26 years of 26 January

Today is 26 January.

The date reminds me that I have turned 26 ( I have been obsessed with this number now). And then, it occurs to me that today is India’s Republic day. At 1 am in the night, it gets me wondering – what has this day meant to me and what does this day really mean to me today?

Till the age of 8, the word Republic day brought this product to my mind.

 Although it was compulsory for students to come to school( there used to be an attendance call) on R-Day, I wondered why many of my friends skipped it every year ( Childhood Idiot Instance # 1). Mind you, Good Day biscuits were a delicacy back then, so this was pretty good incentive for me to toil through the sun-rays while contributing to the ‘large-audience-is-present-for-you’ effect  for our R-Day chief guest. I believed my teacher for 5 years when she said that only students who attend the event get these biscuits. Turns out, no one comes and schools are left with huge inventory of biscuits and have no choice but to distribute to everyone later.Or they played a huge joke on me by lying to me despite planning to give these to everyone anyway. (Childhood Idiot Instance # 2).

I stopped attending R-Day at school after that due to 2 reasons –

  1. I grew smarter
  2. The biscuits became worse. Some unheard  brand that even dogs wouldn’t touch.

I narrated my predicament to my father on how I had nothing to do on Republic Day. He had a solution – he would take me with him to his office R-Day celebrations. This was a better prospect since I realized that I got an incentive upgrade. This :

Kaju Katli! Government offices are really generous when it comes to spending public money for refreshments on such occasions. I used to quietly sneak the table where plates filled with samosas, chips,amongst other things, and stealthily eat just the Kaju Katlis from every plate, leaving everything else untouched. I do not regret that act to date. ( Childhood Smartness Instance #1)

I grew up and then my social science teachers taught me ( or rather thought so) the importance of Republic day by dictating answers to ‘thought-provoking’ questions like

  1. Republic Day is celebrated on _______
  2. On what day is Republic Day celebrated ?
  3. Write a short note on Republic Day.

Retrospective FML.

It saddens me to say that Sunny Deol in Border inspired me to study about our country and its constitution more than my social studies teachers.Sorry teachers. I love and respect you to death for making me who I am, but I still stand by this. Not your fault, but doesn’t make it untrue. It is altogether another fact that Suniel Shetty almost grossed me out in the same movie with this immortal hideous act.

Fast forward the next few R-Days which I spent sleeping at home, although this was the image I dreamt of.

I have always been fascinated with how so much precision in movement is possible. These soldiers make me beam with pride – the only feeling that has stayed constant in my mind about R-Day since then.   It was for these people ( and for the yummy breakfast) that I used to wake up every R-Day in hostel ( and wake other people up) at IIT.

I finished my studies and joined a school in Govandi, Mumbai as a Teach for India fellow, I was suddenly on the other side of the table – organize a school republic day function, make kids rehearse the same song every year. I did that for the first year without any complaints – wake up at 6 am, get to school,make sure students stand in line, tell them the same lies my teachers told me about the sweets- I did it all.

In the second year, the same thing happened. Smooth start to the day as the tri-color was hoisted by the chief guest at 8 am sharp. He then stepped on to the stage to deliver an R-Day speech.

The guest was Abu Azmi – the MLA of the Mankhurd Shivaji Nagar.( You might better remember him as the father-in-law of Ayesha Takia).

The man who ruined it all for me – Abu Azmi

The man delivered a hate speech, targeted to arouse the sentiments of 600 young Muslim children and incite hate. Yes, I have been a live witness to a hate speech and I could do nothing about it.(I even had it on tape for sometime before deleting it)

I have never attended any Republic Day celebration anywhere after that.

Today, if I think about what the Republic Day really means to me, my mind occasionally does remind me of these words –


WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

But I do know that these words just stay on paper. I cannot talk about the word secular when such moronic websites and their patrons are allowed to exist.( Do pay it a visit for comic effect, though).  A country that works for a few vested interests cannot be ever called socialist. When courts work on weekends for a rich actor, but not for the poor thief who stole to feed his family, justice cannot be talked about. If I have to fear about what I write (which I honestly have, and probably if some read this post, I can expect some ‘adarsh-liberal’ snide remarks directed at me)  , liberty is non-existent.

