Sunday, September 11, 2016

On individual interpretations, abridgment and reading White Fang by Jack London

Brace yourself, this will be one of the long ones... 

Set in the coldest North Canada, White Fang is the story of a wild little wolf cub, White Fang, borne of a wolf and a female wolf-dog. The story of a wild animal who grows up near and in the company of man. The effect this has on him, and what it says about life, death, nature and nurture is what the book is all about. It is the companion book of The Call of the Wild, apparently its mirror.

For the last two months, for one reason or the other, I have been immersed in fantasy and children's books. White Fang was a welcome change. The writing left me spellbound. Here are two excerpts:

"It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for Life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man - man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement."

"Life flowed past him, deep and wide and varied, continually impinging upon his senses, demanding of him instant adjustments and correspondences, and compelling him, almost always, to suppress his natural impulses."

On individual interpretations and my takeaway - the evolution of the dog:

I finished this book towards the end of last month. Since then, I have discussed it, if fleetingly, with more than a couple of people. The interactions have left me somewhat amused. One friend finds it eerie, to another it's the classic classic (I have yet to understand exactly what being a classic classic entails) while my favourite is perhaps the idea that it belongs to the same class of quiet reflective books as Walden (which, by the way, I haven't read.) I agree with each takeaway, while being carefully aware that that is not how I saw the book, at all: because I, for one, am most affected by the most literal of interpretations this book could have. This, I admit, is not the deepest essence of White Fang, but this is what the post shall deal with foremost - the evolution of the domestic dog. 

I am a cat person to the core. One of my favourite things about cats is that they are not so much domesticated as willing to share space with not entirely unlikable creatures (that would be us) so long as we serve their every need. A dog, in very stark contrast, lives to please. It is as if there is something inside a dog that exists only for the human caress. And, London says there is. London repeatedly talks about this feeling hidden deep within the wolf, White Fang, this call of the civilisation (let's put it like that) and its slow awakening with increasing contact with people. There is a very obvious analogy there with the savage man, of course, but the book significantly overtly captured my amateur (mostly experiential) interest in animal behaviour. 

Recently, a friend told me that the evolution of dogs was genetic. Very simply put, this meant that there was a certain genetic marker that made wolves afraid of humans, and a kind of wolf evolved in whom this hormone (I suppose) was absent - a forefather of our dog. Hours of swift-fingered Googling (the easiest research there is) led me to interesting tidbits - my friend was right, dogs were not tamed by us, really, but somehow "invented themselves" by becoming steadily tamer around and dependent on humans, in a surprisingly parasitic fashion. 

The rapid and random breeding of dogs makes it hard to trace their precise origin, but it is generally agreed that they were domesticated at least 15000 years ago. The process, I'm sure, was not nearly as simple and affecting as was described in White Fang, yet I wonder what that first wolf-dog felt... (such is the power of historical fiction.)

"There was something calling to him out there in the open. His mother heard it, too. The stream, the lair, and the quiet woods were calling to him, and he wanted her to come. But she heard also that other and louder call, the call of the fire and of man - the call which it has been given alone of all animals to the wolf to answer."

Dogs and men have a special relationship, no doubt. And this book just gets it, from an utterly un-romanticized dog's perspective. The cruelty suffered by White Fang and the building of trust that forms the basis of any dog-human relationship is beautifully expressed. I read on Wikipedia that London suffered criticism for his "fake nature" writing and for overly anthropomorphic animals. I find this accusation ludicrous! The opposite is true. I loved how, throughout the book, London reaffirms that White Fang, the wolf, had no conscious clue of his nature or intentions, that it was plain instinct that guided his every move.

“Had the cub thought in man-fashion, he might have epitomized life as a voracious appetite, and the world as a place wherein ranged a multitude of appetites, pursuing and being pursued, hunting and being hunted, eating and being eaten, all in blindness and confusion, with violence and disorder, a chaos of gluttony and slaughter, ruled over by chance, merciless, planless, endless.”

That pesky allegory:

Yes, White Fang is about life and experience, or often lack thereof. It is so many things, layer beneath layer of story. A fable about a lone pup in search of warmth and love. It is about coming of age. About the pull of the unknown and the loss of innocence that comes of it. White Fang is about reconciling with the wild in us, the savage that lurks in the belly of every civilization. The book humbles you in the face of nature, like The Lord of the Flies, and makes you question your firmest beliefs. It is also, quite unlike The Lord of the Flies, immensely reassuring. A book of quiet reflection, it will give you plenty to mull over.

