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I did not want to become a teacher. I became one at the age of fourteen out of the usual adolescent compulsions. I needed money for the creature comforts of life. I was not interested in the philosophy of teaching or the power structures underlying teaching. I understood these in the pragmatic way that an intelligent fourteen-year-old does, out of experience of their inequities and inequalities. I would spend the next decade in educational institutions on the wrong side of the equation, the powerless side and then segue effortlessly to the powerful side of the equation when I went out to teach. I was not even interested very much in the materiel that I taught: I was interested in the mechanics of the subjects I taught. I showed my students ways in which to do things: how to solve a quadratic equation, how to recognise an adverb clause of condition. That was how the educational system was.

The only thing I can say to my credit for the first dozen years of my teaching was that I was the only tutor I knew who accepted students who were doing badly. Most other mathematics tutors wanted students who were doing well; they were looking to help students who had got 88 to get 98 out of 100. This seemed patently ridiculous from the outside; but if you look at it from the perspective of the tutor, he (and it was generally a male) was protecting his market. If he had students who did not get 90s, he would not get more students the next year. And the only way to make sure that your students get 90s is to take students who are getting 80s.

If you think this is stupid, go and ask your school principal whether s/he takes students who need education or students who are already in a position to be educated. Ask whether your school would love to confront the first-generation learner or would be more comfortable admitting a child whose parents were both post-graduates. Ask whether the school wants to help children who don’t know any English or would prefer to have students who already speak English when they are admitted. If the latter, then please don’t laugh at the tutors of mathematics of the city of Mumbai; they are only reflections of the system. Every educational institution is the same; they choose the best and then pride themselves on excellent results. I took the worst and I was proud when they started relaxing when they were solving mathematics and I was delighted when they got marks in their 60s. I was known as ‘Duffer Sir’ and I was proud of the label.

The reason why I could help students who were flailing was because I had once been there. But then came a moment in my life, a moment of transition. I was sitting in math class when Mrs Lidwin D’Souza walked past my desk. I hunched over my work in the protective manner that poor students all use when their teachers come near. She stopped and said, ‘Jerry, do you understand English?’

I said I did.

She asked another question, ‘Do you have a logical mind?’

I said I thought I did.

She said, ‘Then logic plus language is mathematics. Mathematics is a language.

Mathematics is a language, if you are good at language, you should be good at Math.’

I had always thought that Mathematics was a handmaid of science. So the next time I saw her I asked how it was a language. She said, ‘2 is a number, plus is a verb, 2 plus 2 equals 4 is a sentence. It is just an accurate language.’

Suddenly, instead of drowning in Mathematics, I was floating on top of it.

I wish I could say that I saw there the magic of teaching, that you could take a child and with a simple analogy reconstruct the world of learning for her or him.

This did happen to me but I did not recognise this magic nor did I seek to be a mage. I wanted instead to make money.

And I made a lot of money. I started at the age of 15 and stopped at the age of 30 because I had become extremely good at it. This may seem like a conundrum or a pretty Chestertonianism but you can get burnt out. I had.

This did not mean I had stopped teaching.

At about the age of 26, the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Polytechnic made a signal mistake. The gentleman who ran the journalism practicals was on leave, and a young woman I knew at the Free Press Journal, Kaumudi Marathe, recommended my name. I had been writing for about five years then and didn’t think anyone would take me seriously but when the head of the department, the redoubtable Jeroo Mulla called, I went in for an interview because the college was close to the areas where I had my students. I was interviewed in about three minutes and given the job. They must have been desperate.

It was only then that it occurred to me that I did not know what I should be doing in that class for the rest of the year. I had never been taught journalism so I had no models to fall back on. In retrospect that might have even been a good thing because I invented it as I went along. Until the time I took over, the students seemed to have a cushy time in journalism practicals. They interviewed each other, they set up mock press conferences, they played at journalism.

I thought that the only way to teach them what it was really like was to send them out into the field. Many of them were from city cocoons. They had lived in the posh areas of the city that they came from and had hardly ever talked to strangers. In the first few years, I conceived the idea of the ‘City Beats’. This meant pairing a student and a suburb of which she had never heard and making her visit it for the rest of the year, to generate a series of stories from that space. It was my first attempt at decentring the students’ lives. They were all Anglophone elites and they quickly discovered that they could speak other languages, other Indian languages, other bhashas, when they needed to go to a police station or the municipal office. Every year the beats are greeted with horror. At the end of every year, they are remembered with the nostalgia and affection the young reserve for a rite of passage.