I don’t think I need to elaborate. I have tried very hard not to sound skeptical about our country, but once in a few years, the frustration does come out.

So what am I going to do this R-Day?

Sleep a bit more than usual and then, work, as if it was a normal day. Convince friends and young people to work on problems that matter. Hopefully, get some of them to work with me, by directing them to this page.

Happy R-Day !





I turn 26 today – a number that evokes mixed feelings whenever I encounter it. While being equal to the number of matches that Arsenal won en-route to glory in 2003-04, it is also associated with not-so-pleasant events like the Chennai Tsunami of 2004, the Bhuj Earthquake of 2001, and the horrific 2008 attack on Mumbai, the city I call home.

I have essentially been trying to figure out what I feel about turning 26. Few starting thoughts –

  1. I am officially in my late 20s. My age will now be rounded to 30 instead of 20.
  2. I have officially lived 1/3rd of the lifespan I want to lead. I have never wanted to live beyond 78. 79 is a prime number, and I hate prime numbers. Anything above 80 sounds too old.
  3. I look at fresh graduates and refer to them as ‘ the next generation’.
  4. Year 27 is also the year of least pressure. Even in the event that I die, I get to join the 27 Club. ( and be the only member who is not a musician or an alcoholic or a drug addict)

Those are rather sickening thoughts. I should stop now.

But writing again after so long feels so good. Never mind the shitty organization, coherence and in some cases, absence of ideas so far. Will be back with something better and hopefully less sickening soon.










Time-Bound Schooling – Is it really necessary?

Every week, I sift through many articles lamenting the state of education in the country. One of the raging debates concerns the issue of testing students regularly to find out their progress and level. In this article , Wendy Kopp , founder of Teach for America, argues about the need for testing students to figure out where they really lie on the “ladder of education”. As a person who believes that numbers always make life simpler and give students ( and the teacher) a definite direction to proceed and a definite goal to meet, I really welcome the thoughts that Wendy puts forward.

However, two questions emerge and I am yet to find a satisfactory answer to either of them despite going through dozens of scholarly research articles in education journals. I list them forward with the hope that someone would enlighten me.

  • Who decides what these levels are ?
  • On what basis have these levels been mapped to a person’s age?

These questions must be answered because the effectiveness of many education systems in the world is measured under the assumption that the age-skill mapping is an accurate one. If the child has the skills he is “supposed to know”, the system is deemed to have succeeded and if not, the system is deemed to have failed and becomes a subject of criticism ( as is the case in India ).

What if the measuring chart itself was wrong ?

What if the basis did not arise out of supply of grey cells and thinking ability and instead was derived based on what the demands of the society were ?

I can assert for a fact that the age-skill scale does not have a statistical basis like the Intelligence Quotient scale, more popularly called the IQ scale does. If that were indeed the case, given that so many people in the world struggle in Class 5 Math ( as PISA assessments reveal)  , doing long division should not have been a grade 5 standard. ( I chose this particular concept as I have had a harrowing experience trying to teach it in 3 days , and it has been one of the hardest things to teach students conceptually. It, incidentally is a part of the PISA assessment).

The Common Core Standards Initiative , which is referenced earlier in Wendy’s article states its mission as :

To provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy

The idea is simple. The common cores are probably prepared not keeping in mind what the brain is capable of  doing at that age, but rather what is needed at that age so that the student is on track to ensure that his / her communities are best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.  To put it simply, some self appointed representatives of the community decided that by age 21 , every kid should be part of the workforce. If they need to be at the workforce by 21, they should have finished their education between ages 5 – 21 ( thank heavens they spared us from ages 1-5). 15 years seems to be a reasonable time-frame, doesn’t it?

