India, you have infiltrated my senses

…to be wrapped and cradled in an enchanting scent upon your skin is a magic all on its own…― C. JoyBell C.

I have the smell of India in my hair. I’m unwilling to wash it out. It’s warm and intoxicating. It’s a musky dry smell of sun-baked clay, of dusty books, of sandalwood and a hint of rose. There are remnants too of mouth-watering street food with notes of coriander and tamarind. A touch of smoke from wood fires and the breeze of mountain air linger still.

Oh India, I wore you on my skin and in my hair for, but a moment and you have infiltrated my senses and lodge now firmly in my memory. I am infused with you. Swathed thus I will draw upon these cues to ferry me back to you, until I walk again on your surface and among your people.

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Three little clay pots

Mold clay into a bowl.
The empty space makes it useful.   Laozi

Three little unfired clay pots sit on my desk. They are simple, misshapen, chipped little pots but they bring me joy. They have travelled many thousands of kilometres and made it to their new home intact; which is no small feat considering how roughly bags are handled in transit.

This trio of terracotta vessels come from India, a land of contrasts and a land that has captivated my heart and mind.  I drank chia on the streets of Kolkata from these pots, one was a gift from the vendor who served my tea in a similar small pot with this one beneath to save my fingers being burnt by the heat of the fresh, steaming brew.  The taller pair I kept, instead of throwing onto the pile in the street.

Why did I keep something that is the equivalent of a disposable paper cup by western measures? They are reminders of a magical land of heat and dust, of remote villages and bustling cities, of streets thronging with people and noise and the smell of delicious street food during the day and a roaring silence at night.  As a reminder of a land where the constant presence of armed authorities, to the unaccustomed, can feel at first threatening and sinister contrasted with the gentle welcoming nature of individuals who draw you into their home, make you comfortable and make tea. It’s a land of colour, art, spirituality, incredible history and aliveness.

These pots are also a reminder of the simple and elegant beauty of life and the richness of human interactions. Someone in that massive country made these pots by hand, they were transported, sold and stacked and eventually passed across the well-stocked counter of the chai wallah’s stall.  An Aussie girl stood in a muddy lane, surrounded by early morning chia drinking men, and numerous homeless dogs at her feet, to enjoy the relative quiet before the hustle and bustle. The simple elegance of these pots, the curious looks, the numerous conversations asking where I was from and how long I would be in India, the shared appreciation of the flavours of a hot milk chai and being warmly included in a long-standing Kolkata morning routine is why I brought them home. This simple elegance of welcoming a stranger to share a daily ritual, warmed my heart.

So, three simple, misshapen, chipped, little clay pots sit on my desk and I smile as I look at them. I arrived home only an hour or so ago from my travels and was overjoyed these tiny earthen vessels survived the journey that I had to write of my joy.

Lessons from India: Is your reality based on myth?

Image sourced

The problem with assumptions is that they always come with blindspots.                                                        Oliver Blanchard

I had the pleasure of hearing a poignant address by Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Association, to an audience of 700 delegates at an Australian Research conference this week. Dr Banerji shared the outcomes of a project in Jehandabad, a district in India, and how they improved attendance rates by focusing on what they were teaching and ensuring the teaching was of value to students.  Through this project she challenged education officials to explore educational assumptions and realities. While her address was moving and inspiring on educational and humanitarian fronts her message, I realised, has implications for our lives as well.

To give a brief summary; the education system in India, like in many other countries, utilises an industrial model where students are grouped by age, promoted to the next grade each year and are taught a curriculum for that grade level.  This systemic structure in India, Dr Banerji argues, is built on a number of assumptions.  I’ll share four with you.

That high enrolment means children are in school. The reality is that attendance varies a lot across the country. Various studies have shown that attendance, on an average day, can range from 60 – 90% depending on the district.

Children are in school from age six onwards. Indian law “guarantees” education from the age of six to the age of fourteen. The assumption that children enter school at the age of six is far from the reality. According to a 2011 study it was discovered that in rural India, around 60% of all five year olds are enrolled in school with many younger children also attending.  Why? Schools offer incentives to encourage attendance, such as a free lunch, which sees a good many 3, 4, and 5 year olds attending school.  This has implications for the next assumption.

Children in a given grade are of a similar age/ ability.  Again the reality is very different.  Indian classrooms, as many around the world, are very diverse. Data from the 2011 ASER review from Bihar tells the story:   Based on the assumption that children enter school at age six, the ‘right age’ for Grade 4 should be about nine or ten.  In Bihar 51% of children in Grade 4 are the ‘right age’ but the rest of the children, half the class, are younger or older. If we reflect, the current model of education implies that a child in Grade 4 is homogeneously grouped with other students who are in Grade 4, are taught by a ‘Grade 4 teacher’, and can demonstrate learning  at a year 4 standard, it is clear the reality is very different and misguided.

Interestingly, studies of grade 5 students showed, on a simple year 2 test, that 48% of children could read the text fluently.  Of the other half, not yet reading at a year 2 level, 15% of children could recognise letters, another 13% could read simple words but not effectively read simple sentences, while 24% of children could read simple sentences but not fluently read at Grade 2 level.

The fourth assumption in the system is that textbooks are at appropriate age/grade level. For the reasons given above you can see that the textbook level for a specific grade is too difficult for most children.

So, what’s the takeaway? How can assumptions by Indian education officials guide us in our own lives?  I’m not sure I have the answers yet but I do have a lot of questions.

How attached are we to our own reality?  Are we seeing our ‘reality’ clearly or is it based on a set of assumptions?  Do we recognise the assumptions?  If so, why do we persist with them or alternatively, how do we change them? What is the impact of unexamined assumptions on our lives?

I’m no expert but I sense that if we don’t look hard at our own ‘reality’ we have more than likely set parameters for ourselves, boxes from within which we function and relate and ultimately stagnate. If we don’t look hard at our own ‘reality’ and the underlying assumptions can we set ourselves reasonable goals? Can we thrive and grow through the blurr assumptions create?

If we don’t look at our own reality do we realise that every interaction, reaction and thought is based on a set of values, assumptions and beliefs that may not be obvious to us.  These values, assumptions and beliefs shape who we are, they are based on where we have come from and they can cause us to be selective by ignoring information and perspectives that conflict with them, thus limiting our view of the world.

Our assumptions, values and beliefs are often so ingrained in us we are unconscious of their existence but they can, with identification and work, be changed if they are not serving us well; just as assumptions were revealed and addressed in rural classrooms in India after hundreds of years without change.

Thanks to the witty, intelligent, inspirational Dr Banerji I now turn inward to identify the myths I have created.  Can you identify yours?