Every year, my institution celebrates what is known as ‘National Science Day’ (NSD) on February 28. The event is supposedly celebrated all over India amongst schools, and educational institutions to commemorate the discovery of the Raman Effect by Indian physicist C V Raman. The aim of the event is to develop within the public a notion of ‘scientific temper’, and an appreciation of scientific achievements that have made ‘progress’ possible. The idea immediately begs the question that why should scientific thinking, of all possible ways of thought/action be selectively celebrated (National Carpentry Day, anyone?), and how can we be so naïve in equating scientific advancement to notions of progress. Anyway, lest I be labelled unpatriotic and a Luddite at the same time, allow me a description of episodes at my institution that illustrate the complexities, wonders and irreducible contradictions that play out in the endeavours of grand narratives.
The gate and the gate-keepers: Shawshank Redemption in reverse
Most of the year, my institution is pretty selective regarding who they allow entering, partially due to inept (or brilliant) guards who exhaust potential guests through circular queries, until they collapse at the gate. On particular days like NSD however, the gates are open from 9 am to 4 pm. For many students and teachers, NSD is also a chance for unrestricted access into supposedly esteemed places. For at least a day, a sense of belonging can be aspired for and realised. By 8 am, long queues can be seen outside the gate, and a high-pitched swarm of noises can be heard from beyond (not unlike the opening scenes of many zombie movies, except that here they are mostly 2 ft high). A colleague remarked that such a volume of crowds brought out the introvert in him. As the gates open, a barrage of students can be seen rushing in, with their teachers scrambling behind them in vain. Now, the race is to cover as many activities as possible. Like bees hovering over a stash of honey, students can be seen flitting from one display to the next, eager to consume the barrage of sensory information. Most displays are designed to heighten the ‘wow’ factor, understandably so, since a few folks like my colleague who did try to explain the theory behind his work was greeted with zoned-out stares. After all, who listens to a monologue when expecting to see some Bond-level (a.k.a, the cool Science) action at work?
Spaces of freedom and points of resistance
Given the sheer volume of students, it is rather difficult for resource people to provide attention to each visitor attending the events. So, most of the interpretation or understanding is left to the participant. One display consisted of a Kinect based sandbox wherein participants could hover their hands over it to simulate rain clouds which would then precipitate as water over the sand contours. The original aim of the designer was to help students understand how contours shape the flow of water. However, students chose to wonder over different matters. One exclaimed, “I am playing God in this game! I can create rain!”. Another retorted, “No, you are not! That computer is controlling everything!” Pointing to the terminal screen where the commands had been written. Mostly, students liked flooding the plains. Did they see any connection with contours, or just felt powerful in being able to control a phenomenon or both? Who knows?
Design and Technology activities held at the institution during NSD are fairly popular among students, though a hard-nosed scientist may not be able to see the point of it (maybe, that is the point). Students typically sketch, draw and design new uses of mundane objects or imagine completely novel artefacts (one drew Wolverine like gloves for gardeners). Teachers are less amused because it doesn’t feed into subjects they are familiar with. After all, what to do with enthusiasm that can’t be categorised, and graded? Students, on the other hand, revel in the possibilities. Their experience of agency in the design and exploration of a problem is probably one of the most subversive acts within the constraints of formal education. They just don’t know it yet.
Then again, sometimes they do. A seemingly ‘mindless’ activity of sieving compost generated a lot of excitement amongst the students for a variety of reasons, none within the mainstay of ‘scientific thinking’. For one, they could take home as much compost they could sieve. Many students found it fascinating to just explore the variety of composted matter. The tangible output in terms of the crumbly, sweet-smelling earth was an unexpected prize for them and most made sure to pack their bounty. Never mind the harsh sun, or the labour involved; this was worth it. I noticed two girls pack their compost, and give each other knowing looks. Curious, I followed them around a corner and saw them carefully pack the stuff in their bag. I smiled at them, and they blushed while saying that their teacher might ‘collect’ (a.k.a confiscate) the compost from them for the school so they were trying to hide it. I wished them luck.
