Today I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. A lovely, moving film, based on a short story by James Thurber. It touches many topics, directly and indirectly. Millions of people spend their lives behind a desk, never striking out on their own, never taking a risk, living lives of soul-crushing anonymity. But that’s not the issue I’m talking about. No ma’am. The movie shows the death the printed version of Life magazine. From Life in paper, it becomes Life dot com. Behind that not-so-smooth transition, many lives (pun unintended) are turned upside down by the heartless, relentless march of technology. It takes many people to make a magazine, or for that matter, any published material. Most people never understand the pain, handwork and joy that go into creating something, especially something that will be printed. Because print has an air of finality. It can’t be coded to make a correction later. There is no option to upload a new file. Written in ink equals written in stone.
Because of print’s highly demanding nature, there are many different people, each a vital performer, involved in the art of printing and publishing. Did you ever guess that there is someone like Walter Mitty, sitting in his dark room of negatives, sifting through hundreds of little images? He knows them like old friends. There is someone who colour corrects, sharpens and touches up every single image you see in any publication worth its ink. There is someone who composes the pages for print on the offset machine. Each of these people are small cogs in the larger machine. Individuals with expert, specialised knowledge. Unless you work directly with them, there is no access to that amazing tradition and well of knowledge. They never get much credit. The magazine always stands between them and the viewer, like a wall.
I’m not bemoaning the rise of digital media, far from it. I love the internet, and all the information, entertainment and cat videos it houses. I’m only wondering if we are losing a entire generation of people, and with them, the knowledge and skill they had, for all time. That knowledge is of no use to us, for sure, but their stories deserve to be told. Walter Mitty tells us one such story. You can see Life online, with more photographs than ever before. But if you hold a Life magazine in your hands, you will see so much more. Behind each image, you can see a quiet person, staring at photographs for hours, checking their quality, so that you gasp wow!, and turn the page.
Films from India
Some interesting films came out of India, back in the day of one national TV channel. Whatever your age, you'll never grow tired of watching these. The last one, 'I Am 20', shows how much has changed, and at the same time, how little has changed.
Marie Antoinette famously told her subjects, "If you can't buy bread eat cake." Little did she know of three fabulous bakeries, whose bread and cake are so good, they are truly interchangeable. No, this isn't any fancy Parisian patisserie, or over-priced 5-star hotel. These are 3 humble, Irani-owned bakeries in Pune, India. They are the stuff of legend. People come from far and wide to sample their fare, and often pack suitcases full of the stuff to take back home, where relatives, cousins and friends devour it.
The three bakeries are within walking distance from one another. On East Street is Kayani Bakery. The Kayanian dynasty was one of the most powerful royal ruling families of Iran in ancient times, and these guys, true to their name are still churning out stuff fit for kings. Their chocolate icing cake is famous. Its large, circular, and coated with the hardest, brownest layer of sugary chocolate, with white zig-zag lines and two pink roses with fluorescent green creamy leaves. Inside it is the soft sponge again, but with a generous sprinkling of red and green sweet little squishy things we like to call tutty-fruities. My family had nicknamed it 'Goo-cake', and it provided the ultimate sugar rush.
But the king and queen of Kayani Bakery are the Ginger and Shewsburry biscuits. The former is a brown round cookie, with a delicious gingery spiciness, which no one can replicate. The queen of Kayani, the Shewsburry, is the fairer cousin of the ginger. Off-white and just packed with oodles of butter, it melts in your mouth, as your heart also melts with pure love and goodness. A few find the butteriness too much, and prefer the kidney shaped hazelnut biscuit. This is probably one of the few times you can taste real hazelnuts. There are also the round coconut biscuits, with frilly edges. For those with a preference for salty goods, there are cheese biscuits, soup sticks, and other such delicacies. Most of the biscuits are made in the same moulds and have an imprint of a smiling baker with 'Kayani Bakery' written around his head like a halo.
And truly, their bakers are a gift from higher powers. Not at all angelic in appearance, some are big and burly, with arms like young tree trunks, perfect for rolling and punching the dough. Others are sullen, but their magic and angelicness is apparent in the kitchen. The bakery only cooks on wooden ovens, and despite some environmental concerns, once you taste any of their products, you are a slave to them, and ready to sacrifice any number of trees for their noble cause.
