Thursday, February 17, 2005


In the novel 'English August', a character- a Professor of English remarks that teaching English is burlesque. That prompted me to scan the dictionary for the word 'burlesque'. The word is used to describe a foolish way of describing a serious subject. This I feel this is an apt way to describe the way English is taught in the schools and colleges in my locality. The ultimate aim of learning a language is to communicate in an effective manner.

In the name of English language students are inflicted a lot of punishment. A lot of time and money is wasted to master the nuances of grammar. The syllabus and the teachers are rather serious about making the students know the syntax of English in a rather difficult way. If the student is unable to grasp, then cramming is the preferred solution. The parents and the teachers spare no effort in making the children master English.

I have nothing against the learning of English. I realise that this is one of the few areas where the Indian economy has a comparative advantage vis-a-vis the Chinese economy-the supply of a large English reading and speaking labour force. I have problems with the way English is taught. The students are made to read and digest the works of famous English poets and novelists like Keats and Shakespeare at a very early age. This continues right upto the college level. I wonder how many in the land of the famous Bard of the Avon use the kind of English contained in the works like Othello in daily matters. The so-called trained teachers of English also make the matters worse.

Recently, the son of a colleague of mine wanted to know the meaning of 'shipping magnate'. The reason being that his school teacher said it to mean “a big magnet attached to a ship”. I know a bit about ships having gone through many novels of Allistar Maclean and watching the Discovery channel. I have never been told about any such thing! He wanted me to give the meaning of a 'brook' as in the poem by Keats. No wonder, because many living in the towns and cities have seen a river.

There is a great fascination about the kind of education offered in the public schools(read English schools). People go to great lengths to educate their wards in such schools. One thing they specialise in is to ask the pupils to prepare 'project reports' on various topics and themes. Invariably, most of the topics are beyond the comprehension of the young. What took the cake was the recent project given to a class 9th student. He was asked to write on the kind of influence the wives had on their husbands in the Shakespearean dramas! Just imagine the enormity of the task for a 14 year old who does not have the faintest idea of a wife. In an attempt to help him, I browsed the world wide web. Surely, there was a lot of analysis of Shakespearean plays by very famous pen pushers including Coleridge. But no one touched upon this point. Wonder where from the teacher got this famous topic.

Finally, I have a complaint against the course material that is pushed and shoved into the minds in the name of English. Most of the material is alien not only in terms of the language but also in terms of the content having been taken from a foreign soil. Wonder how many Indians can relate to the bullfights mentioned in the works of Hemingway. If any work of Indian origin is chosen, then it is invariably one of a tragedy. The teachers struggle and make the students go through the wringer while explaining the philosophical ideas of a S.Radhakrishnan(a former President of India) or a J.Krishnamurty. There is no element of fun or something with which the young ones can correlate their world to.

Till the course content is redesigned and restructured, the poor students will have to pull their hairs out to master the funny and most tricky language called English.Until then the public schools, the spoken English centres and the English teachers will go laughing all the way to the banks at the expense of ordinary mortals like me.

Monday, February 14, 2005



I started my college life as a student of science. The practicals are stuff that is nightmarish and at the same time a hilarious experience for the students. I shall limit my blog to the Physics and the Chemistry practicals.

The Chemistry practicals take the cake. The first class inside the laboratory was marked by the reading aloud the dos and the don't s. I say reading aloud because the teachers had a book by an eminent Professor in front of them. Till today I am not able to fathom why the author insisted on writing the record(which contains the details of the experiments done) in 'past tense'. For instance, one should not write “ add sulphuric acid to the copper turnings” or the gas formed is “sulphur dioxide”. Instead one has to write “sulphuric acid was added to the copper turnings” or “the gas formed was sulphur dioxide”.Rarely the actual results matched the contents of the book. A brick red coloured precipitate turned to pink in our hands. The flame displayed by the ubiquitous Bunsen burner did not match the required colours. Of course, to be fair, the book did not show any colour since it was in black and white.
I had a particularly good experience during the 'titration' experiment. Such experiments are performed to estimate the strength of the given acid combined with an 'alkali' or a 'base'. I was stupefied by these terms and still get some shivers while typing. The acid that I was supplied(read provided) with was to turn into a pink colour when mixed with a specific quantity of a particular reagent. To my surprise, the colour changed to pink even before the required quantity and when the exact quantity was added the colour became brown of a very dark shade. The teacher wouldn't budge even an inch and wanted me to redo the experiment from the start. The second time was no different and I had to go back to my desk for the third time. By then most of my batchmates were leaving the laboratory having got success. I decided to do something different and stopped the adding of the reagent as soon as the solution turned into pink. My teacher was surprised and came to my desk to find the right amount of the solution. I just threw the excess solution into the drain.

