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Friday, September 24, 2010

Chronicles of extra-ordinary tales of the ordinary

Tushar Bhatt

Usha Shukla, a young school teacher in Ahmedabad, stood stunned. In her 30s, she was already a principal, a position that pupils regard as next only to the Almighty.
Less than an hour earlier,she had slapped an 8th Standard girl soundly on the face for not doing home work in the mathematics in a proper notebook. Mota Ben, as lady principals are respectfully called in Gujarat , are often stricter than the male of the species.
The teacher had felt pleased with herself in punishing the erring student who had not uttered a single word in self-defence. Usha was petrified. There was something missing and she felt inadequate to pinpoint it.It made her task all the more tough.
The frail pupil was clad in simple clothes,probably bought from a second-hand clothes vendor on a city foothpath . Middle class young teachers like Usha often realise it belatedly that keeping quiet in such situations did not mean that the student had nothing to say. It could mean more often that the pupil was helpless.
Usha finished the class and made her way to principal’s office,feeling euphoric and believing she has instilled fear of God in pupils Yet,an explicable uneasiness underlined the experience.
As she settled in her swivel chair, the school throne of power, the erring girl asked from the door way meekly :”May I have a word with you, Motaben?”
Curtly,the teahcer replied: “ Yes, what is it ? What the tiny girl had to stay left Usha contrite with remorse.
God has forgotten to give many things to teachers, but He has supplied them in abundance with the ability to empathise with the pupil .
The girl began softly, meekly and yet with a dignity the Almight gave the down-trodden to survive in the cruel world. However bad tempered they are, eventually teachers are also children of the Muse of Knowledge. The dictator in the teacher gave way to Saraswati as words rolled out of the distraught pupil.
“Ben, I have not prepared notebook for home work in not only the mathematics but no subject at all. I got second-hand books from a friend,but I cannot get notebooks. My parents are labourers who go out in the morning for work. The kitchen has nothing to cook so we come to study without food.There will be no food in the night too if the parents did not get any work.”Till I get a scholarship, there is no way to obtain notebooks.I know this is bad.”
She said in even tone that exploded on Usha like at atomic device. ” You can beat me every day, in every period and I will neither cry in the class nor stop coming to school.”
Despite brave words,tear rolled down her emaciated cheeks.
Usha Shukla was devastated by the impact. “Oh, my God. How could I be such an idiot? What kind of a taecher am I ? Am I a teacher? What a shame that I did not know about her plight? “
Instead of slapping the young student,she should have slapped herself, Usha thought furiouslylf. Who would think of her as anything but a snob?
As she remonstrated with herself, the pricipalalmost choked on her tears.Then,she decided to act.
She later told a jury of eminent citizens,led by retired chief justice of Gujarat High Court, B J Diwan who adjudged her best suited for an excellence award by the Eklavya Foundation: ” I decided to educate myself.I was nothing but a romantic dreamer.My colleagues said that there were a number of children in our school itself in similar predicament.”
Usha told them:” Come what may, we will make a beginning. “ The girl who was a victim of Usha’s wrath, was provided with not only notebooks, but everything a pupil needed. Usha and her colleagues got extra lunch boxes from their homes which will be left in a room so that the needy could quietly go and eat,without anyone knowing and hurting their self-esteem.
For the middle class teachers this was not an easy effort. In the days of steady income and spiralling prices, it requires a Herculean effort to meet both the end meet.
If God had created everthing , He should also be accountable for everything. The Brave Motherly Hearts decided never to donate money hereafter to temples, mosques, gurudwaras,churches..every placewhere a cash box for His acolytes ‘ sustenace is found. Not happy with the way He performed his job, the teachers replaced Him with school children.In the entire existence there was nothing holier that children.
Sceptics may argue that despite such kodiyan(earthen lamps) burning themselves out the darkness in our education system continued.It was as if there was darkness at noon.But,there are some Good Samaritans contnue to furrow their lone plough, and support innovative Gurus. Every year since 1997, Eklavya gives several awards for excellence in education.For more two decades, teachers from Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar districts in Gujarat have been given these awards. Usha got it in 1998.
Said Sunil Handa,chairman of the trust,”we are trying to identify the finest,most hard-working and steadfast teachers who have made a significant diference in the lives of their pupils.” It was the jury’s job to find such teachers.
The battle-hardened jury was deeply moved by the extra- ordinariness of the ordinary, when Usha narrated the simple tale.She and her colleagues were without power ot means to bring about a massive change in India.However,they were honest teachers. Everything they attempted did not mean necessarily a success. They had not been able to prevent young girls dropping out when they reached marriageable age.The parents would not want their daughter to have a lot of education so that there would be out-qualidied their spouses.For years now, girls have been forging ahead while the boys fared poorly in ssc and other competitive exqminations.
Handa was aware that piecemeal efforts were not enough. " We need a large number of grassroot level teachers who make a difference. “
Since 1997, 13 annual awards have been given on September 5, Teachers Day. Every year award winning Gurus narrate their life story and experiences.Then,in 2009, a journalist,Neerja Choudhary, was the chief guest at the award ceremony. She heard a veteran teacher,Perin Lalkaka describe her life . The story-teller in the scribe sprang into action. In her speech, Neerja,suggested experiences of the award winners should be brought out in an anthology.
Handa and his colleagues took to the suggestion and a bilingual book, in Gujarati and English, Aviram Athak ( Joyful Path,Tireless Walk) comprising of life stories in 36 walks down the memory lane is the end-result. The 168-page volume ,priced at Rs.100 a copy. was released in 2010.Its charm lies in togetherness of daily-life experiences, tunring into an extra-ordinary boquet of tributes to the mission of teaching. Alone or together, they would not bag a Nobel prize for literature.
It will ,however, bring home what ordinary citizens can do if they are are committed to a cause.A concerned and impressed parent neatly summed up: “No literary masterpiece has changed the world. But education has and will do so forever. Needed are committed teachers and a sensitive society.” We need good primary and secondary teachers. A Nobel prize can wait. A Gujarati idom says it all neatly:” Tipe Tipe Sarovar Bharay.” What is a lake of water but joining together of a vast number of drops of water?

