Friday, December 11, 2015

The Questions of the Heart (Part 1)

He is sipping tea from a red-brown earthen cup on his fingers when a familiar tune is coming to life from the road on the east. A film song is playing on a radio on a tall green bicycle. Invaded by fog, the city is all white, and the occasional glowing red backlights and blinking yellow lights inform a nearby vehicle. The tea stall seems an island inhabiting life and chatter. The silence in the morning is pierced only by the honking. The green bicycle crossed the tea shop. The tune had again been absorbed by the mist, but it played on in his mind. 
Yesterday was his thirty-second birthday, spent like a day before yesterday or like any day in past one year. Two years before, his phone used to sing the same tune when she would call. The tune played and his lips warmed with tea. Feeling she still belonged to him. Her bosom still a place for his head to hide. A sense of loss clutched his heart. Three teas in a row. He clasped the shawl and rose from the three legged bench, supported on arranged bricks in place of the absent fourth. He thought it was right for him to leave. You can’t go to a certain place without leaving somewhere. Like, he had to leave tea-stall to reach room. The tea-stall keeper entered the money to be paid in a long notebook which had lost its corners and a few pages of the end.
On the way back room, his eyes clung to a shop with its first name as hers. Over the one year, the shop had become a constant reminder of her in his life. Though the shopkeeper was ugly and detached-unlike her in every aspect of human behaviour- he bought grocery from there. How more of her he had inside. She had always been absent inside him. Now, she was approaching him in bits. 
The party was hosted in Columbus, an elite bar in Delhi. Everything about the bar- black big fluffy sofas, dim yellow light, red mat floor, small water fountains and neatly dressed waiters- was aesthetically grand. The song “Light my Fire” by “The Doors” was coming out of small pores on beautiful women on the carved wooden walls. At eight, when Mr. Hamilton, the white representative of the company, joined the party, Vijay blew away the candles on cake and everyone sang ‘Happy birthday to you’. He turned 27, today. He says he would not want to live beyond 50 when monotony would have taken over the joys of life. In that sense, he has already lived more than half of his life. At 27, he was to start discovering himself when Kurt Cobain, Morrison and other member of 27 Club had taken out the best in themselves and had even parted ways from the world. 
Disha, dressed in a black ankle-length velvet dress that reveals her golden arms and shoulders and half-cleavage, a symbol of brimming youth, came up smiling to him, hugged him and whispered ‘your room, tonight’. He is barely able to hide smiles. Everything in their faces smiled- eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, lips. She stayed with him for some moments then vanished among other her other friends. Everyone except Disha left early, to reach office next day on time. For a year, Vijay had been working in headquarters of the company, twelve miles away from the office where Disha works and where he and Disha first met and spent their five years falling in relationship. 
They drove to his apartment, parked the car. As they entered the room, he locked the door and kissed her. They undressed and slid into bed. The embrace had no intensity, only lukewarm folding of arms. In the moments near midnight, the lump of hidden loneliness choked his throat. 
What is he doing here? Streams of thoughts of becoming a guitarist had taken shape of a strong resolution; a resolve to chase the mirage of his own image as guitarist. The urge to run away turned strong, then stronger. He was earning in one month what his father earns in a year. In ten years with the current rate of his salary hike, he would out-earn his father’s lifetime earnings, with pension and provident fund deposits put together.
He had practiced guitar at his university, with dedication. There, for hours, he would be absorbed amid the tunes, often playing the same tunes. Closing his eyes and clicking a particular tune over and over. Feeling, as if touching the undulations of the tune. Often at nights, he would be on marijuana to numb the pain in his fingers, still playing, feeling, touching.
‘Music is my element. One day I will run away from this mad world to a secluded place.’ he said from his painful throat.
‘Sure. You must go.’ she had said, completely aware of his alcoholic haze.
‘I have to find my answers.’ he said to her.
‘Come here.’ She pulled him close to her and held her tightly, giggled. After a short pause, she said, ‘I am with you. You do what you want. I know, nothing can stop you.’