It is also supremely idiotic in how the white man makes a naturally superior god to the wolf than the tribal. I don't remember there being any memorable women among the humans in the book, but in the interest of not bristling at every turn, I do think that the mother wolf is one of the coolest female characters ever. 

Lost in abridgment; an afterthought:

Grade 5 of the school I teach at has an abridged chapter from this book in their English syllabus... The Grey Cub. It was this more than anything else that got me interested in Jack London - an author whom I have once, long ago, abandoned two pages in... (in a kiddy version of The Call of the Wild). I blame abridgment. Reading White Fang now, I kept wondering why we bother with abridged texts. Is it not a form of censorship?... taking it upon ourselves to decide what is and isn't appropriate for a certain age to read and experience. There is a lot, I realised as I read White Fang, that is lost in in this translation. 

The chapter from the Grade 5 book is mildly interesting, at best. It is simple and straightforward, where Jack London has poured multiple layers of meaning into every line, to peel back and marvel at. Look here - what is a mere "fall down a steep slope" in the textbook is originally this vivid gem of a line. Which child, tell me, won't chuckle at this?

"Now the grey cub had lived all his days on a level floor. He had never experienced the hurt of a fall. He did not know what a wall was. So he stepped boldly out upon the air."

And even if a book is deemed, rightly, as more appropriate for a certain age, then why distort it to suit another? Surely we have plenty of beautiful, profound children's literature to fill up all the textbooks in the world. Why bother with texts that need to be watered down when we have many available that cater to the very needs of the children? During my post-grad, I took up a course in teaching reading where we briefly dealt with how to edit texts for age-appropriateness: replace complex clauses with simple, use grade-level vocabulary and such. At the time, it never occurred to me simply ask; but why the hell just not stick to children's books instead! Thinking of the ones I have enjoyed over the years, I am not convinced they have any less to offer.
...

Too long to read? White Fang by Jack London - a must read, if ever there was one. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is an incredible, honest book. Written in the face of cancer by a man who happened to have spent the better part of his life trying to gain an understanding of death, the book has the urgency of a story that needs to be told. There is no scope for pretences, there are no airs and, perhaps, Kalanithi held only a vague awareness of a reader in mind, and little concern for the impression the book would have on a prospective reader. Its authenticity is its driving force, which is a rare quality for memoirs.

“Most lives are lived with passivity toward death -- it's something that happens to you and those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients' lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn't. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” 

I sometimes feel like my childhood was a montage of medicine names and hospital tales. I grew up around doctors and hospitals and what was most interesting to me about this book was how so many of Paul's experiences with and views on medicine paralleled my father's. The book felt very personal. When Breath Becomes Air offers an insider's view on medicine, as a profession, as a calling, as something that exists on the slippery slope of morality. It gives a glimpse of the doctor's view that we often fail to consider. 

Medicine, the hard reality of a doctor's life, requires you to suspend the values you have internalised - of what is right and wrong, what is permissible and what is just, and most significantly, what is possible. Kalanithi writes, delicately, about music blasting in the operation room, about dissecting cadavers in med school and about each time that a doctor has to tell a family that he is sorry he could not help. 

When Breath Becomes Air is not about cancer. It is written by a man dying of lung cancer, yes. It is most definitely about death, or about life, which is rather the same. But it is not about struggling against the disease. It is not the glorification of a short life, it is not about making the most of your time left, it is no 'Tuesdays with Morrie' (as my sister put it) and while there is nothing wrong with being any of these, I appreciated that the book was written not because the man had cancer but because he wanted to be a writer. His diagnosis only sealed the chosen fate.

“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn't really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

This book has a lot going for it. The biggest reason it appealed to me is for how it has planted this narrative in my head - this internal argument that forced Kalanithi to write the book. Have you read Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson? It is about the constant presence of death in the carriage of life. There is a persistent awareness of mortality in us, that Kalanithi suggests is what being human entails, be it in the form of loss or disease. What then, taking into account the inevitability of death, constitutes a meaningful life? A brilliant young man, in his final hour, muses on how to live.

