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Words Waylaid

It is natural for language to evolve, indeed that is what makes it robust. English, the language that seeks to retain its pristine identity that never was, is probably the most mauled of them all. This of course is its strength. It’s very malleability makes it relevant, even localised. But whether by design or serendipity, the words in the language have broadly meant the same all over the world. The words have traveled, and with them their meanings. Many of them have been new words, as witnessed by additions to the dictionaries each year, a few radically redefined. But times like now have been rare, when one looks aghast at one’s interlocutor (how could I resist that word!) and wonders what they even mean when they use some words. Often, I do ask, and I have to admit, I am guilty of the accusation thrown at me – I do use the dictionary meaning of words. Apparently, these days, it is not enough.

Growing up in India, and then learning how to grow up in England, I was one of those ‘convent educated’ cocky management graduates who actually learnt the language well enough to be able to use it to establish entry credentials into most places. In England, I (as many others were too), was patronisingly praised for speaking English well. Duh, a bit oblivious of history, are you, to play that note? I’d normally respond by admitting, in the very English self deprecating manner I had learnt to adopt – “My English is not as good as it used to be in India, living in England has made it less accurate’. The reaction was always priceless, a quick pursed lip and a forced smile, as I smiled to myself in a certain satisfaction that we used to call ‘cheap thrills’ back in India. Each time I silently thanked that red grammar book, the Wren and Martin, ubiquitous in our school years across states in every convent school. I will freely admit, I never learnt the grammar of the language as I should have, but read voraciously, and so, survived. Grammar Nazis may well find faults even in this piece, go ahead, do, but what I am going to talk about is far worse, so hold your horses. (Wait, when did pedants earn the title ‘Nazi? Bit extreme, innit?)

I noticed it first with the word ‘communal’. In India, communal was an adjective used for the inevitable riots that broke out in my town at certain parts of the year. Communal was a word to be feared, for were communities not always in opposition to each other, ready to battle at the drop of some carrion or the raising of a flag? In England, in my peaceful corner, communal was the village green. The one with the cricket pavilion at one end, and the coffee shop at the other, where we mums would push our strollers, pause, roll out our blankets and picnic with our toddlers. The fire, blood and terror of the word ‘communal’ took years to melt away, to be replaced with a sense of shared rights, of civil exchange and giving way so that there is enough for all.

But what is happening today to words is worse, so bad that it is beyond scary. There are words that used to represent a certain meaning that are now distorted beyond recognition in the way that they are used. It used to be a a good, kind, if slightly woolly headed, well meaning person who was accepting of other people’s ways of living who would comfortably don the title of a liberal. Liberalism, even in casual conversation was broadly a good thing, a harmless and certainly a tolerant view of life that came with a certain superiority because it was an exercise in self control too. Even if i don’t like it, I’m respectful of others views, and in that I have used various good muscles. This good was recognised by others, and societies knew that they represented good and orderly ways of living, indeed, civilised ways of being because they were liberal. For the better read, liberalism (and the oft confused libertarian thought) came with its own literature and history. They used the term with greater precision, knowing that the very idea of a liberal embedded a paradox – for a liberal would never be able to take a strong stand for liberalism, they could only allow it to be, along with other liberals. To be bigoted about liberalism, or even to take a firm stand for it would be to destroy the very idea – and academic critics were quick to pounce on it. True liberals knew that they were validated in accepting and even upholding the paradox. To live it was to defend it with the utmost civility. Yet today, the word liberal is splashed about as an accusation. Young folk on the west coast of the US have not helped the word by their strong protests. Liberals, you live the paradox, you uphold civilisation by your acts of self control. You do not impose – and that is the obligation the title imposes upon you. For the word liberal to be used as a strong accusation in light of recent events may be fair, but it is not the word that has fallen off it’s meaning, it is the people who have fallen off the word. The word does not change its meaning just because some people who used it as a cover have now discarded it. The word ‘liberal’ still stands for what it always did. Liberals all over the world are still there, quietly bemused, holding on to their paradox, for they know that in a world where even paradoxes are allowed to have their place, we can all thrive.

Another such word is ‘secular’. With much history and baggage, much intrigue and manipulation, it was a word that even the founding fathers of the Indian constitution found tough to handle in their sensitive times. Yet, India grew to learn of its diversity and value it, even if for many it was a tolerance only for display, their insecurities growing like worms nesting in rotten cupboards. India’s Idea, they said was to foster diversity, for in diversity, as every portfolio manager knows, lies a certain management of risk. And yet we know of fallible men, and women, who seek to retain power, and for that they mangle all that is good, in service to their venal needs. The Idea of India is mocked now, and so too is the word ‘secular’. An ideal that we knew would be difficult, for again, it entails self control (by all), it calls upon one’s better self to consciously design a future that gives room to all to all to grow, it asks each of us to shift a bit and make room for others so that there is enough for all. And yet, when it was misused and manipulated for appeasement and electoral gain, it was not the word ‘secular’ that should have lost its meaning. It was the people who used it incorrectly who should have been knocked off their secular pedestals, for they did not deserve the goodness of the word anymore. The word remains as it was, a distant dream, a work in progress, a hope of a civilisation where we can share and grow. The shadows of greedy people that have fallen on it does not change the word, then why does it bear the blame? To shame the victim, to cast it aside is not an act of valour. It is the weak who abuse the word, and today, the word ‘secular’ too needs rescue to return to itself.

There is another word that is in danger, being pulled away from its original meaning and it is happening now, as we watch. This is the word ‘populist’. With the alt-right gaining ground, something gave way. The word alt-right is a neologism, a euphemism even, for what festered and grew out of the vestiges of the Nazi Fascist years in the twentieth century. When times were difficult, jobs and wages suffered, many people yearned for something better, something to hold on to, something to change. Anything. The hunger and the need did what it always does, allows our baser instincts to rise regardless of our better selves. Who can deny it, that the better self can survive only on a full belly and a safe neighbourhood. The higher self rises above it all, too distant when times are tough, and it is in these tough times that our lower instincts, common to us all, multiply. Become popular. The venal appeal to this, multiply our fears and thus become ‘populist’. The word then gets taken over to mean much more than it should. It is not the ‘populist’ approach to hurt others, it is something worse. Populism is about the many, and when people misuse populism to serve the few, then again, it is the word that is the victim. It is the word that is losing its identity and meaning in this game of distorted mirrors. A word that stood for light movies, pleasing songs and slightly risqué dances that expressed freedom is now seen to represent the voice of some other thing – it is a word that needs a rescue too. Before it is normalised, and the new normal becomes the face of the world we never wanted to create or become.

For surely we are better than a warp in the waylaid word.


Delhi Summer

As the Delhi summer rides in, it scatters us, the weak, right back into our little caves. We prepare for the summer as if for a siege. I personally start with a prayer, for I know that there are forces beyond hope and good planning that will be needed to keep the electricity and water running through the searing months in this rough town.