After 4 pm, the gates regain their discriminatory power and the last of straddlers are now asked to leave the premises. The two resident dogs on campus, who had been playing dead all along to avoid company spring back to life. Some administration official laments over the “misuse of space” because every inch of their zealously guarded lawns was used by people to sprawl, rest and eat. The temporary loss of control is apparently fatal for their mental health. In the razzle-dazzle of the entire day, most learning (if any) is incidental. What students do end up remembering are the missing ideas and emotions in the mainstream vocabulary of science, mainly because most of it is not amenable to language. In the words of Ivan Illich, “Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.” I would say, that even with ‘elaborate planning and manipulation’, serendipity has the last word. Who knows what will germinate in those ‘smuggled’ bags of compost? Happy Science Day, everyone!
I let things grow, I am a gardener.
I am in a relationship, and it’s not ‘complicated’;
It is interdependent.
If I were to stand long enough,
the fragile tendrils would wrap around my fingers,
gently coaxing me to focus, and tune in.
I usually give in.
As a favour to my senses,
that begin to stir from the artificial slumber.
I hear the leaves fluttering the wind,
as if shaking their heads at my ignorance.
Yet, they are patient and keep pace with me.
I notice the urgent chatter,
Like lovers kissing each other goodbye,
between the flowers and the bees.
For it seems both their lives may end soon.
I worry, because I know they are right.
The Spring in their step is gone.
Instead, come the Mowers; claiming to be growers.
Turning meandering paths into dead rows,
symphony of voices into an ugly drone.
“We want more output”, they say.
and then plot graphs throughout the day.
I just smile, and scatter some seeds along the way.
For when all is done, and the time is right. the Earth will crack open to see the light. The path will curve again, as the tendrils grow, and other creatures will follow, for they know, The abundance of life, beyond the pitiful graphs. And then you’ll see how the bees can laugh.
I am not sure where to begin, because I don’t know if this ever ends – The cycle of love and grief. No amount of intellectual understanding or awareness can combat the full-bodied experience of the emotional rush, flooding my being with memories of the loss. Elizabeth Gilbert aptly captures the overwhelming power of grief, surrendering to which, is probably the only way to survive it –
“Grief is a full-body experience. It takes over your entire body — it’s not adisease of the mind. It’s something that impacts you at thephysical level… I feel that it has a tremendous relationship tolove: First of all, as they say, it’s the price you pay for love. But, secondly, in the moments of my life when I have fallen in love,I have just as little power over it as I do in grief. There are certain things that happen to you as a human being that you can not control or command, that will come to you at really inconvenient times, and where you have to bow in the human humility to the fact that there’s something running through you that’s bigger than you.”
Mourning the loss of a more-than-human being perhaps invokes even greater visceral pain. Maybe, because caring for another creature requires us to be attentive, listen, and feel things that can’t be linguistically communicated. One has to actively listen and participate in worlds ratherthan words. Every sensory memory comes to life as I remember how her body snuggled up close to me, the low-pitched comical growl, the high-pitched musical howl, the soft under-belly that she would show for an occasional caress, and, that feisty hell-broke-loose bark. She couldn’t ‘talk’, being a dog, but she taught us volumes, nevertheless.
In her relatively
brief existence of six years in this world, Button, as she was
christened by the person who first rescued her from the cold streets
of Delhi on a winter night, expanded our lives in unimaginable ways.
While my mother had grown up around dogs in her family, my father’s
family were not known to be animal-lovers. So, we never expected my
father to go beyond tolerating an extra animal (counting me and my
younger brother) in the house. We had never been so wrong in life.