When Breath Becomes Air lies on a fascinating intersection of Literature (with an L) and science. Kalanithi writes at length about studying literature with the aim to untangle the complexities of the mind and later, almost dissatisfied with the limits of literature, majoring in neuroscience to analyse the brain and its role in making life meaningful. He flutters between the two, building a life around the practice of science in the best of times, seeking comfort in Samuel Beckett in the worst. He writes about where the two meet, philosophy and science, their intersection. This book is about what literature and science offer and what they lack, explained by a man who intimately knows and loves both.

The book is also about family. About the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. Even as I write this, I wonder how a slip of a book was so many things... and this particular aspect of it, I don't want to spoil with my words. I leave this for you to explore and experience. Terry Pratchett wrote, 'no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.' Paul Kalanithi has left us with a stormy ocean. Do read the book.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Keri Smith was my favourite illustrator, back when I used to know enough illustrators to have a favourite. Her blog, The Wish Jar, is one of the most interesting things on the internet. Tall claim, but trust me. Keri Smith has written a number of activity books for adults. Wreck This Journal, published way back in 2007, is an attempt to get the journal-er to embrace chaos and messiness. Each page has an innovative instruction to effectively wreck the journal - spill coffee! drag it across the floor! colour outside the lines! use makeshift brushes! - exercises to unleash the inner child. 

So far, my singular aim has been to not let any page set the tone for the rest of the journal. Many of the Youtube videos of completed Wreck This Journals have pages and pages completed in a style peculiar to that journal-writer. And while the result is often beautiful, it's not chaotic enough. I want to surprise and myself every time. And so some pages of my journal end up quite lackluster while others are more vivid than ever.

Here are four favourites pages, each very different from each other. The first is inspired from Buddhist mandalas, though I am not sure I possess the skill required for the intricate detailing they demand. The second, apart from a base wash of green, is made entirely using toothpicks dipped in flowy and thick poster colour. The third design is borrowed from my favourite pair of chappals - the prompt was to cover the page in circles - and required a great deal of patience too. The fourth required me to connect the black circles from memory - I originally meant to draw sun flowers but these happened. 





I have been keeping a tortoisey pace - slow and steady - about twelve pages in three months. Nevertheless, the activities are incredibly relaxing, more so after a difficult day at work. Keri Smith is not wrong, there is something specially liberating about colouring outside the lines, about spilling things, tearing up paper, cracking spines and dog-earing pages. I am quite finicky about the way one handles books. But over the past month I have found myself appreciating a good coffee stain, a pageful of notes in the margin, that sort of thing. And with fifty prompts continually whirling around in my head, I feel I have started noticing things better, all around me - patterns, colours, ideas. 

The journal is a very personal thing, and this is hardly a review. But I am sharing it here because in the past a certain amount of accountability has done me a lot of good. I also made an Instagram page (whatever they are called) to share my progress with the Wreck This Journal. It turns out the Insta-world is filled with other Wreckers and it's a treasure to interact. I do hope you check out the page and buy yourself a Wreck This Journal as well. Meanwhile, any recommendations on books about creativity or exercises to keep the creative self alive will be greatly appreciated. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett


About the series: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (yes, four-zero-eth) and the third installment in a mini-series that describes a period of industrial revolution on the Discworld. 

For those of you who don't know, Discworld is a long series of books set on a strange planet swimming through space, comprising a giant turtle carrying on its back four elephants who balance on their heads a magical disc. Discworld inhabited by characters at once like and wholly different from those who people our Earth. It is a humorous retelling of life with a few basic rules changed. The Discworld series has over fifty books, with miniseries dedicated to certain characters.

The Industrial Revolution series of the Discworld stars a scoundrel and thief named Moist von Lipwig who ends up at the centre of many new developments in technology. In the first book, Going Postal, Discworld gets a Post Office. The second book Making Money is all about the first mint and introduction of money to the Disc. Raising Steam, the third and unfortunately, the last in the series is about the invention of.... the steam engine. 

My thoughts: A long time ago, I had listened to a short clip of an interview by Terry Pratchett where he talks about his fascination with the Victorian delight in technology. Here is a link to the video. ''Once upon a time, people wrote poems about technology and communications... I wanted to get the feel of the world where the technology was so new and light and wonderful, that people really cared about it," says Pratchett. 

Raising Steam is all about the spirit of invention, the curiosity and unending effort that drive innovation, its maddening, sometimes silly allure. It is also about the rejection faced by those at the head of change. The modernity embraced by the story and its characters, however, is not restricted to invention, and in a charming way, Raising Steam is also a modern claim on equality between the sexes, between castes and between species. If all this were not enough, it is a heady mixture of wise and sidesplittingly funny. 

