Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nucleus and Electrons in the History class

It is time to decide. It doesn't matter that I had no need for it in the last 10 years. Apparently, the stigma doesn't apply anymore. As with most things in life, there are two options - Harder in the short term and supposedly better in the long run; Easier in the short term and supposedly questionable in the long run. Obviously, I opted for the latter. The classic risk vs. reward paradigm played on this teenager who just graduated 10th class.

It is time to decide whom to go to for Physics tuition - Doc or Prof. Both teachers were on college payroll and did NOT teach as much, if any, inside the college campus. These same teachers would teach outside the college in their personal tuition and made money many times over. Students paid fees both to the college and for the tuition. You get the certificate from the former as part of the system and the content from the latter outside the system. No body seemed to think that there was anything wrong with this approach. At least, not the students. Some of us - boys looked at tuition as another opportunity to meet up girls.

I was not ready to leave my home at 5 AM in the morning every day, on my bicycle, to get to Doc's place about 40 minutes away. Instead, I opted for the Prof who is walking distance from my home. I could sleep in for another 30 minutes every morning. That is too precious.

All the top students (Straight A types) in town went to Doc who is far off from the town. He is the guy whom you go to if you want to get into one of the best colleges in the country. He charges a premium and gives you the hardest problems to solve. Kids are here not necessarily to learn from this teacher, but to compete with each other on the hardest problems that he doles out. A typical tuition starts at 6 AM every morning and has about 50 kids in the class.

The tutor I picked was for the rest. Prof doesn't give as many challenging problems. Most kids attended Prof's class because their parents sent them here- not necessarily because these kids wanted to learn the subject. Prof is clear on one thing. He is there to teach those who wanted to learn. But, at the same time - he is clear about his business model - High Volume, Low margin.

With 120 kids in Prof's class, there are a few who invariably escape from the last benches in the middle of his class, when he turns towards the black board to write something. One would be tempted to think he didn't notice them missing in the middle of his class. However, on the fifth of every month - he was sure to know which one of the 120 had not paid the fees. All out of his memory. It was not as though we paid electronically and had a receipt every time we paid. Prof used his energy where it mattered.

Prof is personable. He probably talked about Real Physics for 30 minutes. The other half of the class is spent in stories, anecdotes and jokes. He used every day examples to explain concepts.

In order to explain adding to or subtracting from Infinity - he would say - add a bucket of water to the Ocean. Did it make any difference ? Surface Tension is about brushing teeth and foaming. Newton's third law on action and reaction is the same as hitting some body and getting hit in reaction. In order to explain the dual nature of wave and particle in quantum physics, he would make a comment about those backbenchers who seem to be in class one minute and who are missing the next ! Archimedes buoyancy was the same as sambar that spilled out of the cup when one dropped an Idly in it.. Electrons revolving around nucleus was the same as boys running around girls. The list was endless.. Every concept had a story.

It was as though he knew how to teach Physics to the masses. In a few weeks, we were there not because our parents sent there. We wanted to listen to his jokes at 6 AM in the mornings..

25 years later...

I don't remember any of the Physics problems that I had solved. It probably didn't matter that I did not go to the Doc's tuition. What I do remember are some of the jokes and the concepts that Prof had used. I called up my brother before writing this article and asked him about a few jokes from Prof. Without a pause, he started listing a few - some of which made into the article.
It is amazing how memory gets stronger when we are happier. I have tried to emulate this principle in my role as a teacher. I teach History of India amongst other subjects in a Sunday school. I remember when History was dull and dry in school. No wonder, I don't remember much of what I had studied in school. I developed interest on the subject in my adult life. So, I try not to teach History - the way it was taught in my school.

Most of the characters in Indian history are played out as roles by kids in my class. They wage wars and run empires. Some of these classes are held outside the class on the field. A tennis ball is a proxy for an arrow shot (thrown) by one empire over the other. The number of catches dropped dictates the "winner" of the war. After having taught the same group of students for two years, I held a quiz the other day. I was surprised that the students were able to recall the names of Ambhi and Porus - characters taught more than a year ago - only because these were the characters they played !

Even in the History class, the laws of Physics are immutable. I still see a few electrons revolving around the nucleus !

Friday, March 23, 2012

The seatless rickshaw

It is about 9 am in the morning. School is hardly a kilometer away from my home. It barely takes about 5 minutes from home to walk through a broad open street, and then take a right at the street corner to get to school. Most kids walk to school. There are a few kids who come with their dads on scooters or bicycles. The most common form of mass transportation in this small little town, at this time of the day is the cycle-rickshaw.