Rooms are prepared for the coming months. Bedsheets and bedcovers are cool, old and soft. A splash of bright colour, often in defiance to the brilliance outside. Soft pillow covers, in what used to be pristine white, but now a faded ivory that holds the stories of years of restless midnight punches and shuffles, as one hunts for that elusive cool spot. Curtains are thick and drawn, rooms darkened. We hide behind more than one, the outermost part of most houses are sheeted in green netting that protects our gardens and potted plants from the scorch that allows nothing to survive. Then, come the traditional bamboo chiks – large sheets of stiff curtain that are rolled up only when the evening breeze stirs. We stay still, quiet, indoors, till the sun has had its way and gone. The sound of the air-condtioner and the fan, our constant companion, nay, protector, in summer’s face have replaced the soft, insistent clack-clack of grandmother’s rotating hand fan.

Our clothes are soft, light, bright – in appeasement and defiance – in alternate measure. Our food stores full of dry goods, thankfully it is too hot for the basics to go bad as they do in the monsoon. It is too hot for mosquitoes, they are driven away out of existence by the excessive heat. Nothing weak lives, only a few can survive this. Our water drums are filled, and preparations made for scarcity. Few of us, with memories of tougher times, fill them for fear of water supplies drying up. Rations, after all, were not so long ago. Even now, the news brings stories of some areas not getting water for a week, for two, for half. We prepare. But even the young, the secure with their own gated colonies and ‘guaranteed’ water supplies that drain the water table for the entire city know this – the only cool water for the bath is going to be what you store. Taps are connected to overhead water storage tanks that bear the full brunt of the sun, the water as hot, or hotter than one can bear on ordinary skin. We plan for the seige of the sun, and the battle lines are drawn.

Till we begin to wonder at ourselves. Delhi is a land of fighters, and we are not used to being nobbled in this manner. To be cowardly just to be cool, feels a bit uncool. We are the land of the flexed muscle, the brief battle, the quick win and the celebration after. We live for our laughter, and quiet dark rooms are certainly not our thing. We look at the workers, their routines remain unchanged, even as they vary their timings. And we decide, we will not be beat. Delhi was often looted, but never won or lost. Delhi always rose again, and with it rose the sounds and smells of laugher and good food. Out come the crisp cottons, the dhakai sarees, the swaying kurtis, the silver jhumkis, the black as thunder kajal outlining defiant eyes as they stepped out dazzling in the bright sunshine. The men too, for nothing can be allowed to wilt when it comes to us versus the sun. We stand as tall and strong as any other. The watering holes buzz, as they never have before. We hold up standards, and summer fashions match the best in the world. Sarojini buzzes, but now there is more, as e-commerce brings us the perfect handbag, and dress right to our doorstep, just in time for the party at the farmhouse, or that shared workspace now a bar. Walkers claim the morning cool. Ice-creams and gol-gappas break through the heat of the evening. On the hottest days, even marked by tradition, thousands are served free cold lassi to beat the killer heat. We even wed each other in this weather, for when ‘arrangements’ have been made, even the primal gods are but participants.

Through all this, it is the tall triumvirate that holds my spirits up. The bougainvillea, the gulmohar and the amaltaas. The delicate leaved bougainvillea that pretends to be so weak, that it cannot stand on it’s own slender stem survives it all, blushing and blooming in heady defiance as it climbs onwards, as far as it can. The red and orange Gulmohar tree, it’s crown rising far above the sultry town, claiming the right to hold its own regardless of the odds. And the amaltaas, it’s flowers dripping gold off bright yellow chandeliered flowers, as if nothing can stop the goodness. They lay down a carpet of pink, red, orange, yellow and gold for me to walk on. With these flowers as canopy, and as carpet, one knows, that there is no siege but in the mind. It is ours to walk on and win.

RTE Act: A Review for LiveMint Sunday

27 April 2017 | E-Paper

It’s time to reform the RTE Act
Photo: Mint
While there is much to applaud in the RTE Act, its flaws, and the flaws in the education system itself, are deep-seated and numerous

