Saturday, February 26, 2011

India visit-- My mother

(The picture here was taken when my mother visited us in Singapore --this is at the airport. Pavithra, my daughter is behind us)
It was lovely to meet my mother. She is about 81 years old, frail, yet with a zest for life very rare to find. Until very recently, she tutored the watchman's children ( security guard of the Apartments we live in--in India we call them "watchman"), helping them do well in the "English-medium" school they went to. Now the 3 children study in a residential school a little away from the city.

Some years ago when she was tutoring them, my sister who is an Professor of English in English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad wrote the following piece:

I overheard my mother showing the children the various rooms in our house and explaining to them what a kitchen, dining room, bedroom and drawing room were.Lucky she had our house to show them. For the children of our watchman live in a single room that serves as all these together.

The children are being sent to a modest ‘English-medium’school. My 76-year old mother, a retired teacher has taken it upon herself to help the children with their studies. She is constantly showing them objects which can only be found in a middle-class home like ours. Otherwise the English words they learn would remain only words to them without any meaning correlation, except where the words are illustrated in the books.

Without the kind of support that my mother offers, these two children would eventually drop out of school, not being able to afford tuition in addition to the school fees.

Literacy and education are important to make these children to make sense of the world around them. But along with that the anomaly of the different kinds of lifestyles stares them in the eye. What answer do we have if they turn around and ask us why their house doesn’t have so many rooms. Can it still be called a house? So do we need to add something like, ‘rich people’s houses have several rooms’, ‘the poor live in single-room houses with the toilet outside’. These children are lucky that their father is a watchman in a multi-storeyed complex which at least has this facility. To think of others who live in slums with common toilets or not even that!

I reproduce the text here, innocuous by itself. But the socio-economic complexities it throws up raked up my guilt.

Our Home

We live in a house.

It is our home.

Our house protects us from heat, cold and rain.

It also protects us from animals and thieves.

The house gives us shelter and comfort.

A house has several rooms.

The rooms have doors and windows.

We cook our food in the kitchen.

We eat our food in the dining room.

We sleep in the bedroom.

We receive guests in the drawing room.

We take bath in the bathroom.

We also store things in our house.

We keep clothes, food, books, toys, tables, chairs and cots in our house.

We should keep our house neat and clean.

This is just one example of things that perplex me about education in Indian schools. Is English language really so important to learn? Is it important to be educated in a curriculum that does not reflect the culture and society that an individual lives in?

But if these children don't go to a school, they fail to gain literacy skills. If they go to a school and don't get help from someone like my mother, they would not be able to make sense of what's going on and eventually probably drop-out.

It brings to mind Paul Willis' Learning to Labour (1977)

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