The bakery itself is large, but the front counter is always as crowded as a railway station. A series of challenges stands between you and your cakes. You have to first wrestle to get to the counter top, which is very high, and then peer over it. You then have to get the attention of one of the staff, no easy task, as each one would be already occupied with some other customer. And the staff is in no rush. By this time you better have two lists in mind, one of your first preference of items, and a second list of back-ups. Often items of your choice are over, or they are only baked in the morning or evening. The place is simple, and the only forms of interior decoration are a large picture of the Prophet Zoraster, and a large, plain calendar with red and blue digits.
The other bakery is Royal Bakery. Contrary to its name, it is a small, rustic joint, with pista green shutters. While Kayani Bakery has more expertise in biscuits, Royal Bakery is best in breads. These bakers look like they have just landed from the steppes of Iran. They have lined and weathered faces, with the mysterious light-eyed look of the Middle-Eastern nomad. It is impossible to guess their ages, but their grey hair is testimony to all their hard work, and do they work hard! One can see straight past the counter, just a few feet away, into the dark depths of their kitchen. There is a long table, and on either side are more weathered men wearing dirty vests, sweating, as they wrestle and cuddle huge masses of dough. One of Royal Bakeries legacies is the gutli pao. This is a large round bread, with an outer crust that is brown, thick and hard. Inside, it is soft, white, snowy bread, with a spongy, airy texture, that is like nothing on earth. It can be had with anything, dal, curry, jam, but it tastes best with lumps of hard butter. The bread symbolically resembles its creators, formidable to behold, but concealing pure goodness within.
Another legendary creation of Royal Bakery is their milk bread. Here they are one up on Kayani Bakery. If Marie Antoinette had tasted this bread, she would have said,"Dam the cake, just eat bread." And her subjects wouldn't have objected in the least. This bread comes wrapped in a smooth, creamy paper. On it is printed in red a smiling baker, and the very apt sentence "The bread that stays for a 100 days and keeps you fit for a 100 years."
A gorgeous creation from Royal is their batasa. These are little round crunchy biscuits, with a faint flavour of jeera. To truly appreciate their beauty, they need to be dunked in a cup of hot tea. The outer layers become soft, and melt in the mouth, while the centre stays crispy and crunchy.
Almost opposite Royal Bakery is the last, but not the least, City Bakery. All the bakeries have their share of crazy staff. One could never tell if they are joking or serious, and sometimes they are downright rude, but no one really cared. The Iranis are famous for their 'crazy streak' and City Bakery really takes the cake, or shall we say, the bread. This baker refers to everything in his shop in dollars. How much was the bread? Twenty dollars. The chocolate biscuits? Forty dollars. The total? Sixty dollars. He persists in this behavior with a perfectly straight face. A customer once complimented him on the quality of his stuff, saying such delicacies would not be available even in the best bakeries of Paris. He replied, "Madam, you obviously don't appear to have visited Paris." Of course, this just left the lady cackling with laughter as she carried off her bag of goodies. Their crowning glory is the Fan biscuit. Probably mastered from some Danish baker, this is a glorious creation, shaped like an elongated heart, delicately layered, and coated with crunchy sugar. It could melt the hardest heart.
These shops are as simple and unadorned as their owners. If there is a Nobel Prize in food, they have excellent chances of winning it. They belong to the rare species who bakes with pure love, and it is apparent in every bite. Their service to humanity is beyond measure. As you take a bite of any bread, biscuit or cake, its goodness and richness slowly spreads on your tongue, filling you with warm delight, and you finally know what it is to eat like a king.
Wanted: The Greatest Indian
Have you heard of the CNN-IBN initiative called The Greatest Indian? They are trying to find the greatest Indian since Gandhi. The very concept of this episode reflects on us, as a nation. We don't have any real heroes after Gandhi. If we have such a program , it means we are desperately in search of a new hero. This is no surprise. Most of our heroes are from cricket, or Bollywood, or politics, or cricket (did I mention cricket already?). And there is a real dearth of heroines. I mean real women, doing real work, not those cast in the 'fair and lovely' mold. It's not that they don't exist, it's just that the media is too busy showing us the Bollywood ones.