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Maha Pundit of Letters: Harivallabh Bhayani

By Tushar Bhatt
It was a little after 3.30 p m,with the May sun mercilessly beating down on the red and white houses.As the mercury hovered around 44 degrees C.,even the society watchmen had hidden himself in a shade.The man who opened the door at 25/2,Vimanagar in Ahmedabad,however,seemed oblivious to the heat haze all around.
With a large forehead,marked by waves of wrinkles made perhaps by too much of thinking,sporting a mole on the left side,the receding hairline,the prominent nose and ears and a lined face with sunken eyes that have crow's feet all around,all told a story of how Dr Harivallabh Chunilal Bhayani,has been marching with time- and is oblivous of it too.
Born on May 26,1917, he was standing on that day in the doorway on the eve of his birthday; " it is a bonus time for me",he said,reflecting on how time had fled. A foremost exponent of Prakrit ,the ancient language,Sanskrit,and old Gujarati as also the modern one,Bhayanisaheb,as is he generally known,had,however,not allowed the sands of time to run away from the hour-glass of life so far without extracting,what he had set out to do some half-a-century ago.
Harivallabhbhai today is one of the handful people who can boast -- and ,he does not -- of being an authority in linguistics,not just a man of letters,of whom there are many in Gujarat and India,but a pundit of letters.
For all his contributions in research in the ancient works in Sanskrit,Priakrit,and in enriching the Gujarati language through original work on words and their roots,Dr.Bhayani has remained in the penumbra of popular accolade.Most have heard of him,but few have known of his pioneering work in linguistics.
Yet,Dr Bhayani had no regrets that he made Ahmedabad his home.A low-profile man,with an equable nature,intellectually, he is so towering a personality that he appears to be rather non-chalant about the contemporary disinterest in him and his work by his fellow human beings.The mere cataloguing of what he has done over the past 50 years is daunting enough to tell one about how tall are his achievements.The list of his published works number 69,topped only a few days ago by the publication of a short volume on etymology of the Gujarati language.
His works encompass texts edited from the original manuscripts along with notations from Sanskrit,Prakirt,Apabrahmsa,old Gujarati and old Hindi-- titles such as Lilavati-Sara,Taragana,Rasalila,Pamdavala,Bhasha Vyakaran.Those contianing papers on linguistic,literary and cultural studies of classical litrature include four books; those on renderings or translations from the ancient languages include seven books,on grammatical and liguistic sides include more than a dozen and those of collections of critical essays number a three-fourth of a dozen,folk-literary studies and collections of folk-songs numbering six,and five volumes of miscellaneous work.These are in addition to nearly a hundred research papers published on a variety of Indological subjects.Prakrit and Apbhramsa are the languages in which the old Jain literature had been written and in the beginning of this century,it looked if these languages would be lost forever.Thanks to the scholars like Muni Jin Vijay and Dr Bhayani,many texts from these have been rescued.
What sets him apart from other researchers in the ancient literature and languages is that he thinks that neither that literature or those languages are without any relevance today. " You have to blame the professors of Sanskrit for making people view that language as something of a dead language,and its literature supposed bereft of interest today. It is not so.Through ages,languages and the literary works have an important role in shaping the life;they are full of meaning for even the modern-day life." For instance, the old literature shows us how variagated and rich our social life was,how imaginative the people were,how artistic we were.It is a rich heritage of culture,which has a definite continuity in our modern existence too.
