Sunday, November 23, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

4/5 rating
Behind the Beautiful Forevers | National Theatre

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist went to a slum in Mumbai next to the airport called Annawadi and spent three years there living and learning with the slum-dwellers who are mostly rag-pickers. After her return to New York, she wrote a book, a non-fiction narrative about the lives of the people. I haven't read it.

The book was adapted into a play by David Hare who spent time with Katherine and then in Annawadi. It's playing in London at the National Theatre,  Nov-Apr. I went to it this weekend. The audience was largely non-Indian (not even of origin) and also for some reason the average age was much higher as well, say 50. So the people sitting next to us got an interesting perspective I guess.

The first half was very well done. The choice of music was the highlight. The sets were used beautifully to create various effects like a flight landing close by and at one point it literally rains plastic bottles. Every character was so full in spite of only a few dialogues for some of the smaller ones. Most of them managed to maintain an Indian accent and those who could not were largely cast in the roles of the so-called keepers of the law which sort of makes sense but gives it a pre-Independence era feel. The story itself is hard hitting showing how people live in the slums and their little fights all the time. And corruption was shown at every level which I believe is how it happens.

During the interval the lady to next to me, a much older British woman, said that it's really upsetting that the corruption is so deep-rooted and that the police are so powerful. And another older British man asked K if isn't a bit too exaggerated. Well it is upsetting if you didn't know about it all your life and suddenly find out all at once in the span of an hour and it wasn't really exaggerated. But the play struggled to balance the truth because it tried to address and show case too many issued and it became either too much to take that you don't want any more of it or too unbelievable that you could write off. A girl who is not allowed education, a girl who has to stay married to a man with a another woman, a woman who makes a living sleeping with men while her husband drinks himself to slumber, the rag pickers who get beaten up by the police every time they have a run-in.

The second half was much darker. The story takes a turn for the worse and the characters get deeper into trouble, all of them. Unfortunately, there are no more special effects left to show us and no more awe factors. There are a few scenes still that show the creativity of the director like the busy roads of Mumbai. However, details for the same characters that the first half spent so much time investing in building them up did not find any time later on. When the Hussains give away their only and good quilt for their dead neighbour it is neither heart-warming nor even noted properly by the audience. Final scene when the Hussains walk home with Abdul was not impactful due to a melodramatic and rather poor choice of words. While, it was a happy story at the end of it, it wasn't really a happy story at all. The story played up all the hardships but none of the little happy moments. It played up all the jugaad attitude where everyone is out to get everyone else to survive but none of the dependencies on each other that every community needs to survive in India.

I argued with K that it was pretty much like any Indian movie, at least any Tollywood movie - protagonist and family suffer due to societal issues and the ending is always happy with the protagonist coming out successfully. But K had a point, we take one issue out of the plethora of issues that the play showcased and actually find the story solving it and you end up a happy person.

The play was dark with only a very small pinch of hope. And it had absolutely nothing endearing, the lack of which I think, makes it an English play and not an Indian movie.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fighting classroom hunger - Akshaya Patra

The possibilities:

I am going to #BlogToFeedAChild with Akshaya Patra and BlogAdda.

In ancient India, the gurukula system of education was the most prominent. Most people associate gurukula system with a residential education system and we do have a few now. At school level they are considered expensive because you need to pay for food and boarding as well. But the other thing about a gurukula was that it was a self-sustained unit. It taught children not just science and arts but basic survival skills, including cutting fire wood, cooking food and sharing with everyone. The self-sufficiency comes from their own work. Each student shares responsibility to grow grains, vegetables and to cook and clean. The gurukula makes its owns pots and pans out of clay and they work and live together.
I do understand that it is difficult to transfer all those operational features from a forested area abundant with natural resources into today's urban land. But some of it can still be. Almost all government schools have grounds. There could be an area taken for growing a garden for vegetables and spices. These are easier to grow than cereals and pulses, and are generally more expensive in the market. If each class or section of students above a certain class, say class 5, are responsible for certain type of vegetables seasonally,there could be significant burden sharing and variety to eat all year round. The school will still have to buy grains and pulses and may be invest in some basic manure and seeds for the vegetable garden but the students also learn skills of agriculture on a smaller and less task-oriented life style. This gardening time can also be used to translate some of their textbook learning into real life like the shapes of leaves, the types of vegetables, learn more about little insects. This can ensure the parents feel their kids are being educated and not just being used as manual agricultural labour. The kids can also help the teachers in cooking and clean so that it helps maintain a balance of labour and the teachers are not compelled to feel they have an additional burden. 