Half of the students came from outside the city. I told them in the first week that they would have to go and interview a celebrity. They said that they didn’t know a celebrity. I said: Too bad, you’re going to fail journalism. I know. I shouldn’t do that but at that stage, they are still students and the Pavlovian response of fifteen years of indoctrination is hard to break and easy to use. Every year, the young woman from Chennai, the quiet young woman from Jorhat, all of them go out into the city and come back with a celebrity interview. One person sat outside Lata Mangeshkar’s house for eight hours. We talk to our students about persistence but as teachers we rarely practise it ourselves. You can be taught by a student and that student taught me a lesson. I often asked myself whether I was feeding into the celebrity culture that we so decry. But I needed a way to show my students that they could climb any mountain I slammed down in front of them. The gains in self-confidence were well worth it.

I started by pushing them and found that each time I pushed them they pushed back magically. But these were post-graduate students who had come through a system that is only interested in the analytical, the metaphoric, the symbolic logic of language and interpretation. They were all bright students who lived in their left brains, the analytical side of their heads. (Yes, I know that this is a theory that has been disproved but let me just use it here for the purposes of this argument.) These were students who were happiest when they had something to think about. So I tried to think of ways in which we could get the body involved. And I hit upon the idea of performance. Was this journalism? By this time, five or six years into teaching, I didn’t really care. I wanted to shake my class up. I wanted the ones whose language was the language of the body, who jumped up to dance, those students, I wanted them to be front and centre. And I wanted to break the Anglophone grip on our thoughts. The students were already divided into teams; I would assign one team the task of writing and singing and dancing a laavni on Freud; the second would perform a bhavai on Marx; the third would do a qawwali on Einstein. So first, there was the research on the subject. The next was the translation process. Then the music and the words. Then rehearsals and performance.

I enjoyed watching the top five of the class do this very badly. They are used to reading and writing very well, but dancing? They were waiting for it to end because suddenly you discover that your classmate who never knows the answers when someone asks questions about Chomsky is the person who is choreographing everyone and asking you to shake your hips just a little more. Students are tribal in nature. They hang together in groups. These groups are built on similarities, do we speak the same kind of English, do we have the same experiences, do we share a demographic? It is unconscious and it is unconscionable. I wanted to shake my top five out of their stupor. The world is large and it does not have a fixed syllabus. You had better learn to make space for other kinds of skills, acknowledge other kinds of talents. Learning happens when you step outside the tribalism.

It is wise, I have discovered, not to romanticize your students, they are as disgusting as we are. But if we both acknowledge that we are works in progress, if we can find a place to share what we are and what we want to be, we can make a different kind of magic.

We worked on a large number of different projects to try and make things interesting.

I would read out this passage from the Women’s Rights Manifesto of the National Organization for Women, USA:

Because woman's work is never done and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious and we're the first to get fired and what we look like is more important than what we do and if we get raped it's our fault and if we get beaten we must have provoked it and if we raise our voices we're nagging bitches and if we enjoy sex we're nymphos and if we don't we're frigid and if we love women it's because we can't get a "real" man and if we ask our doctor too many questions we're neurotic and/or pushy and if we expect childcare we're selfish and if we stand up for our rights we're aggressive and "unfeminine" and if we don't we're typical weak females and if we want to get married we're out to trap a man and if we don't we're unnatural and because we still can't get an adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon and if we can't cope or don't want a pregnancy we're made to feel guilty about abortion and . . . for lots and lots of other reasons we are part of the women's liberation movement.

Then the class would read it aloud, then they would scream it aloud, then they would translate it into their mother tongues and write it on a postcard and send it to their grandmothers or their grandaunts.

The responses to this were interesting. Some of the senior women were appalled at the language, some were amused and others were deeply moved. An old Punjabi lady told her granddaughter that she was glad someone had said what she had been thinking for so many years.

In class, we often talked about the erasure of women because I felt very strongly about it. The novel that I wrote is about my mother who was erased from our family’s public sphere because she was mentally ill or neurodivergent.[i] People talked about her as she had been; they were afraid to address her reality in the present. I think in some ways, Em and the Big Hoom was my way of saying: I do not remember the beautiful young woman who sang in the Paranjoti Choir and who worked at the American Consulate. I remember this woman, walking around barefoot, unwashed, smoking and garrulous, refusing to play any role that were assigned to married women. This is the woman I love.