Meeta Sengupta
First Published: Sat, Apr 22 2017. 11 21 PM IST
The story goes that some educators were in a car, driving through the hinterland of India. One of them asked for the car to stop. As the dust settled, they emerged from the car, walked to the local school of a little village in the middle of nowhere.
“Is this what you want every school to be like?” yelled one to the other. “Do you want students to sit on the floor, with walls that are cracking and roofs that have a direct view of the heavens?”
The other joined in the battle, and we are told that the scholars shouted at each other almost till sundown, when it was time to drive off again.
For those who came in late, this has been the story of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Where each clause was hard fought, and even then it was never done. Maybe it is the fate of this Act to never be perfectly done. Maybe it will continually have to strive to keep up with reality. For now, it is far behind, and must catch up and reform.
It was a simple idea, that all children had a right to be educated in good schools. And that this right must be consecrated in law. Decades of debates over drafting led to a document that could be passed in 2009. The scars of the debates were clear even as the document made its way through Parliament, but the consensus was hard won, and the momentum could not be lost. And in doing so, the RTE Act was born, each patch-over carrying the seeds of the troubles it would create in implementation.
So much was left to chance, so much left for others to discover and negotiate, and so much left to inevitable confusion. The excuse offered up for this was the fact that education is a concurrent subject, both the realm of the central and the state governments. The RTE Act, of course, came from the centre, and mandated certain actions that were an imposition on state governments, and on the private sector. And in that too, it was selective.
It is not as if the RTE Act does not have its supporters. There is much to be applauded in the Act. But even within the good parts lie some practical pitfalls because of which protests against the RTE Act have simmered for years. The intent of the Act and its impact diverged, causing much upheaval in the school sector in India.
For example, the excellent push towards school management committees that were to support governance at the school level suffered on the ground since they had no powers, no funds and, worse still, no support to train their members in governance.
It was an excellent idea to include local parents to watch over the schools their children attended, but parents, especially if less educated than teachers, are often patronised or find it difficult to be heard. Without this support, the school management structures were doomed to oblivion. It then rests upon civil society to fill the gap left between legislation and execution. This type of gap, or indeed, chain of gaps makes for a rocky road for the RTE Act.
There are broadly three categories of problems with the RTE Act.
One, the act does not apply to all schools
The Act claims to stand for all children but does not actually apply to all. And this glitch comes into play because of something outside the RTE Act. The Constitution’s Articles 29 and 30, which give minorities rights to provide education for their own, have been amended to become a noose around the RTE Act. The intent of the Act may have been to acknowledge this principle by excluding madrasas, Vedic pathshalas and educational institutions providing primarily religious instruction. In practice, it has given a window of opportunity to all minority institutions to exempt themselves from the diktats of the act.
This led to an almost comical rush among schools to declare themselves minority under one pretext or another. Courts too discovered more work when asked to adjudicate on matters minority—they have just declared that linguistic minority schools are not exempt from the Act. These schools now look for other crevices in which to hide from the act. The implications are serious—the Act is now seen to shield minorities and put the entire burden on the majority religion. This is seen as anti-Hindu by many, and thus sectarian.
The subtle difference that the sectarian impetus comes from outside the Act and not within is often lost in the loud—and binary—calls to repeal the Act. It does not serve the majoritarians to dissolve a derivative of the problem and not solve their real problem. But the point remains. While about 5,000 schools were shut down (and another 8,000 closure notices served) for not being recognized under the Act, both minority and government schools got away without having to conform to the same rules for recognition. (See the data here.)
In fact, only 6.4% of government schools conform to the RTE norms according to a parliamentary reply. Had they been majoritarian-owned private schools, they would have spent the past few years running from pillar to post, trying not to be shut down by the upstart Act that spoke not of learning but only of infrastructure. Minority schools, in the meantime, could continue working on improving learning without having to worry about survival.
The worst hit were the budget private schools, small schools started in cramped areas, which had neither the land nor the funds to meet the new criteria for square footage, playgrounds and libraries. These, if minority, could survive. But if not, they were in trouble.
A rational response to such a situation would have been to create a fund to support upgrading such schools. But the Act clearly says that this must be done at the school’s expense. The cost was dear indeed: not only did school capacity suffer due to shutdowns, but also school choice since parents were now forced to send their children to schools they had rejected previously. We do not even begin to discuss the impact of the mid-cycle closure on the small philanthropists who started up some of these schools, for they are collectively placed with the “privateers” and “profiteers” in education. No wonder the minority pathway seemed to be an excellent escape route.
Another issue, one that lies outside the Act, but which the RTE Act bears the burden of being the messenger for, is the conflict of interest in the sector. The role of the government as a majority operator, an administrator and regulator in this sector represents a severe conflict of interest so huge, and so pervasive, that it should be shocking.
Yet, either because it is traditional, or because the powers are genuinely so skewed that they cannot be questioned, this conflict has rarely been raised as an issue in public discourse. The fact remains that the largest operator in education is the one that makes the rules.
Two, the costs of the RTE Act were neither articulated, nor allocated
The sheer chutzpah of the Act has never been fully appreciated. In one fell sweep, it nationalized a quarter of private-aided majoritarian schools, and simultaneously asked the state governments to pick up the bill. The last time something like this happened was in the 1960s when banks were nationalized, to great economic debate. This time, it was a silent takeover.
In education, it was rather remarkable for the public system to admit to its own failures in building quality capacity by simply laying claim to private provision. Of course, this had costs—firstly, compensation for fees, and then the other costs of building new admissions protocols and its subsequent legislation and legitimacy.
The text of the Act at that time spoke little about the fees, costs and expenses apart from saying “it” would be reimbursed. This was at a time when neither states nor the private sector publicized their per child cost of schooling. The methodologies for such calculations were not available publicly, nor was there a standard that marked out the differences between the costs incurred by the school (covered by the fees) and all the extra costs that parents incurred for stationery, trips, internet, uniforms, costumes for events and myriad other expenses.
The government sector had schools on prime, land but with indifferent or crumbling buildings. Some states included these in the total cost per child, others did not. To cost these into per child cost or not was a massive accounting exercise not considered essential to the education discourse for the past 70 years—and still was not directly relevant to any actual learning outcome.
Suddenly, these numbers became of prime importance, since the Act said that the state would compensate the school according to how much it spent. The compensation was to be the lesser of the state cost or fees charged by the school. The public and private school systems were so different that building equivalence was a tough challenge. It took almost three years for most states to submit their numbers, and these are none too certain.
Also, operationally, very few people in the states and schools believed that this reimbursement process would operate smoothly. Many state governments themselves were reported to have delayed implementing the RTE Act till the compensation issue was clarified. Schools, too, refused to join in till their fees were assured.
Many have suffered delays in receiving revenues due despite complying fully with the act. A recent Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on Haryana noted that there was a “substantial delay in release of funds by the Government of India (27 to 307 days) and the state government (59 to 237 days) which hampered the implementation of the Act”.
Schools that found themselves “enabled” under the Act have reportedly stopped plans for expansion, since they may not be able to cover the costs if a quarter of their revenues are uncertain and delayed. This is particularly harmful when the core issue that needs to be addressed is capacity—the quality provision of education.
These schools are clearly in demand as quality providers. The fact that the public education system is trying to grab a quarter of its capacity is a testament to the fact that these very private schools are a key part of the solution. But if they do not invest in new capacity, then that becomes an additional cost for the state.
Then, of course, comes the question of all those costs that were not included in school fees. For the 25% of seats reserved for EWS (economically weaker section), even if the state paid for the tuition, who would pay for the rest? The uniform, the socks from that one shop in town, the books, the extra reading material, the dress for the annual day dance, the tiffin box, the shoes, transport and so much more.
These are not included in the fee structure, but are costs shared by the parents. Without these, 25% of the students would not be able to join private school life and there was certainly no way for these costs to be covered. Even if schools tried to fund it, and cross-subsidize by raising fees for other students, they would fall foul of fee regulations and parent protests.