All this and more and all other suggestions can only work if the students admire their teachers. We need dedicated teachers who really want to teach and change a child's life. Luckily, we do have many. Unluckily, we don't have enough. We need more. 
I think advertisements and campaigns should be more directed to the teachers than to the students. Students are children who may or may not access to these campaigns and many not want to be told what to do or even know what's best for them. The teachers are easier to reach out to, at least we know where they are. If the campaigns give them a sense of purpose and motivate them to help their students, all the ideas can easily be implemented.

Help to solve classroom hunger. To find out more click here.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Going to school...

I might seem like I am just saying this because I don't like change, but I feel that schools today are a bit over the top, trying to give information to children rather than educating them.
I loved school as a child ! I loved it that I could meet all my friends and hang out with them. Classes weren't very difficult and teachers wanted to teach you and guide you and be part of your lives as people. I was trying to remember how I fell in love with school and I remembered I wasn't always like this. I hated school once upon a time.

Just as any child made to go somewhere and be told to do things made me hate school to begin with. Well, hate is a strong word, may be more like dislike. So one morning when I was six years old, it was pouring like crazy. My autowalla did not come to pick me up. And surprisingly I was very upset that I was getting late to school and I just had to go to school! My dad got dressed but he said it's raining so badly may be it's not a great idea to go in this weather. Any kid's dream, right? But no, I insisted I had to go. So my dad took me to school in the pouring rain, me in my rubbery raincoat. And when we reached there, we found out that the school is closed for the day because of the rain. I heard the watchman say it to my dad, but I refused to believe it. I kept saying I came to school, I should be able to attend it. Finally, my dad dragged me back home and for whatever reason, I burst into tears saying I really want to go to school. And my dad and mom laughed while I sat there crying. And when I stopped my mom asked me why I cried. And I said I love school. I don't want to sit at home. I want to go to school!
Now that I think about it, it does feel silly but it was a moment of realisation for me. I wish could be six again, so I could relive my realisation of my love for school and I didn't even know it!

I so wish all the six-year-olds fall in love with their schools too. It would be sad if they grew up resenting school.

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.

Update: I can now flaunt my WOW Badge !!!

Alone is Berlin

By Hans Fallada

I've never heard of this book before I noticed someone read it when I was travelling back from Berlin, this summer. Later I realised it's one of the classics to describe Hitler's Germany and how people lived in fear of him. It was the first anti-Nazi book after the world war written by a German. So I read it.

It is a very strong story. It starts very innocently. And describes slowly but surely how everyone takes sides, and everyone has to, at some point choose a side. Those that feel they can gain an advantage using open support of the führer use it like the Persickes. Those who are cowards are used. Those who can leach onto other people's fears use it to their advantage even if they are not in any way linked to the party, like Enno Kluge and Borkhausen. And then there comes a time where everyone is snitching on everyone else because everyone is afraid. So afraid, even high ranking inspectors of the Gestapo are not safe. Everyone is it someone else's mercy. And finally there are either supporters or silent observers who pretend to be supporters lest they are sent to concentration camps for being traitors.
Until of course, some people wake up and realise this that being silent is also a form of agreement. Some then decide to leave the party and Berlin, like Eva Kluge, a diligent postwoman who feels betrayed by her son. Some decide to quietly rebel by leaving enraging postcards across Berlin at public places instigating hatred against their führer, like Otto and Anna Quangel whose only son dies at war. And some decide that they have sinned too much in the name of the führer delivering good decent people as prisoners into the hands of drunken Gestapo officers and leave, like Inspector Escherich.
In the end, many die, through a sentence or murder or suicide or war. Those that are left pick of the pieces, forgetting the past yet remembering that this is a second chance at life to start afresh, building from scratch, like Kuno. Hans Fallada leaves you with some hope.
The book is slow but gives you a deep insight into how people think and goes though the brains of every type of German that lived during the times of the second world war, not those persecuted for being unGerman but those that were supposed to be the führer's people and how they accepted him in fear.
There is an afterword that's a short story taking us through the real life of Hans Fallada and his real name. How he was in despair of alcoholism when he was given the case of the Hemps who were sentenced for leaving post cards all around Berlin after a close kin died in war. He died soon after, before the book was published. He did however say that he wrote a great novel. And a great novel it is.
Fallada's style of writing is so matter of fact that it scares you the most. Like as though the never ending fear of a friendly neighbour snitching on you to the Gestapo is the most obvious thing.