Perhaps much of my writing career was about reinstating women who had, in some way or the other, slipped out of the public eye. I could see Leela Naidu being erased or subsumed in her role as Dom Moraes’s wife, so I helped her write her autobiography and this came out as Leela: A Patchwork Life.

I could see that Helen was a dancer who defied the patriarchy. In general, male stars have longevity. An Amitabh Bachchan will play Raakhee’s younger brother (in Reshma aur Shera), her lover (in Bemisal, Jurmana, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar) and then her son (in Shakti). Helen vamped three generations of Hindi film stars, Prithviraj Kapoor (in Harishchandra Taramati), Raj Kapoor (in Anari) and Rishi Kapoor (in Phool Khile Hai Gulshan Gulshan) and yet the only thing anyone could find to say about her was that she was the ‘original item girl’.

Even in the translations that I do, there has been some retrieval acts, Mallika Amar Sheikh’s

I want to destroy myself was a classic work and Vandana Mishra’s I the salt doll was another. The Anglophone reader in India and across the world should have access to these books, so different in sthaayi bhava and so different in their attitudes to Bombay and the world of work.

And so in my teaching practice, I began to ask how I might turn all our talk about the erasure of women from the histories of our world into action. So I asked my class to write about their mother, asking them ‘How much do you know about your mother?’ They were all pretty sure that they knew their mothers pretty well. I said, ‘That’s great because now you have to write 5,000 words on her.’ This, I have to say, is the final step in a pedagogy of numbers. My class begins with 500-word pieces; they move on to 1000-word pieces, then 1,500-word pieces. And this is the final summit they must scale. (Why am I so numerically obsessive? Because the field of journalism to which they are headed is numerically obsessed. For in a polytechnic course, we must keep one eye firmly fixed on the industry and its recommendations. I am not one of those who believes in ‘skills’ on their own; skills without values are dangerous; and values without history are impossible.)

So I told them that despite the fact that you know so much about your mother, you must now write 5000 words about her. In the first set that I got, I saw the way they just tried to fill up the pages with the senseless emotionalism of greeting cards. And so I put a ban on all regurgitations about the notion of ‘Mother’. What struck me was how few facts there were. I am amazed at how many mothers were born on 1 January. Then I discovered that those were Dalit mothers. Their parents could not remember the date of birth. And so when the child is admitted to school or to some other programme and the date of birth is demanded of the parents, they generally explain the year, ‘the year of the flood’, ‘the year after the locust attack’ and then the officer would use January 1 as the default setting. Otherwise, it would be 26 January or 15 August. There are the three dates on which many Dalits are born. And so we had to work on the facts. The date of her birth. Her name before marriage (if it had been changed). Her education, school, college. Whatever data they could find was valuable, I thought, because it added something to our knowledge of women of twenty, thirty years ago. And then there were the other questions. Who was your mother before she became a mother? This is because I believe a child is a machine to make you a second class citizen in your own life. But it is beautifully designed so that when you become a mother, you voluntarily give up first class citizenship.

And so the questions were about the woman before the mother. Who was she before she became your mother? Did she have a boyfriend? Was she peeled away from that boyfriend to be married to your father? Did she have a ‘best friend’ in school? Did she go to college? Was it the college of her choice? Did she study the subjects of her choice or were those dictated by her parents?

And then came the notion of the mother as mother. What are the things that make your relationship with your mother? Sometimes the students would say they could not answer these questions and I would recommend that they write this for themselves and then throw it away. Either way, they would have to submit 5,000 words but in the process, it is not a bad thing to write a thousand private words and say the unsayable and then unsay it by burning it. Sometimes, a student would come back and say, ‘I think my mother is inventing things. She talks about her home as if it were a palace and I’ve been there and it’s nothing like she remembers it.’ My answer: ‘It might have been a palace from the point of view of an exile. It might have been a palace in which she was loved for who she was. It might have been a palace because she loved it. Now set down her description and set down next to it your description of it.’

Gitanjali (name changed) told me a terrifying story which she heard from her mother’s elder sister, Sandhya. Sandhya was one of several daughters. She was fifteen when Gitanjali’s mother was born. She walked into her mother’s room and found her mother trying to drown her newest born, Gitanjali’s mother, in a bucket of milk. Sandhya saw what was happening and grabbed the baby, pulled it out, and became a surrogate mother to the infant. She would only bring her youngest sister to her mother to be fed. My student confronted her grandmother about the story. Her grandmother said that she had been misunderstood. She had been washing the baby in milk so as to improve its complexion. When my student told me this, she was in a wash of tears. But this began a process by which she understood why her Sandhya Maasi was so important in her mother’s life, and a healing process began in that relationship.