There was a whole other layer of hidden costs too—the cost of administering the admissions process for the EWS category. It has taken years of stampedes, fights and even court cases to establish that this would be a separate lottery from the regular admissions procedure for schools. Even so, cases of fraud eligibility certificates being presented to schools and protests of malpractice continue. All for the lack of quality capacity and the jugaad of misusing the RTE Act to create a notion of some action. The rush of schools to somehow declare themselves a minority in order to escape being “RTE Enabled” seems perfectly rational in the face of both uncertain revenues and certain costs.
Three, the provisions of the Act intervene in schools in ways that are not necessarily beneficial to learning
Now, finally, we come to the problems within the Act. There was very little about learning, pedagogy, quality or even the process of education in the law. The term education has never been explained, without using the very same term in the definition—so at its very core it breeds confusion.
For example, the purpose of the act. Are we speaking of bringing all children to school? If yes, then it is a right to schooling act, not education. Here, too, where is the right to home schooling, or the freedom to opt for alternatives? The Act is silent on so many things that one wonders if the omissions were deliberate.
There is much about inclusion for the disabled, but nothing for those whose schedules and abilities do not match with a traditional school timing regime—schools for children of construction workers that were run on-site were made illegal by this legislation. As were many slum schools for the poor. A joke doing the rounds was that this was not meant to be a Right to Education Act, it was a Right to Infrastructure Act with so much attention paid to input criteria and almost none to outcomes such as learning.
Then, with every good intention, the Act insisted that all children must progress with their age cohort, and implied two things. One, that testing was not of value, and two, that learning mattered less than age. Neither of which made sense to schools, for without the consequences of testing, they found it difficult to manage learning cycles. Many schools stopped examinations, others carried on. Many knew that the learning gap between students’ actual abilities and those expected was increasing, but they had no way of addressing the increased gaps.
The whole pretence of progress would come crashing down after age 14, when the protections of the Act ended and students actually had to deliver performance in Class IX (or age 15) but would be unable to do so. This has been debated for eight years and now the “detention” decision has been delegated to state governments.
The internal economics of the Act, too, was rather troublesome. All teachers were expected to be paid at the Sixth Pay Commission rates, at par with government teachers. This was a significant multiple of the market rates and completely unaffordable for budget private schools whose total revenues per class barely would meet the new mandated pay. This was unimplementable—either schools would subvert the law or have to shut down just because the law did not understand markets.
There were other costs built into the Act as mandated input requirements, but we had no clear evidence within India that greater floor space leads to better education, or higher teacher pay leads to higher learning outputs. In fact, to the contrary, K. Muralitharan’s six-year randomized control trial in Andhra schools proved that private schools were able to deliver slightly higher learning outcomes at one-third the cost of government schools. The RTE Act had no reason to push up costs for schools or threaten them with closure for non-delivery of inputs.
We have much to be grateful for too. The RTE Act was the first major piece of legislation in education in India. The Act, with all its flaws, has the dubious distinction of furthering the education conversation by creating a series of pain points for students, teachers, heads and analysts. It is only because of the Act does one discover that successive national education policies and curriculum frameworks have never yet been parsed into simple learning outcomes for students at different levels.
For decades, teaching and assessment have progressed without any formal discourse or even proper data on basics such as the difference between educational achievement and attainment, between outputs and outcomes and more. The conversation on education costs would never have reached current levels without the provocation of this Act, and without it the conversation on education financing had been lying unattended for decades.
The Act itself is not all bad—it does practically do away with redundancies such as the TC, or transfer certificate, which is a document required to allow a student to shift schools. This was often misused in the past to hold on to and harass students. The birth certificate too is not mandatory to enter into education, thus easing access. Student welfare has been put first in the Act with the duties of the state, school, teachers and parents laid out. Of course the Act often goes overboard in asking for things that cannot be enforced—such as barring teachers from private tuition—which is a serious issue that is often stated as the reason for teachers not teaching at school.
Almost all of the problems of the Act are fixable. The case for reform has been built substantially by schools, by legislative history and by civil society discourse. The third set of problems identified above all lie within the Act are the easiest to fix, and some of these reforms are already under way.
The ministry of human resource development has already worked on learning outcomes and they will probably be a part of the Act soon. But learning outcomes in education are troublesome indicators in themselves—they assume uniform inputs and cannot account for the longer term. Which leads us in a circular argument right back to where the RTE protests started—against standardized input criteria.
At this stage, the best we can measure is student test achievement as a proxy for output and attainment for outcomes. It is a welcome intermediary reform, and must lead on to either a balanced scorecard approach to education, or to a value-add approach. This is substantial work and will entail improvements in assessment. The reform in the RTE Act has the ability to transform teaching and learning in the classroom.
Other parts of the RTE Act are already being modified. Student detention has been passed on to the states. Many of the input criteria have been negotiated in the rules set by the states to be much more reasonable—such as allowing slum schools to use nearby public parks for play. Teacher quality is a work in progress and will need more direct attention than the flexible approach used so far.
Fixing the second set of issues, those of costs, has become paramount now. This is the one leg that can bring the entire edifice down. Unless payment mechanisms are smooth and reliable, schools and states will be unwilling to participate. The very complex payment processes are the result of a single clause in the Act (12 (1) c), the very same one that nationalized 25% of select private school capacity.
At the very least, the first solution should be to allow schools to admit students if there are no applicants in the 25% EWS category. As it stands, schools are forced to keep the place vacant and lose both fee revenues and compensation if they cannot find a poor student in their area. The costs of the RTE Act just keep mounting.
With such a laudable piece of social engineering, it feels politically incorrect to ask for it to be re-evaluated. But this cause comes at a very heavy cost—and there have to be smarter ways to deliver better learning outcomes and social mobility to all.
Even improving public provision might be easier than this lumbering behemoth, or alternatively a simple school voucher that does not need a whole extra bureaucracy to manage the 25% category. This one section that has generated a whole range of costs and traumas must be revisited to ask the simple questions: Does it even come close to meeting its goals? Has the disruption been constructive? Can these goals be achieved with lower costs?
Resolving the first set of issues is probably the most complex—and it does not even lie within the Act. Yet it has deep implications both for the Act and for the future of education in India. To give minorities the right to teach their own way to their own is undeniably the responsibility of a state that serves diversity. At the same time, because the right to education is a fundamental right, the state has the responsibility to deliver education equally to each child that meets certain quality standards.
Both of these responsibilities are currently seen as conflicting, but this is not necessarily true. This is a knotty problem, but this is where Indians need to apply themselves—we are masters of the middle path. If Narasimha could kill the demon Hiranyakashipu while meeting seemingly impossible conditions, there surely is a path out of this tangle too.
One option, for example, is for us to understand and mark out the clear line between content and administration within education. The government has a responsibility to govern the administration of all schools to ensure quality education is being delivered to all. This does not need to impinge upon the content of teaching, while it does call to account the process of teaching and learning and its outcomes.
The line of separation between content and process is important, because this line defines the zones of autonomy and accountability for all schools, while sticking to the provisions made for minorities.
For example, schools need to have a standard process for collection and reimbursements of fees. This has nothing to do with any faith—all money matters must be transparent and audit-ready regardless of the type of school. Similarly, all schools need to ensure basic safety, access to clean water, teacher support systems and feedback to parents—regardless of “status”. These processes are the business of running an education institution and are completely agnostic.
In all of these, the RTE Act, and indeed any educational Act, can be uniformly applied. The issues of content, such as the curriculum, the pedagogy and the content of the assessments remain autonomous. This too can be uniformly applied and still remain within the laws. It does need careful crafting and design by legal experts, but there is a clear path that serves all the stakeholders.
The RTE Act is a mixed bag, but it is the only thing that puts the child student at the centre. In just that it demonstrates its value. It does need fixing as much now, as in 2009, when its design was doomed to create confusion and trouble. Now that we have evidence of the kind of problems it can create, and of the good it can do, it is time to reform it in line with the key goal of a quality education for each and every child.
Meeta Sengupta writes on education, policy and strategy, and designs interventions to improve outcomes.
Comments are welcome at

