In the midst of the excitement surrounding the swearing in of our new Prime Minister and the array of ministers that he is bringing in, I celebrate the sounds of Indian Ocean’s new album, Tandanu. The sounds have been playing in my head since last month. This morning, The Hindu supplement carried a piece about the band and there’s a curious piece of information about why they named it Tandanu.
It’s the name of one of the songs in the album, but has no specific esoteric meaning or symbolism. Of a bunch of names, they chose it because it sounded musical and nothing by that name showed up on the Internet! Amused and laughing, I wondered at the simple logic of the choice. What a great branding strategy and one we all use everyday, to stand out and be unique on the Internet, the entity that my 20-something year-old cousin Shruti called “a very happy place” when we met up yesterday!
Just last week, in branding ideation sessions for two separate business ventures being started by close friends, the teams struggled to wean themselves away from the trap of logic and rationale, meaning and association. To venture into that unique world of whacky and catchy. To take that brave new step to choosing names that stick in the head, make the reader screw up their faces with question marks on their foreheads.
It’s not always possible. We are a generation still mired in the old ways, but we’re beginning to open up to new possibilities.
As I drove to work this morning, I saw two young men outside one of the those small standalone offices by the road. They were talking to each other, but what struck me was that both of them were folding pieces of A4 paper and putting them away. My mind flashed back to my childhood. Both my parents were academicians and our house was filled with those thin longer than A4 papers that came out of typewriters. Also those pista green sarkari papers with a blue margin line running one side.
Our childhood was filled with all manner of different types of stationery to write on. From the regular ruled notebooks to one side blank and one side ruled notebooks, to checked ones to long notebooks (register!) etc. We rarely used loose sheets of paper. Even drawings were usually made in drawing books of some kind. Or on one-side used papers that parents painstakingly got bound for us to scribble on.
A4 paper was a luxury back then. I remember teachers cribbing about how early they have to set exam papers because the ‘cyclostyle’ machine (ha!) would need to be free to make copies. Today the photocopy machine rules the roost and A4 paper is easily (but not freely we must remember) available. A lot of the work done by kids are not not in notebooks but on worksheets. The idea of working on loose pieces of paper floating around sort of bothers me, but it’s normal now even for adults in workplaces to pull an A4 out of the printer in the middle of a discussion without bothering to look for a notebook or diary to do the same.
This train of thought made me think about how many things we use nowadays were rare, expensive and exclusive items just a few years ago. Like earphones! Very few could afford portable music playing devices before, but now with mobile phones being ubiquitous, you see wires coming out of people’s ears wherever you go!
Life is changing and changing fast. Sometimes, It’s good to think back to what it was like before. No judgements, just nostalgia!
As if on cue, following yesterday’s post about the need to give students a more challenging and enriched learning environment, mHS had a visit from an enthusiastic young man called Brian today representing the University of Minnesota’s ACARA program. From what I understood, the program asks undergraduate and graduate students to prepare a business plan for an identified need in the development sector. The University partners with academic institutions in India and students work in mixed groups of Indian and American students. The business plans are then presented to a jury and a couple of winners selected, which then get helped in terms of mentoring, investor contacts or simply funding for feasibility studies, depending on the group’s intent.
Previously, the program specified a particular area of work, but in its new avatar, students are being put through a three week immersion exercise and will then decide on their own what sort of needs they want to address through their solutions. This change was made because they found previous graduates of the program have veered off their conventional career paths to opt for more socially aware jobs. Some have gone on to set up new organizations working in the development sector in different parts of the world.
Clearly, someone thinks allowing students to decide basis their interests and motivation brings out the best in them. And doing their best in turn inspires confidence, which is certainly the key to creating positive, motivated and solution-oriented professionals.
The change the program has undergone exemplifies the new thinking in education. A move from top-down to bottom-up, as those familiar with development-speak would see it! And that’s primarily what I wanted to highlight through today’s post. That even as we theorize about the changes we want to see, those are happening already, in India and elsewhere. Hope is alive as long as we continue to experiment.
