இயற்கை முறைக் கல்வி

Sunday, October 1, 2017

My sankalpa on Gandhi Jayanthi

I decided to begin my day by reading sections of Gandhiji's masterpiece 'Hind Swaraj' (from Chapter 6 onwards). The book, in the form of a conversation about what it meant to free the colonised India, was written in 1909. The following paragraph, which is very alive for me today, is like a prelude to my own sankalpa.

"This civilization is unquestionably the best, but it is to be observed that all civilizations have been on their trial. That civilization which is permanent outlives it. Because the (daughters and) sons of India were found wanting, its civilization has been placed in jeopardy. But its strength is to be seen in its ability to survive the shock. Moreover, the whole of India is not touched. Those alone who have been affected by Western civilization have become enslaved. We measure the universe by our own miserable foot-rule. When we are slaves, we think that the whole universe is enslaved. Because we are in an abject condition, we think that the whole of India is in that condition. As a matter of fact, it is not so, yet it is as well to impute our slavery to the whole of India. But if we bear in mind the above fact, we can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands. Do not consider this Swaraj to be like a dream. There is no idea of sitting still. The Swaraj that I wish to picture is such that, after we have once realized it, we shall endeavour to the end of our life-time to persuade others to do likewise. But such Swaraj has to be experienced, by each one for himself. One drowning man will never save another. Slaves ourselves, it would be a mere pretension to think of freeing others. Now you will have seen that it is not necessary for us to have as our goal the expulsion of the English. If the English become Indianized, we can accommodate them. If they wish to remain in India along with their civilization, there is no room for them. It lies with us to bring about such a state of things.”

108 years have passed since this was written. Though our civilisation has further eroded, it can still be said that it is surviving the shock, and quite well. But the time has come for us to take it from a place of mere survival to a place where it can thrive from.

In order to do this, we need to do two things. We need to truly touch deep within us, roudram, the rage of being lied to (and in a sense, betrayed) by a few colonised generations before us and have the fire stoked. And then go deeper than the rage, touch the deep pathos in the ignorance that engulfed us saying 'They (we) didn't know better then!' And understand and intuit the real deeper reasons for whatever unfolded the way it all did, transcend both rage and pathos (while holding them within), touch the space of kārunyam, compassion. Going through this with all our sincerity alone will give us the vīryam, the authentic energy to act like true warriors. And this is what, I see Gandhiji's 'Hind Swaraj' was being a loud call to!

In my embodied exploration of 'What is India?' I am embarking upon a journey to understand vāstu śāstra. This evolved science from India draws me for two reasons. 

1. As a student of Fine Arts in the 1990s, temple architecture was what I was most drawn to. Something about its intent to manifest the highest form of energy on this material realm drew me to it like a magnet. As I was preparing myself to becoming a researcher in this area, I was carried by the other stronger pull towards activism. I'm very delighted to be picking up this thread again, with a deeper understanding.

2. In the two decades of my departure (1997-2017), I have worked extensively with groups of people coming together in varied forms and in varied contexts. A whole spectrum of organisations from 'debilitatingly hierarchical' on the one end, to 'structureless and flat' on the other. Having a designer's mind, the question about organisational design has always been alive for me. And I'm discovering that vāstu śāstra has a lot to offer in this area. What would an 'Indian way of organising spaces for people to come together to co-create' look like? This is my parallel area of study.


I'm truly blessed to be undertaking this journey under the mentorship of Raghu and Sashi. The way they have lived (and continue to live) their own lives in the spirit of 'All life is Yoga!', the utter confidence with which they claim their own power, the openness and dignity with which they share their vulnerabilities and human failings and struggles, and most of all, the sincerity with which they have extended their invitation to truly co-create, move me beyond words can express. I pray that I may be worthy of the offering by them and the community of fellow-seekers who have committed to be on this collective journey together!

A talk by Sashi on Introduction to vāstu śāstra.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Mathematics, Mythology & Mindfulness Meet

One hot Sunday afternoon, Isha was throwing around a crazy ball at home, and a conversation started about the nice pattern it made with its each bounce. Rajeev being a big fan of Mathematics, started talking about the relationship between the different heights, each being half of the previous height.

And this conversation led to a story about 'Krishna and Payasam'.

There was once a King who was very fond of chess. Over time, he became quite good at it and started winning competitively (by sheer merit and not from sycophancy). For the thrill of it, he started playing the game with prize monies. He was fair too. If he won, the opponents gave him a coin or two or some fruit or vegetable from their garden. If the opponent won, he rewarded them with gold!