When Both Sides are our Own

Growing up with nationalistic songs playing on the rickety rectangular cassette player, Kashmir was not just the crown of India, it was where the head of Mother India was sat, she, resplendent and glowing in Raja Ravi Varma-esque beauty. For us Kashmir was beauty, it was bounty, it was the fount of our very Indian-ness. Because remember, the Aryan inflow was what we believed at that time – and it still may be true. It was the land of the Rishis, our thinkers and intellectuals who traveled back and forth across the nation and then to the Himalayas. We even suspect, our gods loved the cool climes of the peaks and lived amongst them. There was nothing more Indian than Kashmir, to us from the north. Raja Ranjit Singh – and the ever valorous Hari Singh Nalwa were our heroes. And their stories straddled the terrain. Their stories I say? Our stories, for we were to grow up to be as wise and brave as the best who came before us.

Even everyday life was inclusive of so many things that were so seeped in tradition that it did not matter whether they originally came from Srinagar or Amritsar, they were both equally a part of us. Our Kahwa in winters, or indeed the badaam (almonds) that are thrust by parents into the pockets of children even now to make them study better are a nod to how integrated we all still are and will remain. Just look at your shawl collection – it is incomplete without Kashmir.

I am unashamedly a child of integrated India, even as I have drifted far away. I retain the right to my emotions, I do not claim the right to judge. But I do not recuse myself from the matter at hand. No onea who cares for humanity can do so, for Kashmir has been both a deeply fortunate and unfortunate land. It lies on new terrain, unstable, as the young Himalayas shift ever so slowly and firmly. That too is the tale of Kashmir, but much more immediate and visible. To repeat it’s history is futile, to remind oneself of it’s geographical position facile. To speak of past privileges evoked and revoked puerile. To go back to a single watershed moment linked to the formation of India – fissile. There-in lies the root of the problem. We are not dealing with reason here, we are dealing with emotions. This sadly does not preclude rationality – for the venal politics that has beset the state is purely rational and has worked to the self interest of those who sought and got power. Myopic rationality, a.ka. greed has worn the state dry of much that was good, and now all that is left is empty but vicious anger. Irrational anger. Misdirected, it aims at anything it sees pointed against it. And today it can see a gun, and that gun is carried by a child of India. Can irrational anger ever see beyond the moment and reason why? We are in a land beyond reason now, and till reason returns to Kashmir, there can be no resolution.

As I call for peace, I hear my voice echo in the abyss. And the voices that are returned to me are those who deny my call. I know, I know, I tell them. You are too far gone and will not even remember what it means to have prosperity and calm in all that beauty. But it exists. The ad-hominems begin, for to call for peace is to be accused of forgiving those who hurt us. It is to be accused of being kind to those who strayed – and attacked our own. But this is the truth – that any one who is hurt in Kashmir, be it soldier or the one on the street was the hurt of an Indian mother. How can one feel the pain of one Indian mother and not the pain of the other? If both are equally Indian, you, the nationalist, must feel both equally. If you don’t, then you are the one who has pushed the ‘separatist’ into the category of the ‘other’. So much has gone wrong in our land, let us not add this ‘othering’ to our mistakes.

No one can deny that there have been mistakes made. Horrible ones. Which sensible person can condone or even accept the terrors of this beautiful land. Read what was written, the accounts of survivors. What led normal people into that frenzy of madness – we know, and we hurt with all those hurts. The lashes and the wounds are not only the ones visible and counted, the true lashes have been the smoke and mirrors games played with the ordinary people. The misdirection leaves the vulnerable even more so, while the venal play their own games. This is what hurts. When one’s own are suckers and walk away from their own prosperity and good.

You are special, because you are our own. You are not special, and suffer like all of us ordinary folk in other states, because you, like the rest of us, are our own. Your struggles are not unique, even if you want to believe so – we are all struggling to make things better. We succeed, then we fail. And when we do, we too blame the government, often rightly so, but that is the nature of nationhood. In that we all struggle at the same time, and keep trying. This is not about being ‘owned’, for nobody can own a people that vote for their own representatives. In free and fair elections. We are our own rulers if we vote and maintain law and order. This is the way we are always free, by creating safe conditions for each of us to be free to live, work and prosper. The fight for freedom belongs to each Indian, and we fight for our freedom by proving that we can handle it – and can create a peaceable local community. The fight for freedom is the fight for equity, the fight for honest hard work, the fight for knowledge not hearsay – and none of these should need guns or stones.

What does one say to a brother and sister who is crying out in pain, whether in uniform or on the streets? What does one say to one’s own – when they should know that we all hurt together. How does one send that light, that healing that can help see the truth. And the truth here is bitter, no one will want to hear it. But every injured person knows this truth – that the journey to recovery will be painful, but it can be done. At the end of the recovery, one may not be the same person one has been – but it is time to look to the future. The past has nothing to offer but painful memories. And when one has decided to recover and rebuild what is good, this is when one knows who one’s true friends are – those who reach out to take, or those who reach out to give. And today, I reach out to give the only thing I have – my sisterhood.

The Feminists We Meet

“Oh no, I am not a feminist” rose the cry from those who knew they had not made it, glamourous and popular as they were. Their pay was still a fraction of what was paid to men in the industry, and while they worked just as hard, if not more, did they dare claim something that looked like a victory pedestal? One that might irk the…men. Did one risk it, or was the price of assertion too high.

Those who did claim feminism too had their own journey. Come along, and meet a few types of ‘feminists’ I met. Some I liked, and could respect – while others were politely seen off my horizons. Let me introduce you to four, or maybe six types of feminists: The patriarchs, the privileged, the survivors, the #everyday and the club. And then a sixth who cares not for titles but is strong enough to both embrace it, live it and make it easier for others.

We move up the ladder of strength, the lowest first…

First, to those who declare themselves feminists, claiming to have found the perfect balance between work and home. For that they rely on their mothers and mothers in law. A pet peeve, I will admit, for they further entrench the patriarchy by restricting the choices of other women. How is your exploitation of (the mothers’) their abilities and time any different from what the patriarchy has done before you? How is your working life any different from that of any husband who has a wife to ‘make sure I do not have to worry about the home so that I can give my 100% at work’. A feminist does not ride on the shoulders of other women’s freedom, even if they seem willing. How many women in trapped in the patriarchy do protest the next sandwich or chapati – their lack of protest is not a position of equity. It is a role, a circumstance that they don as duty for they see no other way. To do that to your own mothers is probably just as bad if not worse. And to cry success from the rooftops when you are adopting the patriarchy’s privileges despite your own gender makes me wonder at how you define your feminism.

Many of us have done this in our working lives. When I first started in the corporate world there were even fewer role models in leadership positions. All our learned behaviours, everything that counted for success came from male role models. And that is what we did, we modelled ourselves on men. We adopted that straight shoulder (remember power pads on the shoulders in the 1980s?), the brisk walk, the crisp put down and the board room voice. It was not us, but we joined in, as we joined in on all the sexist jokes. For what harm can a laugh do, we were part of the boys club now, were we not? Our laughter proved it so. Those others, those ‘girly’ ones, or the domesticated ones were not up to our standards. We became the patriarchy and called ourselves feminists. Till we learnt better. At home and at work, we learnt to delegate, to share, and we learnt to survive.

Because survivors were what we were. Survivors in the sea of patriarchy, and all that we could do (and boy, did we work hard for it) was float in that sea. We floated, and swam along with the best of them, to make sure our voice was heard. To carry on with the metaphor, some of us made it to the boat, and then some got to captain a few ships too. Survivors. Sometimes with survivor’s guilt for those we had to leave behind. Were we, the survivors feminists?

Over the years I met so many who had charted their own path. Professionals, writers, teachers and more. And yet I wondered at their feminism, for their own lives were lived as an addendum to the ‘core’ traditional set up. They could be their own selves after the chores at home were done. I will never forget this meeting of school owners, some of whom owned large school chains. I was speaking of professionalism of teachers, and the hours they worked. They needed more hours at work to be able to do the parts of their jobs left undone such as the planning, the feedback and more. This one leader, male, stepped up to say, “My wife is a teacher, and she cannot do this school-work. If she does, who will make the roti for me at home?”. The room full of men nodded approval, while we women were stunned into a quiet determined silence. There were more stories gathered along the way, a classic from an ‘aunty’ to a mother, “So what if you are a PhD, it is still you who has to wash the dishes at home”. Truth. The famous writer sits down to work after the house is fed and cleaned. Is this teacher, this PhD, this author a feminist? Or a survivor of the house of traditions, learning to carve out hidden safe niches for themselves?