The belief for him in her voice calmed him and the lump melted away. But he didn’t resign from the job for two years. Every day, he thought about music and the money needed to survive later on. The weeks, by end of which he was to leave the job, extended into months and years.
On his 29th birthday, he didn’t invite colleague-friends to any party. He coaxed his boss to give him a week’s leave to visit home. Instead of home, he left for Rishikesh, without telling anyone, without cell-phone, and stayed in a hotel. Out of touch of the gross world. Doing nothing, all time thinking, deciding.
He had enough money to survive for his life if he remains frugal, does he need more? No. What a waste of life it would be if he were not able to discover his talent. He had already lived more than half of the life he had decided to live. Not even a moment shall pass wasted. Money and things, he had had enough. He will tell truth to his parents. The world just doesn’t stop demanding, it goes on. One should play his cards.
On the tenth day, while checking out from the hotel, he was sure. When he returned to Delhi, he submitted resignation within a week. His friends were surprised, some very happy, a few inspired. Disha was angry, then sad. It seemed she would not see him from then, but she came to his apartment in the afternoon on the day of departure. Her anger and grief had lost the battle, and he didn’t withdraw the resignation. 
She couldn't see anything in the apartment, except taped brown cartons. He was lying in the bedroom on a green mattress. She sat on the mattress with her back against the wall and he put his head on her lap. 
“What are you thinking?” She passed her hand through his hair and began crushing a curl, slipping fingers over soft ends of his hair. His eyes remained fixed to a landscape painting he had been gifted last year. The rising sun or the sinking sun. Before she entered, he kept finding hints what the painter truly wanted to depict. Now, he gave up and stared at the round edge of the sun.
“Hmm.... What are you thinking?” she asked.
His stare, lost in the orange sun, seemed to be looking into a distant unknown land.
“You won’t continue here, Ai?” she said, “Will you?”
“I don’t know.”
“From all over India people come here and……… and……. you are going to village.” She paused for a moment, then said, “Go. I won’t say anything.”
“I have already spent half...actually more than half.. of my life. I need my answers.”
“You are trying hard to invite problems. Go on.”
“We can talk on phone. And I will visit you every month. It’s not like before that you had to wait for weeks and months for letters. Few months and then I will come back to Delhi.”
She put his head down on the bed and straightened her legs. She held her knees with her folded arms and hid her head inside.
 “Don’t cry, please. You know it is hard for me, too. ”, he said.
He embraced her and both cried. He began gripping her dearly as shivers would cross through her body. His tears came out, influenced by hers, flew calmly, dripping from his chin on her shoulder.
“I know you wouldn’t return.”
“Are you insane? I cannot live without you. Don’t you see how much I love you?” He looked into her eyes and reassured her. “I will call you twice every week. The small towns have PCOs there. And If I don’t, you can just come to my address. Just five hours by train.” He paused and hold her chin in his fingers. “Now, that’s okay. Okay?”
She lowered her gaze and pursed lips. She was inviting tears. He kissed her and began making love to her while she kept looking into his eyes and feeling the contours of his back. After the orgasm, she closed her eyes and felt his face and body, as if to draw him from the world in darkness. Pull him in her world and not let go. He was in her world now, and would remain so until she would loosen her grip. After an hour of sense of possession, she let him go.
“What you’d take? Well, there is only coffee.” he asked.
They sipped coffee together while he checked his mobile phone. She kissed him before getting ready to leave, telling herself that distances don’t do apart truly loving hearts. She will bear these six months, then they will marry.
“When is your train?” she asked.
“I am taking bus. Midnight.”
They hugged each other, the final lingering hug, readying them for a long separation. "Don’t worry. I’ll phone you as I reach there." He pecked on her forehead, a detached peck, and turned the knob of the door. They came out and walked, talking irrelevant things, and reached bus-stand. As the bus entered the bus-stop, her eyes turned teary.
‘I will wait for you.’ She realized she said it more to herself than to him. She sat on the window seat and they kept looking at each other till the bus disappeared around the bend.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Story of an i-Saksham entrepreneur