One day, an old man came to the palace and challenged the King to a game of chess. The king readily agreed. The old man, of course, beat the King. The King asked him, “What would you like for prize money?'. The old man said, “Just give me some rice so I needn’t worry about food for what’s left of my time here". The King felt quite insulted and said, “You’ve done what only a few have been able to and when others ask me for gold and land, all you want is rice!! Ask for something else.” But the old man was insistent. The king finally relented and said, “All right! How much rice would you like?” The old man said “O King! Just place the rice grains on the chess board using the following arrangement: 1 grain on the first square, 2 on the second, 4 on the third, 8 on the fourth and so on doubling the number of grains for each subsequent square"

The king described this arrangement to the head of the granary and asked him to get a bag of the best rice in the kingdom. Now the granarian obviously had a knack for numbers and a few minutes after he heard about the arrangement, quietly said, “O King! Am afraid you won’t be able to keep your word”. The King was puzzled and furious, “How’s that even possible? All this old man wants is a few grains of rice!” The granarian drew a chess board and explained, “The number of grains on the nth square is 2^(n-1). So for the last square alone, the number of grains is 2^63 and the total number of grains would be 264-1=18.44*1018

A grain of rice weighs about 25 milligrams or .025 grams. So 18.44*1018 grains of rice weigh
(18.44*1018)*(.025 grams)=4.612*1017 grams or 461 billion metric tons. (At 2016 worldwide rice production levels, this would take a 100 years!)

The silence was palpable and the King, needless to say, was shocked. The King turned to look at the old man who with a mischievous smile revealed his true identity - it turned out to be none other Lord Krishna, “Don’t worry, O King! You and your kingdom can pay this debt over time”. And thus began the tradition of offering rice payasam to Krishna.

We then sat down as a family with Kullakkar red rice and decided to try this out ourselves. We then spent a whole hour (in complete silence) doing a spiral arrangement using a simple doubling rule. 1 grain at the centre, 2 next to it, 4 after that and so on. After the 5th square, we started counting in fives, learnt to count fives in different ways and thus went until the 11th square. A practice in mindfulness and fine-motor skills as we picked and place each grain carefully. 


It was quite fascinating to experience Mathematics, Mythology and Mindfulness meet so spontaneously!

Story paraphrased by Rajeev from www.singularitysymposium.com/exponential-growth.html

Some of the weight calculations were taken from www.wyzant.com/resources/blogs/291843/the_classic_chessboard_problem

Seeing Indian Mythology through a child's eyes

One of my primary partners in my exploration of 'What is India?' is Isha. Because, at one level, I am really starting from scratch. And it's also very small attempt to expose kids of her generation who are deprived of growing up with the 'real India' and her riches. We have many more miles to go!

One of the things we do together is to see / read stories of the different Gods and Goddesses on youtube and Amar Chitra Katha. As we do this, she makes her innocent observations, asks her simple and basic questions. Like Tenali Rama asked Kali how she managed if she caught a cold, constantly wiping off her thousand noses! (Lots of giggles! :)

One of our favourite stories is that of Devi slaying Mahisasura. We have seen and read different versions. In one, Devi slays Mahisa. In another, she subdues and transforms him into Yama's vehicle. What all else could Devi do with the terrible Mahisa? 'If Devi is the most powerful, why would it take her 10 days to control Mahisa? How is it that she is so calm and peaceful while slaying the asura?' And we both indulge in wonderment together! And more than anything, we both learn to keep collecting and staying with all our questions, an important learning I realise as a grown up.

And this journey continues beyond the stories we see and read. Every evening for around one mandala (40 days) we have been lighting the evening lamp, and playing and singing along 'Mahishasuramardini Stotram' and the 'Hanuman Chalisa'. I combine my practice of reading the Devanagari script and learning Sanskrit vocabulary and grammar alongside. By now, she has learnt to recite along the entire stotram. One evening she said 'Today you sing, and I will dance.' and went ahead with a full-on performance of the story with abhinaya! And now, this has become our new routine for the past four days. Of course, I am not supposed to watch her dance. It is her personal thing. :) 

And then we are waiting to delve into the stories Shumbha and Nishumbha and all the other Asuras that we sing about.

Indian Mythology: A Beginner's Note

Until recently, I didn't care much for Indian Mythology due to many reasons. One: I didn't grow up listening to any stories from grandparents or relatives, or in school. My first and only exposure was Ramanand Sagar's & Ravi Chopra's versions on the TV, which I didn't follow much either. Two: As I grew up, waking up to the world crisis, I didn't think it had anything useful to offer in saving us from wars, oppression, toxins or climate change. Three: There were a lot of triggers in them for me, usually gender-based. And then I had this idea that the perfectly-shaped human forms adorned with jewels, etc. attributed to Gods and Goddesses were born out of our own obsession with our petty human stories and our insignificant forms, and had nothing to with the powerful energies around and within us!