He was born in Mahuva,in Bhavnagar district of Saurashtra,into a family where his grand-mother had a stellar role to play,in the formative years of his life. He recalled:" My grand-mother had become a widow at a very young age and had brought up my father almost single-handed.Then,when I was about a year or so,my father died.Then the mother died,and so the grand-mother had to bring me up.I had a sister,but she too died young.I grew up listening to stories and bhajans,folk-tales and songs,in a Vaishnavite household." He went to M.N.High School in Mahuva,getting through the S.S.C. with flying colours in 1934.The small scholarship enabled him to go to Shamaldas College in Bhavnagar.The lonely child seemed to have a special love for books from the very beginning.He would spend hours in company of books in the college library. In 1939, Harivallabhbhai took his B.A.with Sanskrit as special subject,again with flying colours,bagging another scholarship to go to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Bombay for further studies in Sanskrit.He passed his M A with six papers in Sanskrit and two in Ardhmagdhi,in first class,winning Bhagwandas Purushottamdas Sanskrit prize.In 1951,he completed his Ph.D. in Prakrit.He got interested in comparative philology even while in college.He was greatly influenced by a Jain acharya,Muni Jin Vijayji,who was a distinguished researcher in ancient literature,as also by the work done by Sir Ralph Turner, a renowned Indologist and expert in linguistics,who had done pioneering work in India and Nepal.From 1945 to 1965,Dr Bhayani lived in Bombay ,undertaking teaching at post-graduate level and research in Apbhramsa the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.His output has been great eversince,underlined by qualities of meticulous research,notations and explanations of ancient works,many of which would have been lost in the mist of time. "Even today,there are hundreds of manuscripts in Prakrit and Apbhramsa,lying at a number of place in Gujarat,waiting for scholars to rescue them,and bring to the notice of the people."
He considered his job as that of a link, a bridge between our ancient literature and modern one; "It is an important assignment to my mind because it helps enrich our present-day literature and language,establishes our link with the past.The past does not remain a dead burden but gets merged into the modern era through such efforts." His only regret is that there are not enough people interested in serving as these essential links with our past. " It is difficult even to get people who can do the correct proof-reading of such literature."
In 1965,Dr Bhayani shifted to Ahmedabad as professor of linguistics at Gujarat University,devoting a decade to the job.Between 1975 and 1985,he was an honorary professor of Prakrit at the L D Institute of Indology in the city.
During this professional career,his real contribution was in guiding innumerable students for their doctoral work,and in applying scientific methods to the study of the Gujarati language. In 1993,he was given the honorary fellowship of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. Prof. J C Wright has noted a " strong correlation" between the careers of Dr.Bhayani and Sir Ralph Turner,who was the first scholar to apply then then modern "neogrammarian" methodology to the study of Gujarati.Dr Bhayani, who had first seen a work by Turner,even while in college in Bhavnagar,has just brought a volume on the Gujarati language on the pattern of what Turner had done some three decades ago.Among the innumerable awards that have come to him are Ranjitram medal for contribution to Gujarati literature in 1965,the President's award of certificate of honour as an outstanding scholar of Sanskrit in 1985,and a Sahitya Akademi award for the best Gujarati book of 1980-81.
Despite his life-long study of ancient literature, Dr Bhayani is a modern critic.He regretted that there is a trend in modern literature that took it away from the real life. " I am not saying that literature should preach or propagate,but how can it remain aloof from the contemporary society and its ways? How can it behave as if literature has nothing to do with society.Our literature should also not aim at becoming the literature of the Bhadralok only.He regretted that while literacy had spread,literary development was lacking.
He perceived that a habit to turn away from the real life in literature not only made it ireelevant but also led to a dead-end.It was a pity that some people thought that literature had something to with form and language,and had little to do with contentt.If the concept of content -- or matter -- was taken out from literature,it would lost meaning. A reader could then well ask: Why should I read such literature ?
As a critic,Dr Bhayani has been forthright,but never venomous. He hates getting into a slanging match just to prove that he was right. His detractors say that he too much of a soft-hearted man to get into controversies.
Long past the prime of life,Dr Bhayani loves to listen to music,meet friends for discussions and go for walks whenever possible.He has an even temperament.Said his wife: " I have never known him to lose his temper." The only son of the Bhayanis live in Bombay while the old couple leads a life contented,but as busy as that of a bee in Ahmedabad.He has formally retired from work;but he is neither tired,nor has he called it a day in his research work.

Sunday, September 19, 2010