How can you make your classroom into a transformative place accidentally? You can do it if you take one single decision that no teacher ever takes—I want to work, and work harder. I don’t know what made me do this 5000 words exercise because there are 40 girls in that class, and 40 times 5000 words means that I have to read two lakh words that week. And I have a pact with the students because teaching media is about teaching time—if you do not meet the deadline in media then your career is dead—so in order to teach them time, I have to be punctual. So I get to class at 7:45 for an 8 a.m. class, and at 8 a.m. the door closes and nobody comes in. If I tell them that your assignment has to come to me on time, then I have to return the assignments to them within a week, so that they see the mistakes they have made and confront me in class and we can talk about it.

The next step is to divide the class into three sets and each set chooses a woman who has not been recorded in history in order to write a collective essay of 10,000 words on her. The results are here: Lives of the Women, Volumes I, II, and III. They are books that make me proud of myself because this we managed, my students and I, without marks, because there are days when you think that students are only inspired by marks. We have done three books in five years. The students did them simply to say that these women—Shanta Gokhale, Dolly Thakore, Meera Devidayal, Shama Habibullah, Rekha Sabnis among others—are important. They chose the women themselves. They did the interviews, the transcripts, the edits. They did this because they saw the need. That is so satisfying.

I remember talking to the department about how we have very few students from the Dalit and the Muslim communities—they disagreed and said that they offer scholarships if they come. Which underprivileged student will choose to apply to Sophia Polytechnic when you can see that a course costs lakhs of rupees? They are not going to apply. So we began to do outreach, we seek each year to connect with the underprivileged and say, ‘You study and get the skills, get the degree, get the understanding, leave the funding of this thing to us.’ Our alums routinely stump up the money to pay for one or two students and this makes me proud. I remember one year we had a mature student who had a salary of nine thousand rupees a month. This was important money for her family so we got someone to pay that nine thousand rupees in addition to her fees. And what a wonderful addition she was to the class.

But the moment I knew we were on the right track was when we had our first seriously underprivileged student. She was poor. She was Muslim. One of the rich students noticed that she was doing her assignments on her phone. So this rich young woman said to another of her rich friends, ‘We have to do something about this.’ They got together and bought her a tablet, simple one but that changed everything. When they were asked, one of them said, ‘We spend about that much on a weekend of partying so one weekend, we thought, “No parties for us, let’s do this for her”.’ That’s transformative. It was transformative for the young woman who got the tablet but it was also transformative for the women who gave it to her.

Three years ago we had a very pleasant young woman who refused to believe pleasantly that caste was an issue any longer in the country because she said that she didn’t know anything about caste. (You know exactly where that is coming from. Since caste was not an issue for her, it could not be an issue for anybody.) At the end of the year, she couldn’t find a subject to do for the project called Marginalia, which is a magazine about the margins for which you need to go and find a story from the margins. So I suggested that she do a story on the BMC conservancy workers. Every year there is a story on the BMC conservancy workers because I want my students to go and see what happens to the sanitary napkins once they throw them outside their homes. And nobody wants to talk about that because we don’t deal with dirty sanitary napkins. (Padman and all the other films like it are about clean sanitary napkins.) So this young woman goes there and the man she was following took her into the lanes where there was dirt everywhere, dead rats floating in the gutters he had to clean, filth being thrown from the windows. She came back and said that she understands the realities of caste. As part of her story, she visited his home. She was invited to have a meal with them and though her parents objected, she went.

At that dinner, the young son was very angry and accused her of poverty tourism: he said that she had come to look at them and to use them to succeed. They would remain where they were but their story would be this young woman’s route to success. She was very hurt but with some native intelligence she said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, tell me about yourself.’ This was disarming because it meant she had some interest in him as a person, not just as a subject. He said that he wanted to be a photojournalist. She told him that he should come and do the SCM course, the one she was completing. He said that he had seen the prospectus and that it was very expensive, way out of their budget. She promised him a scholarship and then she came back to us and said, ‘He is applying next year. You must find a way to get him in.’

This year he is in class.