Thanks to a radically fresh introduction to mythology with our yoga teachers over the past few years, I started taking another look at it recently. I'm riveted to the fascinating stories including the Mahabharatha by Kamala Subramanian. And through what I've heard of the Mahabharatha Immersion offering by Ritambhara, which I myself am yet to experience. 

Reading and listening to Joseph Campbell, his fascination for mythology, Indian Mythology in particular and for the 'mystery of life' in general has been contagious! I'm sitting on a whole pile of his films to watch and his books to read! With all of this, I realised that seeing Indian mythology with a modern / schooled mind is like watching a 3-D film without the 3-D glasses on. One not only fails to see the depth in it, but is also likely to comment that it is a badly made film! 

In an interview Campbell says: 'Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from realisations of the same kind that have then to find expression in a symbolic form. The only myth that we're going to be thinking about in the immediate future is the one that is talking about the planet - not this city, not these people, but the planet and everybody on it. What one would need to deal with is what all myths have dealt with. The maturation of the individual. The pedagogical way to follow from dependency to adulthood to maturity and then to the exit. And how to do it. And then how to relate to this society. And how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That's what the myths have all talked about. That's what this one's got to talk about. But the society it's got to talk about is the 'society of the planet'. And until that gets going, you don't have anything.'

In the words of Peace Pilgrim: 'What we suffer from in this world is immaturity... In their immaturity people want, at the same time, peace and the things which make war. However, people can mature just as children grow up.'

We are running out of time. The purely rational is hitting its limits bumping against walls on all its sides. It is approaching bankruptcy in its attempt to deliver humanity, save the few (or many) small improvements it is capable of. We now need to dive straight into the collective subconscious / unconscious and unleash all the stuff and work with it. And mythology has one of the important keys to undertake this task. 

Like I have written in an earlier post on Vision of Yoga, I believe that as more and more individuals mature, consciousness will shift up the spiral and will become visible to our human minds and eyes as social change. And hence my interest in / study of mythology. Not as an intellectual exercise or a scholarly pursuit, but as a whole-being endeavour.

To begin with, here's a TEDx talk by Raghu Ananthanarayanan based on the Mahabharatha.
Mahabharata, a mirror to the self

Stay tuned for more...

Sunday, June 11, 2017


To learn of the sudden passing on of Subbaraju last month, came as a huge shock to me! A brilliant, passionate, gentle and humble soul I must write about.

I first met Subbaraju in the early 2000s during my exploratory travels across India in a community called Timbaktu Collective in Anantapur, AP. It was a time when I was very young in my understanding of 'natural learning'. And that first simple and yet profound conversation with Subba made a lasting impression on me. His fascination for the story of Totto-Chan (which he introduced me to) showed his deep love for freedom. His humility and willingness to engage in simple honest conversations kept drawing me to him since that day. He also introduced me to John Holt and advised me to read them if I wanted to understand children, learning and freedom. Every time I visited Timbaktu after that, I would make sure I had at least one long conversation with him, sharing insights from my own journey thus far.

Subba was born in Tirupati to a poor farmer-turned-daily wage labourer who died when Subba was merely five. He was academically bright and made his way into IIT-Madras purely through merit, and completed his B.Tech in Civil Engineering there. He then went to IIT-Bombay where he completed his PhD in Energy Systems Engineering with a 'Best Thesis' award.

Soon after this, his search for life's meaning and purpose led him to question things and also recognise his love for working with children and working with the soil, plants and trees. Among many things, his search led him to the discovery of two simple and profound books (yes, just like his own personality!) Totto-Chan and The Man who Planted Trees. With whatever money he had, he used to photocopy and distribute them among friends. Along the way, Subba identified and joined the Timbaktu community and began working with the children of families from poverty-stricken villages. An alternative-school was one thing. But his real passion shone through the Children's Centre that he had lovingly created.

“Lots of open area, play equipment (like swings and slides), a library of books, lots of games, simple equipment to try out Science experiments, materials like bamboo and clay, tools to work with and a caring adult to watch over and guide gently: create a space with all these, let the children be and watch what happens. After all these years of experience, I can say that this is all we need for a good place of learning for children.” he always said.

Subba had carefully collected a large numbers of the best children books in both English and Telugu, and knew each story and book intimately. Working with bamboo was another passion of his, because of which so many children have learnt to skillfully make furniture, lamps and other articles of daily use. More than anything, one could see the children there were free and happy, two things Subba held very close to his heart.