Some of you may ask, "What happened to Gandhi?" Well, a country can't keep harping about the one and the same great soul after more than half a century. While I personally admire Gandhi and his philosophy greatly, the 'simple living' he advocates is not popular among most middle and upper class Indians today. Who wants to consume less when there are so many mindless malls dotting our cities? Who is going to clean his or her own toilet (forget about the streets), when there are bais, a dime a dozen? Ironically, you can often see Gandhi's portrait in government offices and police stations, precisely the places where Gandhi's principles are shamelessly flouted, with large sums of money changing hands below (and even above) the table. Gandhi stoically looks upon all these transactions from his glass frame. He is still on many of our stamps. He has been reduced to just that, a half-inch chit of paper. If he saw the country he fought for, he would probably weep.
CNN-IBN has drawn up a list of 50 people, and 'we the people' can vote for the top 10, and then finally that one glorious soul as well. Of course, there is a panel of distinguished judges whose vote will count too . Now this is a tough one, because you can't really compare the achievements of a Birla with an M.S. Subbalaxshmi. While some are nation and institution builders, others are social workers, and still others are intellectual stalwarts, entrepreneurs, military heroes, or artists and musicians. It takes all kinds to make this world. R.K. Laxman has contributed something great to our country for over 60 years, so has Kurien or B.K.S. Iyengar. Not all achievements are concrete and tangible.
When we choose one of these great people, it is not a reflection on them, but rather, a reflection on us. Every person has a different definition of 'greatness'. There are countless ways to measure contributions to the nation. This is the list of 10 people.
The upside of this watching this program is that one learns a lot about these people, and I realized I was badly informed about many of them, such as M.S. Swaminathan. Definitely, each figure here is inspiring in his or her own way. To give any one of them the tag of ‘The Greatest Indian’ is a tough task. At the core of it, this whole quest is a bit senseless.
After mulling over the list, I realized that we don't have to look that far to find the greatest Indian. In today's India, the greatest Indian is the common woman and man of India. Because they haven't yet given up on their country (though some have). It's the 'bai' that works in your home, because she struggles daily against odds, to work, to earn, to eat, to keep her kids in a school. The greatest Indian is the laborer tarring the road in the heat of summer. He has come from some distant village. It's the farmer, planting rice day after day. It's the aged fruit seller round the corner, who comes daily and sits with papayas and oranges. The greatest Indians are everywhere – we just need the eyes to see them. These heroes are above votes.
Edited by Urmilla Chandran
Satyamev Jayate ki jai
The idiot box is not so idiotic anymore.
Yesterday we watched Amir Khan's Satyamev Jayate first telecast on TV. Hopefully, many more Indians were watching too. Finally, someone woke up and made a meaningful TV series. The weaker-minded folks say they don't' want to spend their day off watching an hour and a half of the real issues of India. Such people are very reason India has so many issues to begin with. If apathy is our worse trait, Satyamev Jayate is a good poke in the right direction. It is hard to imagine someone who is not moved while watching it.
I was expecting a documentary-ish programme, but was pleasantly surprised to see it was actually a talk show hosted by Amir Khan. The last few weeks, when Satyamev was being advertised, I was wondering which issue he will cover in the first episode. After all, there is no shortage of issues in India. And they didn't let me down either. Episode 1 is Daughters are Precious, and it is the issue in India that is crying out for most attention, because it points to a seriously ill social structure. Any society that allows for lakhs of girl children to be aborted, or killed at birth, is a dangerous society. This is a symptom of a larger problem, that essentially, women are still not respected or valued in India. Although people say it is better than it used to be, it is still not what it should be. Ask any woman today, how she feels when stared at on the street, even when 'decently' dressed, or when she is groped in a crowded bus or train, or when she is paid less than a man for the same work. The increasing gang rapes, especially in Gurgaon are testimony to this wretched attitude of India towards its women.