When the first engine is built by a young self-made engineer Dick Simnel, it is initially eyed with suspicion. Soon however, it finds its happy audience in Ankh Morpork, a city of entrepreneurs. The engineer wins over investors and lawyers. And it is then that the Patrician of Ankh Morpork assigns the job of ensuring the railway brings profits beyond measure to his city to none other than Moist von Lipwig, reformed crook, fairly decent guy and now Head of the Post Office and Royal Bank.

It is the age of reform in every sense. Non-human species like trolls, goblins and vampires are increasingly letting go of their old binding traditions to become members of Ankh Morporkian society. But not everyone is quite so flexible. Trouble is brewing in the court of the Low King of dwarves. The Low King is modern for his position. But certain dwarf clans stand stubbornly in the way of change, ready to hunt down any of their own who yearn for it. The new railway becomes the perfect target for these anti-progress forces and it is up to Moist von Lipwig to guard the railway against the attack of the dwarves. Meanwhile, the Low King has a special secret to guard...

Select quotes: ''Sometimes, Mister Lipwig, the young you that you lost many years ago comes back and taps you on the shoulder and says, 'This is the moment when civilization does not matter, when rules no longer hold sway. You have given the world all you can give and now it's the time just for you, the chance to go for broke in the last hurrah. Hurrah!"
.
"The train is the future; bringing people close together. Think about it. People run to see the train go past. Why? Because it's heading to the future or coming from the past. Personally, I very much want the future and I want to see to it that dwarves are part of that future, if it's not too late."
.
"Moist knew about the zeitgeist, he tasted it in the wind, and sometimes it allowed him to play with it. He understood it, and now it hinted at speed, escape, something wonderfully new, the very bones of the land awakening, and suddenly it seemed to cry out for motion, new horizons, faraway places, anywhere that is not here! No doubt about it, the railway was going to turn coal into gold."

Afterthought: This is a strange, in fact bizarre... ridiculous, comparison to draw but the topic of Raising Steam kept making me think back to nearly twelve years ago, when I had read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which was similar only in its supreme thrust on the industrial revolution through the construction of the railway. And I once again found myself realising how over-the-top, self-indulgent, threadbare the book had been (even apart from the whole matter of its philosophy), doubling with laughter at how I went through a phase where that felt like good writing. Today, I find, simplicity is the best and hardest to achieve. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

May Recap and Catching Up

Or rather, a 'Remember-me?-I'm-NOT-dead!" post. I have started working as a middle school English teacher since the last time I was here and that keeps me more busy than I had imagined possible. But I have been reading and with the new job dust finally starting to settle, I find myself with time and inspiration to write. Here is a look at what I read in May and what I will be posting about in the coming weeks. 

I have been skimming through a thoroughly entertaining book called See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers by Roxanna Elden. If you have ever fostered the dream of being a school teacher, fantasised about all the amazing learning that will happen in your class, read this book and watch the fantasy collapse into a puddle. A perfect read for a new teacher, this is a treasure-chest of expert advice and ill-conceived humour. It has poems, tips, suggestions and much-needed consolation. The book warned me my first day would be bad and that it was okay, and oh-my-god was my first day bad. And it was actually okay. Two months into the job, the book still temps as my bible, and I find myself returning to it on particularly tough days. Every job needs a survival guide.

I borrowed and devoured the much-discussed When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon's view on life and death. I am overcome with awe. That book needs a separate post and I am not ready to write it just yet. 

School required me to reread Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, the classic 19th century autobiography of a horse, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I remember as a child being utterly fascinated by the idea of an animal's autobiography, while deeply saddened by the part-tragic life story of that wonderful horse. Researching it now, I discovered that writer Anna Sewell was crippled as a child and spent the better part of her life being driven around in horse-drawn carriages. It was then that she noticed the suffering of the animals she so depended on. Black Beauty was the only book she ever wrote. She died shortly before turning sixty, only five months after her book was published. It was written to inspire kindness in people. It always interests me to note the motive in writing a story and in this case, the back-story is touching. Black Beauty was not intended as a children's book.