Also in his own words: “It is important to keep some time and space for children’s interest in land and animals if agriculture is to gain respectability, if traditional arts, crafts and skills are to get respectability. We want these things to get a respectable position in the minds of the people. We think doing well in the mainstream is very simple, it is just a matter of following certain directions – and one can do very well. On the other hand, what children do [at his learning centre] is way beyond following certain instructions and directions – they create their learning paths.”

During my last visit to Timbaktu two years ago, I got to visit Subba's house for the first time. He had stopped working at the school for various reasons. And with all the time he then had, he had created a stunning edible home garden – clearly one of the densest and best I've ever seen - edible greens, fruit trees and creepers, vegetable plants, cherri tomatoes, passion fruits and numerous other herbs and plants along every possible wall and in every possible corner.

Water-saving Irrigation using bamboo pipes 

Keerai saplings in all kinds of containers on his terrace 
On his terrace while showing us the garden. Seeing beyond his garden 
gives us a glimpse of the completely barren land all around Subba's house 

Here's why I think Subbaraju's story is an extremely important and relevant one for us to know. It is a rags-to-riches story, which redefines “the riches”. After seeing academic success in IIT, one of the Icons of 'Modernity' ' Development' 'Science' 'Progress' or whatever name you want to give it, he neither pursued a life “climbing up the ladder further" by going to the US, etc. (we know the trajectory!) nor did he go back to his village on an ego-trip to “become a saviour - give back to society – build a school – train poor children to qualify for IIT to break free from the shackles of poverty – develop the village, etc.” (we know that trajectory too!) which I think is even more destructive than the former. He took the courage to choose to transcend his own story and create a third path; one of real enquiry into the nature of freedom, Science and Development, arriving at his own meaning and his own plan. An extremely rare story to come by!

The last time we met, when I told Subba “One day, when our little community has its own space, we'd love for you to come and stay with us for a few months and help us set up a lovely place like this!” he gave me a big smile, nodded a big nod and said “Done!” Will now need to work with what he has left behind of himself: memories and inspiration!

An interview of Subbaraju with footages of his children in a Science exhibition - Long & Winding Road / John Dsouza

Techie, tree-lover from Timbaktu - Ajit Ranade

Children's Resource Centre - Sanjeev Ranganathan

Children's Resource Centre - Timbaktu Collective website

Saturday, April 29, 2017

My tryst with stuff

Until I was 15, my school books and stationery, a few audio cassettes, some clothes and accessories were all my possessions. After two years of tailoring in my eleventh and twelfth grades, cloth pieces, threads, buttons and stuff started accumulating. After three years of Fine Arts in college, art and craft supplies joined the pile. Starting to volunteer with different NGOs and social movements, diaries and journals filled with to-do-lists, observations and outpourings started gathering. And books, reports and photographs. With my entry into the world of farming and gardening, garden tools, bags of seeds started piling up. With a child into our lives, toys (mostly never bought) and books started gathering. When I stopped buying clothes and starting accepting handed-down ones for all of us in the family, bags of those started filling up our cupboards. And alongside all these, my commitment to not discard used things into trash and upcycle them (I usually throw away literally one small bagful of non-reusable and non-recyclable trash a year!), my burning creativity to execute new ideas that used to be churned out by the minute, led to volumes of junk all over our house. With my experiments in natural dyeing & podi-making over the past year, a whole new collection of podi dabbas, dried peals and leaves, rusted iron pieces (for mordant), etc. started to grow. Well, it's a long list. Basically, I was trying to create a whole 'village' with libraries, workshop spaces, free-stores, studios, kitchens, gardens, play areas, waste centre, etc. all in one single house, managed by one single person. And as someone who does not believe having a helper at home, I'd have all this work with stuff, on top of my share of the housework and everything else I was doing. Madness!!!

Even though I believed myself to be regularly clearing away stuff, in reality, it was only growing in complexity and volume. And with all this stuff, we were shifting our house at least once every year on an average. I would take a few days after our each shift to recover from my shock of how much stuff we had with us, followed by some sort of a depression.

What originally began as my fascination for the material world was beginning to grow in pathology! See this collection of used matchsticks to be used in a mandala craft I had an idea for!

I was spending most of my waking time engaging with all this stuff that had filled my house, and now, my life! Either cleaning and organising them, or searching for things of value that would get buried under some pile of something somewhere.

If you've seen 'The Beautiful Mind', it was like this collection of papers that Nash had put up on his garage wall, about which he had made up a compelling story. Well, not really but almost. My 'beautiful mind' had made up a whole story about how my life was about all this stuff I needed to constantly collect, organise, clean, maintain and use. And declutter.