Mixed classrooms are an opportunity to teach our children the values of inclusivity and tolerance- Sep 4, 2012
The social divide is, in my perception, the single largest obstacle between India and progress. The apalling manifestations of this divide strike me everyday. The insecurity of the privileged classes and the growing frustrations of the have-nots can explain many of the negatives we experience around us- all manner of crime, anger, safety of women, and so on. And what’s really scary is that our response is only to build more walls, shrink further into our cocoon. We imagine we are spreading our legs in plush comfort, but actually we are squeezing into a very small mental and cultural space. Already, life has lost much of the diversity and stimulus I remember from my childhood. Our social response to dealing with the social divide by sanitizing our surroundings, making everything in our lives as ordered and predictable and controlled as possible, will only mean more boredom, more and more of ‘sameness’…shudder!
Today’s observations are in the context of education and the outright rejection of the elite to the possibility of mixed classrooms as recommended by the Right to Education Act. A Hindustan Times-C Fore Survey, carried by the HT today, exposes the paranoia of urban middle class parents with school going children. 72% believed the quality of education would decline, but that doesn’t bother me so much. What really struck me were the responses to a question that asked parents if having classmates from a lower economic background would help your child become a less prejudiced person. 22% said yes, an astonishing 55% said no and a substantial 23% were non-committal. Now that tells me a lot and I’m not smiling! Being less prejudiced is not something we even consider a desirable attribute any more. It seems to me that we parents want our kids to be smart, intelligent, successful, have myriad skills that will help them land plum jobs in this competitive world. But we’re probably not too concerned about whether our child will grow up to be a sensitive, socially responsible individual. Nobody cares!
We’ve pushed the capitalistic thought so far into the social consciousness of this nation that social equity isn’t something most of us even consider a desirable. Those of us who are vocal about social equity are considered a bit strange, almost like we are disconnected with reality. But the reality is that masses in this nation face huge barriers to progress that they desperately need and crave for. It’s not just us: everyone aspires for upward mobility, even though that might mean different things for different people. And it’s not right for us to begrudge anyone that right.
We need to code an inclusive approach into our children. We need to get out of the ‘step over someone to get ahead’ mentality and believe that we can all progress together as partners and collaborators. Yes, resources are scarce but there are also many opportunities if we have the right attitude.
Mixed classrooms are a great opportunity to build an inclusive and tolerant mindset in our children. My daughter studies in a mixed classroom as Shikshantar has implemented the RTE this year. The kids seem scarcely aware of the differences and the bonding seems great. Of course, Shikshantar uses Hindi and English both as mediums for pre-primary education, so language in itself is not a barrier. But what I’m trying to say is that children aren’t judgemental at all, unless we teach them to be. And they stand to learn a lot from diversity.
I was heartened to read in the same HT spread on RTE that educationists are a lot more positive about mixed classrooms and despite obstacles, are admitting to this being a positive step forward. Its time we changed our mindsets to allow a new generation increased access to quality education. It could mean a bright new future for our nation, increased security and less strife for the world that our children will inhabit in their lifetime.
Small steps, big changes: We need to harness the passion and talent of youth positively- July 30, 2012
Four days in Goa, with family, life centered around tradition, rituals, family bonding and the sheer experience of taking in Goa with its unique flavors, sights, sounds and feel. Coming back home is a brutal return to reality and the unpleasant aspects of life. I knew the power grid failure had happened (it was in the news), but I came back to actually meet people who have spent two days in the heat and darkness. I knew Team Anna was kicking some butt out there, but I’m reading the media coverage and wondering where all this bile and vitriol is taking us.
We sure are a bunch of disgruntled citizens and we need an outlet for our frustrations. Anna’s bunch are as good a cause to support as any! And hence the turnout at Jantar Mantar. Yet, when Kejriwal denounces the BJP and the Congress in equal (ahem ahem) measure, what does that mean politically? I am at a loss to understand where this is going? I wish I knew. Not that my opinion would matter, but I would sleep easier!
Personally, I feel corruption is one among several large issues that need to be addressed. Yet, it is an issue that really hurts us bad. I realized this when interacting with a group of final year architecture students last week. I am their advisor for a research project on the role of architects in serving low-income populations. I floated the topic with a set of ideas in mind, hoping to steer them towards finding innovative means of engagement between professionals and low-income families. As it often happens, they had processed the scenario in their own unique way. And they appeared most perplexed by the ugliness and inevitability of corruption. They felt that, whichever way they looked, it was corruption in the system of approvals, of urban planning and governance, that created imbalances in the supply of and access to housing. They wondered if this was ever going to improve and were rather disheartened about the topic of research. They said they felt like they were banging their heads against an unbreakable wall.