Coming back to the show, Amir Khan shows some alarming facts. Female foeticide has risen significantly from 1981 to 2011. It occurs more in urban areas, even among the so-called educated and well-to-do families. Amir interviews some women who have been through hell, been beaten and abused for bearing a female child, have been forced through multiple abortions, but were brave enough to live through it, fight it, and come and talk about it on the show. You need to see the show to hear their stories.
The show also focuses on the positive. It tells us of change happening for the better, of journalists and activists fighting this issue daily, and of how citizens can hopefully put pressure on courts to dispense justice a little faster. Most importantly, Amir Khan tells us that it is you and me who can be the change, in our own small way. At the very least, knowledge is power, and the more people are made aware through this series, the better it is.
For the first time (I think) someone has used Indian television for a meaningful and powerful message. This medium of the idiot box, as I like to call it, is incredibly powerful, watched by millions, in rural and urban areas, and does not require one to be literate. It can affect positive change if used well, and who better to do that than Amir Khan, one of the very few in Bollywood who actually does sensible things. Instead of the ridiculous maa-bahu-saas serials, the mindless reality shows, and the demeaning and outright racist fairness creams crap, there is actually something sensible, intelligent and enlightening on Indian television. Hats off to Amir Khan. I just wish the ads of the saas-bahu serials would not air in the breaks of Satyamev Jayate. It is a cruel irony, that the source of the very issue being discussed, is being advertised. Also, hopefully, the issue of the music copyright will be sorted out soon.
Satyamev Jayate is a mantra from the ancient Mundaka Upanishad. When India gained Independence in 1947, it was established as the national motto. It means 'truth alone triumphs'. Somewhere, especially in the last ten years, it seems as if India lost all faith in her own motto. While many things have been getting better, many things have been getting worse. We have more malls, digital devices, and foreign cars, our homegrown companies are going global. But our cities are more unsafe, our rivers are horribly polluted, there is a loss of green cover, there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, increasing rape, and unimaginable scams. Maybe Satyamev Jayate will hold a mirror to us all, and enable us to see the not-so-pretty truths there.
Pay to Read?
The internet has pampered us sufficiently into believing that content is as free as the air we breathe (even if the latter is polluted as hell). There was a time in the pre-internet days when one had to pay to read. We still pay to read magazines, books, and the newspaper. The newspapers manage to keep it cheap because the advertisers are paying them. We pay just a few rupees because a corporation has paid a few crores to place their advertisement there.
Some sites with good quality content don't wish to sell out completely to advertisers, and they charge for articles. The New York Times does that, as does The New Yorker. While initially it seems putting-off to a reader, in time it makes sense. No one can write for a living for free. And news, or content, like any other commodity or form of entertainment, comes with a price. If you like what you see, you got to pay to have it. And when there is so much not-so-great content out there, the guys who write quality stuff either have to show you ads to survive, or charge you some money.
Speaking ads in your face, the Indian press media take it new heights daily. On any given day there are 3 to 4 full page ads in the Times of India. Earlier, we spotted ads in-between the news, and they stood out, because they were few. Nowadays, we spot news items between the ads. So you may have starving Bangadeshis rubbing shoulders with Katrina selling diamonds. Should there be some kind of rule on the amount a paper can advertise? More importantly, is the corporate world deciding what news gets showcased? Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against ads, but I think there can be a better balance. Advertising needs to realize its role in visual culture, and how it affects social values. Our news is stringently edited, while our advertising is not. News and advertising offer us two different kinds of information, and the line between them is blurring. How much news is still objective, is a matter of great debate. How much advertising does not tell us a lie, is a matter of no debate, its very little.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold talks about a related issue, regarding product placement in the film industry. A creatively made, but entertaining and somewhat radical documentary, it's definitely worth a watch. If there can be a city without ads, there is no reason a newspaper can have a few less too.
Design by Committee
Picture this. A large, cool and comfortable room. A group of men sitting around a conference table. Everyone is at least 50 years, or older. Most of them are academics, or have worked in universities, often in administrative levels, most of their lives. They have requested 3 young designers to come and 'share their expertise' with them. A quick summary below --
The task at hand: Designing the university certificates.
The design tools: A projector, and a university employee with a laptop.
The design solution (as desired by them): Anything that looks 'good'.