Meanwhile, I have been reading a book called Love Stories From Punjab by Harish Dhillon, also borrowed, which is quite charming for a title that corny. Review shall be posted. I decided to abandon Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert as it seemed more patronising than inspiring with every new page. I have instead chosen to seek my inspiration from the ever delightful Keri Smith and have been slowly trudging through Wreck This Journal: To Create is to Destroy - only the greatest book of creative prompts for artists and freaks like me. I made an Instagram page to chronicle my journey through the book and will share it here once it is substantially fuller. 

In other bookish news, a friend of mine gifted me an adorable set of magnetic bookmarks which are too precious for me to start using just yet. And a half a month ago, this blog turned another year older with no one to celebrate. Well, happy birthday, Tabula Rasa, better late than never. I might pull mini disappearing acts every once in a while, but I'll stick around for the long haul.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Linguistalks with Payal Khullar

(Another of my famously bad titles, but it stays.) What studying linguistics entails is not clearly understood, in my experience, in India. Having just finished two years of a post-grad in Linguistics, alongside only about ten students from the whole university, I have grown used to people asking me - Why! What now? And what exactly is linguistics, anyway? It would surely help to have someone better equipped to answer these questions. 

The idea for today's post came from a Linguistics blog I follow called All Things Linguistic, which features a series of interviews with people in linguistics-related jobs. This is not quite the same, but gives a way to interact with people in the field, learn what people do with degrees in Linguistics and attempt to answer some of the questions I tend to be asked; not to mention, along the way, spark in you an interest in linguistics if I can. 

The first interview in what I hope will be a long series, is with Payal Khullar, who simplifies fascinating concepts in language sciences through her blog over at Language & Linguistics. You can check out her site, and keep in touch on Facebook and Twitter. Payal has had an interesting journey to linguistics and I'm glad to have her share it with us. 


1. Tell us about yourself. 
I am just an ordinary person with ordinary talents. I guess the best part about my personality is that I have always been super excited and passionate about whatever I do. In fact, I have hardly been able to do anything half-heartedly for more than a week in the past. 

If you look at my career graph, you would say that I have dipped my feet into deep waters with extreme temperatures in my life. And, well, that is what I like about myself the most. From a studious scholar of botany, to a failed cartoonist, a well-paid online educator, and a not-so-bad content editor at a popular e-commerce website- I guess I have tried it all. I must say, however, that my life has become rather stable for quite sometime now. 

My career took a serious turn after I cracked the JNU entrance exam. During the two years of Masters degree program at SL, JNU, I fell in love with Linguistics. Not many people know that I rejected a cool job offer at a well known publishing house before I joined IIT- Delhi. 

At this moment, I am working as a research fellow and teaching assistant for Linguistics at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT- Delhi. My research areas include syntax, language variation, language processing and language acquisition. 

Besides all of these things, I am an avid blogger and poet (well, almost). 

2. Why did you decide to study linguistics? 
Honestly, I never planned a career in linguistics. After an Honours degree in Botany from one of the best colleges in Delhi University, I started working in an e-commerce startup. Everything was more or less okay, and, then, one random day, I felt I want to go back to the drawing board and study something interesting; perhaps, something I haven’t studied before. Linguistics was an experiment. One that worked out quite well for me. 

3. Did studying linguistics change you? How? 
Yes, it did. Drastically, in fact. When I talk to people now, I constantly look for evidence of dialectal variation. When I interact with infants and kids, I recollect theories on language acquisition in my mind. 

I have also become highly sensitive to power dynamics between languages and linguistic rights of minority communities, especially in multi-linguistic areas. It’s quite weird, but I judge someone’s character based on how they think about different languages and speech communities. 

I guess, it is impossible to study something for years and not let it effect you on a personal level. 

4. What are some common misconceptions about linguistics? 
I think, all linguists of the world will agree with me on this. When you tell someone you’re a linguist or that you study languages, the first thing they want to know is the number of languages you can speak fluently or the types of scripts you can write in. Then, they ask you which is the best language in the world. If you do not lose your cool, they will continue to discuss how they think Chinese must be difficult to learn for the kids in China. 

Sometimes it gets difficult to make people understand that, as language researchers, we are not interested in studying any particular language. Linguistics is the study of language as a cognitive object, or as a social phenomenon. It is not about learning grammars and vocabularies of standard varieties of prestigious foreign languages. 

Also, I don’t think a lot of us are aware of how research in linguistics has contributed significantly to smart phone technology, highly interactive user interphases, operating systems, online dictionaries, language translation, search engines, etc. People take language for granted. Commercial application of linguistics is not restricted to foreign language teaching. 