Then came the strong women who ran house and hearth. Were the grand matriarchs, defined by tradition for their roles and scope, true feminists? I met those who said, “The man might be the head of the family, but the woman was the neck”. She too took a step forward to claim power in the equation, not quite getting it, but she did get the use of the power. She too did what she could. A survivor, but was she a feminist? Was her way one of power or one for equity? Did she work for the patriarchy, control it or manipulate it to her advantage? I am sure there were some of each type.

I was introduced to some who called themselves quiet feminists. The ones who dealt with questions of identity, self, equity and choice everyday and moved seemingly placidly through the patriarchal structures they had inherited. They looked traditional, but quietly, each day, they moved one tiny piece of the structure, so that a generation later, the entire structure had shifted for their children. They could never claim feminism for themselves, for they were mere survivors too. They never put up a fight, or struck out for what was right in the binary fashion of all large movements, they were the ones who fought quietly, not just for themselves, but for others.

Then, there were those young ones who stepped up for themselves. Some stepped out of traditional confines to work for pay, knowing they may be forced to abandon this path – because true choice and freedom were not theirs yet. They were ‘allowed’ to catch a glimpse of themselves for a bit before being bound again. Whether they were feminists, or survivors, (or even losers) I cannot say. But in each step, some sunshine had entered the dank tradition. Those who stayed within the norms laid down, and started a boutique, or a tailoring shop, or a festival even – did they conform or did they create a path? Were those who owned a ‘beauty parlour’ in affordable nooks asserting economic independence or were they serving the culture of objectification? Was the very act of ‘beautification’, or even simple grooming not an assertion of the self? Were they winning the battle or losing it?

In a very Eastern/Indian way, they did both. The divergence from tradition so subtle that one did not even notice when the matriarch of television soaps with the giant bindi moved from holding her aanchal to holding a laptop. It is Schrodinger’s feminism – did it or not kill the cat? Much of this feminism was too subtle to be seen, often to weak to survive. If there was a hashtag called #EverydayFeminism, it would be mocked as much as revered. It would be the refuge, the community of those who were still in there, trapped and fighting, not so much for others or any grand cause, but just to survive in ways that did not stunt their aspiration. These struggles often too petty, too small and too lost for the ‘cause’ would – and technically could – be seen as betrayal too. They did not cross the line, did not assert for equality, yet the line is what they owned. And by owning that line, they were able to blur it for the others. Were they feminists too? Or mere survivors like us, up in the corporate ship, playing the game as best we could?

And above all, of course, came those who conflated privilege with feminism. You could be both of course, privileged and feminist, but it was easier to reap the rewards and claim victories if you had enough money to pay for help and enough networks to glide through tough assignments. Glamour helps too, as does charm, since they carry privileges of their own that look so much like choice. For those who earned these privileges, I have a special regard. And an even greater respect for those who did not tread in the footprints of the patriarchs who came before us. These are the true ones who shine a light on the path for us.

Those who know and own their feminism are rare, and often not well known at all. We are beginning to discover them, as we seek to understand our version of what it means to be a woman and hold our own. Some of them are now grey pictures of women who traveled abroad to become doctors and pilots in the middle of the past century. Those that broke through barriers became our heroes. (They were heroes, but we note that not every feminist has to be one. If I were to have to break barriers each time to express or own myself, I’d be a very exhausted feminist. They were heros, but every feminist does not have to be one.) We look further, and see queens who went to war, scholars who were poets and philosophers and so many more. To some of is it is a comfort, a precedence that makes our assertions a little less ‘out there’. An easier battle for the self, we sigh in relief.

For the others, those in the club, a little twinge, as we realise that we are not the grand pioneers that we thought we were – but then swish our pallu back strategically – and the glamor of the moment of assertion is ours. The cat and the mouse here are both feminists in their own ways, one pleased with cream and attention, the other uncaring for the lack of it. The ones we rarely see, the natural feminists, they are too busy living their life their own way to care for titles or tags.

As another day celebrating women comes around, we will see it all again: privilege and patriarchy calling itself feminism, while true feminism quietly holds the line of equity, holds it firm and looks us in the eye asking – are you strong enough to stand with me for what is fair and just?

First Reactions to #Budget2017 Education Proposals

1. Thrilled to hear of National Testing agency. been asking for it for years. Separate learning from assessment. Even have Op-eds on it. (e.g Happy that the government listens, analyses and acts.
Here the devil is in the details. If it becomes a single point of failure (or success, then we have a problem. Design of this agency is vital)

2. The biggest give to the education sector did not even come under the ESJ classification. It came under digitisation – BharatNet.

3. Many are old announcements such as learning outcomes monitoring which has been in place with a 3 year lag for years, previous minister asked NCERT to deliver within the year two years ago, shows up in budget speech now with no details. Swayam pathways and credits were announced years ago, UGC reforms have been dancing a dance of old vs. new for years.

4. Few numbers announced in speech. There is little headroom for more expenditure in education at the state level. Need transformative new institutions not tinkering with the old. Progress is slow.

5. Innovation fund may have the potential to do much good.There is energy in the innovation and schooling intersection with work done by Intel and Google, Srishti and many others. India’s global participation in innovation at the school level had reached significant numbers but needs upgrades and funding. The design and details of the funds matter.

6. Had expected more on Data and gathering evidence for improving education. Much of the good work in education continues to be self funded in small pockets.

7. Is the silence on money spent on the above a signal to states?

The Annual Karwa Chauth Conversation

A: Why over think it? Just do or not, it is up to you. (She said…)

B: Is it really? Is it really up to me or do I think I am exercising free choice but am really responding to my conditioning? Because that often looks just the same as choice.

I may think this is fun, but I have been told it is fun. I may think this is good, but again, that’s what I’ve been told. How would I know this for myself?

A: I feel good, so I know it is good. I dress up, apply mehendi, feel pretty, and share a ritual with my married friends. (Let’s ignore the widows argument today, anyway it is a day to ignore widows, and let them feel excluded and miserable, right? Tradition). So, we are all having fun together, and I choose fun.

B: Really? That’s your argument? Toys and trinkets? And pretend games? Adults anyone?

A: It is a moment of bonding with my family, with my husband. We feel really close after we do the ritual with the moon and everything.

B: Yaar, what does that have to do with fasting? Any ritual you set up, you can condition the family to feel good about it. Try charitable giving and bonding over it. Or climbing a mountain (yup, the religionistas figured that out too, most temples and abbeys are on mountain tops). Set up an apple pie ritual, or a eating kheer together annual ritual. Or being unusually kind to each other and not fighting one day of the year. Each of these works. (And guess what, each of these has been incorporated into the day just to reinforce the conditioning. Smart design.)

A: I want to fast okay!! Do you have any problem?

B: Nope, not a bit. You can do what you want. But just don’t call it free choice.

It is participating in a drama, a ritual, a delusion. Something one sets up. Go on, do it, have fun. But don’t claim it as free choice. Because you cannot ever know whether it was truly free or not.

A: Do I have to prove that it was free choice?

B: No, and that is the beauty of it. It is fine to go along with a delusion, an act. Who am I to tell you which delusion to choose — the one of choice or the one of tradition. Go, go on and have loads of fun. Share some pictures too!

