last week, when everyone’s phenomenal results were announced, I genuinely felt happy for Nonny’s Literature 800 and Vulture’s Calculus 5. But what affected me the most was your reaction. You always had high expectations from us, and I never thought it would actually be possible to live up to them. But every time you talked about the results, you looked happy, and I think that gave all of us more satisfaction than any great score or any college admission could ever give.

A thank-you note


Nonny writes a letter to express her gratitude to Sir for everything he has done for her in the last 6-9 months which led to her exceptional performance. 

During the last 6–9 months, me and some of my friends went through an intense experience during which we prepared relentlessly for the oncoming exams. Although I did not realise it then, reflecting upon those months has made me understand that this experience not only made our fantastic results possible, but it also changed all of us at a fundamental level, making us much more mature and responsible than we initially were.

This would not have been possible without Sir. I remember how he worked tirelessly to ensure our results – learning all of our subjects himself so that he could teach it to us in the best possible way, taking classes from morning to late evening while at the same time managing all the responsibilities of running the school. I also remember some of the times when he, exasperated at the lack of cooperation from our end, refused to take our classes, thereby forcing us to start taking more initiative.

The perfect illustration of this is our Calculus and Macroeconomics result. When we first started studying Macroeconomics on our own from the textbook, we understood little of the complex concepts. Some of our best scores were only in the range of 600–650. When Sir realised that we were unable to learn Macro by ourselves, he started teaching it to us. In a week’s time, every single one of us had gotten an 800 in the mock test. The story of Calculus is the same. After months of doing sums from the textbook without really applying our minds , we were all scoring around 600. To improve this dire situation, Sir started personally taking Calculus classes at the beginning of the Contest Week. By the time the Contest Week had ended, all of us had moved to 800.

Apart from these two subjects, my most memorable experience was the preparation for Literature. When me and Sir first got started on this impossibly difficult subject, he told me that in the end, I must get a perfect 800 in the subject test. I had not even believed it possible, given that most of the passages and poems that appeared on the test were nearly indecipherable to me. But once he set the target so high, I began to consciously work towards it. We read and discussed pieces of literature (primarily Shakespeare), analysed poems written by noted poets such as Wilfred Owen, and relentlessly solved many past question papers together.

During this preparation, something that struck me about Sir was that he always seemed genuinely interested in whatever we were doing. This particular trait of his was apparent no matter what the subject was – be it Mathematics , Chemistry or, in this case, Literature. Whenever he would see a poem that he really liked in one of the question papers we were solving, he would immediately look it up in the Internet and read some of the other poems written by the same author. Some of the junior students may remember the time when several poems were posted on Twitter and some of them were even discussed in the common meeting. That sudden love for poems came from the incomprehensible poems in the Literature papers. It is this reaction which is really the secret of success: being passionate about almost anything.

He was always tolerant with me, but not always with the overall class. I particularly remember an incident when, fed up with our laziness and apathy, Sir suspended my entire class and told us that whoever was genuinely interested in learning would have to personally contact him and set up a time to meet. That jolted us out of our passivity, and forced us to actually make some effort on our end. It was times like these that helped us to stop being kids, and instead made us take initiative like adults.

Another experience that helped us grow up was the presence of the honour code. Whenever we give a mock exam in school, there is nobody monitoring us, making it extremely easy to cheat. Yet the thought does not even cross our minds, unlike many of the junior students who would probably jump at the opportunity. The implicit trust that Sir placed in us made us much more responsible and mature, because we did not want to do anything to risk losing that trust.

Overall, these last few months taught us that life does not merely consist of fun and frivolity, so much so that we sometimes feel exasperated by the junior classes when they are being lazy. But I doubt that we would have learnt much from this experience had it not been for Sir, who ensured that we actually underwent this difficult and intense experience without trying to avoid work or slack off. In the end, this experience did not only give us these great scores, but, perhaps more importantly, it made us grow up into adults.

চিন্তা ও জান্তা!


আমাদের স্কুলের ছাত্রছাত্রীরা শুধু ফিসিক্স-কেমিস্ট্রি-ইকোনমিকসেই ভাল নয়, তাদের আছে আরও অনেক প্রতিভা। তাদের আঁকা একটি কার্টুন – ‘কুয়োর ব্যাঙ, না কুয়োর মানুষ?’

মানুষগুলিকে আমাদের অনেকেরই চেনা – ওনাদের নাম চিন্তা ও জান্তা!

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Why you should not cheat


This is an article written by Vulture of Class XI (2018) on why nobody must cheat.

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Just like charity begins at home, corruption begins at school.

While we bemoan the numerous scams that the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen indulge in, we forget where it all started — in the humble classroom in our schools. At that time, it is apparently innocuous — passing a chit, going to the toilet to talk to a friend, sneak a quick glance at your friend’s answer paper during the exam.