Another glorious moment was when a young woman at the beginning of the year came to me and said, ‘Don’t mind, Sir, but you have given me this area to cover, I don’t feel comfortable going there. Let’s put it frankly, it is a Muslim area in Bombay.’

My question was simple: ‘Why don’t you feel comfortable there?’

She said, ‘I just don’t.’

I said: ‘One important part of your life as a media person will be to locate yourself, to implicate yourself in the story that you are telling. For that you need self-awareness, you have to be able to deconstruct why you don’t feel comfortable. Think about that and come back and tell me.’

The next day she came back and told me that there are lots of people with funny looks.

‘What does that mean: funny looks? Are they looking at you funnily or do they look funny?’

She said that they all have beards and moustaches.

‘Nobody in your family with a beard?’

‘Not that kind of beard.’

I said, ‘All right, I could excuse you from that place and I could give you another beat. But just go to this place for three or four days in the evening and talk to a few different women and come back.’

One week later her first piece came in, then in the second week her second piece from the same area. When I met her I asked her whether she was comfortable in that area. She said she was fine. I reminded her of her misgivings and she looked a bit sheepish and said, ‘No the women are so friendly, they take me around, they help me with my stories.’ She still has links to her beat, she is invited to their weddings, she does iftar with them.

You can cause change to happen one person at a time, but that will happen only when you recognise the basic humanity on the other side. She has short hair and wears a dress, but she still has the same problems as you, she is still probably going through menopause like you, she is still probably getting hot flushes like you, she probably has a mother in law just like yours, she probably had to give a dowry just like you did. There is just that superficial difference of where you put your caste marking, your bodily marking of how the husband claimed you—she probably put it on her left finger and you put it in the parting of your hair. (We mark the woman’s body so that everyone will know that she is married, but we don’t mark the man’s body.) We cannot expect the nation to transform into a magical wonderland of peace where everything is wonderful and happy, unless each one of us tries to be part of the solution. We are running out of time. Teachers cannot be neutral in this moral crisis; they can no longer be dreamers wishfully mouthing, ‘India is my country, all Indians are my brothers and sisters…’ We’ve got to live that pledge now, and live it in our personal lives.

Once I was sitting in a train in Bombay and eating dates, and a man sitting in front of me said, ‘You don’t look like a Muslim.’

I have no problem with being thought of as a Muslim or an anything but I did say, ‘Why do you think I am a Muslim?’

He said, ‘Because you are eating dates.’

Dates are now associated with Muslims?

I asked him if he believed in God.

He said he did.

I asked whether God created the date palm.

He said that God had.

I asked him whether God had earmarked the date palm for the Muslims.

He said that God didn’t do those things. Man did.

I pointed out that man can also undo them.

But this was a chartered accountant, an educated man, but someone who had internalised some strange ideas about fruit. So I thought that he might have topped in class but the system had failed him because it had not taught him critical thinking.

But if you are a good teacher, a storytelling teacher, then you can leave behind a trace of something that is very different in your students’ lives and that is the magic of teaching, and that is why we do it. Think of the greatest of the magical books recently, the Harry Potter series. It is set in a school. J. K. Rowling understood that a school is a space of magic and transformation. This is where we can change someone from a person who doesn’t think there is caste to someone who understands the horror of caste because she is standing in a gutter with a conservancy worker; who is willing to offer a chance to a young man, and whose family helped pay for the young man to go to school because she insisted that she would not be a tourist in their lives, she wanted to be a changemaker and she told us, she told her parents that we had to help her be that changemaker by paying for his education.

That’s an education that brings the margin to the centre. That’s magic. That’s transformation.

Now if you have questions, please ask them.

Q and A

Audience member 1. We have a lot of management constraints in terms of the fact that we have to finish the syllabus and stick to the curriculum, and we are told that this kind of activities is not suitable to your class, etc.

Jerry Pinto. If the Principal has said that to you, it means the students love you as a teacher.

Audience member 1 (cntd.) Criticism is also very helpful. When I was criticised, I first got into depression, and then I gradually picked up my pace about how to represent myself in class to cater to the needs of my students rather than meeting the needs of anyone else.

Audience member 2. You were talking about religion and caste. NCERT textbooks always give more importance to caste and emphasise on scheduled castes, which creates inferiority among children who belong to that caste.