But my inner voice was persistently disagreeing with it. It kept arguing that I had a much better use of my time than with all this stuff. My real calling was elsewhere. Like spending more time practising stillness, doing body & breath work, singing, serious study and contemplation, writing, engaging and facilitating. Being birthed and Birthing.

Last year, I added two pursuits into my life, Silambam and Music, which didn't go beyond a few classes. My asana pranayama practice was not growing in rigour or showing much progress. My real and palpable fascination for matter was just not allowing me to add any more things into my life. I constantly beat myself up about not being 'organised enough', 'disciplined enough', 'balancing my vata dosha enough' so I could calm down and find that extra time to do all that I wanted to. “One day, I will be so perfectly organised, balanced and coordinated that I can….!” And continued to sew, craft, grow plants, work in my podis-lab, compost, make EM and pack in bottles. Stuff. Stuff everywhere!

Like Nash said running up to his wife in the rain “Marcee never gets old! She can't be real!” it began to dawn on me that this thing was not going to wane on its own. It hadn't all this while! I had to step in to take some serious action.

This past year I have increasingly satiated my appetite for my engagement with stuff. I was feeling a growing sense of fulfillment, of readiness to move on. And also a realisation that waste management is a community responsibility, not mine alone.

Now, the question was 'Where do I begin? How do I get out of this mess, quit literally?' Last year, when I saw people losing all their possessions to the floods excepting those two bags of essentials that they carried with them on the boats, a part of me was distressed, but a part of me watched yearningly to be liberated from the tyranny of all my stuff. I was was desperate about getting out of my entanglement with it!

The past few months was spent going through every single piece of stuff at home and setting it aside for giving away, returning to where it came from, or recycling / composting. And finally with a heavy heart, dumping a few sacks in the landfill. Retaining only what I absolutely valued, cherished and was going to take care of. And most of these are things handcrafted and gifted by close family and friends, naturally dyed, unique and beautiful things that I really valued, which had been submerged under an ocean of unimportant stuff! “I'm going to keep you and take good care of you!” I literally had tears of joy as I did this!

But, old samskArAs don't leave that easily. I sometimes find it hard to simply pass by neatly stacked boxes like these – my fascination for organising stuff. I stood by this pile for a while, staying intensely with my inner struggle, this strong urge to pick them up. I didn't rush past it but stayed there for a while looking intensely at them, and then I was ready to let a deep breath out saying “Bye Bye! Stuff and old samskArAs!”

It's an old belief system that everything can be resolved within. Technically, yes. But I'm someone who believes in taking the help of the collective (sangha) and also moving to an environment which can facilitate inner changes with ease. It so happens that Auroville, where I have moved in, is tremendously helpful in this. This meta-community / city has all the things I was trying to create and accommodate within my house. It has an upcycling studio, a freestore (where people give stuff they don't use and take stuff they need, all in good condition), recycling centres, and possibilities for bulk-buying organic. And I have an excellent partner in this, Isha, who just loves minimal living. “Amma, don't pick that up! We already have plenty of it and don't need any more.” she drags me away from window-shopping bags and other stuff I'm addicted to.

It's been a month living with few things, less than 10% of what I used to think we needed. And it feels like we still have more things than we need. We continue to make bags of stuff to give to the FreeStore each week.

I need to clarify something here. No, I am not very inspired by the Japanese minimalism. Not where I am in my life. That is why I have more to say on this topic. May be for another post / other posts!

My Inspirations
Zen Habits: For inspiring writing
Peace Pilgrim: For her life and her message.
Deepa Preethi Natarajan: For her delightful life where she cherishes and takes great care of the very few exquisite things - organic, natural, handmade - which she creates or buys from conscious stores.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

From mobilisation to movement building

This is an activist's dream come true. How many protests some of us have organised and participated in, hoping that at least a hundred supporters would show up! I visited Marina a few times to see it to believe it.

What just happened right before our eyes indicates a shift of historical significance. I have seen many short-lived, adrenalin-driven, single-issue-focused mobilisations. But this time around there are clear signs of progress towards movement building. Students' overwhelming support to Karthikeyan Sivasenapathy's appeal to grow their support and involvement to address the larger agrarian crisis, is a clear evidence to me in this direction. But the peaceful, self organising, self disciplined protestors now need to get on to some critical self-reflection for the signs to translate into steps.

Need for nuanced understanding without quickly jumping onto either side
Essays by Nityanand Jayaraman and TM Krishna are a very good starting point. Like them, I too conditionally support the protest and stand by the protestors. But like both point out, for a constructive discourse to be framed, we need people to go beyond simplistic 'pro-' or 'anti-' stand-taking. Both camps need to acknowledge and reflect on the so many nuanced and complex issues involved. Krish Ashok's essay on this is a must read for serious consideration and contemplation.