Except that it isn’t. If you do some simple math,  counting the time needed to finish an Indian high school science textbook,  devoting at least 30 classroom minutes to teach each concept, you would realize that it would take at least 2 years to finish the contents of the book. This is clearly unreasonable. However, our teachers are forced to “finish the syllabus”  and hence, opt the easy way out. They teach to the test and assign all other stuff as homework. I won’t really blame them for doing this.

For every person who scores an A in class, there are probably ten equally smart classmates , who score Bs and Cs. People may argue that it was because they did not work hard. I believe that they worked hard, but the unrealistic burden placed on them led them to lose motivation. Lack of hard work was not inherent, but was rather forced due to a system which gave little incentives for working hard. Recently there have been developments towards helping students  learn at their own pace, albeit for a short period of time. The idea is to “integrate” these “slow learners” back into the “mainstream majority”. What people fail to realize is that the so called “slow learners” are actually now  the “mainstream majority” and we are either consciously ignoring this or are still blatantly unaware of this trend.

I do not reject the hypothesis that lack of good teachers is one of the major challenges education systems throughout the world face. All I suggest is that  it is equally likely that  the standards which we use to assess our students’ level are unrealistic ones. In the current system, such cases are treated as failures / underachievers. The more politically correct among us choose to call them lower performing / lower order students but words matter little here. The writing on the wall currently says they are stupid, by using a wrong scale to measure their performance. Maybe the average human brain does not need to so much by class 5. There are going to be exceptions, but these are a very small fraction of the student populace.  Those students will anyway figure out their path in life.

Increasing the time a student has to study may be a solution. I doubt our society would incur a massive loss , if students finish high school by age 20 instead of age 16.  Critics may again say that these students fundamentally would not have wanted school to be such a big fraction of their life. I differ. May be if they were given the time that their minds needed to learn at a steady pace, they wouldn’t have hated schools so much. Maybe the high achiever who spent his time with books as this was his only way towards a better life, would have relaxed and tried to have a life.  To me, this seems a win-win.

Ek dum first-class

Every morning is a struggle for me. Not because I have to work. But because I have to travel to work. More precisely , travel in the Mumbai local train to work. With the aim of adding a bit of comfort,  I shelled out a few extra bucks to get a first class season pass , which turned out less than half the fare of any means of road transport in rush hour. In fact , I am beginning to believe that in Mumbai , possessing a personal vehicle is the most useless thing you can do in life . You are anyway not going to reach on time , your butt is literally going to be taken on the ride of a lifetime on our crater ridden roads. In contrast , trains , although equally bad in terms of physical discomfort , are bang on when it comes to efficiency .  You are at least spared the obnoxious smell of armpits , and instead soothed with varying scents of cologne.

Before I deviate to further levels of grossness, let me come back to my point. I initially loved the decor of the first class compartment because never in the 23 years of my existence had I traveled in one before. The cushioned seats  and the well dressed people presented a sharp contrast to the chaos I had experienced in the normal compartments all these years. The beautiful, fair-complexioned faces on the other side the grilled partition , were an added attraction.

However, I soon began to see the other side of life in a first class coach. People in general do not care about what is happening around them , for they are too busy playing Temple Run in their smartphones. The luxury of the “fourth seat”  is most visibly absent in the first class compartment. Our big old seths believe that since they have paid so much for the ticket, they deserve to sit comfortably with their legs spread out in an obscenely inviting way. Of course they forget that everyone else in the compartment also has paid the same amount for getting in.

These are still quirks I can live with. But what irritates me the most is the way people are treated ad judged. Any man with a not-so-polished appearance is looked down upon by almost everyone around.  The sheer sense of superiority which the  dudes in their neatly pressed shirts and well polished shoes seem to possess when they summarily deduce that if a man is not formally dressed , he definitely is not first class compartment material, is appalling. The chutzpah with which  the words “Ye first class hai, tumhare liye nahiin hai ”  are uttered based just on visual judgement is shocking to say the least.