Pinto. Don’t be afraid of naming the problem when you are talking with your students. For example, we have three Muslim students in class this year, and now when I go into class, we discuss the National Register of Citizens, and one of them came at the end of it and told me that it is so nice we talked about it, she is feeling less frightened now because her mother was born in Rangoon and has no papers, and doesn’t know whether she will be deported. One of the boys in class this year is a Dalit and vegan—he does not eat meat, fish, milk. His community finds this untenable: they say: ‘How can you be Dalit and a vegan?’ They think that only Brahmins, and that too rich Brahmins can be vegan—those who can afford to drink almond milk and not cow milk, etc. But it is important for us to understand that even if one or two or all of our students are uncomfortable, then that is the best space of learning. When you are slightly off balance, the body learns how to balance. If you are always sitting down and comfortable, then you will never learn anything.

Audience member 3. How would you deal with a student in your class who shares an entirely different perspective from you? For example if one of them had to say that the Nazis were good and right, and everything they were doing was brilliant.

Pinto. I should start with saying that in the kind of class that I am teaching in, everyone who comes in is usually a liberal lefty including P Sainath, Smriti Kopikar, myself. We have often had very strong BJP–RSS supporters coming from shakha backgrounds. They are going home and hearing one narrative and here they are hearing another narrative, so you can see that they are very angry. I think it is very important to open space for dialogue, and that we must listen respectfully. Often the liberal left is almost as dismissive as the right-wing are of us, resulting in an exchange of insults which is not getting anyone anywhere. So I happened to talk about politics this one time with a very close friend’s mother and I said, look at what is happening to the country with the NRC and everything. She said that she thinks all that is happening is rather good and explained her reasons for believing so—certainly they were bizarre reasons. About 20 minutes later she said that you know, you are the first who let me talk (although in my heart I was crying) because my family never wants to hear my thoughts on this. Then, once her son who lives in America had come down and she told him that Jerry listens to my thoughts on this, her son told her that she should know that the words she is using to describe Bangladeshis in India are the exact same words that Americans use for us, saying that they come and take our jobs and take over our space. And her face transformed. I think it is important to recognise that there will be some students who you will not reach, which is all right. But here is the central most valuable thing about humanity, which is that we are human because we have a language of elegant beautiful complexity—we can talk in time, space, imagination, reality. Language is our tool, it is language and conversation that will keep us human. Hurting and beating each other, even with language will not. So to keep talking and then to keep listening with empathy and sympathy, even to the bhakt—to listen and say that I do not agree with you, but I will respectfully pay attention to you. I will put down my barriers, bracket my identity, step forward into the common space, hold out the hand of humanity and say to him you are my brother, ‘mon semblable,—mon frère!’ You are just like me. Tomorrow if I need blood, I will not ask if you are a bhakt, brahmin, shudra or dalit. I will just hold your hand and take your blood. In that moment we declare our common humanity, this human pact that we will always strive to be better than who we are today. And that kid is also striving in his or her own way. Can we respect that? We can try and change that because that is what dialogue, language and humanity is. That is the inner fascist in me that I would like the world to be reshaped in my imagination like this—if you were all like me, what a beautiful and magical world we would have! No, we would have a tragic, terrible world. It is because you are not like me that we have magic. But can I respect your individuality and take it in its fullness? That fullness comprises of many parts, where part of you is a bhakt, part of you is sympathetic, part of you is lovely and has a great sense of humour. Do I want to take some parts and reject others? That is what we do all the time. It is not going to be easy, but nobody said it was. The International Labour Organisation said that the lowest paid professionals in the world are teachers. Our students get paid more in their first jobs than we do after 20 years of teaching. But we didn’t come here for the money, we came here and will stay here for the magic. And at the end of this, as we are transforming one life at a time, it will still be magic.

Audience member 5. In the class 8 NCERT syllabus, we have a chapter called ‘Marginalisation’. That is a chapter we deal with, with a lot of sensitivity. We try to sensitize our children about all the marginalized sections of people in our society. There is a topic in that chapter that we have omitted and we do not teach, which is called ‘Muslims and minorities’. The reason we have done this is because it shows that they belong to SC and that their literacy rate is very low. I feel that it adds to the existing negative impression about this community, and in our classes already they are in minority—in a class of 40 students we hardly get one or two Muslim students. So it is about keeping their integrity intact, and also how the rest of the children perceive this notion. If I have to share my own experience, I have been born and brought up in a Muslim dominated area and my best friends are all Muslims, so I know them very closely, and I have a lot of love for them. Pedagogically, is it a good idea? Even with the caste system, I sometimes feel that we should not teach it and people will forget it.