Of course, since the advent of technology, things have got a bit more sophisticated. In my school, which follows the CIE (IGCSE and A levels), the pre-board exam is often conducted using past question papers of those board exams. Now, the students, instead of treating the pre-boards as an opportunity to evaluate their own preparedness, prefer to cheat by downloading question papers and marking schemes.

Well, it is time to make it clear that I am not some holier-than-thou saint. I have a long history of cheating. In fact, the internet-download method that I talked about the pre-boards, I myself employed that last year before my own pre-boards. I was duly caught by my teachers, who proved to be smarter than I was.

However, having this background makes me uniquely qualified to write this article — as I understand from personal experience why students cheat, and now, on reflection, I also understand why they should not.

Cheating in the exams is somehow thought to be a harmless activity. It has the micro-cultural support — in the sense that your immediate community, your friends, classmates — do not look down upon it. The reason behind that is probably most exams are thought to be a sham, rather than a true benchmark of our performance. Just like people subconsciously justify not paying income tax because government waste our money anyway, some people justify cheating thinking that exams are worthless anyway.

However, most students do not think so deeply. For them, there is a short-term, opportunist outlook that’s at work. When I did it, I felt that I did not study enough for the Biology exam, and there was not much time left to do so. Scoring poor marks meant some dire consequences — scolding from teachers and parents, lack of respect from friends, and may be even not being allowed to sit for the final exam. So the decision was simple — I chose to take what I thought to be a small risk over certain failure.

But now I understand that this line of thinking makes little sense. The pre-boards were an opportunity for the school to know where I stand. If the school felt I was doing very poorly, it could have taken remedial measures — improving my scores in the final exam. In the final board exams, there would not be any scope to cheat anyway by downloading the question paper — and my real levels will be known to everyone, so why postpone the inevitable? Thinking this way, I understood that cheating was just a myopic decision which causes long-term damage.

I have seen others cheating who were not at risk of failure, but wanted to get better marks than their preparation would have given them. The driver here was probably some additional praise from teachers and look of respect from classmates. But this too makes little sense — because this is temporary. You cannot always cheat, and the only way to consistently do well is to prepare well.

Cheating is not a friendly act. When I did well by cheating in the biology exam, a few of my friends, who normally score more than me, got lower marks than me in that exam. They were demotivated as a result. This is one of the normal outcomes of cheating — that it demotivates your close friends and disincentivises honest work. It breeds an arms race, where others may start cheating to remain competitive. If cheating is undetected, it might give honest ones a false sense of inferiority which may dent their long-term confidence.

There is a long-term consequence as well for the person who cheats. If not caught, he may be emboldened to continue cheating. At some point, his actions may catch up with him. The consequences are far worse if the comeuppance comes in the adult life, where you may have copied someone’s work in the office, or stole a code, or revealed a trade secret.

If caught, then the cheat remains under a shadow. Once a criminal always a suspect. In recent times, once I scored very well in a math test, but my teachers looked at me suspiciously. It is because of my history that’s not yet erased. Your genuine achievements may come under cloud due to your past wrongdoings. Reputation is what counts in life, why give it up for minor gains?

Cheating (or any act of dishonesty) imposes a lot of costs in society. I remember my teacher explaining that they have to conduct repeat tests, have special seating arrangement, many invigilators — all of these are costly affairs which can be avoided only if the students follow an honour code. But instead if we want to game the system every time there is an opportunity to game it, it just makes life harder for everyone.

Want to be stupid, friendless and unproductive? Sleep less.


This is an article that Fluffy, Nonny, and X (Class XI, 2018) jointly wrote, exhorting you to sleep at least 9 hours every night.

Mr-Bean-Matchstick-Eyes-Funny-Image.jpgLet’s get it straight right at the outset — sleeping less than 9 hours a day makes you dumb, irritable and disease-prone. It will decrease your scores, it will reduce the number of friends you have, it will reduce the number of years you will live.

But most of you end up sleeping only 7 or 7.5 hours a night. That’s criminal. Let us tell you why. Stay with us while we explain it fully. This will be long.

Before you start thinking that we are just preaching something we don’t practice, let us admit that we are not the epitomes of discipline either. For years, we have slept less than the prescribed 9 hours, and most of the ill-effects that you see described here have been drawn from our own experience. That’s why you should heed us. We know what we are talking about.

One final point. Though we give you plenty of stories from our lives, we don’t draw our conclusions from those only. The points that come after are backed by solid science. We must always trust science, over our lazy instincts.

Let’s begin, then.