Need to start connecting the dots and understanding the big picture (to jallikkatu supporters)
I repeatedly heard this line by the campaigners “This is only one of the issues. There are a lot of other issues to fight for. We'll get to them one by one.” The fact is that every one of the issues is connected to each other. We need to start looking at them not as independent threads, but as a tapestry that is actually telling us a story. In order to build a movement, we need to start working towards building a larger life-affirming narrative, which in turn requires a lot of personal and collective groundwork to be done.

Need to learn to continuously enquire
In my years of involvement with social causes, every time I felt like I had arrived at “the final understanding of the problem” and said 'This is it! I finally know!', I was shown that there was more to it than I had seen and understood. A living and growing movement needs to stand on firm ground, but remain open to new narratives, and integrating those that make sense into its own.

Learning to dialogue is extremely critical for this endeavor. In all the people's movements and organisations I've been part of over the past two decades, dialogues were practically non-existent. But there are wonderful tools that we now have with us to help us understand “the other” and build bridges, without further antagonising and polarising. We need to learn to use them. Here are a few pointers for now.

Need to take the courage to be more vulnerable and acknowledge our own shadows
I am a strong supporter of the animal rights movement, and my own activist journey began as a member of PFA and PETA way back in the nineties. However, holding on to a narrow single-issue focus taken out of larger socio-cultural and ecological contexts, coupled with their self-righteousness became less and less appealing to me, and eventually became the very reason I moved away from these organisations.

I take pride in my Tamil roots. But what we are left with today in its name is a mix of all sorts of desirable and undesirable beliefs and practices. Practices steeped in casteism and chauvinism are as much a part of Tamil culture as are those inspired by high ideals like respect for nature. The little I have seen of Jallikattu (only on the screen), and given that we are living in times when machismo is highly celebrated by urban and rural male folk alike, I find it almost impossible to imagine them 'embracing their bulls as if they were their lovers', even if this might have been the case centuries, or even decades ago. Read Vinod's open letter to Jallikattu protestors for a larger sampler of our shadows as a culture. 

Now, the life-thwarting belief-systems of both these groups would be the shadows of the groups. Recognising and acknowledging their respective shadows (critically and compassionately at the same time) is an essential step towards creating the condition for movement building for both.

Need for 'invitational activism' (to animal rights activists)
Imposing a ban on a practice within a community we are alien to, is not only not on, but also counterproductive.

A community typically initiates a certain practice in response to a certain specific need located in time and place. This then becomes 'tradition' over a period of time. If as outsiders to these traditions we would like to question them, then we need to first try to understand the cultural context where it originated, acknowledge and integrate that into our critical narrative and then share it, appealing to the members of the community to participate in a dialogue. If there is a sound logic and a heartfelt invitation, then the sincere ones from within the community are likely to accept our invitation. It is then possible to identify allies from among the members who'd agree that there is an issue to be looked at in the first place, along with whom we could try and frame an internal discourse. When this grows in strength, then the people will naturally make amends and reinvent their 'tradition'. This needs to be carried out with a lot of integrity all the way through, without yielding in to the temptation to manipulate processes and outcomes.

Need for co-existence: PETA and Jallikattu supporters
PETA as an organisation has a wider agenda of care for animals, and I conditionally subscribe to it. (If there is clear evidence that they've completely sold their souls to corporate interests, which I am yet to see, I'm open to reconsidering this.) Tamilians need that voice to throw light on their culture's shadows, which I don't see them sufficiently owning up to. Instead of showing PETA the door, the Tamil people need to listen to their deeper concerns, learn to draw clear boundaries with them, and invite them to engage with them more respectfully. PETA needs more education on how to broaden their vision and nuance their contextual understanding of issues and upgrade their modes of engagement and intervention. PETA needs reform too.

Quite contrary to the current dominant belief that it's one or the other, I feel both actually need each other for each other's growth. And for a meaningful advancement of each other's vision.

And finally, and most importantly, why are we limited by the discourse framed by and seeking sanction from the Supreme Court, either for or against? In an immediate sense, we may be bound by these legislative processes. But ideally, decisions such as these need to be enabled at the level of the village. Ideally, every village should be empowered to hold its own Gram Sabha and pass its own verdict on Jallikattu, as for any other issue concerning the community. If we could simultaneously hold this vision and work towards it as well, then we are talking about real empowerment. This is the only way we can build a healthy society where multiple views and experiments are allowed to co-exist respectfully. This will help do two things.
a. Enable diversity which is important for resilience.
b. Have more immediate feedback mechanisms built in for immediate and local self-correction.