    Near the blurred boundary of urban Jamui, on the highway joining Munger, there lies a village Khairma. At the door of one green painted house of the village, children had lined up to enter. Tanuj stopped our motorbike there. This house was one of the first places where tablet PCs, loaded with digital material for primary schoolchildren, were given to community tutors (called Saksham mitras) by i-Saksham team. Except on Sundays, children came here daily with their books and notebooks clutched in their armpits. In the room next to the front room of the house, they sat on the mat on the floor. The one and half hour classes used tablets for forty five minutes to one hour. The usually class went from 6:30 to 8:00 in the morning.
     Tanuj entered into the room and introduced me to Mamata. I followed.
    22 years old Mamata, the Saksham mitra, has been an inspirational figure among children. Since her earliest memory, her feet were thin, weak and unable to support her body weight. She doesn't have any memory of walking. She studied upto class eight in the local middle school, but it took her a lot to convince her family members to continue it upto tenth. She matriculated in 2007 and after exerting continuous pressure on her family, she could enroll herself in intermediate in 2009. She took Political science, history and sociology as subjects and finished it in 2012. Since then, she has been tutoring children. Most of the children she teaches now study in class 1-5, but she feels the digital content promising to enable her to tutor higher classes soon. 

    In the morning class, there were around twenty-five students, mostly girls enrolled in local government school. The chatter of the students continued until Mamata entered into the room. Mamata crawled up to the cot and hopped on in.
“Everyone, Show me your homework!”, she announced.

The giggles vanished and children came to her with their notebooks, one by one. After receiving few ticks and crosses on their copies they returned back to their seats. Some smiled; some were sad. After checking the notebooks, Mamata turned on an electronic device, a tablet PC, that has been an object of excitement among students. 

    'Today, we will study the chapter 'Vikram-the wise king' ' Mamata said. 'Vikram-the wise king', the chapter from an English book of class IV. Though the constant avoidance of English by teachers (school and tuition teachers alike) has turned English into a nightmare for the students, Mamata has taken on the challenge with the help of technology.

    She picks up and turns the tablet on. Several videos of class chapters have been recorded and put in the tablet along with few educational games by i-Saksham team. Browsing through folders, she clicks on an icon, 'Vikram-the wise king'. The video starts playing. This whole chapter has been narrated and explained in the local language in the video by Shravan Jha, i-Saksham core team-member. With few moments of turning on the device, every kind of sound vanishes from the class. The small device takes hold of the reins of attention of all children. 
Pic 1: Mamata- one of the early
Saksham mitras
The video runs for ten minutes.
'Now tell, What this story is about?', Mamata asks.
A rush of excitement covers the children. Many children speak, in high voices, to be heard, with different answers.
'One by one.', she said.
There were some confused faces too. Looking at them, The video was again played and stopped at few points for detailed elaboration. Mamata read out the chapter slowly as per their comfort.
    Now, the whole class was able to answer the questions. After teaching them the chapter, she asked the students to note down a paragraph from the book.
She looked at me.
'The test-scores of the children have improved after I started teaching them using the tablets', she said with a smile.
'How else do you use it?', I asked pondering if she was creatively using the device.
'In many ways. Sometimes, I let weaker children play games of mathematics and English words. Daily, for fifteen minutes, at the end of the class, I form a group of seven and let them play Word Swipe' She replies.
'What is word swipe?'
'It is a word game where children search the names of fruits, animals, places, etc., from an array of words.
'Good. Are the kids learning?'
'Yes. The weaker ones have become fast in calculation and fast ones faster.'
'Good, you should screen children movies on it sometimes.'
'We do. On Saturdays. Last week, we showed them 'How to train your dragon' (the Hindi dubbed version).', Mamata says with a smile.
I smiled, too.
Mamata drags herself inside. I discovered after getting tea that she would have gone inside to ask her sister to prepare it for us.
    From the classroom, I called few students. They are: Arti, Neha, Anjana and Seema. I asked them mathematics tables and few questions from another story 'Three wishes of Meena', (a Hindi story on sanitation awareness from class IV). To my surprise, they were able to answer every question. Some more children gathered around and giggle. 
Pic 2: With kids (Arti, Neha, Anjana, Seema and others)
Mamata entered.
'Go back to your seats', I said.   
All children returned to their places.
'So, the tablet has benefitted you?' I asked.
'Now, I teach English, Mathematics easily.
The kids are learning faster.Also, their number has increased. So, increase in income.'
I smiled and rephrased my question, 'No, I meant, do you learn anything from tablet?'
'As I am unable to go outside, I spend my time on this. Sometimes, I use internet on it, but it is not working on this new tablet.'
Tanuj, the i-Saksham volunteer accompanying me, took the tablet from her and checked.
'We'll replace it with a different tablet by tomorrow.', he said in an assuring voice.
'If something more could be uploaded on this, it would be easy for me to learn something.'
'We will see what can be done.' I said with a promising emphasis.
A little girl, perhaps one of her students, came with a tray in her hand.
'Sir, please take tea.', Mamata said.
'It was not needed.', We took along with saying this.
I looked at the watch. Quite a time had passed.
'Mamata, it must have taken a great deal of determination and courage for you to continue your studies in this environment.' I asked after knowing that the locality didn't encourage girls' education a few years back.
'Yes, sir. Then, it was difficult. Now, it has been easy.'
'Were you inspired by someone?'
'Not as such.'
'No, I meant, any friend, any teacher, any relative or anyone.'
'A teacher from the neighbourhood used to motivate me. His belief in me made me trust myself.', a confidence shining in her voice.
'What does he do now?'
'He still teaches.'
I looked at the watch again.
'Okay Mamata. I will tell them about the need of the content.', I said, referring to my friends.
    We rose from the four-legged bed, waved good bye to the children and walked out of the room. While departing, I saw a smile on her face. She began to teach mathematics. In the moments when Tanuj started off the bike, few thoughts ran in my mind: the quick answers of the children, the wonder of technology that made the good education reach Mamata, the barriers being overcome, the technology making the learning too interesting for children. A sense of wonder filled me. Technology bringing good education at the doors of community, in a way that interested children, was no less than a revolution in embryo.