The Physics practicals were the most taxing in every sense of the term. The teachers believed in having the pupils under control. At the slightest mistake they made us sweat. The records were thrown out of the laboratory. If not, the teacher would just use the 'dreaded' red ink pen to good effect. My seniors told me that the red marks would damage the prospects in the examination. That was reason enough to lose sleep. My first experiment in Physics was the 'slide callipers' with which I had to measure a hollow metal cylinder. I took ten readings but the teacher was not amused. He wanted to get more readings so that the average would be more stable. The condition was that the readings had to be different. Now that was difficult because the cylinder had the same characteristics throughout. My friend asked to me make small changes to the values and complete the experiment. Within minutes I had fifty readings. In order to measure the effect of heat on metals I was given the 'Pullinger's Apparatus'. It was a long hollow pipe in which a metal rod was to be placed and steam was to released into the pipe. Due to its property to expand, the length of the metal rod increases under the impact of the steam. But in my case, that just wouldn't happen because the steam did not go into the closed pipe but the surroundings. All I had to do was to copy from the record of a senior.

I feel that the practicals of these significance should not be thrust upon the hapless students in the name of broadening their horizons. They only serve to strengthen the hands of the teachers. The practicals serve to benefit the teachers who use them to great effect to favour their chosen ones or punish the disobedient. The equipment and the experiments are of the vintage having no such utility in the actual life. A friend of mine said matter of factly that there is a need for manipulations while carrying out the experiments. This, surely, is a revelation having come from the mouth of a science teacher.

It was much later I heard Pink Floyd sing “we don't need no education, we don't need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teachers leave the kids alone, all in all its just another brick in the wall, all in all you're just another brick in the wall”. The song makes me feel liberated after all these years from the tyranny of the practicals and the science teachers. Of course, now they are my friends and colleagues now.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

57 CHANNELS AND...................

It was nearly thirteen years ago that I first heard Bruce Springsteen lament about “57 Channels and Nothing' On”.The the thought of having so many channels on the television was something of a fantasy for a small towner like me. The television at home had only eight buttons to select the channels and there was no remote. That was not going to be any problem as the cable operator provided with two channels-one for Doordarshan and the other to show movies. So it was difficult for me to understand the pain and anguish mentioned in the song. To make matters more complicated, I could not really follow the accent of the Boss.

Then after a couple of years cable television made its entry with the promise of giving the viewer with the power to choose. The two channels were replaced by a large number of channels with even dedicated sports channels and music channel(in those days MTV showed good music instead of the remix trash beamed now.)The old television could no longer be useful. It was time to replace it with a new one armed with a full-function remote. It was great to have in the hands the power to choose. This heralded channel surfing. It was really great to feel liberated from the tyranny of Doordarshan.

The happiness was short-lived though. For a while almost all the so-called entertainment channels aired mythological soaps and had countdowns of film songs(original soundtracks, for the uninitiated). The success of a particular quiz show spawned imitators across the channels. Then there was no escaping from the movie channels and the news channels. Surely, this was like a tsunami of a different kind! Paradoxically, the proliferation of channels has not in any way made me feel better. It is not rare for the same movie to be shown on two channels at the same time. Surely, this is not the competition that the late P.V.Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh visualized when they launched the economic reforms. The same faces started appearing on every channel and worse the soaps had the same masala with even their titles starting with the same English alphabet. One has to have real quick reflexes and eye-hand coordination to play the shots, that is to press the buttons of the remote control.

In statistics there is the Law of Inertia of Large Numbers which states that “other things remaining the same, the larger the size of the sample, the more accurate is the result obtained”. It is no wonder, then that all the channels look the same.Now, I am in a position to understand the full import of the song.But owing to many constraints, I cannot take the extreme step of bumping the television off with a gun!Thanks Bruce for a point well stated or sung?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Finally, the moment is here. Narain Karthikeyan has made into the elite ranks of Formula One racing. It is a tribute not just to his racing skills but to his self-belief and perseverance. I don't think it would have any such dramatic impact on the sport of racing in the country. It is a sport that has few fans except in the urban centres. Moreover, there is not much of racing tradition in the country.It is people like the late Karivardhan, Vicky Chandhok and now Karthikeyan and the younger Chandhok have been at the forefront of racing.

Thankfully or mercifully there are no people like KPS Gill, Priyadarshan Dasmunshi, Kalmadi or even a Sunil Dutt to take the credit for Karthikeyan being sigend by Jordan. It would be a great favour on the sports fans of the country to leave racing out of the ambit of the government-bureacrat-politican axis.

On behalf of the entire country I congratulate Karthikeyan on this fantastic achievement. The lights have already gone out to signal the start of a great race.