Monday, September 26, 2011

Mapping the contours of grief

They run through your head like a series of faded pictures; a smile here, a laugh there, a couple of sentences spoken in a voice just beginning to become familiar, a few sentences scribbled in haste in a classroom, an unopened email, an image of a young man sitting on the steps or lounging in a chair with his friends, answers given with a bit of nervousness and a lot of motivation during an interview.

The feelings and thoughts that populate the room where we sit, remembering Rattan, choke the air, the smiles have disappeared from the faces of a normally boisterous group of students from both years of the MA program. We make our polite speeches that hide more than they reveal, because emotion is something that can only be referred to in a controlled, structured manner in an official forum. But this is necessary too, this acknowledgment that we all share regret at a life cut short all too rudely, that we recognize the irreparable loss that this has forced upon a family and on friends, that we think and reflect on what the particularities of this loss can tell us and teach us.

Entering the home, where we are forced to intrude upon the irreconcilable despair of the parents, who have lost a child, a wrenched-from-the-gut loss, we are faced with yet another reality. A different space of absence. We express our sorrow with bent head and pressed-together palms, we speak in hushed tones of how much promise we had discerned, and we sit for a while, wishing we could wish away the hours that have passed, the split-second decisions that have resulted in a tragedy that will forever mark this space.

And I wonder how I will walk into my class, two days from now, and face those forty-odd students whose sense of the room, of their work, their interactions with each other and this beautiful landscape that they inhabit, has been deeply changed. How do we go on as if nothing has happened? How can we reclaim those ordinary conversations that now (for a long time) will carry an undercurrent of this terrible tragedy? How do we look each other in the eye and find something other than the awareness of the fact that there has been a death amidst us? How long will it take for us to not look involuntarily at that seat in the back row and stop to catch a breath?

I've spoken about this before, about how, the older you get, the more loss one experiences--one of the "perks" of living and feeling intensely, of having an ever widening network of people one cares about, even if in different ways and to varying extents. I've know good friends and relations who have lost a child, and this much one knows, that it never gets easier. Of course, this does not mean that we cease to find joy in things and people around us, or that life becomes a burden. Clearly, that's not the case. What time does have the capacity to do is to bring new interests and occupations that fill our minds and our days. Memories recede, they get put away, but they don't disappear. They lose their edge somewhat, maybe, but sometimes, at the most unexpected moments, they resurface to remind us of things that could have been.

Yes, life goes on, but it goes on without those persons who could have been a part of it, and that sense of loss, the absence, becomes a permanent presence.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Club, anyone?

I'm just back from an hour talking about something I find it difficult to stop talking about, with four others who appear to be somewhat similarly inclined. Not a crowd by any standards, but a group that represents a beginning. The idea to start a book club has been brewing for a while now; every time I find myself in conversation with someone about a book I've read, or a friend asks me to recommend reading for a child with a voracious appetite for the printed word, I can feel a certain excitement about words and the ways in which they turn into stories, offering windows into lives of others, worlds that I would never have access to without the channel created by imagination. Oftentimes these conversations have ended with the suggestion that we should start a book club. After many months of prevarication and a bit of a push from a young friend, it finally happened, and that's how I found myself in the brightly painted library of Little People Tree with four others, talking books.

We were/are all a little bit clueless about what exactly a book club was supposed to do. So we spent the hour bouncing around ideas, talking about what we liked or did not like about the books we'd read, trying to decide where we wanted to go and how. Why do people love Chetan Bhagat or hate him? What makes works in translation work? Is Orhan Pamuk obscure or fascinating?

And how do we like our books? Dog eared and well handled, or pristine and crisp? Does writing in the margins give a book character or become an unwelcome and unruly intrusion into a reader's relationship with the text? How do we deal with book borrowers who forget the fact and appropriate our tomes? What do we think about books turned into movies (and now, vice versa, too!)?