Definition of good: Widely debatable.
As we sat at that table (yes it was two friends/colleagues and me at that table), we very rapidly realized the blokes in front of us don't really know or understand what design is. We can't blame them for that. After all, design is still shrouded in mystery for most folks. Putting it mildly, they did't really have a clue, and they haven't the foggiest idea of what we can do for them. We were regarded by some with suspicion, and by some with relief.
Initially, it seemed as if they wanted us to guide the man working on the laptop, as he typed in the various nuggets of information that would appear on the certificate. We could all see what he did on the projection screen. The gentlemen were constantly giving him advice, designerly and otherwise, but mostly designerly.
"Use Algerian font, it's the best.", "Should the logo come on top, or should the university name come first?", "Should we have English or Hindi first?", "University naam curve pe dal (place the university name in a curve)", and many, many more such golden words of wisdom was freely shared. It was both hilarious and tragic at the same time, besides being mildly bizarre. Why were we designers called? To be witness to the 'design by committee' process perhaps, and give it our stamp of approval. At any rate, it proved very hard to explain to some of the gentlemen there what design was, and how it happened. It ideally did not happen in an hour, on a projection screen, with everyone giving their opinion on it. Most of the time we just sat quiet. This caused one of them to laughingly say,"They are not revealing their trade secrets." Yes, if by trade secrets he meant we don't design by popular vote, he was right. Another gentleman, who was more understanding conceded, "No they will do it on their own, when we give them the content."
This university logo was a strange, convoluted being. It was a product of some quick Google searches, Illustrator live-trace option, and ad-hoc colour selection. When we asked who the designer was, there was no clear answer besides, "Ermmm..". There was no question of re-designing this poor logo, yet, "Do something so that it looks nice." Basically, apply a Band-Aid on it when it actually needs major surgery, or complete reconstruction.
There are numerous people, organizations, institutes, and bodies like this, where design is a mysterious word. Or design is simply beautification. How does one explain design to someone, who doesn't have a clue as to what design is? How does one explain its value, its process, its role and importance? How can you tell someone that design is more that just its tools? Needless to say, we didn't get into it then and there.
A great visionary, dreamer, and doer of our time has passed on. Though he is no more, he is forever more. Working on a Mac everyday, one can't help but just be in awe of the man who created these marvelous machines. Apple products are more than technology, they are a way of life. A better way of life. A way towards excellence and perfection in everything. Few people had the guts and the gumption to strive for such perfection in a cynical, mediocre world, defined by bottom-lines, but Steve Jobs did. And in that, he inspires people everyday. If we can even be one-tenth of what he was, if we had such drive, such single-minded passion, such attention to detail, if we all did our work with such a quest for excellence, the world would be a better place. We would work for the joy of creating something nearly perfect.
From the black apple subtly placed at the bottom of the screen, to the serene, snowy keyboard, to their mysterious inner workings, Apple products are all the vision of a person who made the impossible possible. He made technology a sheer delight, a pleasure, a thing of beauty. He enabled the machine to truly become an extension of us, seamless, intuitive, and most importantly, he put the joy factor into the littlest of things. I have had the good fortune of working on different generations of Macs. The first one I had was an iBook G4, a small, 13 inch delight. Then I was lucky to get a good second-hand MacBook Pro in 2007, which is still going strong. After that the iMac and now the big daddy, the 27 inch Mac with its magic mouse, which is, well, magical. So many times, I have discovered something new on the Mac, and it has made me smile, or go "Wow, they actually thought of that!" Steve Jobs ensured they thought of everything. Every unvoiced need, every unspoken desire that's swimming around in a user's brain, is addressed. Yet, its never intrusive, ugly, or in-your-face. No icon is too small, no detail too unimportant, to warrant absolute attention. Everything is honed to perfection. Apple knows what you want, when you want it, when you need it. Steve Jobs is the mastermind who brought science, technology, art and beauty all together in his too-short lifetime. He redefined our way of working, connecting, and thinking. In the computer world, he made that evolutionary leap, and the best part is, he still enables millions of others to leap with him.