A: So, what what this whole argument about then?

B: Just don’t call it choice.

Thing is: the only way you can prove choice is by breaking away from tradition. If you occasionally perform the fast, and sometimes don’t, just because you don’t feel like it, then you are exercising choice. But again we can be sure only when you don’t do what is expected. When you do, then how will even you know whether you are giving in to pressure, conditioning, or even the feel good of rejoining a tribe?

It’s like this: you see an advertisement for an icecream or coke, and you want to have it. To indulge is to respond to the stimulus, not to exercise free choice. But to not have it is an act of choice.

A: So, I am not having food that day. I am choosing not to have food though others are eating. Even by your argument, I am exercising choice.

B: No, you are joining the tribe and tradition of those who deny themselves on this specific day. Do the dressing up and fasting on any other day, if it is by choice. Or never. But to join in, is not provable as an exercise of choice. To deny yourself denial on this day of denial is definitely proof of choice.

A: I don’t need to prove myself to you or anybody! So what if I conform? Or behave according to my conditioning?

B: That’s what I said earlier. Go, do what works for you. Do it and be aware of the consequences. Some will be good, some less so. Do it as a political move, as a chessboard move in your life. Do it because it makes you glow for a minute. Do it because it works, not because you claim freedom. It may be many things but it is not an exercise in freedom.

India, Pakistan and Strategic A&R

As the dust begins to settle and ‘Surgical Strikes’ enter everyday lexicon in India, a shift is noted by all. Strategic Restraint has been abandoned – not that strategic restraint seems to be much of a policy. Indeed for  much of the past decade it was noted that India did not seem to have a stated policy nor a consistent course of action. Much was left to the daily drift and the India-Pakistan relationship settled into a comfortable pattern of daily skirmishes at the border, and occasional literature festivals across the borders. Cricket matches were fought fiercely, and trade maintained neighbourliness.

Everyone knew that all was not well. Pakistan had been trying for decades to identify itself as a Muslim state, and yet amongst the Islamic world its people were not the most respected. It’s identity as a nation stood as the ‘pak’ or pure land, presumably in opposition to the unclean idea of India which stood for secular inclusiveness. It’s existence therefore seemed to depend upon this opposition. It’s nationalism rising to destabilise this big-brother next door who struggled, but seemed to make a go of things in a way Pakistan never could. It’s people could not rise from poverty nor its politics rise above territorial squabbles. It’s own frustrations could of course be mitigated by creating troubles in the big brother’s house, and that it did consistently. India and Pakistan have been at war in one way or another for over three decades.

Their history did not help them. Separated at birth, there was conflict built into their very fibre. Pakistan, an unwieldy state hanging on to the east and west of India in two parts was unusual to say, in the least. India’s role in the formation of Bangladesh and it’s comprehensive wins in the direct wars between the two countries probably convinced Pakistan to play destabilisation. Indeed, it seems to have been their declared policy if evidence is to be believed, and there is enough corroboration in the public domain and the international stage.

Their claim to Kashmir stands on weak ground, and so they mount assault upon assault, damaging a people who could do with some respite and peace. Their failed war in Punjab where they set up a claim for a Sikh state, Khalistan, has turned into a dangerous and insidious war on the people with drugs. The state, once India’s most prosperous, now suffers a generation decimated by drugs that are clearly brought in from Pakistan. The war in both Kashmir and Punjab has three clear markers: (i) It’s origins and support structure from across the border in Pakistan, (ii) it is an attack on the morale and foundations rather than an honest frontal battle, and (iii) it is an attack on the people, not a nation. Pakistan’s sneaky wars are about destruction of ordinary lives. People like us.

The shifts in the relationship between India and Pakistan has been evident to most close observers. From a ‘family’ tiff between two brothers over a boundary wall and a room at the back of the divided ancestral property, they have now come to behave like a nasty couple sniping and drawing blood just to hurt each other. And there is much hurt and anger – for consistently there has been a public game played of placation and peace followed by a terrorist strike by Pakistan, or another act of damage to India. As the Indians see it, Pakistan is a state not to be trusted. Any trust placed has been breached, and breached time and again. And each such break has shifted the relationship further apart. Each test of tolerance, of restraint has led to a further breach.

Pakistan itself must know that it’s victim complex has come home to roost. It is under siege from its own homegrown and hosted powers that now control its polity, its people, and worse – it’s economy. To free Pakistan from its own insecure and armed power hungry powers is a job for Pakistan itself. India’s strategic restraint has been a policy insofar as allowing Pakistan the space to control its own monsters – even as they reach across time and again to hurt India. The narrative in Pakistan surely is the opposite, painting India as the enemy. But the people of India have no love left for the state and ‘powers’ of Pakistan and not much patience left with it. Even the ones who wistfully wished for the states to be rejoined as one are long gone. We may love our neighbours, and share our food, our music and our movies but that can never be taken to mean we want to be one family. Not now, not anymore, not in the near future. Likely never. It is now like a noisome neighbour whose infestations are troubling. They need to fix their house. They make the neighbourhood unsafe.

It is not as if India has not been protecting its own. More has been done than is always shared in the public domain, and rightly so. The shift has been in declaring and owning a strike. The strikes announced last week are still positioned as defensive more than preventive – in search of the terrorists who struck Uri and more. Certainly not an act of aggression or incursion. Strikes inside each other’s territory, it seems have been common, at the least operations. For neighbours that have been skirmishing for decades, this is the new normal, now acknowledged. But for India to abandon strategic restraint, as as been written may be a statement of shift, it is certainly not a declaration of new policy yet.

A nation that rises to protect its own is a nation that needs an active policy of strategic aggression – and this does not mean war. It does not necessarily mean a tightening of language or action. One could also be aggressively kind, if it is to strategic advantage. It certainly means an aggressive alertness and responsiveness to matters of national interest – and a strategic choice to be made in choosing such action.


(P.S. The India Pakistan relationship tore my family from its home, and the PTSD they say lasts three generations. It’s time is done. It is time to stop living in the history or the shadows of the actions that happened in the forties, fifties and sixties. I have followed these closely – and this is an ask for both nations to grow up and deal with each others as neighbours should. Much more could have been written, but for now, this suffices.)

Fashion and the Summer of its Content

Such is the fate of fashionistas that they must follow. And to follow, they need to keep up lest the trend pass them by. So it is each season, and so it nearly was – but not. The Delhi fashion scene may pretend to be with it during the sponsored fashion weeks, but we know that if anything, Delhi figures on the real fashion map only as the guardian of the traditional. Not orthodox, but the traditional. Fashion is reflected here truly as fusion, where Milanesque elements fuse seamlessly with the mores of Munirka’s back streets. Gasp if you will, for you, surely are not one of those, who follow, are you? You create your own style. If you are one of us, and I count myself amongst them, then rejoice. For fashion wise, this has been the summer of our content.