Of course, I encouraged them to express this, but also to set the subject of corruption aside and see how interventions could be effective within the bounds of the current ‘system’. However, their reactions gave me an interesting peak into the world of the youth. Young, educated Indians (especially those with a creative bent of mind) clearly, are not happy living with the system. They demand change, they are idealistic enough to believe change can happen, yet they are frustrated by the fact that no one (not even Team Anna) truly believes that change can happen or has a clear picture of what the change could look like. Worse, they are frustrated that the big picture remains fuzzy and uninspiring. They understand that small innovations appear to be the only way forward right now, but are unable to see how the small improvements will add up to make significant impact.
Is there some way we could harness this latent energy and frustration, this burning desire for change in a positive way? I do believe activism is a vital ingredient because ultimately political will is key, but there are other missing elements as well. I’m thinking it’s important to document and disseminate information on positive action across various fields, interventions that have changed people’s lives for the better, so that gifted and driven young people can be shown some hope and encouraged to pursue what they believe in and not waste their talents doing what anyone else can.
Nostalgia is passé. Post 35, when you meet friends from the past, especially those buddies from college, you talk kids, ethics, life experiences and value systems. Your discussions veer towards perceptions and issues and incidents are shared in the context of making a point.
As Richa’s beautiful little girls hung around us (or pranced around us in the case of the younger one), the four of us- Upali, Richa, Julius and me- talked about the things that concerned us most. I was amazed to find that, despite living countries apart, what worried us all the most were common. All the issues we discussed pertained to the desire to see an improved world in the future. We talked of education quality, the value societies attach to learning and education, the business of education and healthcare, dealing with class issues in a society in rapid transition, parenting and how to help our kids to be good humans while utilising their potential and talent, how it is important for poor business models to fail so that there is a value attached to risk as much as there is to reward (great learning for me, thank you Julius!), can we ever outgrow the obsession for white skin (Upali returned to India after a gap to find the obsession had grown), why advertising and media feeds on insecurity and fear, you get the drift I am sure.
It amazes me and heartens me that there are others (and I have heard from many since I began this blog) that worry like me, that passionately hope for change. That recognise that the sharp edge of profitability must be balanced by the service of the larger good. That balance, not unconditional growth is the way forward. That creativity and design have a larger role to play for humanity to continue a meaningful existence.
I had planned to take pictures of this mini reunion, but I have not a single one. Conversation and food flowed seamlessly. Life was good. The hospitality the best (thanks Richa). Comfort levels high. I guess we’re not the posing types!
After a day full of site visits and meetings, I did not see myself cooling my heels in an obscure hotel in the middle of nowhere, an apt description of Electronic City in Bangalore. I took the opportunity to ride with someone into town and found myself at that familiar intersection between M G Road and Brigade Road. Right next to me was the Cauvery Emporium where as a child I remember buying Mysore Sandal Soap with my grandmother and staring at the bronze statues and silk carpets that my uncle Gopal would sometimes buy (he was passionate about these and they appeared super expensive to us).
I decided, for the sake of nostalgia, to walk down M G Road. It was about eight in the evening and the stretch that used to be the heart of the city with people jostling for space was a deserted, sad place with no pavements to speak of, a clattering ugly overhead Metro line and lots of traffic. Even after several malls came up in the city, this used to be a vibrant space. The metro seems to have sucked whatever life it had out and I was sorely disappointed.
Brigade Road was more like what it used to be, though it also seems to have relinquished it’s status as a prime shopping location. Even so, I enjoyed watching the passers by and marvelled at the wonderful cosmopolitan mix this city now is and the sheer feeling of youth and casual confidence here as compared to say Connaught Place in Delhi.
A good meal later, we (my colleague Nipesh did his own city trawl in the meantime) topped off a the evening with a small adventure we greatly enjoyed- we yapped away while riding in a City bus to Electronic City and then savoured a long walk to our hotel in dark deserted but beautifully tree lined streets escorted by a street dog!
Images below: The overhead metro has ruined the heart of Bangalore, followed by two shots of Brigade road at night.
Urban planner who? We need initiatives to bridge the gap between citizens and urban professionals- May 22, 2012
I was FB chatting with a schoolfriend who I had completely lost touch with a few days ago. The guy is an office in the Armed Forces, presumably well educated and certainly well traveled, albeit within the fauji context. Our conversation veered to what I do at work and I told him I’m an urban planner consulting with a start-up that focuses on solutions for low-income housing. Silence. A few seconds later, he pinged to say he had no idea such a thing existed!