Yesterday, when I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died, I couldn't believe it. We can't see our heros fall. I know he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, but death is always sudden, and we are never prepared for it. Maybe Steve Jobs is gone, but in many ways he hasn't. Every time I click on iTunes, or hear the signature Mac start-up 'ahummmmmmm' sound, I'm reassured, he still lives somewhere.
RIP Steve Jobs
Just finished proofreading somebody's Diploma (thesis) document. I don't have any right to divulge the topic and the details of it, but part of it was about the development of language, script and how we read letters and words. There is still no really conclusive theory on how language developed. Was it to express emotion, need, signal danger, or for the purpose of trade? Who knows. We don't really know how or why humans started making intelligent sounds and then giving signs to the sounds they made. This was a huge evolutionary leap. Animals too have complex language and communication systems, but human language has developed to an abstract system of signs.
The letter A is just a notion of the sound it represents. The 'A' could well be a square or circle instead of A. At some point in our long and convoluted history somebody decided we needed signs to communicate. And that was the beginning of script. Many scripts developed out of a need to keep accounts for trade purposes. Stringing these signs together in various groups led to the formation of words and sentences. We never really read every letter in a word, we just read the word as a group. Reading is as much about pictures as it is about words, because at the end of the day, words are pictures. When someone asks the spelling of the word, one may actually see the word in their head, and know that if it 'looks' wrong, the spelling is wrong. I know, for instance, the i must come after the e, by the image in my head. If e is before i, my brain recognizes it is visually wrong. It doesn't spell wrongly, it looks wrong. It is easier to know spelling when you visualize it.
The images of letters that we know today have developed over thousands of years. We have accepted them as much as we have accepted the noses on our faces. Language (especially one's mother tongue) seems to be hard-wired in us. There is very little effort required in thinking or talking in one's mother tongue. We all learnt language at such a tender age, we usually cannot recollect anything to do with the process. It probably wasn't very hard, or we would have vivid memories of it. Learning a second language however, usually proves harder. Most people remember struggling, or at least making more efforts with Hindi, Marathi, English, French or any other language that they learned a little later. Between the ages of approximately 2 to 6, the 'language window' in little human brains is wide open, more than it will ever be in life again. Between these years, children can effortlessly pick up 3 or 4 languages being spoken around them.
No one (or very few) will question why A looks the way it does. Why can it not look like X, or a circle? World over, the speakers of a language have a general, unspoken agreement over the form of letters. Adding or removing a letter from a language is like adding or removing a limb. Generations may pass before people realise the loss of a letter, or even a matra. And by then it may be too late to bring it back. Most people may ask, what's the big deal in the loss of a letter, the language is simply evolving. That may be the case, but the loss is still very real. A letter may not have a tangible value, but it carries a wealth of information, symbology, history, culture and identity with it. Adding a letter is also serious business. First, the need for a new letter needs to be strongly felt by most people. How will people know what a new letter means, unless it is told to them repeatedly? Somehow, words are easily dropped from and added to any working language, but letters, not so easily. The loss of languages is a very real threat to culture and diversity world over.
We are illiterate when we look at ancient scripts. The Indus Valley script still has the world flummoxed after thousands of years. Changes in scripts have occurred over millennia, often for very down-to-earth reasons. For instance, Gujarati lost the line on top of the letters that Devnagari has simply because the Gujaratis are predominantly a business and trading community, and the loss of the line enabled them to write faster for maintaining accounts and lists. Similarly, a thousand years from now our alphabet may be completely different.
We form the language we speak, but it also forms us.
A Real School
Most of us complain about our education systems, with colonial approaches, and boring curriculum. We rarely consider the value of our education, or what it has done for us. Recently, I got the opportunity to visit a rural school for tribal children at Igatpuri, a small town in Maharashtra, India.
Igatpuri was a major railway junction in days gone by, but is hardly visited nowadays. It is a sleepy and charming little town. Thankfully, it hasn't been touched by urbanisation, so no malls, multiplexes and parking problems. It's midway between Mumbai and Nashik. It is well-known for one thing, the famous Buddhist Vipassana Centre.