One of the greatest effects of sleep loss is mental laziness. A couple of years back, many of us had just created Gmail accounts and we would stay up late at night, chatting with each other. The next day in class, Sir would be the only one speaking (even though it was supposed to be a group discussion, and not a lecture) and the rest of us would be staring blankly, often not even registering what he said. We didn’t realize then that this was due to lack of sleep, so despite numerous scoldings, the classroom “discussions” remained as boring as ever.

Not only do conversations become dull, but productivity also diminishes due to lack of sleep. For example, we read more slowly, or solve sums more slowly when we sleep less. Nowhere that’s more vividly demonstrated than the SAT scores — which dramatically improve after a month of solid 9-hour sleep.

Less sleep makes you forget things. Motu was once supposed to inform class X that their exam was going to start at 8:00. Evidently his brain had switched off on the short journey from the conference room to admin computer lab. By the time he reached there, he had changed the time to 8:30. Had he slept enough each night, a blunder such as this would surely not have occurred. As you can see, lack of sleep can reduce your sharpness.

As opposed to that, consider Nonny, whose SAT math score rose dramatically from a mere 720 to a near perfect 790 after she started sleeping at appropriate times. So clearly, lack of sleep can prevent you from reaching your true potential.

The consequences can get more damaging as you grow older. Senior students often have to study a lot and prepare for exams. With the burden of textbooks on our shoulders, we tend to think that sleeping too much will result in a lot of wastage of time. There are two flaws with this argument.

Firstly, most people tend to waste zillions of hours engaging in other frivolous activities. Those hours would be better spent sleeping. Secondly, the dichotomy between sleep and work is non-existent. Sleep is the time when new memories are processed in the brain. So if you spend too much time studying and too little time sleeping, you won’t be able to remember much of what you read. In other words, you may spend all your time staring at your books, but you won’t learn anything if you don’t sleep on your new knowledge.

The ill-effects of lack of sleep isn’t just confined to work. Sleep can make you happier as well. Consider Dos, who sleeps nine hours every night. No matter what is hurled at him, be it a scolding or a bad result, Dos is never downcast. On the other hand, GG sleeps for only six hours every night. No wonder she is always staring into the middle distance with a vacuous, melancholic expression.

If all of this isn’t worrying enough, imagine a scenario far into the future when you have already spent a good number of years not sleeping properly. Well, you might not actually have to imagine it because we already have a living example of such a person in our school. Mule was once one of the sharpest and brightest students of our school. But of late, he has started going to sleep very late. Now, in class, he often asks questions that are either utterly irrelevant, or were answered one hour back. He is getting mostly Bs and Cs in the pre-boards, even though Path 2s are expected to get a string of As and A*s.

Apart from making you dumb over time, sleep deprivation can also take a toll on your health. Because sleep boosts immunity, lack of sleep can make you fall sick more often. You’ll understand that this is true if you have ever had a fever and recovered quickly after a whole day of sleep.

Furthermore, growth hormones are released in the body during sleep. To prove our point, let’s take the example of Fluffy. For many years, Fluffy would be going to sleep at one o’clock in the night. As a result, she is now smaller than many of the class six girls in our school.

Sleep loss also makes you fat. Sleep promotes the release of hunger-suppressing hormones. As a result, when you are sleep deprived, you tend to eat more than you need to.

All the health benefits resulting from sleep finally enhances athletic performance. Even if you don’t care that much about your mental abilities decaying, you surely don’t want to become a bedridden, obese dwarf.

‘Well, all that is fine, but I genuinely don’t feel sleepy’, you might say. Maybe you don’t, but that is only because of modern inventions such artificial lights and gadgets. Naturally, there isn’t any light after sunset. So evolutionarily, we are built to go to sleep at that time. However, these modern technologies now keep you awake beyond the biological sleeping time. So, try to discipline yourself to switch off all lights and avoid all gadgets (e.g. TV, smartphone) at least half an hour before going to bed. That way, you may find it easier to fall asleep at an appropriate time.

And if all of this fails to convince you, ask yourself, why would you even want to stay awake and suffer in a world as horrible as this one?

Why I chose Path 1


Bhau (Class XI, 2018-19) explains why he joined Path 1.

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What bananas can teach us

Look at these three bananas.

I bought the first one from a fruitseller near the municipality office in Suri. I took a photo of it before having it.

I bought the second one from the newly opened More supermarket at Suri. I took a photo of it too and then ate it. I must say, that taking the photo of the second one was more pleasurable than eating it.

The first one didn’t look as good as the second one, but tasted far superior. The second banana which looked healthier, had a more pleasing colour, and had fewer wrinkles, tested bland and powder-y.

I downloaded the photo of the third one from the web. They say it is from a supermarket from a developed country. It does look far better than our first and second banana. Longer, more perfect in shape. But going by the trend, maybe it will be even more tasteless than the second banana!

Things that look good may not always taste good.

Things that sound good may not always give you a good experience.