When communities feel safe to experiment with what they have locally decided, they are also bound to be more open to be constructively challenged and engaged with.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Natural Learning FAQ: "How does your daughter learn Math at home?"

A brilliant mind and an articulate voice for the new age, Joseph Chilton Pearce (Joe), passed on a few weeks ago (Aug 23rd) at the age of 90. I came to know about Joe through a friend about three years ago. I was fascinated by his writings which were about play, learning, child development, evolution of consciousness, modernity, spirituality all rolled into one.

On Sep 26th this year was Periyasaami Thooran's 108th birth anniversary. I came to know about Thooran about the same time too, and his writings about children were very radical and probably the only ones in Tamil from his times.


The writings of both these giants were based on observations of children and their processes of learning, backed by serious scientific research. They were far ahead of their times.

I dedicate this little piece of writing to Joseph Pearce and Thooran, both of whom have been in my mind a lot over the past few weeks.


People often ask me “So, if Isha does not go to school, how does she learn Math?” Though in one sense, it's a perfectly understandable and valid question to ask, I personally find it rather strange! That people actually think we learnt all the math that we use as adults in our classrooms!! I personally didn't. Here's some scientific explanation to prove it, very much inspired by Joe's writings.

Our brain typically has a hundred billion neurons (brain cells) all connected together. Every connection has a tiny gap called 'synapses'. For us to learn something new, an electrical signal needs to jump across this gap to continue its journey. Learning is all about creating and strengthening pathways through these neurons. The more 'neural pathways' get created, the more complex our understanding becomes. These pathways are supposed to get stronger through repetition. And the stronger they get, the better we become at what we have learnt. Watch this beautiful three-minute video explaining this.

Research also says that we retain the least of what we see, or read, or hear, but the most of what we experience.

Putting the two together confirms what I have independently arrived at: When it comes to learning, nothing can replace REAL EXPERIENCE involving all our senses - smell, taste, touch, sound, sight and emotions.

And guess what activities are so alive for children, that all their senses are the most heightened, and help form super strong neural pathways?

Real work where they feel like they are engaged in something meaningful and purposeful.

Play of different kinds. For infants, it is literal IMITATION of what they see around them. For kids slightly older, it is PRETEND PLAY / IMAGINATION. For older kids, it is GAMES WITH RULES which get more and more complex as they grow.


A few instances from our lives where Isha learns Math concepts, without being told or being aware that she is “learning” something, or that it is “mathematics” or a “concept”. She just gets absolutely engrossed in what she does and is completely in the moment. Learning simply happens as a by-product of that experience.

* Idli plates always make idlis in multiples of four. “Amma, let me pour the batter” the little one would come running when she was barely three years old. I'd ask her to find out from everyone at home how many idlis they'd like to have. She'd come back with the numbers. And off we'd go “five for x, three for y, four for z” pouring the batter. Watching five, three and four come together in 'fours'. “There goes an extra one on the second plate for x, and so on. Spilling some batter on the floor. Smearing it and making what some people would call “a mess” was all part of the experience, literally helping her soak it all in!

Image result for idli plates

* Isha and her friend A (another homeschooling child in Chennai) spent a whole day making packets of dry groceries in reStore. As I watched them from a distance, they had a serious discussion about why salt that they had just finished packing needed smaller covers and the roasted gram needed bigger ones for the same half kg. After a few speculations, they arrived at an explanation that was very close to the one about densities and volume being indirectly proportionate. I have a feeling that with the smell of the roasted gram (which they occasionally popped into their mouths) and the experience of running their fingers through it formed a new neural pathway. You know how sometimes when we think of a concept, or a name, or something abstract like that, it always comes accompanied with the memory of a smell, taste or an emotion?

* "Five rows of four labels here. That makes it 20 labels!" They were discussing as they were engrossed in sorting out and cleaning the labels at reStore.


* “Amma, why are there those stick figures instead of numbers?” she asked a few days ago pointing at the roman numerals on our wall-clock. I told her they are numbers too written in a different way. She said “Aah! Wait a minute” and ran inside and brought a think booklet on Tamil alphabets which her grandmother had once gifted her. She had remembered seeing a whole page of these same stick figures. She asked “Isn't this the same?” I nodded yes. And she spent the next 2-3 minutes looking intently at the roman numbers all the way up to 3,000 (MMM). Less than five minutes is all it took for an initial registering of all the letters that made the roman numerals upto 1,000! And she said "Now, you tell me a number and I will guess its letters" and tested herself to make sure she got it ok.

Image result for wall clock roman numerals
* Floor tiles are an excellent way to experience how numbers come together in different ways. I've written about it in my blogpost Amma, what is 2+2+2+2+2?

