Saturday, November 25, 2006

Bridging the gap

Bridging the English gap

My American friends, Heather and Mark, who I met last year through my God daughter, love India, its people, the spicy food and the adventure and spirituality it has to offer.

When they visited me last year from New York, they expressed a keen interest in volunteering with my not-for-profit, India Vision Foundation. I suggested they conduct an English conversation training course for the teachers of our rural primary school, 35 km outside Delhi. They were very excited. Given their busy schedules – Heather is a Managing Director at Standard & Poor’s/Crisil and Mark is the editor of an archaeology magazine – they decided they would undertake the effort during their next vacation trip to India.

Before I knew it, they were getting organized, gathering support and working around their schedules. Heather got across to her employer’s parent organization, McGraw-Hill, a major US publisher, for educational materials. Heather’s colleagues at India-based Crisil volunteered translating children’s stories for the effort.

The couple volunteered to stay on the project premises in the village, knowing well, that the rural setting had erratic power supply, mosquitoes, and dogs barking at 3AM, besides many other constraints of connectivity etc. But their focus was their students.

With the active support of our in-house project co-coordinators, Chandni and Shakira and others, they got on to work with the teachers and some school children, the very next day of their arrival. On our side, there was a great deal of anticipation and enthusiasm amongst the “students” about learning to converse in English without being teased or jeered at.

I was naturally curious to assess the impact of this exercise. I therefore took an open feedback session. I truly came back with an experience I will cherish forever.

It proved beyond doubt certain realities of our schooling today and particularly for those educational institutions whose strength and focus is not teaching adequately and correctly, the English language. It had messages for those in governance, administration, education, community service and parents.

Here is some of the feedback in the participants’ own words.

1. “I had lost 10 to 12 years of my life without knowing how to converse and convey my feelings in English when I needed to. I had a burning desire in me to regain my lost time. This course has given me that...”

2. “Every time my children would correct me and at times made fun…now I will be happy to be corrected and also correct them for now I know the right way to say…”

3. “The world has opened up for me. Earlier someone else spoke for me while I looked on. Now I will no more be a mere onlooker”.

4. “We were never exposed to such sort of training. No one explained to us and taught us this way. We got no chance... This is the first time I got such an opportunity”.

5. “Environment of learning is so important. Once in a while I used to open a dictionary for help but it never worked. Also after school there is so much of house work and children to be taken care of. There is no time to self educate. Here it has been so much of joyful focused learning”.

“Besides learning to communicate in English, have you learnt anything else”? I asked.

They said…

*... “I will now not skip the English news.”
*... “I will now not avoid reading English newspapers.”
* ...“I will not hesitate sharing in our afternoon reviews in English.”
*… “At home I will be able to speak with my children in English.”
*… “I will read my children’s English books. Earlier I used to put them aside.”
*… “I have learnt to do better time management by seeing them organize and work efficiently.”
*… “I will not feel hesitant anymore in speaking in English even if I am feeling that I am making a mistake. Because this is the only way I will keep up my practice.”

We, at the rural project, realized how important English speaking was to all of them. How left out they had been feeling when others spoke in their presence. How deep within them was the inferiority complex of not being able to communicate in English. How inadequate they felt missing out on books, news, English movies etc. How hesitant they were reaching out to their own children when tutoring them.

It was really insightful when I was told by a ten year-old girl student that her mother said…
“You are learning for your Zindagi…(life)”

While our teachers and some school children learnt English from both the visitors, Mark tried learning Sanskrit, after class hours, from the priest amongst the students.

Here is what Heather and Mark had to say…

“Even though there were minor inconveniences, these were all outweighed by many positive surprises. We were very impressed by the breadth and commitment, extraordinary effectiveness, the personal touch, and good humor of all and the treats of fabulous Indian vegetarian meals and the beauty of the afternoon light falling on the court yard. As to our mission, in the space of just two weeks we saw participants speaking more confidently and progressed with pronunciation beyond their own expectations…We have to come back again …To share and to learn….”

After the feedback session the entire class rode out on their bikes as they had planned, to the nearby lake chattering and singing.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Know this law and prevent distress.

Know this law and prevent distress.