For example, ‘Stanford University’ sounds good, but who knows whether it is going to be the best for you? ‘Investment banking’ sounds good, but have you actually talked to an investment banker to know how his job is? Come on, even IIT sounded quite good before Sir explained why it may not be great.

To judge what might give you a good experience, you need to actually experience it, or at least you need to think deeply about it.

When it came to choosing the ‘path’, I was not lured by what sounds good. I knew I already experienced the best place in the world.

To tell you the truth, I did not always know this is the best place in the world. I liked it here, sure, but I thought surely the world outside must be full of such places like our school, even better ones.

Wisdom came suddenly, when I visited Delhi with Sir to attend a conference. A high-level educational conference, attended by many principals, even senior members from the ministry. There were many speeches, panel discussions. There were many informal conversations I had with people.

During the whole of that time, I did not meet even as many sensible, intelligent people as I have inside my tiny, 12-student classroom.

I understood that the world outside may not be as advanced as we thought.

But I am happy to report I met one interesting person. Well, he would fit right in here at our school. A senior journalist from the Economic Times, we had a great dinner together. Many interesting conversations, almost as good as our class discussions. But one thing that he told Sir stuck with me.

He said, “Your boys will find it very difficult to adjust to the world outside. After Levelfield, everything else will seem a compromise, second-rate.”

Sir said, “No, no, they will not go to such second-rate places — my students will go to top universities abroad — Harvard, Princeton, Yale etc.”

He replied with a smile, “Yes, even those places will be unsatisfactory for them.”

That comment suddenly put everything into perspective. I understood why I found the conference so unsatisfactory. I also understood the look of utter admiration that I see from some of the visitors that we meet at the school.

I must talk a bit about the visitors.

Me and Motu are often entrusted to talk to the visitors, show them around. There are many school principals who come. There are some who wants to build a school. Some are journalists who are sent to cover the school. Regardless of their motive, their background, almost all of them are awed by what they see here.

They cannot believe that such a place exists. They cannot talk enough about it. There is invariably a look of utter admiration on their faces, looking at what has been achieved here in less than ten years.

Given the pace of progress, I know even more will be achieved in the next ten years, and I am absolutely sure that I want to part of that creation.

Why would I like to go out in the imperfect world when I can be a part of building perfection?

Why I joined Path 1


Motu (Class XI, 2018-19) explains why he joined Path 1.

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To answer that, let me go back to June 2016, when I spent quite a few evenings with Sir, working on designing the five pre-primary apps that our school made.

It was a great time. We discussed, debated and felt intellectually challenged. Whenever we hit a roadblock, Sir was always ready with a solution. We took just an evening each to design each of these apps. We then got them coded, and very soon we could see the fruits of our work inside the baby classrooms. It felt very satisfying that we identified a problem, quickly designed a technological solution, and very soon our product is being used on a daily basis.

I read in many articles (particularly in Philosopher’s mail) that it is very difficult in the modern world to see the connection between what you do in your office, and the final product that your company produces. That seemed scary. In future, I wanted to do something that has a more direct impact.

In our school, I have always been involved in various kinds of work. I helped out during the contest week and sports days. I talked to the parents to explain our school’s apps. I fixed many technological issues in the computer lab. I worked on and tested many of the apps that the school produced. I loved working on all of those, because I could see how they are immediately useful. I wanted to continue to do work that’s relevant and useful.

Our school taught us a lot of relevant and useful stuff. We learnt to speak well. From an early age, we learnt to navigate internet and use MS Office. We learnt a lot from the movies shown in the school. We learnt from books like Sapiens. We learnt to concisely write while using Twitter. Every activity in the school helped us grow and mature.

However, of late, after reaching class IX, I felt it was not the same as before. We had to study ‘subjects’ which are not immediately relevant. Even history, one of my most loved subjects, became one of the hated due to the invasion of textbooks. In our school, economics was about explaining real-life issues, but in the board exam we are asked to define ‘unemployment’ or ‘GDP’.

Please do not misunderstand — even those boring, irrelevant stuff was taught very well by Sir. He made those as interesting as possible. He even tried to give inventive reasons why we must learn those: ‘Real life is boring, so these textbooks are a preparation for that’, or ‘Learning this obscure math will sharpen your mind and improve your focus, which is useful for other activities.’

But as much as he tried, I knew I liked the relevant learning far more than the textbook learning. Prodded relentlessly by Sir, we all did well in the board exams, but I wanted to get back to our old life where learning was connected to real-life. I did not want many more years of textbook driven learning, which would be exactly what’s on offer if I had chosen Path 2.

I wanted to get back to organizing events, designing apps, learning to speak in front of an audience, reading great books. I wanted to get started on real life sooner. I did not want to waste time reading stuff you have no use for.

