Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fee-fi-fo-fum: Donkeys, camphor and Chennai colleges

This is a ranting post. Bewarned!


Three weeks ago, Prajnya organized an intercollegiate quiz for which ten teams signed up and three teams showed up. One college professor apologized but there was no explanation or apology from any of the students at all.


Today, I went to Women's Christian College, which is having a 'National Seminar' (something colleges have in Chennai that I don't fully comprehend as a category) on domestic violence. I had been invited to judge their poster contest. In spite of their students ditching our quiz just a few weeks ago, I kept my commitment, rushed through my morning work to show up at 8:15 am. as requested.

The professor who invited me nodded vaguely as she ushered the keynote speaker on to the stage. As the proceedings unfolded, some instinct made me think I should ask about these posters I was supposed to judge. Perhaps the instinct was prompted by the fact that when she thanked the invitees who were attending, she mentioned neither my name or Prajnya's.

I sent a message through a colleague who was off-stage (my contact professor was on-stage with the 'dignitaries'). She did not know anything about posters or my having come to judge them--ominous, already. I asked whether the posters were ready for me to see right after the keynote. The reply sent to me: There were no entries so there was no point my waiting.

I am actually not easily insulted. I have too much tolerance and tend to have empathy for people in many kinds of situations. I don't stand on ceremony and I think I am fairly unassuming by today's standards. But today, I am. Very, very insulted.

If there were no entries, this cannot have come as a surprise after my asking. What would it have taken to send me an sms? Or, to look at me this morning when I said hello, and say, "Oh my god, I totally forgot to call you!" If I had seen genuine regret at such a moment, I would have actually found it amusing and understood the stress of organizing something. But no, it was a casual, no point in my waiting.

No point in my coming. No point in my trying to work with such people. No point in expecting students to behave better when teachers are like this.

No point at all.


This is not the first time WCC has been cavalier with us. Yes, they sent teams to our first two quizzes but the students always looked long-suffering and as if our quiz was actually beneath their station. They had a team in our police-student interaction last year, but again this year, they ditched the quiz.

Worse, we have invited professors--with a formal letter--to our programmes. They have said leave was sanctioned, got directions and just not showed up. No explanation or apology.

And now this. I am so furious. If you think this is a post filled with negativity, let me tell you I am being painfully polite and parliamentary. If I was a person of greater virtue, my thoughts would have far more destructive consequences.


And WCC is not alone. Stella Maris is the same. Communication within the college seems to be non-existent. They don't believe in responding to things. Their students make rash commitments they are unwilling and unable to deliver on. Loyola is a lost cause. MOP Vaishnav has an enthusiastic principal which makes a lot of difference, but she cannot be her students or her professors. And she cannot be everywhere. Let's not even talk about the University.

Up and down an alphabetized list of Chennai colleges, it's the same story. Disinterest. Apathy. Rudeness. Inability and unwillingness to communicate. Incompetence. Professors are like this; how will students learn?

Except for Queen Mary's College. I am even afraid to write this--meri hi nazar na lag jaye--I don't want to jinx this.


But the self-confidence is great. We are so great. Chennai people/students are so smart. Tamilians work so hard. Chennai this. Chennai that.

But don't ask us to keep a commitment. Don't ask us to communicate honestly and promptly. Don't ask us to write a paragraph that you can understand in any language. Don't ask us for anything--we take all offers and requests to be petitions to which we respond like feudal lords with empty titles.


For Prajnya's sake, I stop myself over and over from really writing what I think about where I am. I have done so today as well, erasing text that I just typed. But the one thing that is clear to me is that Chennai's colleges are pointless programming options for Prajnya and frankly, last resorts for recruitment as well.

Perhaps this post is impolitic as well, but frankly, to read my blogpost and to take umbrage takes more efficiency and energy than I have seen displayed on campuses here.

My father used to tease, when we refused to try new vegetables or dishes: "Kazhudai-kku teriyuma kalpoora vaasanai?" (What does the donkey know of the fragrance of camphor?) Chennai colleges, I say this to you today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Funding failure is charity!

"Charity stands on its own. Big time charity should tackle things that will fail. When you succeed in everything that you do in charity, you are attempting things a little too easy." 
(Warren Buffett in this press interview.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Samrat Ashoka (536) Hindi


A lone king, standing on a hill, surveying the bloodied fields below him, reflects on the price people have paid for his grand ambitions. Too much. Dramatically, he speaks into a bubble, renouncing war with the words, "All men are my children, and just as I desire for my children that they should obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same do I desire for all men."

Step out of the Amar Chitra Katha, and drive a short distance from Bhubaneswar and you stand before these words. Dhauli is where Asoka's 1st Separate Rock Edict is carved.

The edict is now protected by a glass case but it's still thrilling to peer through the glass and imagine someone read these words out to a stunned, benumbed public.

The Archaeological Survey of India has manicured a little patch of garden around the otherwise harsh rock and as you climb the ledge above the edict, the view is pastoral, even bucolic. Lush fields. Coconut trees. Some signs of human habitation. A far cry from the comic-book illustration of bloodied bodies strewn here and there. The earthquake and tsunami that have struck Japan even as I was traveling to Dhauli have probably left those scenes in their wake.