Delhi has always been at the centre of the fashion routes of the world, even as it stands under-acknowleged for its graceful and pragmatic adaptations – witness the story of the Anarkali, bringing all the graceful elements of the world’s courts into one perfect sweep that survives long past the empires that made it so. Today, borrowing our fashion sense from the summers at Cannes, the ramps at Milan, the exporters from Pakistan, the relatives in London and the commencement parties in Boston, Delhi has always known how to blend with the rest of the world. Listen to it’s accent – but that is for another day. And Delhi has always known to make it uniquely it’s own style with the flowing textiles that have never been in lack here – this is the land when any aunty will promptly tell you a rubia from a two by two with a supercilious air, as she will tell you the difference between a semi pashmina and a ‘real’ pashmina, while flinging the false one pretentiously over her shoulder. We live our comforts, not our delusions.

Like the alignment of the moon years to solar years, sometimes one finds oneself in asynchronous space. The seasons changed and we just missed the straight salwar phase that was big in Lahore last year. But we were not going to actually miss it, were we – how could we – that would be defeat. In any case, it was new here, and oh, so comfortable. Then salwars were so passe – only grand aunts wore them anymore. Churidaars had morphed into skin tight stretchable leggings, often in colours of mud. The battle for the invisible bottoms, as leggings were often called in street shops, was best left to the young ones – the one who did not dare to be seen in a simple frock and needed the pretence of garment. Did I not say the back lanes of Munirka and Subhash Chowk created their own rules? Rules were not being broken but the great Indian patriarchy was brought tantalising, teasingly into a bottomless present. That too entered and remained in the fashion lexicon of this summer. Of course all leggings were not as mud, they entered in a riot of colours, often replacing the salwars of old, pretending to be the trousers denied to many, and sometimes – if rarely- remaining the sports garments that they were in the rest of the world.

In this fusion of past forms transmuting to a desirable future, the last season meeting the anticipation of the next, and the simple pragmatism of materials and forms that work in the severity of the summer, Delhi’s fashion finally found freedom. Or – indulge me here – the degrees of freedom rose with the degrees on the city’s temperature. It was hot and dry, unprecedentedly so. There was no point to make up, it was too hot. What was the point of being a follower of other styles – it was too hot. Can we please just breathe – it is too hot. The fashion gods who hold us to the mode smiled. And so we have the summer of the medley.

Delhi has erupted in a gorgeous festival of shapes and colours, the only common theme being a delightful, mature and self confident comfortable elegance. Cotton shararas mingle with printed trousers as comfortably as long ghararas, or even divided ghaghras co-exist comfortably with stitched lungi patialas (or whatever those wretched beasts are called). We never saw the cullotes really disappear, but their gentle swing could be seen in the streets along with the more formal – pant like pajama. (Call it what you will, the salwar sans its pauncha is a pajama. And it is perfect). Everything worked, this summer – and there was a riot of shapes. Anything one wore was ‘in’ at the moment. The fashion motto of the season seemed to be, ‘whatever works’.

Joining in were the kurtas and kurtis of the world, starting with the extra long anarkalis, the ones that often looked like prom dresses even without the prim tights peeking out at the ankles. They thankfully gave way to the clean lines of muslin long kurtas, cut straight over the flare of the cotton shararas. Happy to defer to the lead provided by ‘lowers’ (oh yes, Delhi has the least elegant of names for a city this well dressed), the uppers were crafted with an unerring sense of proportion. And so we saw the season bloom with a variegation that had rarely come to pass – the longs, the less than longs and the short joined with the I lines and the A lines, possibly meeting other letters of the alphabet in their quest for the look. Silhouettes that had rarely met each other in a single season were co-mingling shamelessly under the severe sun in Delhi.

And so it came to pass – that we – who seek style but not fashion, who aim to be distinct and yet a la modè, found that our season had come. We were the mode, since everyone seemed to have discovered their own style too, regardless of what the influencers told them. It may not last, so for a moment, let us celebrate this summer that brought us to ourselves and our sartorial sentience.

Marks, and paths Ahead

Result season. Result week. Result day! Doom and Hope, you swing wildly between the two, finally learning what the word amplitude really means. They arrive – and you take it on the chin. Except for the toppers, who had better be whooping with delight, the rest of us tend to be hard on ourselves.

Of course we know that marks are just a means, they are not life itself. We know that good marks can take us places we want to go, and poor marks can take us to different places. So we assume that the known pathways are good and safe, and we celebrate. And the unknown are difficult, and dangerous and awful – they say – so we worry. But are they really?

For some of us, these marks make our lives, for others, life makes up for marks.

So here is how I’m going to flip it today.

Basically, they say, you have two paths, the safe, well known, well lit road that everyone has already traveled. And this will let you zip past the tough terrain on the side of the road and get you to flashy places sooner rather than later.

Right by its side is the open countryside – and the terrain is a bit rocky, often smooth – and along this you have paths, and then you have other possibilities. This too is a way to get on, and along this journey you may encounter some adventures. Meet different types of people. Learn to take your own decisions because you may not have someone always telling you what to do (not such a bad thing, is it?). You will discover your strengths and your advantages – and will learn to pursue them to survive this path. You will have fun, and pain. You will live the full range of your emotions and will become the person you build.

When you look at your friends on the fast road, some might look as if they have zipped ahead. If they are your real friends, it won’t ever – ever – matter as you stop to share a meal or a story. When you look at your lot, it might look different. For some, faster, as you learnt to fly, or found a bird to cling to, for some it would have been slower. Some would have found hidden treasure along the way, some would have built a fort. Some would have continued to trod ahead, looking for more. Some would have learnt to walk better, some would have mastered the milestones. You are still mid journey, so it may not be time to judge yet. You are still building yourself, and your path – and thence your destination and destiny.

Some of you would have zipped along on the well laid path. And done well for yourselves. Reached a destination, made something of yourselves – as the world sees it. Some of you would have had the time to stop and see the stars, but many of you would have missed many chances to be yourself and to be with those you love. It is a part of the fast track, it is hard work. As hard, or harder than the other path. It brings its own securities and insecurities, its own challenges.

And then, you and your friends may find yourself looking across from one path to the other, wondering, whose grass is greener?

Some of us wonder if the fast track was where we were meant to be, and the rest of us wonder whether we missed out on the deep and delicious pathways of discovery.

Some of you will cross over, others will have found their comfort. Both paths can lead to success, both paths have comfortable hidey holes. On either path you will find those who stumbled, and some who crashed. On both paths you will find those who fell, and fell again, and picked themselves up again. And again. Either path can leave you lost and bewildered. Either path can push you forward, and onward.

One day you will realise that the paths are merely the means. They are choices and chances you got, and took. Or left. Ultimately, your journey is your own – the journey through yourself, when you learn what makes you happy, and what makes you cry; what angers you and what makes you reach out from within yourself to share; what makes you feel your own music. And to get there, the fast track or the slow, the well laid path or the one barely marked, the led or the discovered – whichever path you take, you get to yourself through equal parts of pain and joy.

You, who hold ‘results’ today think you are holding keys to paths ahead. Use them well, but know that the paths that you do not choose today, or the paths that did not choose you today still await you. Whatever you do, whatever you become, you will go through heaven and hell on each path, and with the pieces of each success and failure you will build yourself everyday. And you will finally arrive at whatever makes you really happy, because you would have built it for yourself, your way.