In case you are thinking that in Path 2, in the Western universities, learning will be totally relevant, you are probably wrong. Even the Cambridge board, which has a more modern syllabus than the Indian boards, is still focused on subjects most people will not use. There are no courses in most boards or universities on the skills that’s most needed in life: speaking, writing, coding, working with people.

So I will get started on working early, doing a degree from University of London after my 12th, sitting right here, working part-time for the school. I regret the fact that I still have to do this degree, which I know will add nothing to me in terms of learning (neither will any other degree that most of you will be doing).

But our society has not yet advanced enough to accept something as radical as not doing graduation! So useless as it is, I will go forward with it. At least it gives me a chance to devote most of my time to the school, learning real stuff by working.

The only thing I may still be interested in studying for is programming. Our school automates a lot of stuff through technology, and I have been part of that initiative in the past. In future too, I would like to be part of that effort. However, making software will be far easier if we ourselves can code. So that’s one skill I want to study for.

Sir tells me that there are 12-week long coding boot camps in California where we might go after we finish A level board exams. That will be an exciting thing to learn, and I am sure it will be quite useful for the school too.

Overall, I am quite happy that I have chosen this path where my work will be relevant and useful, where I will not waste many years of my life pursuing a useless degree, but where I would still continue to learn at a fast pace.

The schools of life


Here’s another short story written by Koka of Class XI (2018) about how animals would view our world, if they could express themselves.

(First part of this story called ‘A Strange New Society’ is also available in the blog) 

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Humans had always been a distant mysterious creature to me. Living in the forest, I had come across many stories about them, mostly about their cruelty. In the past few months, the cases of animal deaths had suddenly skyrocketed, all of which were being linked to the increasing number of human visits to the forest.

Scary though they sounded, I had never had the opportunity to see a human for myself. It made me wonder; what exactly was it that had made them such threatening creatures.

This was the case until yesterday….

As I was making my way through the forest, I felt a tall, colourful creature cross the path ahead and disappear behind a tree. I had never encountered such a creature before and it piqued my curiosity, as I approached it and asked, “What animal are you?”

“I am a human. Please don’t kill me!” It said rather fearfully.

A human? What is so sinister about this creature? It doesn’t look as big and powerful and an elephant. Neither does it look as fierce as a lion. On the contrary, it seemed more frightened of me!

“Don’t worry! I am not going to eat you. But you’ll also have to return my favour.”

“Anything…. I’ll do anything for you!”

But what could I ask for from a human?

Then an idea struck….

“I am really intrigued by the thought of humans and would like to know more about them. Could you take me to your society?”

 

***

Early morning today the human and I got out of my cave to head towards the city.

My guide led the way and I followed him. Upon entering the city I immediately understood that today was a special occasion. A large crowd of humans were gathered around a single man covered in garlands who was speaking and making exaggerated gestures at the same time.

I asked my guide who he was. My guide replied that he was the leader of the people.

“So, how is this person chosen?” I asked, “Do you organise fights within your community and then declare the winner as the leader?” In the forest the leader of a pack was chosen by a fight among the competing wolves. Due to this very efficient way of choosing leaders, naturally the best wolf in the pack became leader.

“No!”, my guide replied, “Every few years the people competing to become the leader hold rallies like this and try to convince others that they are the best. Then the people choose who they would like as their leader.”

So just by speaking, people can become leaders. It’s strange that the humans don’t check whether he is actually good at what he’s claiming.

Of the torrent of words escaping his mouth, the two most frequently occurring ones were ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’. It seemed that he was arguing vehemently against the Muslims.

I asked my guide who were these ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’. Are they like tiger and deer, one predator one prey?

“No.” My guide replied, “They are both humans.”

“So,” I wondered aloud, “they must be like two packs who are having a territorial dispute.”

“No,” the human said, “both Hindus and Muslims live in this city.”

So Hindus and Muslims were of the same species and they were not different packs fighting over territory. I couldn’t understand what exactly their fight was about.

Suddenly the leader’s arguments became even more vehement.“We will bury them!” He screamed. “If Pakistan throws one bomb at India, we will bombard them with ten. We will prove ourselves to be a stronger nation.”

I asked my guide what a ‘nation’ was.

“A nation is the piece of land that we live on.” He replied.

“So, how can you make a piece of land stronger?” I fired back.

My question was met with a look of bewilderment on my guide’s face.

“And what are ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’?”

“The nation that we live in is India, Pakistan is our neighbouring nation.”

“So what are the differences between different nations? Are they different habitats like forests and deserts? Or are they places with totally different climates from one another?”

My guide seemed very puzzled at these questions; perhaps he had always accepted these things as the truth and never found them to be unnatural.

Now he replied, “I have never been to Pakistan but I have heard that it is pretty much the same as India.”