I try really hard to imagine that moment, that epiphany. But even the faint memory of these words does not actually move me as much as I want to be moved. Perhaps it's the effect of the kitschy looking Peace Park that looms over the rock edict at the top of that hill. Perhaps it comes from the complete lack of interest and enthusiasm of the driver who really doesn't care that war was renounced here. Perhaps it's the boys-on-a-binge tourism that I see, pausing at the edict lackadaisically before proceeding to the Kitsch Park (which I must confess, I couldn't bring myself to visit--it may be quite nice after all!)

[ <-This is the elephant carved on top of the rock where the edict is carved.]

The second separate Rock Edict at Tosali is where Asoka had carved: "All men are my children and just as I desire for my children that they should obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same do I desire for all men. If the unconquered peoples on my borders ask what is my will, they should be made to understand that this is my will with regard to them --the king desires that they should have no trouble on his account, should trust in him, and should have in their dealings with him only happiness and no sorrow. They should understand that the king will forgive them as far as they can be forgiven, and that through him they should follow Dhamma and gain this world and the next.

For this purpose I instruct you, that having done so I may discharge my debt to them, by making known to you my will, my resolve and my firm promise. By these actions, my work will advance, and they will be reassured and will realize that the king is like a father, and that he feels for them as for himself, for they are like his own children to him."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Horses, water and Queen Mary's College

Posted first at the PSW Weblog.

"You can drag a horse to the water; you cannot make him drink.”

I cannot write a report about the 2011 quiz without remarking on the participation issue. We invited almost 40 colleges. 10 colleges registered after an official invitation and poster went to the principal, calls were made to the union secretaries and to our friends in the faculty. The students were supposed to register at 2:30 p.m. At 3:30, half an hour after the first round was scheduled to start, only three teams had registered.

Our volunteer made a round of calls, only Ethiraj picked up. They weren’t going to come, but did not think it important to let us know. The Stella Maris and WCC cheering squads–barely three-four people anyway–showed up. The teams did not. We still have no calls or email messages from them.

For Prajnya, this is not an isolated experience. We have the same problems for every programme we conceptualise for students. This is the first time that we have faced it on this scale for the quiz.
Apathy in itself is lamentable. After all, these are the people to whom we plan to repose a great deal of responsibility in the very near future–work, family, social. But the lack of consideration and the absence of accountability are far more frightening to me.

These are the people who will work jobs? Have children? Run the world? What if they don’t feel like showing up one day? Will they just leave work and family in limbo? Every single student carries a mobile phone and has an email account. They could not call or email or sms us to say they would not be coming?

We are a small non-profit and invest very scarce resources into creating opportunities for students, from whom our only expectation is that they should bring themselves to the programme. For yesterday’s event, we had prepared three substantial quiz rounds, plus back-up questions, which took about five long days of serious preparation, even with contributions. More than one person worked on this quiz. Our volunteer made innumerable calls and a few visits in between his classwork at the University. We ordered snacks for fifty. Used up our small stock of printed certificates (which we cannot reuse now) to prepare for 20 participants. And how do I describe the loss of morale for all the people who were so enthusiastic about this programme? They are also young, and I want them to continue to feel like whatever they contribute matters.

Why the Prajnya Team loves Queen Mary’s College

As a contrast to this picture, I want to tell you why we love working with Queen Mary’s College. Queen Mary’s in its time was a very prestigious institution, but that really is history. Today, South India’s first women’s college is a very poorly resourced, poorly maintained institution, but with the gift of teachers who are unbelievably dedicated and students who are hungry for opportunities. Whenever we suggest an opportunity to them, they are enthusiastic and fuel the programme with warm and eager participation.

For yesterday’s programme, we had hired their hall. When I walked in to set up, there was a small group of students sitting quietly, with the professor we usually work with. They were very subdued, in low spirits. One of their colleagues, a young hostelite, was killed by a speeding vehicle when crossing the road in front of their college… injured a few days ago, succumbed to her injuries the day before the quiz. They said, hesitantly, we are in no mood to participate, we will help you set up. I cajoled them into putting up a team.

And they did. They stayed. They participated. They smiled and did not let on to the others that they were grieving. They were good hosts to those who had come to watch. Principal, professor, students, staff… made us feel like we were welcome and that they valued this event.

The principal had spent long days at the General Hospital while her student battled death. The professor we work with had coped in the hostel with grieving girls and police questions. The principal stopped by as we set up to apologize for not coming—she was patently exhausted but gracious. The professor stayed through the quiz, to offer us moral support.

This is college spirit. This is the real stuff.

And when the quiz participants told the quiz master, they wanted careers in social work, I wanted to say to the college and parents: you did really well raising these girls. They fill me with hope when others in their generation make me very afraid.

We are proud to have in the Prajnya Archives photographs of flag hoisting on Independence Day 1947 at Queen Mary’s. We are proud our quiz in the centenary year of the observance of March 8 as International Women’s Day was in this college, full of spirit.