Like every other day , yesterday , a man in his mid fifties boarded the train. A semi dark complexion , ill-fitting trousers poorly tucked into a shirt full of creases, chappals stained with mud – as disorganized and filthy as one can get. As soon as he boarded, a young guy, standing at the door told him , with the air of owning the compartment :

Ye first class hai , agle station pe utar ke second class mein chad jaana.”

The old man paid little heed to his words. As the next station arrived, the young guy repeated his words. This time , the old man reached to his pocket, took out a torn wallet , and showed him his ticket which read “FIRST CLASS SEASON TICKET”. He replied quite politely yet strongly , ” Mind your own business and learn your place in this world “.  The expression on both the old man’s and the young guy’s face was priceless and one that I will remember for times to come. A lesson had been taught, in a manner fitting the behavior that drew the response.

First class , my foot.


A Shift in Power ?

Quizzing has always been the sport ( if I may dare refer to it as such) of the chosen few. While quizzers would argue otherwise, the fact that most of its followers fit very standard stereotypes usually assigned to nerds has few counterarguments.To the outsider,  these are usually men who get together and discuss weird stuff, while making obscene comments and questions , amused at their pun making abilities. However, to the quizzer, he ( she being deliberately omitted)  is indulging in a serious social activity involving an important exchange of information and display of grey matter coupled with an amazing sense of humor. Nerds love this activity  because here your masculinity is measured by the question cracks and the wisecracks you make and not the size of your biceps or the number of push ups you can do.

Traditionally, quizzing has never found a lot of female enthusiasts. Of course, they do exist, but they are much less than the numbers in other literary activities like speaking and debating ( which however, fail to qualify as a sport). This lack of participation and appreciation from the fairer sex has led quizzing to lose its share of the literary pie.The few leftover potential quizzers from the male fraternity, in a bid to befriend their female counterparts , have been strategically( and rightly so )  turning more towards music and dance, which are perceived to be traditional female strongholds.

However, I observed something earlier today morning that provided a ray of hope. A group of 4-5 girls from my school were fighting to team up with a boy who had earlier displayed his intelligence by narrating the capital cities of the world. Mind you, these are girls who otherwise desist sitting near boys, as if they were another race. And in another interesting development, the boy who generally is very soft-spoken, felt infinitely machismo and was gleaming with pride on seeing that he was so much in demand . This new-found attention by the opposite sex, seemed to have kindled an interest so strong in him that he asked me for more books to read and ‘sharpen his mind’. ( I might be reading too much into an otherwise ordinary event, but an observation nonetheless)

When asked what they liked about the event today,they replied that the suspense when the question is read,  the pumped up fists on getting a right answer and the disappointment and embarrassment on not getting an obvious answer makes quizzing extremely exciting . Everytime a team got the right answer , they felt good and every time they saw a high-five being exchanged, it made them feel inspired.Clearly,  modern quizzing provides as much of an adrenaline rush as any other sport does and deserves its name right up there with the soccers and the basketballs. It is a classic showman sport if done the right way and is finally beginning to find takers.

The time has arrived for quizzing to rise and come out of the shadow . It deserves a fair share of takers and it seems that it is only a matter of time till that happens. Perhaps smart , in particular , quiz smart, is the new sexy. The day when trivia libraries would replace the gymnasiums is probably not far away.For the sake of the wonderful sport that quizzing is, I sincerely hope so.