Kids coming from far-away places get on a cycle rickshaw (a pedicab) designed comfortably at-best, for two. However, there are about eight kids packed in that open-top, three-wheeler, manually pedaled by  - the famous rickshaw wallah. Three kids sitting on the leather seat inside the rickshaw; Three on a wooden plank staring those kids sitting opposite to them on the leather seat; The other two are the premium "seatless seats" left for those "Not too young, yet not too big" rightsize kids.

These two seatless seats are not really seats. These two are typically taken by boys, who would climb from the back of the rickshaw on top of the leather seat, facing away from the direction of motion, and hold on to the roof top which is folded all the time - except when there is rain. In other words, the two rightsize kids would have their butts squeezed on top of the leather seat, in between the two head-gaps of the three kids sitting on the leather seat. Yet, from their faces, it always seemed like these rightsize kids on the seatless, with their feet hanging in the air, were flying through a world - staring at the world coming towards them.

I always wanted to be on the seatless seat. It was just too cool. It was possible to be on seatless only on your way to and from school. On the evenings and over the weekends, when we went out - my brother and I get the wooden plank seats and my parents used to be on the leather seats. In other words, a completely acceptable form of sitting on the seatless seat in the morning was frowned upon in the evening. I tried many times asking my parents. The answer was a simple no. It was too risky. We never dared to ask - How come those in the morning sat on the seatless? Those were the days when every kid knew that some questions were never asked - in front of parents.

Similarly, one would never sit on the seatless when one is riding solo; or even when two kids are riding together. The weight of the two kids on the seatless needs to be balanced by those sitting inside the rickshaw. There is a protocol to get in and out. FILO - First in and Last out. While getting in - first, the seats inside the rickshaw need to be occupied; Then, the two rightsize kids climb from the back and then the rickshaw wallah climbs on top of his seat and starts to pedal. Once he gets to the destination, he parks the vehicle, gets down from his seat and walks towards the rightsize kids on the back of the rickshaw. They would have to first jump off the seatless ; Then, those inside would get down last.

If anybody violated the order, the rickshaw could easily get toppled and those on the seatless would most definitely get hurt. There were no instructions written anywhere. There was no law mandating the maximum number of kids inside or on top of a rickshaw. There was no stop sign coming off a parked rickshaw suggesting to all those on the road to stop while the kids get down at their destination. The rickshaw wallah was sensible enough to allow only those older rightsize kids to get on the seatless. A few parents, I am sure, did not want their kids to be on the seatless. Their kids, I am sure, however thought otherwise. The system, nevertheless, worked.

I must have been in 5th grade. I was growing up. In a year or so, I would no more be a rightsize kid. I had never been on the seatless since my home was so close to school. This was the year to do. No such opportunity was coming up. Sometimes, I wished - either I moved to a far-away school or a far-away home so that I could get to school in a rickshaw, sitting on the seatless.

Then, one day- I made up my mind. It was going to be this year. It was actually going to be tomorrow.
I asked my friend who was the rightsize kid on the seatless rickshaw. He offered me his seatless seat the next day, if I came to his house in the morning. Both of us used to collect stamps as a hobby. So, I had to pay a dear price - a Somalian stamp which I had recently bragged to him about ,a recent collection thanks to my uncle, who mailed a letter from Mogadishu.

The next day, I got up early and got ready about 40 minutes ahead of my usual schedule. I told my parents that my friend was not coming to school today and that I had to pick up a book that I had given him the day before.

I walked to my friend's house about 15 minutes away. I made sure I was there well in advance and waited for the rickshaw to come pick up my friend at his place. This was the day I was waiting for. I waited by the gate. I didn't want to go inside his house for fear of having to explain all this to his parents. I see other rickshaws passing by. I am eagerly awaiting my friend to come out and for his rickshaw to stop by -so I could soon be flying from my seatless ! His mom stepped out in a little while. There was no sight of my friend by her side. His mom said that he got sick the previous night and was not coming to school that day and hence had called off the rickshaw. I started running towards school.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The perfect shine

My grandfather never owned a pair of shoes in the last eighty years. He still does not wear one.  Slippers or Chappals - as we used to say, are his kind. Even as he moved in his life from  rural village to the urban city that he lives in today, his best foot forward has always been in a pair of chappals... mostly worn out, never had a backup, carefully maintained and cautiously guarded - values typical of his generation.

He has always been a hands on man, not unusual for his times. During my school days, he kept himself thoroughly busy all the time, though he had retired from formal work. Fixing bicycles, binding our new school books with covers, and using the toolbox on a daily basis was his way of life. While growing up, I can vividly  recall the attention he used to pay towards the shoes in the family. That was one other thing that must have kept him busy.