Pinto. Now let’s assume this. Let’s come to the biology textbook, where there is a chapter called ‘Reproductive System’ that comes in the grade 8. Everyone in the school that I went to was waiting for this chapter to come so that we would talk about that and those parts. My teacher comes in and says then there is reproductive system which is omitted. Lots of teachers do this and all sexual offenders or people who molest children are delighted because you have said to the child that I am ashamed of talking about that part of the body, you also should be ashamed, and when someone touches him or her there, she has no way to go and tell her mother that it happened. By silencing that conversation we have allowed our children to be prey to sexual offenders. Can your child come up to you and say my penis or my vagina? Instead they will use all these bizarre words to refer to those parts. What shame is that, and that shame is the great defence of a sexual offender because he knows that the child won’t tell the mother. Silence helps the sexual offender, caste offender, the minorities ignorer. Whenever I say I translate from Marathi, the first question a sweet old lady will ask is, do you know enough Marathi? I know that is a communal question that you are asking only because my name is Jerry Pinto. You would never ask this question if my name were Jayatirth Pant because a Hindu name would mean that bhasha is automatic, which in the case of an English name is not automatic. How dare she think that I would start translating without enough knowledge of the language? How dare she invisibilise and silence me, and ignore my identity in this question? I am proud of this identity. If you don’t like it, that is your problem. Each one of you is the queen or the king of your own class. My solution to this situation is that make the minority children present, tell them in advance. Call their parents in advance, tell them that there is this part in the book which I don’t agree with. I want to have a little skit showing something about your community, that could be whatever you would like to show. Help them present that in class. Make it fun, but make them visible. We will step into that dangerous territory called minorities and we will feel our way. Sensitivities will come up. We are not in charge of knowing the truth, we are in charge of discovering with everybody that fragile thing called truth for that moment for that set of people understanding what it is like to negotiate constantly, to try and fit in, to try and hold everything together, and move forward one step at a time clumsily because that is democracy. It is not easy, this country is the world’s greatest challenge and it is going to be interesting. There is that old Chinese saying that you say when you want to curse someone—may you live in interesting times! How much more interesting than this?

Ok, last question.

Audience member 6. This is not a question, I just wanted you to help me to help a student in my class. His mother is a Brahmin and the father is a Muslim, and his name carries the Muslim initial at the back because of which he is so embarrassed that neither does he come out in the assembly, nor does he take part in anything and the main reason for that is his mother says very bad things about Muslims, but her husband is a Muslim himself and he does everything for this child. But this boy can never accept the truth that his father is a Muslim. In the class, whenever we do some activities, he never wants to write his full name and says instead that he better not participate. How do I help him? I really want to. He is a very intelligent boy but never wants to speak because he does not want to mention his full name or his father’s name. In the present scenario, I don’t have the guts to speak to the mother, which I would have liked to do. What can I do for him?

Pinto. Thank you for asking this question because you have been vulnerable in asking it. You have said that you don’t have the guts to confront this, for which I applaud you. My mother had a mental problem when I was growing up and continued to have it till she died. I found it very difficult in school because people called me ‘mad woman’s son’ and I got into trouble because I fought with them. The usual stuff. People would call me and counsel me and I would think that they do not know what it is like. But at the same time I was warmed and comforted by their comfort. So call him and chat with him for five minutes during lunch or whenever you can. If that student of yours has not taken part in something, ask him why not. First of all, he has to be brought into the centre and has to be doing fun things. Let him put his name the way he prefers, don’t argue with him. My given name is Jeronimo Maria, and the teachers would always pronounce it in strange ways. So I would get up and say that my name is Jerry and they would be fine with that. Let the child name himself. When he is a little older and is involved with the activities, just call him aside and chat with him, just open a space where he can talk and let him direct the discourse. How many of us would go to a counsellor? It is very difficult to talk about oneself. You need to give him that warm and comfortable space of communication where he sees you as a friend, then he will start sharing with you. You are already helping him if he is talking to you. We are not here to solve the problem—the problem the child will himself solve in the course of his life, recognising at some point that hybrid identity is wonderful. Or he will choose to erase it, that is his issue. You are there as a teacher to open the communication lines and keep the dialogue flowing so that you are someone he can talk to and trusts completely. Don’t share what he says with anyone because that would be to break his faith. Thank you so much for the question.

[i] Jerry Pinto, Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph, 2012)

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