A Letter to the IUPAC President

Today, we were discussing  the evolution of the Metric System. Mehak was extremely annoyed at the decision of the scientists at IUPAC to fix the  length of 1 metre at its current length. She constantly asked me why they chose that particular length for the metre and not any other. I had no reason that I could explain within the limits of a 5th grade curriculum. The idea of explaining the distance light travels or the idea of cycles of an excited Caesium ion did cross my mind and I was contemplating explaining it  but saner heads prevailed.  In order to temporarily get over with it,  I asked her to write a letter to the IUPAC president if she had any issues with the metre. I thought things would be over and that Mehak would stop pestering me about a trivial issue ( or so I thought) . And as I expected , Mehak did not utter a word after that and was occupied with work throughout the day. When the school bell rang and students left home, Mehak quietly came to me and handed me a piece of paper. She had actually written a letter to the IUPAC President asking him to change the length of a metre. And wonderfully enough, she also gives an interesting suggestion and backs her suggestion with a very cogent line of reasoning.
If the length of the metre annoys her so much, I wonder what would happen if she sees American textbooks filled with archaic units of measurement. Considering she wants to study abroad when she grows up, God save the authors of those textbooks. Be prepared for a barrage of mails from Mehak. ImageImage

A genius can come from anywhere

I wanted to write this post a long time back, but I kept on deferring it not because of paucity of time , but because I was never in the mood to give full justice to it. Today happened to be one of those days where I felt like writing, and here I go. This is the first in a series of posts about various students in my class – a Grade 5 classroom in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, where I teach Math and Science and the limited fundae of life I have to about 50 students.

Amazing Aftab:  When I read his previous teacher’s comments about him , saying he was way above other students in terms of reading levels and grade requisite skills, and that he needed to be in a separate classroom with students of his ‘kind’, I was almost convinced about sending him to another class. But somehow I could relate so much to him that I decided to keep him in my class. He tops class in almost every class  (by a margin that would earn him an AP in IIT ). He scored more than what I did when I was a fourth grader in the State Scholarship Exam. ( I am truly intimidated by this lad)  He never shirks from work, and his handwriting at the top of the answer pile ( He is Roll Number 1, first even in that) , makes the mundane job of checking papers interesting.

My challenge in setting every higher order test is to try to force Aftab make a mistake, especially in Math. But the lad never misses, something that both thrills and annoys me. Just to appeal to his mathematical bent of mind , I taught him factorization once, and now he factorizes cubic polynomials( Grade Level 5). The other day when he  finished work fast, I gave him a combinatorial problem : to find the number of ways to arrange 3 different things. I was pretty confident he would take a lot of time to do this and that I could meanwhile concentrate on teaching to the struggling students in my class . But the boy not only finished for 3 things, he also started hypothesizing how 4 things can be arranged in = 4! ways. Phew!

Finally , I took the easy way.


I handed him  the famous Russian mathematics book : “Mathematical circles” and have asked him to work on it.He waits everyday after school to master the prerequisites , and after finishing his work, takes out this book and gets on task.  The book has managed to relieve me of some of my “problems” with him , but I am pretty sure he will be back asking for more.

Holding him to high expectations has really brought out the best in him .  If not anything , Aftab has shown me one thing :

Not everyone can be a genius , but a genius can come from anywhere.

The biggest tale of hypocrisy

For the past one month in school, I have become a stricter teacher  than what I ever have been . I repeatedly tell  the children in my class (often to their dislike) the various ways in which ‘good and smart people’ behave. I have given rewards for positive behavior and consequences for negative behavior , in a bid to condition the kids of my class into what is considered as socially accepted behavior. It is a famous adage that to preach, one has to lead by example and I believe that this applies to a teacher more than anyone else . When you are responsible for the development of 40 odd students who look up to you , it becomes inevitable for you  to show them how it is done, be a true leader.

Unfortunately in this exercise , I realized that my ideals ( other people refer to them as idiosyncrasies) are quite opposed to what I expect ( or more of  what I am expected, as a teacher) from my students. For instance, I never believe in having a bath in the morning. A bath should be fine anytime of the day as long as it is taken, but according to some people ( read mother) , this is highly indecent. I also never believe that you need to be dressed immaculately and precisely, because in my random opinion, it makes you a rigid person, not open to ideas. I also do not believe you need to sleep at 10 pm in the night and wake up early and study in the morning. I also do not believe that you need to sit in a place quietly, without moving and study without the occasional chit chat with your friend sitting next to you. I don’t believe in organization , and I actually like things disorganized because I find even in chaos , there is a pattern. Many of you might conclude that I have acquired these ideals due to the time I spent in a spoilt environment( read IIT hostel) and might even label these as  wrong habits. On the subject of what is right and what is wrong, I would strongly urge you to read this rather absurd post of mine and give it a thought.