My brother and I were going to a school that mandated black shoes on weekdays and white canvas shoes for the half-day school on Saturday. My dad was working for a private company and was already part of the professional generation that had stepped into the corporate office in  black shoes. 

My grandfather used to shine our shoes - at least, twice a week. When they were done, all of our shoes used to be lined up right next to each other - clean, shiny and ready. This happened for several years. He never ever said why we hadn't polished our shoes. He simply just picked them up and did it himself. As we grew older, we realized that we needed to take care of our own shoes and picked up the skills from him.  

Once I started polishing my own shoes, I realized it was not an easy job. So, I made up three different varieties - short, medium and long. 

The shorter version was used almost on a daily basis.  This is the kind you do when you are fully dressed, put your shoes on, get to your destination and then look at your shoes to realize it needed some cleaning ! Too late.. So, you stand on one leg, lift your other leg and take it behind the standing leg and start wiping the shoe off the pants.

The medium version is used when you realize your shoe needs a shine, while you are still at home tying the shoe lace. This is the version that just uses the  brush without the polish. Shine the shoe a couple of times with the brush and off you go..

The longer version is the hardest and the most thorough. Hence, this was limited to once a week over the weekends. It used to feel boring and monotonous doing this  version. Dust the shoes; Take off the laces; Scoop a little polish off the cake inside a round Bata tin with one side of the brush and rub it all over the shoes - right first, left next, leaving the shoes a little dry with no shine on. And then, pick up the other side of the brush to shine the shoes. Especially, this step was the hardest since it would seem like it lasted for ever to get the perfect shine. And finally, put the laces back on - right first and left next as though changing the order would upset the shoes. Many a time, I would feel the urge to change the order. But felt it was unjust in making the first shoe that got stripped off the lace wait longer.

To make the activity a little bit more interesting, there had  to be a challenge. My brother and I used to have a competition to see who can shine the fastest and get the perfect shine sooner. Sometimes, we were able to go for say 30 or 40 back and forth shines before we took a long pause to breathe and then go for another round. At the end of the activity, we put them right next to each other and implicitly hope for a comment out of our grandfather. The next time we pass those shoes, we would notice that our shoes looked shinier. He would not have asked us to try harder. But he would have shined it a little more to his standards and satisfaction. We took that as a cue and tried harder the next time.

Twenty years later, the three of us now live in three different cities. Gone are the days of having to  cautiously take care of a single pair of black shoes for years together . The values seem to have been diluted a bit too. At times, I feel guilty to admit that I have a pair of shoe for every day of the week. The shoes don't get dirty as much as they used to back then. Shoes today seem to never step on the harder life that their school day ancestors used to have been in. Mostly on carpets, never gathering dust and rarely spoiled by water - shoes these days  spend the most of their lives in  temperature controlled environments. The number of  shoes that I have and the quality of the environment they are in - hardly justify the polish ritual on a daily or even on a weekly basis.

However, I do miss the ritual every now and then. Usually, it seems like I can go on for about a month without craving for that perfect shine night. I don't know what it is about the activity. 
-  May be, it is one of the few  hands on things that I can do any time of the day from start to finish all on my own without other's help.  
- May be, it is one of those many Indian movies in which the hero goes from rags to riches - always starting off as someone who polished other's shoes - to denote a hard working kind with noble values. 
- May be, it is Lincoln's quote that my wife reminisces of her father. Some one who walked into Lincoln's office seems astonished at the sight of Lincoln polishing his shoes and asks "Sir, surely, you do not polish your own shoes?" to which the humble president responds "Whose do you polish?"
- Or May be, it is the trance like feeling of getting lost while doing a repetitious activity with no thinking at all
- Or May be, it is one of those activities, which the spouse recognizes as hard work and leaves you at it. I have noticed that there are hardly any interruptions during this activity, unlike while reading a book or in front of the laptop.
- Or May be, it is the way my grand father always seemed happy just being busy doing things around the house
- Or it simply was that my shoes were dirty and needed a polish

It typically happens once a month on a Sunday evening - when the little one goes to bed early after a long day on a busy weekend; when the wife is busy with her chores surrounded by soft instrumental music playing in the background; when I just return home,  take off my shoes and realize that my world is at peace.

Tonight was one of those Sunday evenings. 6 pairs using the longer version - 4 black and 2 brown, kept me busy for about an hour. Just like my grandfather did, I completed them all and  lined them up by the door. I washed my hands and admired the result - just like an artist admires his painting after finishing the work. When the wife asked why I left them there by the door instead of putting them in the shoe rack, I said the shoes needed some fresh air after getting work done. However, my wife very well knows that I am waiting for my daughter in the morning to pick up the shoe with the perfect shine for work on Monday.