    The bike started and soon the peace of village was pushed aside by the blazing horns of the trucks on the highway. In those moments, I thought of opening an i-Saksham center in Rohtas, the district I am posted in. Probably, Mamata had inspired me too.

 i-Saksham is an initiative to bring best of learning opportunities to the most difficult and remote areas of India, through technology and motivated youth. 
More details at

singing songs of life

Monday, May 11, 2015

"A House for Mr Biswas" connection

When I look back, I realize my invisible irregular longing for literature since school days, when I used to read stories by Tagore and R. K Narayan and keep thinking about them for a day or two. With time, the demands of my false ambitions and the need to conform to the world threw me light-years away from the realization that I could read for pleasure. Past that point, whatever I read was for gulping any new information down the throat, most of which would be of any use after my hairs would turn grey. I resumed reading, a major part to fill in my loneliness and a minor for pleasure. In the latest innings of reading, most of the stories and books I read ended with melancholy, sadness and despair. I don't remember, I ever read to be happy. I read to relish the combination of words that would weave a world closer to reality. I would pick up a few, as companions, to walk with me for a day or two. Then, like a heart-throb, I would drop them somewhere and they would be lost. 
            Somewhere two years back, I found a copy of "A House for Mr. Biswas" by V.S Naipaul at my uncle's place. Just few days back of that find, I was browsing internet when I got to read that this was Naipaul's masterpiece written in his early years. So, I clung to it. It started off as a slow black and white movie with the very first line describing the death of the lead character Mohun Biswas. But after few pages, I experienced the book as a window where reading a paragraph was like walking with Mr. Biswas. After reading it, I felt changed in a manner. Naipaul wrote everything that I hated about my background. Closely placed rooms, fights inside family, shame of poverty and most importantly the desire of possessing a house which one could lay my full claim upon. It felt as if the writer wrote on behalf of all those dissatisfied souls whose present affluence made them hate their past background and though I finished that thick book in three days, I remember falling asleep many times while holding it in hand as often it connected the book and my past world. 
          I keep reading parts of it again and again to laugh and touch the slender thread of desolation Naipaul places between series of laughter. It is a masterpiece. A rare masterpiece.