So why was the leader differentiating between Pakistan and India? Why was he inciting people against a very similar place where similar people lived? Not wishing to confuse my guide any further, I kept these questions to myself.

Not being able to bear the rally anymore, I asked my guide to take me to some other place. In the process of asking my guide, I saw several identical human beings crossing the road. Instantly my curiosity was piqued.

“Who are these?” I asked.

“These are students. They all study in a school.”

“But why do they all look the same?”

“All students have to wear the same clothes so that they can be identified with their school.”

“What’s the point of that?”

But my guide seemed to be in no better position to answer my question.

I demanded to be taken to a school to see the what happened inside. So my guide led me to the nearest school.

Inside I saw a woman showing the children pictures of various kinds of soil and speaking. I asked my guide what she was doing.

“She is teaching geography. In this particular class she is teaching them where all in India minerals are found under the ground.”

“Oh” I said, “so these children are all going to dig the ground for these minerals when they grow up.”

“No, most of them won’t.”

“So why are they filling their heads up with things that they are never going to see outside this class room?”

My guide was completely stumped by this question. Probably he had also learnt about minerals under the ground.

Remembering the true purpose of the visit I asked my guide to take me to some place more entertaining.

He replied, “I have been planning to take you to a movie since the beginning, if you want we can go there.”

Intrigued by this thing called the movie I agreed. My guide then led the way to the theatre, the place where the movie was supposed to be screened.

On the way to the theatre I saw a large poster in which there was a picture of a car and a woman beside it. Since the woman did not seem to have anything to do with the car, I asked my guide what this poster was.

“It is the advertisement of a car,” he replied, “Using this the makers of the car try to sell the car to people like me.”

“What about the woman? Do you get the woman as well when you buy that car?”

“No obviously not!” The human exclaimed.

“So why is the woman there beside the car?”

“I don’t know why, but the woman makes me feel like buying the car even more.”

Not fully satisfied but seeing that my guide was unable to provide a better explanation, I moved on.

The movie theatre was a large building with a long queue of humans in front of it. My guide stood in the queue and bought tickets for both of us. Before the movie started there was a deluge of advertisements similar to the one that I saw in the poster outside. After almost half an hour the movie started. After watching for a while, the only thing that I was able to understand was that a fair person seemed to be outwitting a dark skinned person at every step and beating him up during any confrontation.

In the forest the skin colour of the animals did not matter at all. In fact, I was dark skinned myself, and I seemed to be doing fine! No white wolf was coming and beating me up every once in a while.

I looked at my guide with questions in my eyes, but he was too enthralled with the movie to look at me.

I slipped outside silently. The city terrified me. However, the artificial laws which suffocated me seemed to sustain these humans. They found differences when there were none, discriminated arbitrarily, and filled the heads of their children with information they were never going to use.

I thanked my fortune that I had the option of living in a place far more simple and authentic. I ran towards it.

Dr. Strangelove: A Movie That’s Still As Relevant As Ever


This is a review of the movie ‘Dr. Strangelove’ by Nonny of Class XI (2018).

In today’s world, humankind has power like never before. Technological and scientific advancements have elevated human beings to the position of gods, providing them with the ability to destroy the entire planet by simply pushing a button. But what happens when these deadly weapons are placed in the hands of petty, vengeful fanatics who are no better than children?

That is the central theme of the movie ‘Dr Strangelove’. A parody of the Cold War, ‘Dr Strangelove’ portrays the famous rivalry between America and the Soviet Union as something utterly pointless, and at times even comical.

The movie starts off by introducing Jack Ripper, a general in the U.S. airforce who feels strong hatred and suspicion towards the Communists. Feeling that the U.S. government wasn’t taking a tough enough stance towards the Russians, he decides to take matters in his own hands. Things spiral out of control after he orders the bombers under his command to attack Russia.

The events that follow show how a small incident such as what Jack Ripper did can have immense, unintended consequences. As news of this incident reaches the ‘War Room’, the President of the United States panics since he is unable to figure out a way to recall the airplanes that are now heading towards Russia. Further alarm is caused by the news that any attack on Russia will automatically trigger the ‘doomsday machine’, a machine that would destroy all life on earth.

By demonstrating the huge consequences of such a trivial event, the movie implies that there was actually no substantial reason behind all the animosity between the two superpowers. ‘Dr Strangelove’ makes fun of the Cold War by depicting it as an event that wreaked a lot of unnecessary damage, while being completely absurd and meaningless. This applies not only to the Cold War, but also to the all the other battles waged between nations in the last century. In the end, they were all really just petty squabbles that, masked and glorified by values such as patriotism, were taken much more seriously than they should have been.