The conversation did not peter out, it was brought to a close. We've decided to meet two weeks from now, hopefully in a larger group. In the meantime, here's the book we will be discovering (or rediscovering): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

If you'd like to read along, please do join us. October 14, 6 p.m. at Little People Tree, Secunderabad.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Poems of a different hue

Last night I listened to a Professor of English and Ethnic Studies, Dr Wilfred Samuels, read (rather, sing) the poetry of a man I had heard of but only vaguely. While I am no stranger to African American literature (Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are among my favorite writers), the poetry I was less familiar with--other than of course Maya Angelou whose "I know why the caged bird sings" has inspired many a high school student to delve further into the poetry that breaks free from centuries of oppression. But I suppose those who know African-American literature would know that you cannot speak of the poetry of Black America without speaking of Langston Hughes. Dr Samuel's, in a deep and resonant voice reminiscent of the negro spiritual, gave the audience a Hughes poem that runs as deep as its title: The Negro Speaks of Rivers Says Hughes, in a refrain that runs through the rendering of the poem like an undercurrent to the river of thought itself, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers", a line that conveys both the anguish of the speaker and the hope that comes from a belief that the world we see is not entirety of knowledge or life. It's also a line that recalls the spirit of resistance--not of a violent kind, but a resistance of the spirit, that marks long struggles against injustices of various kinds, from slavery to apartheid to genocide to displacement. For us in India, perhaps it recalls the struggle in the Narmada and other valleys, marked by as much poetry and music to keep them alive. "Ma Rewa", a folk song adapted by Indian Ocean is one such. The poetry of Langston Hughes does something else. It makes an essential connection between the history of the African-American and the contemporary Black identity. In "Theme for English B" he raises an issue that is felt just as much by the marginalised Indian child in an average classroom--how much of the "we" in a teacher's mind is constituted by his or her experience and history? Is there space for us "to know what is true for you or me" in a way that goes beyond the superficiality of well constructed words? As Dr Samuels emphasized, one cannot understand text without context.. And the gift of poetry is that is opens the door to worlds through a lace-like arrangement of words. Context through text. So through the poetry of Langston Hughes, I enter the world of blues poetry, as musical to the verbal ear as the tripping notes of a jazz band. And a side door takes me to the verse of Lawrence Dunbar and the irrepressible rhythm of "Jump back, honey, jump back" (A Negro Love Song by Paul Lawrence Dunbar), performed by Dr Samuels with a smile and a lilt, urging participation from the staid audience at Hyderabad's Poetry Society meeting.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Reading Teachers

Three books, a dozen teachers, two expert voices, and a brightly painted room. The result was an hour of reflection and enjoyment, an escape into a space we had forgotten existed. Our own pleasure in the magic woven by words, the ability to travel into experiences not our own, and the possibility of discovering empathies--if not answers--in these narratives. When we at Teacher Plus were wondering what we could do to make the day special for our own community of teachers, we hit upon the idea of a session where teachers would turn listeners--not for the purpose of taking ideas back into their classrooms but to rediscover the simple pleasures of listening to a good story. The books we chose were simple, easy to obtain volumes that told stories that, despite their varied setting, were universal in the themes they addressed: boisterous classrooms, distracted students, difficult teenagers, and the never quite defined aims of education. But these themes were not wrapped in polemic or abstract intellectualisms. They were at the centre of real teacher interactions in the everyday. The first of these was an extract from what some may dismiss as an exercise in sentimentalism: A Cup of Comfort for Teachers, from which we drew a piece called "Why I teach". How doubts and uncertainties about children are revealed as nothing more than prejudice and misconception and how, so often, these are proven wrong once we just open our minds and listen. Children surprise us constantly, but we need to be ready to experience surprise. The second set of readings came from a book that is perhaps less familiar to many--Frank McCourt's Teacher Man. Those who have read Angela's Ashes would know his style, and this one does not disappoint. Whether it is talking about facing a class of hostile adolescents from troubled and poverty stricken homes, or wondering about how and why we teach, McCourt delights and strikes a chord with many of us. The bit we read was from McCourt's experiment with the word "gibberish" to drive home a grammar point in English class. Suddenly boys who had nothing but impatience with parsing sentences were alert and interested in playing with words. And finally, that old classic, To Sir with Love. The song by Lulu that never fails to give me goosebumps opened our memory banks and many of us traveled back to the well-loved film of our childhood. Our readers, Aarti Phatarphekar and Ranjan Ranganathan, brought the text alive with their evocative reading. We laughed with Braithwaite and his rough kids, and thought back wistfully to the last scenes in the movie, which underscored the transformation that is possible when a teacher cares about his/her work and the children who are part of it. We find answers and echoes in books, both fiction and non-fiction, in unexpected ways. They open our minds to different ways of thinking and doing that we, in our limited worlds, would never have encountered first hand. More than one teacher remarked that she was going to the nearest bookstore to look for a copy of one or other book.