Button awakened in my father, the rationalist, a love that knew no
logic. Till the end, he was the reason that she survived as long as
I know every dog
owner will attest to the unique personality of their dog, and there
is every reason to believe them. However, Button, really was an
oddball. In hindsight, I think she just picked up on the irreverent
style of our rather dysfunctional family. She would allow herself to
be petted (not cuddled) only when she felt like, or else the
good-intentioned hand stood the risk of being bitten off. With time,
we intuitively knew what to expect from those ‘cute psycho-looks’ as
titled by my brother. In the early days, when my brother got a nip by
her for the first time, he cried. I tried to console him by saying
that it was hardly a wound, but it turned out that he was more upset
because he felt that she didn’t trust him. He moped around like a
jilted lover for the next few hours, till she came and licked him on
his hand, almost like saying, “Oh, you foolish boy…”. The scene
was oft-repeated with my father too, until it almost seemed like some
well-versed romantic drama. My partner’s first encounter with her
included a vicious leap at him because he wanted to surprise-hug me
from behind. “Back off, dude!”, she barked I think. That’s a
Though I and my brother moved on with our lives, and left home, Button never allowed the ’empty nest’ to feel as such. In raising her, my parents found anew subject to fight over. They also discovered an overlap of love, that spilt into many creatures living around them. They carry dog-food wherever they go, in case some street fellow comes their way, and managed to rescue over 6 puppies, all the while Button barking and howling at them for showing charity to her brethren. That spoilt brat never liked her own kin, because she hadn’t been socialised into the doggie community. As an Indie breed, she wasn’t treated too kindly by other dog-owners (who treat their dogs like a car brand, both parked in the garage), or even the Veterinary docs who couldn’t quite understand why we were spending so much on her treatment. And, they say that the caste system doesn’t exist.
Towards the end, it
was clear that had to put her to sleep to end her suffering. We kept
talking, and putting it off for months, mostly because of vehement
protests by my father, who went to the extent of procuring
medications from the U.S, and demonstrated his legendary debating
skills to their custom dept. who have strict rules in place for such
cases. He won the argument, but we still had to lose her, for there
is no arguing with the finality of death. We are shattered, but we
are also enriched through the sorrow that reminds us of our capacity
to feel, and love.
As a species,
perhaps, in originally the first dog over 10,000 years ago, we first
learnt to love something different from us. Here they are, still
keeping the historical promise their ancestors made. The world would
be a better place if we could honour the friendship too. After all,
“If dogs run free/ then why not we,
*The title isborrowed from a lovely children’s book by Glenn Ringtved
I am a reluctant academic. The intellectual games of linguistic reasoning don’t excite me, even as I am forced to learn the rules of the game to critique it. So, it is hardly surprising that my interests gravitate towards theories of embodied cognition that have been arguing for the rightful place of the body as constitutive in meaning-making rather than being subservient to the mysterious workings of the brain. As it turns out, this also becomes an important ecological argument, in terms of valuing sensory encounters (with)in the environment. Legitimising and valuing body-based interactions paves way for a fuller experience, the beginning of kinship through acknowledging the intertwining of our senses, sensibilities with the environment.
“Slowly, the weight of the bag begins to bite into my shoulder blades. My feet are closely mapping the contours of the ground, and even the slightest incline sends a shiver down my thighs. The varying textures of the ground allow me to move forward or send me slipping down a few steps back. I am no longer walking on the ground, as much as I am walking with it. The occasional streams provide respite to the burning feet, yet the stones along the water are treacherous. Stepping on them is an act of faith. I am learning the language of stones, asking them to be kind.”
Our cities are designed for disembodied interactions. The abstraction is necessary for the psychic numbing because if we were to hear the “the rustle of corn leaves while opening a box of breakfast cereal”(Kimmerer, 2012) we would also hear the scream of the animals dying in the forests burnt for palm oil. Once a relationship is established, one can’t be indifferent to the other’s fate. So, we live in the paradox of an increasingly networked world, and diminished capacities to sense the interdependencies. We are under the “Spell of Discursive” as described by philosopher Heesoon Bai; We mistake the map for the world and are continuing to build technology that can sustain the illusion forever. Rebecca Solnit (2001) comments on our collective atrophy of senses using the example of transport- “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.” In a world choking with automobiles, even the simple act of walking can be a radical protest against the designed sensory impairment.