So what should I do in such moments of conflict? A parent came to me the other day , and complained about her son not having a bath in the morning before coming to school everyday. She asked me to advise him and correct his ‘indecent’ behavior. I literally chuckled when I heard this. ( The parent assumed I was laughing at the child, luckily and could not see the real reason for my chuckle). I put on a straight face , and told the kid , “You know why I am always energetic and never sleepy. That is because I have a bath everyday in the morning.That is what smart people do, if they want to learn more and not be asleep in class. ” I lied through my teeth. Although I am not proud of it , I am not ashamed of my act either . Three days later, the parent comes to me and thanks me for my advice, which had apparently brought a change in the kids habit. I told this to my mother and she wishes I had a teacher like me.  😛

This is the simple strategy I have adopted in my class and it works to a large extent. If I have to make kids do something , which I don’t agree with , but certain stakeholders do, I simply become a hypocrite and a liar. I simply make them believe that I have done the same thing every single day of my life. I tell a tale so convincing and with such conviction that I find it hard to believe it myself that I don’t agree with the very same principles. The words of a famous doctor came to my mind:

Words of wisdom

Let us face it.  Everyone is a hypocrite,  in one way or the other. Why not out it to use to effect what is considered by many positive change in kids , so that they can lead what is considered by many as a better life.  Leading by example is too tough and sometimes in contradiction to the values that I developed , that I cherish, that I do not want to give up. Hypocrisy is the only solution to my problem . All that I need  is to be careful enough to hide my real principles away. Not a difficult job for a hypocrite.

The case for Greece

No, I am not talking about the economic crisis looming over Greece. It is clear that no one can save them from that. The one I am referring to is the one that happened at the UEFA Euro Championships 2012. Greece advanced to the quarter-finals after defeating Russia 1-0 in the final match of the league phase. Both Greece and Russia were tied at 4 points apiece , but Greece went through on the basis of a controversial rule that favors head-to-head records of tied teams over the usually used goal difference method.

While critics argue on which rule is better, the inherent mistake everyone is committing here is that everyone  first decides who should be the actual deserving winner and then proceed  to rationalize why one system is better and the other is not. In deciding who should be the winner, people ironically apply no objective criteria ( possession percentage sometimes, but that hardly counts as a criterion in the post-  Mourinho days) ; they just go by what their gut tells them. Useless statements like “Greece should not have won, because they are so shitty”, “Russia deserved to win because they were so good in their first match” are  common to hear. While these are okay as expressions of shock, they definitely cannot form the basis for deciding which system is better. In fact , you cannot and should not even try to decide which system is better

Please give it to Greece. They were able to take  advantage of the given set of rules and constraints.That is what every sport is about   and therefore, Greece deserve to go through.

Everyone is a hypocrite. And Everybody Lies.

My grey goose quill

It is the task of a lifetime. It used to be called education once upon a time.

The following article is written by Devdas Menon (Prof. at IIT Madras)

This article (which i wrote many years ago) may be of interest to you. I was reminded of it, while responding to many emails from old IITM students concerned about the proposed changes to JEE and the possible loss of a self-image to which many have a strong emotional investment…

We are the hollow men,
We are the stuffed men,
Leaning together,
Headpiece filled with straw.

– T S Eliot

Nobody likes to be called a hypocrite. Yet, nearly everybody is one. No doubt, some are less hypocritical than others. But there is nobody, to the best of my knowledge, who is entirely free from hypocrisy. Perhaps, to be hypocritical is human.

A hypocrite is one who projects a false self-image…

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