Image result for square floor tiles toilet

* Spontaneous discoveries and explorations using simple open-toys, materials that are not originally meant to be toys or even if they are, can be interpreted and used in infinite ways. I've written about another exploration of hers where she experimented for a whole half hour with different gradients and how fast the earrings came down when she lowered or raised the tube.

* She has played so much pallankuzhi with her paatti that with just looking at the whole thing, she can quickly guess which pit she should pick up from and where her game would end, and how many seeds she'd get. All in one sight. Bright red colour and smooth texture of the seeds, and the warm connection with her paatti must be an integral part of her learning numbers! (The person in the picture is her friend's paatti she once played with.)

* On a typical day, she gets to play at least one game using the dice. Snake and ladder, ludo and many more. Beginning by counting the dots on the dice, she can now see them and tell the number. And the fascinating different permutations and combinations of numbers and how they add up: 4+5 is 9, and so is 6+3! As we use the dice over and over again, these simple truths about numbers and how they add up become so obvious! Just like how young boys in the olden-day grocery stores used to do their mental math so effortlessly before the age of supermarkets and billing machines. 
Image result for dice
* Monopoly does not quite go with our worldview, and I resisted getting it for quite a long time. Upon Isha's insistence, I got over my hang-up and got one. (Our experiences with this game is for another post.) It's one of her favourite board games and we sometimes round off our rent-paying to the nearest '5' or '10' so that we do away with the 1- and 5-rupee notes. Some other times, we use the 1-rupee and calculate our rents and pay them more accurately. By the way, we've been working on a 'Gift Economy' board game as well. Hope to have it ready soon!

Image result for monopoly money board game          Image result for monopoly money

* "Does this shape actually have a name?" Isha asked pointing at a trapezium, while making a bright and beautiful pattern. A lot of learning about shapes, how they fit or don't fit with one another happens with this activity, which we do because it's engaging and pleasant. Once we ran out of red diamonds before completing a round of it, and Isha spontaneously picked up two red triangles and placed them together "See, now we have a diamond!" And no, we don't talk about 'learning' or 'math' or 'geometry' here.  


* Her 7th year birthday gift from us was 'Zoni', a currency we came up with to use in all our shop-keeper games, one of her most favourite games that she could play all day everyday until recently. She almost does not play them anymore. 

* Many times we're experimenting creating our own board games, and she does the numbering within the squares. Pinterest has plenty of ideas for DIY boardgames.

* I've played 5-stones (anju-kal) with ten-year old girls in Marudam school. While the game I've played when I was young used to be as simple as 'when you finish one round, you get one point', theirs was quite complex. It involved a lot of borrowing and passing on between the players, that my mind simply could not keep track of. “Here I give you 14. That makes it 45 for you. You owe her 3, and that'd bring it down to 42.” That sort of a thing for every player to remember. I simply gave up. But the 10-year olds were adding up and subtracting effortlessly! 

Image result for anju kal

* As we were circumambulating the Chidambaram Temple, she stopped at the large wall painting of the Wheel of 'The Universe and its Vegetation'. It had the Tamil months, Sun signs (rasis), Star signs, and the corresponding auspicious trees all in relationship with each other. She stood there asking me to read every single thing written on the board for at least half an hour. To most of her questions, my answer was "I don't know. Let's find out." Even though it had gotten dark, Isha insisted that I take a photo of it so we can go home and learn all about it.

* Isha has been playing the keyboard and self-teaching some songs like 'Do-a-deer...', with occasional help from me to locate the exact notes. After a whole year of practising and perfecting that one song, she's now on to her second song 'Let it go'. And piano keys are so mathematical themselves: the seven notes repeating themselves in every octave, the half notes, the harmonies, etc. are another world in and of themselves to explore. 

* “Shall we make a garland with these sangupushpam flowers, with these pink arali flowers as the pendant? But wait a minute! Before we begin, let me count them to see if we have equal numbers for both sides. If they're not, then I'd have to go get one more to make them equal.” and off she started placing '1' on the left side, '1' on the right side, '2' on the left, '2' on the right and so on. Will these bright colours and fresh smell and the soft texture become part of her learning about even and odd numbers?

And these are a tiny percentage of all the different explorations that happen, where what we adults call "math learning" happens. I could write similar posts on "science learning", "geography learning", "history learning", "language learning" and so on, for the benefit of those interested in "academics". And no, we don't ever sit down because she needs to learn any of these. 

If observing a single child's learning can be so fascinating, I wonder how rich a children's space for self-designed learning could be with a hundred different things to observe, understand, record and share!

There's more to share. Another day!