“The cold moss soothes the fingers bruised through grasping of the sharp rock faces. Breath comes in abrupt gasps as the slopes become steeper. Protruding roots and branches lend a helping hand. The afternoon sun makes its presence known through rivulets of sweat flowing down my face. I realise they are following the contours of my body, just as I am following the ridges of a dry stream up the hill. The water sculpts my body, and I follow its path. The sight no longer reigns supreme, I need to feel my way up, groping for footholds. I reach a ledge and lie down for a while. My ears touch the ground, and I listen…”
The increasing confines of artificial comforts require that even more be taken from somewhere else. The sensuality that rests on the reciprocity of love and care instead turns into a brutal lust for materials. Beings turn into commodities, relationships turn into transactions. Education legitimises the enterprise, by valuing supposedly intellectual pursuits over sensory experiences. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2018) argues that the “promise of education lies in the capacity to respond and to be responded to: without such ‘response-ability’, as we might call it, education would be impossible.” Yet, the schooling continues. How else would one learn to live in abstractions? We were not born this way.
“Time is inconsequential in the forest. Enchanted by the glossy back of a beetle pushing a ball of dirt uphill, I can empathise with its efforts as I carry my load along. Ants form a busy line. The leaf litter now seems animate as myriad insects form an underground orchestra. Every footstep of mine adds a beat to their song. I am no longer a witness. Through attending to my participation, I am re(member)ing and acknowledging my ancient kinship. Reaching the summit of the hill, my legs quiver with effort, but a sense of satisfaction flows through my body. I didn’t make the journey; the journey made me.”
In age pervaded by ever-increasing alienation, perhaps the first step needs to be a literal one. Step outside, and let the body attend to the world. Ingold writes, “ if education is about caring for the world we live in, and for its multiple human and non-human inhabitants, then it is not so much about understanding them as it is about restoring them to presence, so that we can attend and respond to what they have to say.” I feel we have a long dialogue pending.
Pictures from the trek to Karoli Ghat and Ratangad, a part of Sahyadri range.
Some events in life can really bring those existential questions to the fore. I think, in India, crossing busy roads is one of them. No wonder, we are so philosophical by nature, given the rather frequent road-crossing exercises. I seem to have a special connection with the roads and its bountiful menagerie of vehicles, people alike. My parents were knocked off their two-wheeler on the New Year’s Eve of 1991, as a drunk driver decided to try Tokyo Drift even before it was made. Also, it was an ambassador, or as I see it, military grade tanks made for civilians. Our scooter neatly crumpled into a metal ball, my dad broke his leg, and my mother, who was six-months pregnant with my baby brother had her ankle smashed to smithereens, but miraculously gave birth to a healthy boy a couple of months later. Although, I am sure that the X-rays she was submitted to, due to the gross negligence of the hospital staff (they didn’t notice she was pregnant), did end up doing some cool X-men shit to my brother. Describing his mutant abilities will be the subject of another blog post. Where was I during all this drama? Sitting between them of course. However, I had somehow managed to remain completely unscathed except for losing my shoe in the spectacular family cartwheel that we did. As a three-year-old, finding that shoe was my immediate concern, though I didn’t fail to observe that my parents were lying sprawling on the road in different directions. Thankfully, the people and police helped in getting medical attention. Life was back to normal in a couple of months (whatever that means).
Gradually, however, I realised that my skills of road navigation seemed a bit off. I had come to understand crossing roads as some ultimate flight situation, where one had to run from one side to the other in the least amount of time while dodging everything from stray poop on the road, to the traffic onslaught, and stray cattle. Given the general confusion around traffic lights, I could never trust drivers to be doing what the traffic light indicated. Traffic signals are, like Trevor Noah puts it, “a suggestion” in most ex-colonized countries. It is an artefact imported without the necessary context and trust that is needed to make it operational. So here, folks can pretty much decide whether they want such automated unsolicited opinions. Mostly they choose otherwise.