No, my friend isn’t low on IQ by a long shot. Most people on this planet (even the urban dwellers) have never been exposed to the idea that there are professionals out there who worry about how cities function, or don’t! It’s a bitter pill for the entire community of urban professionals, including architects, civil engineer, infrastructure specialists, urban planners, urban designers, transportation planners, environmental experts, energy experts and many more, to swallow. A large part of this lack of information is thanks to lackadaisical governance. Who wants to admit they have anything to do with a system that doesn’t really function?
If ever I open my mouth to discuss what I do at a social gathering, I get mobbed by questions about why urban systems are inefficient, why things don’t work, why citizens are treated like shit and basically, what the heck are you upto when its obvious there isn’t any urban planning happening in this country?
It’s frustrating. Because it’s true. There hasn’t been a culture of spatial planning in India. Most Indian cities do not even have an urban planner on its rolls! Of course, we need more urban planners out there, worrying, thinking, exerting pressure on governments to act. But we also need to pay attention to what is called pop-up urbanism, which includes a variety of spontaneous citizen responses/solutions to urban issues.
I have been seriously thinking along the lines of doing something that bridges this gap between citizens and urban professionals. I read yesterday about initiatives that believe teaching schoolchildren about urban design and architecture could teach “future generations about the different ways to live and build a community.” Could we do something like this in India, where awareness about urban issues is a burning need, where citizens can play a crucial role in change, whether it is through direct efforts like energy conservation or by a more indirect effect of influencing local governments and corporations to behave responsibly towards our built environment? Not just schoolkids, corporates, online groups and adult individuals can all be targets for consistent, insistent, and attractive communication (books, newsletters, events, online communication) to urge citizens to understand more about and be vocal about urban issues that impact their daily lives and certainly their future!
We often read about cities having an identity. Sadly, our city of Gurgaon has a bit of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality. While those far from it perceive it as the Millenium City of skyscrapers and dapper architecture, those who live in it cannot look past its potholes, messy traffic, soul-less-ness and, increasingly, its brash criminality and lack of safety for anyone, not just women.
In a recent tweetchat hosted by thisbigcity, an award winning sustainable cities blog that covers innovations in urban design, architecture, culture, technology, transport and the bicycle, identity was discussed in some detail by experts the world over. Interestingly (and scarily in the context of Gurgaon), the lead question was about how your city has shaped your identity. Anyone Gurgaon resident wanting to take a potshot at answering this is welcome to comment on this post and it promises to be an interesting compilation!
But really, how would I answer that? I can articulate clearly how other cities I have lived in have shaped my identity. Chandigarh, I barely remember, but Mumbai and Lucknow play a significant role in my life, a role I have described before. And my years of studying architecture and working in Delhi have certainly made me more independent, more aggressive in getting heard, less trusting perhaps but also helped me seek pleasure from the complexity of the urban environment I live in. Culture and heritage, learned from Lucknow, were able to bloom as aspects of my personality in Delhi.
In Gurgaon, I learnt to recognize limits and also learn to enjoy them. A clearly stratified city—this side of the highway and that, signifying old Gurgaon-ites and the new immigrants—Gurgaon taught me to seek refuge in my identity as an educated, upper middle-class mother of young children. It taught me to see a city for the basic amenities it can offer rather than to expect excitement from it. It taught me to value the sanctum of my secure condominium and try to not think of what that says about the safety of the city in general; to enjoy the company of others ‘like’ me (read educated, middle class, similar background) rather than look for diversity. Gurgaon taught me that driving for miles to buy basic supplies is ok, that its normal for every home to have two cars, that suburban life is the inevitable future, that living on power back-up was not something I should feel guilty about……I could go on, but you get the drift!
After eight years here, there are days I see nothing wrong with my life. But today, when I examine the issue, I am horrified to realize this is not what I am and certainly not what I want to be. And if I am disgusted by what I am turning into, what am I doing to my children? Will they imbibe the aggressive barrenness, insensitivity and apathy that define this city, or is there a hope that positive changes will happen? I am hopeful, because everyday I meet people who want to see the change; increasingly, I am meeting people who want to ‘be’ the change, and even some who ‘are’ the change. Am curious to see all these change makers and initiatives come together somehow, to make an impact on our city, and inevitably on us, offering us a brighter, richer, more diverse, inclusive, empathetic, energized and safe future.