In more modern times, giving these squabbles more importance than they deserve could have dangerous consequences. Empowered by scientific advances, leaders of nations could now annihilate entire civilizations at will, and ‘Dr Strangelove’ shows that the leaders of the past were indeed at the brink of doing so for all sorts of trifling reasons.

We may think that our current leaders are more responsible than the ones of the past, but that’s not really so. The kind of god-like power that humankind now has should not exist with anyone, because the risk of it falling into the wrong hands is too great. If Kim Jong Unlost his temper on one fine day and decided to push that button, we are all as good as dead.

Likewise, the movie ‘Dr Strangelove’ ends with a scene that shows mushroom clouds erupting everywhere, portending the end of the world. The chain of events that followed Jack Ripper’s actions demonstrate the extent of the damage that can be wreaked by one deranged zealot wielding toys too powerful for him to handle. And when we really think about it, aren’t some of our current world leaders very much the same?

SAT or IIT? A student’s viewpoint


An article written by Koka (Aranya Pal of Class XI, 2018) about how it would be better if India had only one exam after 12th, instead of a multitude of exams that stress out the students.

I have just finished my 10th standard board exams, and have just started my classes for 11th standard. In addition to my A-levels which is due in two years, I will also sit for SAT for an admission into a US university. It’s some work, but it’s nothing compared to what I see around me.

I stay in a thermal power township – it’s a closely-knit community of around five-hundred families. Even though many of us study in different schools, given the intimate nature of the community, I know most of the students who are of similar age as mine. And I am not envious at all of their situation.

Many of my acquaintances from the Township have been attending private tuitions and have been going to well-known IIT-JEE and medical coaching centres right from class VI! After the 10th standard, the pressure multiplied. A friend of mine, who sat for board exam this year, was never seen in the Township after the exams – I hear he has taken a permanent residence in Durgapur, a nearby town, a hub for such coaching centres.

Some are preparing for IIT-JEE, some for NEET, some for WBJEE – but some – and this is the most important part – are preparing for all of them. This intense preparation for a multitude of exams, in addition to their 12th standard boards, takes a toll. I do not see them any more in the Township park, playing badminton, as they used to before. Neither are they available for a friendly chat or a leisurely walk in the evening.

Some, in addition to these exams, sit for the gruelling entrance examination for Indian Statistical Institute, focusing on pure mathematics. Some study for CLAT (a common law entrance), yet some others prepare for the aptitude tests needed for IPM-AT (for IIM-Indore), and some of the general college entry tests.

This plethora of entrance exams is not only meaningless, but also harmful. Because it is difficult for children to study for so many different examinations, they have to make a career choice early in their life, knowing nothing about the relative merits of the medical, legal or engineering professions. This leads to many years of dissatisfaction later on. In addition to that, their childhood is sacrificed at the altar of constant pressure of coaching and tuitions – often on areas which will bear no relevance in real life in the future.

I am lucky; I will be taking SAT after 12th. This is an exam that does not require me to take special coaching and prepare for it. The preparation is more long-term; as a result, the exam cannot be gamed easily through coaching centres and exams. Since my childhood, I have been interested in reading, and that is one skill that is tested in SAT. In addition, SAT tests reasoning and problem-solving skills (based on the foundations of basic math) – that too requires no coaching and last-minute preparation.

These skills come in use not only during the exam, but also during the rest of the life. Reading comes in handy every day not only for students like us but also the adults that I see around. Ability to reason is also a useful life-skill. So none of this preparation is actually ‘wasted’, in a way most of the rote-learning driven exam preparations are.

Moreover, having one uniform entrance examination means students can get into any college and make their career choices at a later stage of their life, when they are more informed.

Looking at the state of my friends, I wish India also had just one entrance examination for all the colleges, which would both reduce the pressure on the students and allow them to make more satisfactory career choices. An exam like SAT will be the way to go.

Our economics textbooks are mostly flawed – here’s why!


Vulture (Debarghya Deb of Class XI, 2018) talks about how our economics theories are little too perfect for it to perfectly work in the real world. 

Let me make one thing clear at the outset – I am a mere student, studying in class XI, and I am not here to talk about the flaws in the economic theories propounded by the great economists of the past era.

The theories are all perfect — a little too perfect — and that is precisely why some of them do not work well in a nation like ours.

Most economics books talk about economics from the point of view of developed countries. In the developed countries the law and order works; the countries are normally stable and peaceful, and there is very little corruption in the government. This makes the environment quite conducive for the economic theories to work perfectly.

But most countries don’t have the necessary environment for such perfect economic theories to work. The laws of supply and demand are not allowed to work without government intervention, property rights are not respected and there is corruption in every step.

Now let’s take some theories and see how they work differently in underdeveloped countries.

The first thing taught in economics is that prices of goods are determined by the forces of supply and demand. But things are very different in underdeveloped countries.