PS: Today is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (though this book is not about it).

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Long Song

Miss July, my dear readers, was a mischievous soul who made the mistress scream till she was so tired that when Miss July finally turned up she would be enraged but in no position to punish Miss July. The mistress, Caroline Mortimer wasn't always so easy to provoke. She used to be a happy soul who loved the idea of going around the plantation under the beautiful summer sun. Soon enough the heat of sun, which is harsh unlike in England, and the dust of the land got into her and settled within never leaving. It had made her annoying.
The way Miss July narrates her story, like how there were so many different versions of just her birth, and her condensing voice against all those condensing voices, is an interestingly meandering way of telling a light story.
You see, Miss July was born a slave. Though she didn't look it, she had a white father who was an overseer of her slave mother. She was separated from her mother at a very young age and came into her mistress's care (figuratively speaking). She made the most of it, by controlling her mistress without her mistress really understanding it. She fell in love with an ugly black man who bought his freedom, for that reason. He gave her an uglier baby dark as night and she left him on the steps of a church, because he was black and ugly of course.
She fell in love with a white man who had the bluest eyes and was the rich overseer and could give her a mulatto child, equally for all these reasons. To her pleasant surprise, he loved her too. But he couldn't marry a slave! So he married her white mistress (who was much older but equally enchanted by him) and gave Miss July her mulatto baby girl who was Miss July's pride and her mistresses envy.
And our Miss July, now an old woman is in the care (this time, literally) of her abandoned son who is now a gentleman and a publisher. He insists his mother write her experiences as a slave (now she is free) to be published. The thought itself was appalling and yet she wrote. Not her story, no. But a story which was hers to own, with bits of imagination and reality intertwined. And so comes together The Long Song.
Andrea Levy is the actual author of the book and she uses Miss July's voice so very convincingly based on years of research. I say convincingly like I knew how slaves in the early 1900s talked and lived in the British controlled Jamaica! But definitely convincingly, apparently she had to live in Jamaica for a while just to get an idea of how oppressive the sun and humidity could get.
Slavery of the Africans, their fight for freedom and their freedom are all topics often discussed in the American context but I've never really come across an English perspective. I hear it's a rare one.
The story is not about the slavery, the ill treatment of slaves or their fight for freedom. It is about these people who believed they were better and taught civilisation to other people and the other people who believed they can have a better life if they go up the ladder towards those civilised people. Sounds similar? 
So anyway, continuing with the story, slavery gets abolished in the course of the book even though no one Miss July knows had participated in the struggle for it. One of her colleagues turns drastically against her mistress but apart from that it was all business as usual.
When slavery was abolished all the slaves were told they were free to do whatever and go wherever they please. If they wanted they could continue working on the plantation for a small wage and if they decided to stay in their houses they would have to pay a small rent because the plantation belongs to the owner, the white people. I wonder who did these white people buy the land from?
It's a good read. The voice is beautifully honest, open and completely unhindered. The story is endearing and Andrea Levy captures it all seamlessly. So if you wish to read about slavery, especially the English perspective, you should read this one.
I read it simply because of the narrative, and the blurb on the back cover. You see, I love it when the writer (even if fictional) converses with the reader.
(My favourite reader-author interaction is Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being.)

PS: my dear reader, if you remember, this is how I first referred to you in my account of Berlin. It was because this is the style Miss July adopts and I had just begun reading this book.