It is interesting, how nature, at times, conspires. As I was developing this current piece of work, a young woman by the name of Rashmi came to see me. She presented me with her about-to-be- released, newly published book, 'Woman of Elements'. Rashmi and I had met earlier too, when she had come with the suggestion that I write the preface of the book.

But this meeting was different. I asked her the thought behind this book. She said –sufferings out of Domestic Violence: I asked, ‘who’? She said, ‘she’. I was taken aback. This is exactly what I was planning to write so that people understand the essence of the new law on domestic violence, before they rely on hearsay.

Let me tell you what Rashmi told me.(with her permission).

“ Mrs Bedi, I woke up this morning, switched on music, drank a cup of tea, read the paper, tickled my son to wake him up and hugged my daughter awake. It was a beautiful morning – my everyday morning.

But it wasn’t so for 10 years of my life – when I would wake up in cold sweat wondering what anger, what abuse, what violence I would have to face during the day. I wore full-sleeves and Chinese collars for 10 years to hide the bruises I carried on my body.

Mine was an arranged marriage – I had been working as an advertising professional for 2-3 years prior to that. But violence against women cuts across the boundaries of class and social strata. Our biggest drawback as women is that when abuse takes place against us, we do not speak up about it. We hide behind “acceptability” “decency”. We shrivel up in silence.

I did not even tell my family, not for 5 years. My daughter was 4 when I first went back to my parents – with a broken rib and a smashed face. Not the first instance of violence – it was a common occurrence for me – but that was the first time that I sensed a need in myself to get out of this vile situation. But my husband came to my family – wept, begged, pleaded. And I went back. And I had a second child. My husband gloated, “Now you can never leave”. And the violence escalated.

I had a mother-in-law in the house, but she added to the problems, “ma-baap toh pait kaat kar apnee betiyon ko dete hain”, “biwiyon ko to property aur paison ke baarey mein kuch batana nahin chahiye” etc. Strange words coming from a woman who completely controlled the purse-strings of the family. And when faced with the violence meted out to me, she would respond with, “Toh kya hua? Jo tumhari kismet”.

I had been given an empty floor in this large house in a posh south-Delhi colony, with the not-so-posh words, “hamaari families mein to ladki-waalon se sab kuch aata hai”. So I worked – took up short projects and assignments and tried to build up a home – along with its furniture and everything else that came along with it. From the curtains to the carpets, everything came from my earnings. He did not pay for even a glass.

As time went on and his violence and womanizing got worse, it started telling on the children. My daughter, a brilliant little girl, became quiet and withdrawn. My son completely went into a shell. He would not speak – he would go into his own world when confronted with loud voices. He was put into the special needs section at the school that he was attending – not because he had any learning disability, but because of his emotional problems.

I did not want to live anymore. I had died enough everyday.
Then I looked at my children, and wondered, if I die, what would happen to them? I knew then that I would fight for my life and of my children. I somehow picked up courage and decided to leave with both my kids for my grandmother's house. I earned my freedom after a very bitter and expensive struggle.

Today I am a woman of all elements i.e. Air, Water, Fire and Earth, who picked herself from ashes to rebuild along with my children..."

This is what I have to say in relation to the new Domestic Violence Act (notified few days ago). What if it had been there earlier? And Rushmi knew of it and took the courage to use it, then the husband and the mother-in-law either would have been forced to mend their ways or faced imprisonment for a whole year.

Let me explain how? Under the new law all these acts of domestic violence are specific offences, namely: physical or mental abuse for any reason; addiction, extramarital relationships, unlawful demands, harassment, threat, insult, ridicule, name calling, deprivation of economic or financial resources, alienation of assets etc.

Anyone can complain for the aggrieved woman. The Magistrate can call concerned members of the household to be heard. He can counsel, direct or punish as the case may be. It is a civil, summary proceeding. Violation of orders can call for imprisonment of one year, fine or both.

There is an essential provision for appointment of Protection Officers and NGOs as service providers. Homes could be visited for reporting or follow-ups.

Rushmi could have got protection had this law come in earlier. Her children would not have suffered as much as they did. She could have continued to stay in her own home if she wanted. Her mother-in-law too would have come under home visits of the Protection Officer. All this is the new law.

It is for women who genuinely need help. At no stage should this be used falsely by them. Magistrates and Protection officers are for justice and not pro-women and anti-men.. They are there to prevent distress.