An NGO, Aseema, that is based in Mumbai has been working in the area for some years now. Aseema works for the education of under-privileged children, and now educates children in 3 municipal schools in Mumbai. Their rural school is 5 kms away from Igatpuri, near the village of Awalkheda. Though only around 3 hours from Mumbai, this area is one of many in India that has been forgotten. There are 5 villages near one another. Roads were recently constructed here, and though there is plentiful rain in the monsoon, there is no water harvesting. As a result, people (women and children) walk miles each day to get water from one common well. Though the land is fertile, the lack of water means there is very little farming. Many youngsters leave in frustration and migrate to Mumbai to do menial labour for a pittance. Most people here eat one proper meal every two days.
Aseema has been working in the villages around Igatpuri for some years now, and I had been with them on their initial forays into the area, when they were looking for land. It is a challenge to buy rural land in India, as a lot of it is owned by tribals, adivasis, and strict laws govern sale of such land. Families also tend to keep splitting the land between their sons, so each successive generation gets progressively smaller plots. All land deals are in Marathi, often illegible, and the local government is often reluctant to cooperate unless the appropriate palms are greased. On paper the boundary of a certain plot maybe at a certain place, but in reality it might be very different. Despite all hardships, Aseema did succeed in acquiring land after years of perseverance.
Against this backdrop, Aseema first started helping the local Balwadi (kindergarten). The Government provides a mid-day meal, but the food is often bad, spoilt, or inedible, and gets wasted. One can't expect children to learn on an empty stomach. Aseema provides the daily meal, trains the local teacher, and provides teaching aids. Most parents are happy to send their children here because they get to eat one meal a day. Education for much of our country needs to be so much more beyond books and exams. People have to be fed first. Development that is getting you the latest mobile phone, while ignoring the hungry millions is one-sided.
Training the local teacher is crucial, as she understands the local context, is from the area, and knows how to deal with things. Transplanting the average city teacher there would provide its own challenges. On the flip side, most local teachers employed by the Government are class 6 or 7 drop-outs, and may not even be perfect at spelling themselves.
After a few years, and a struggle to acquire funds, Aseema has built a wonderful school at a beautiful location. This is a primary school, and the oldest children are not more than age 4. I was lucky to be there for the simple yet moving inauguration. There was a performance by the children, and lunch for the villagers. Almost 700 villagers came for the occasion. There was a tree-planting in the school courtyard. It filled one with a feeling of hope, joy, and anything being possible.
The school has a well on the premises. The appropriate use of the landscape as well as the construction of a series of bunds has already increased the water table in the area. This ensures the well has water even through the summer when the common well run dry. Now many women from the nearby villages have to walk one tenth the distance, as they can use this well. And this is in just one year. World economies run on petrol, but water is the real liquid gold. It's the life blood of our planet, our communities, our lives. Water can transform areas of acute poverty to sustainable agriculture, water can change poor communities to well-fed ones. Water can prevent frustrated people from leaving their villages to enter the cities.
Primary education is the most important part of education, yet the most ignored. Millions are pumped into higher institutes of learning, but the crucial years of one's life are the initial ones. At that age, education can inculcate good habits, better understanding, and so much more than chemical equations. Aseema uses the Montessori system of education, which is a fascinating and holistic way to teach. It is a way of overall human development. It is amazing to see how children truly want to learn. In Montessori, the teacher is more of a guide, just watching the students and nudging them if needed, never force-feeding them information, or making then write endless lines of senseless alphabets in the quest for 'good handwriting'. Children automatically go to what they need to learn that day, and learn by self-initiated activities. Conventional education kills this love for learning. We need to urgently re-think and question the entire concept of school education, as it exists right now.
There is huge scope for designers to make a difference to rural India. But design education being what it is, and design being perceived as styling, the shift is not going to happen soon or easily. Heavy student loans make it impossible for a lot of students to even consider doing socially responsible design work, which can't pay as much as your average corporate job.
There is only one thing that can propel India into the 'developed' category. And it's not 3G technology, Audi cars, multiplexes, malls, consumerism, and it's not design either. It's good, solid, holistic school education and sustainable community development.
Inauguration of Aseema's School was on 26th March 2011
Photographs: Armeen Kapadia
The New Yorker