5. What is some advice you wish someone had given you about linguistics / university / work? 
I think, it’s very important to read classical, state-of-the-art works in Linguistics or, for that matter, in any field of study one is interested in. Often, at the undergraduate and even at the post-graduate level, students are taught theories and made to learn concepts without giving them a background on how those theories and concepts were introduced in their time, how they got accepted or rejected, how they survived or failed to survive criticism, and how they changed and developed with time. What we often read as a one line definition of something actually is a result of years of research and experimentation in the field. It is important to know that as well. It also sort of brings in motivation for research. 

Also, no definition and no concept must be taught or learnt as gospel truth. We must not fear from deconstructing theories and redefining concepts. 

6. Could you share any favourite linguistics quotes / books / blogs / videos / links? 
There are some very interesting Ted talks on the subject. For instance, this one here by renowned Linguist Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal. Pinker talks about how thoughts are linked with language. I think, every linguist and non-linguist must look at this once. 

And then there is one that explains origin and evolution of language, language diversity, biblical myths, etc. using very cool animation. Check it here: How Languages Evolve - Alex Gendler.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

On teaching, children and a short month-long volunteer experience

(Has anyone noticed how terrible I am at coming up with titles?)

Today's post is a condensed (yes, it was even longer) form of an essay I wrote for a job/fellowship application. I have since accepted another role, so here I am reposting this to the blog. In November last year, I took up a month-long volunteer position at an NGO called Door Step School. An English teacher at the Community Learning Centre - exciting. 

My meticulous lesson plans crumbled when I stepped into the classroom and found myself surrounded by thirty little monsters yelling incoherent strings of rote-learned ‘missmynameispooja’, ‘hellogoodmorningbye!’ So on that first day, all I did was observe the other teachers handle the class with expertise, a healthy combination of strict and loving. 

Door Step School works towards bringing literacy to the marginalized sections. Some of their biggest projects include day schools for children at construction sites and the innovative School on Wheels initiative. The Community Learning Centre which I joined also had children of construction workers. They had been successfully enrolled in government schools. Now the Centre provided them with a support system to ensure they stayed in school and could manage the school-work. 

The counsellor at the Centre asked me to set up the base for English teaching that the next volunteer teachers could build on. My first task was to build a bond of trust. To really get through to the children, I needed to understand their contexts, the experiences that had shaped them. But all they had were questions for me! So I began to share. I told them about my house and my school, they took real delight in stories of my pet cat, and gradually, they opened up to me.

spelling activities with some 3rd-graders
I didn't realise someone was taking photos, but it did not get past the kids!
We chatted about big and little things - the holiday decorations in their slum, someone’s birthday, their tiffin that day. When they shared their problems, their worries stayed with me, often long after the school hours. My first lesson hit hard, but it was also the most important - learning not to pity them. As our friendship blossomed, the issue of discipline slowly dissolved. As with all the other children I have taught, I planned my classes around the knowledge that eight-year-olds tend to be impatient and need to be constantly engaged. 

All the ‘English’ that these eight and nine year-olds knew was reciting the alphabet, unable even to distinguish one letter from the other or decode the individual sounds. To make it worse, they were too apprehensive to speak up. I don’t know English, they would reply in Marathi to any question I posed, until I had an idea. I drew a picture on the board. Cake! Car, scooter, table, chair, computer, the words came tumbling out. 

outdoor lessons were my favourite (though I've managed to look morose in every picture)
I visited the government school for a storytelling activity. Sitting in that ramshackle excuse for a classroom, with a group of bright twinkly-eyed children enthusiastically talking about their school, I realized with a new light how shameful and infuriating it was to rob them of the opportunity to learn. I decided to scrap my plan for the session and ask them what they wanted. That day we learned some twenty English words they were curious to know. 

Equipped with a set of phonics books, I arrived in class one day and taught them how to write their names. Sound out words from colourful storybooks. Suddenly, spelling stopped being gibberish. Car became c-a-r and different from c-a-t. I made little paper chits with capital and small letters and made them match pairs. Some games worked, others did not. With time, I developed an intuitive sense of which activities would be successful with whom. 

A month sounds too little in the big picture, but I am glad I powered through. I believe I made a difference. By the end of my volunteership, more than anything, I sparked in the children an interest in reading. And there was another outcome. I emerged from the experience ready to face and adapt to newer challenges. Today, I want to teach and learn from it, and do this forever.