I also came to respect the power of crowds. Random strangers can form a solid group with the aim of crossing a road, and then vehicles have no choice but to slow down. Quite a fearless group, random people. So, if not sprinting, my next best option is to join one of these groups. Then, there are these loners who can calmly calculate the speed of various things hurtling their way and cross with precision. This isn’t your conventional “look right, look left” nonsense. It wouldn’t work here anyway, because there will be that one motorbike coming on the wrong side of the road, intercepting your path, and give you the “look where you are going!” stare. My mistake, I am no ten-headed demon god after all. A more daring category of people can walk alone, their arms extended showing a ‘Stop’ sign, and make their way across the busiest streets. Middle-aged aunties are especially good with it. The funny thing is how it works most the time, with cars slowing down, allowing the lady to pass. Traffic signal, no; hand-stop lady, yes. I think we really believe in face-to-face connections as a community.
The only vehicle that probably strikes the fear of God amongst even the most courageous of road-crossers is the city bus. These buses can drive past you, within the space of your shirt-fluttering in the wind. Amazingly accurate, and deadly. They can also swerve with a swag that would put F1 racers to shame. Additionally, they are least mindful of the boundaries of the road, and you would do yourself a favour by not showing undue confidence while walking on the curb.
I would probably never have given all this a thought, like the proverbial fish in the water, if not for some trips abroad where a completely new situation was presented to me. The unquestioned authority of traffic-signals is a marvel. A zebra-crossing that is actually treated like one?! And here we thought it was just to add some jazz to the roads, or actually indicate some potholes ahead. The icing on the cake was a button on the signal pole that could be pressed whenever a pedestrian wants to cross the road. I did it many times to check if it actually worked and then felt so empowered to see cars dutifully stop, bowing to the all-powerful stop-light. I also realised it’s pretty boring. No drama, suspense, sense of accomplishment, crowd solidarity. No connection. Just a bunch of folks crossing the street in unerring regularity. Of course, I am back to the cursing, sprinting, and staring-back contests in India. Yet, watching a dog happily give me company while crossing the street, a small smile makes an unlikely appearance on my face along with furrowed brows. Even they seem to enjoy the challenge. Indian streets are the stuff of philosophy, after all.
“Bael?” My ears pricked up when I heard the word, my thoughts flooding with memories of Dadu cracking open the fruit, and removing the orange fibrous pulp to make a delicious drink later. It had been years since I had tasted the fruit, but somewhere, the memory had been patiently waiting for me to relive the experience.
This has been happening to me frequently. In the past 7 years, or so, since I have deliberately decided to distance myself from the rush of “bigger, faster, better”, the slow, complex, symphony of relationships, of both human and more than human beckon me. As political theorist Jane Bennett describes, the world can open up in unexpected and delightful ways if we’re willing to be enchanted by it. After all, didn’t we all once live in enchanted places, when we spoke the language of stones and trees, rivers and hills? Only when I slow down, can I see the wild growth of cherry tomatoes by a busy roadside, or hear the distinct sounds of different leaves fluttering in the wind, or spot the native green vegetables that many people have abandoned in the favour of exotic, expensive options… each time, I feel like I am gathering ancient wisdom, while also travelling down a familiar path with a new sense of gratitude. I ask my mother for recipes of vegetables that might cease to exist if we forget how to eat them. Food has become that thread of connection, weaving its way through my sense of identity and purpose. How easy it is to break the long line of culture and knowledge? Just by forgetting an ingredient of a meal. But then, the remembering is also a way to restore, and revive the lost voices; Of the birds, animals, trees, rivers, and our ancestors.
It is a humble beginning, but when I see my students, all excited to munch on raw Ambadi leaves they have just plucked from their own farm, I believe it is a good start. An ethics based on care and generosity must begin with a sense of wonder and respect. As they begin to care for their beloved sour-tasting plant, spending their time peering into its pink calyx, admiring the shape of the leaves, they are drawn into a world of reciprocity and dialogue. Now, when the plants speak to them, they slow down to hear it murmur.