Instead of the invisible hand, is often the guiding (or misguiding?) hand of the government that sets the prices. For example, a few years back in Kolkata, a limit was put on the price of bus tickets. Bus owners started making lesser profits, many buses went out of the market creating a huge shortage. The remaining buses were not maintained well (because it was unprofitable to maintain them), so public transport became much worse.

As a result, many people had to pay a lot more money to travel in a cab or autorickshaw. The policy which was supposed to ‘benefit’ the common people left them worse off.

Mind you, I am not talking about public transport here – these are privately operated buses that the government sought to regulate. Similarly, the government often seeks to regulate fees in private schools and hospitals – as a result, the benefit of the invisible hand of the market does not reach the people.

As a second example, let’s consider how government contracts are won in underdeveloped countries. According to economic theory, the suppliers who provide a service at the lowest price are able to sell the service.

In underdeveloped countries, however, contracts are often won by a different process; there is often underhand dealing between policymakers and suppliers.

The politician is happy to earn money for a future election campaign, the contractor recoups his bribe by cutting corners in materials and quality, and in the end, it is the people who suffer.

They get pothole-filled roads, collapsing bridges and other poor quality infrastructure.

Textbook economics also claims governments can improve market conditions by stopping a company from becoming a monopoly and increasing competition.

But most governments in underdeveloped countries do the exact opposite. Most of the monopolies are created and supported by the governments. The governments make sure that no other companies join the field and increase competition.

But what do the governments get in return? Simple: election campaigns cost a lot of money and these election campaigns are funded by these monopolies which help the government to remain in power.

You might argue that at least the chapters that do not deal with policy but deal with measurement are correct. For example, we had several chapters on measuring key economic variables like GDP, inflation and unemployment. Alas, there too, our textbooks fall short.

Data does not lie but it can be made to lie. Most of the data that comes out of underdeveloped countries are not trustworthy.

Half the economic activities happen in the underground economy and as a result are not recorded. Some governments use accounting tricks to improve their numbers.

Often governments manipulate data is by changing the way something is calculated. Such differences are too subtle for common people to notice – who celebrate a year of great GDP growth, or record low inflation.

Another big problem with our economics textbooks is they focus too much on finer debates.

For example: ‘Does minimum wage laws end up hurting the people it is supposed to serve?’ or ‘How much government intervention should be there in an economy?’ The books forget that in most countries the condition is so sub-normal that these debates don’t make any difference – they are mere academic debates.

Minimum wage laws might be put but in most countries but they are not enforced. We might endlessly debate whether an import quota or import tariff is better – but then we have a president who wants to put up a wall between two countries!

The list does not end here. For every economic theory that’s out there, you can find examples of real-life situations where it’s subverted by governments. I hope that someday, somebody will write an economics textbook which will reflect our reality more accurately.

Accuracy in Exams: The Secret to Success


Nonny of Class 11 (2018) explains a few ways of increasing accuracy in exams. 

Scores on tests such as SAT or ASSET depend mainly on two factors. The first is skill — obviously, if you don’t have intelligence or strong concepts, your score is going to reflect your lack of ability. The other is test-taking strategy. Sometimes, even people who have the skills required to get a full score end up making a few careless errors. Therefore, their scores do not reflect their true ability. So, the purpose of this article is to talk about some of the common reasons why people make those careless mistakes, and how they can be rectified.

The first step is to practice a lot. If you keep practicing the type of sums that come in these tests, the process of solving them will soon become automatic. For example, if you’re asked to do a simple addition such as 2+3, there is no question of making a careless error. Your brain automatically knows the answer- 5. Similarly, if you keep practicing more complicated sums, you will get the ability to immediately figure out the answer as soon as you look at the question, thus eliminating any possibility of making a silly mistake.

The second step is to stop using your calculator. Tests such as SAT allow you to use a calculator, but for nearly all of the questions in the entire paper (apart from two or three rare exceptions) you don’t really need to use it. In fact, the calculator is a distraction — it disrupts your focus and often makes you forget what you were thinking about before you picked it up. It will also give you more calculation practice, which will result in a reduction of silly mistakes while performing simple arithmetic operations.

Another way that people make silly errors is by not reading the question carefully enough. In an attempt to read fast, people often skip over one or two words in the question, which lead to careless mistakes. The solution to this problem is to highlight the more important parts of the question. For example, a question may ask you to work out the number of minutes that a car takes to travel a certain distance. So in this question, it may be a good idea to underline the word ‘minutes’, so that you don’t end up calculating the number of hours or make some such other mistake.

The fourth step is to do proper roughwork. Your roughwork should not be illegible or unorganized — you may end up confusing yourself. If your roughwork is properly structured and your steps are methodical, you will make far less careless mistakes.

So keep this in mind the next time you take a test, and your scores will then really start to reflect your true ability.