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education

The Cost of Faith

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

What Can I Write On This To Bring Them Back

I walked into the newsroom on Tuesday and logged in. It felt like a normal day, sat out on the balcony, next to my manager. As I do every day, I looked at the headlines to acquaint myself with what is going on so that I would be on top of the curve in the office. Making a good impression. I’d never even heard of Peshawar before, but I knew who the Taliban were. The more of the article I read, the more the hole is my stomach grew and filled with sickness. I asked for five minutes to compose myself outside in the fresh air – making sure that I didn’t make eye-contact with anyone, my eyes fixed on the way ahead.

The room continued as normal, buzzing with stories, but I could not help but feel hollow. You can understand it, you become desensitised to tragedy and loss because there is so much of it that stains the papers everyday with blood. But I am not of such a breed, it is not my job to report on what happens – but my duty as a human being to feel the loss of 132 sets of families in the same moment.

It didn’t make me angry. It made me fearful. Frightened of an existence where a human being, (although I would not classify the beings that conducted those acts to have humanity) can walk into a classroom and shoot a group of innocent children. Who can then, after hearing the screams and seeing the room turn scarlet, casually walk into the next and repeat the same thing again. Walking around to make sure that not a single child would stir amongst the occupation of their thick, black military boots.

Conflict has become dirty. It is abhorrent to be in a society where individuals who have no hope of defending themselves can be extinguished. Where the bodies of innocent school children are sacrificed to make a political point. Have we stooped so low? The saddest part is that these kids were learning to look past the differences. They were becoming wiser. But when the ignorant are armed with guns, their textbooks do not provide sufficient protection.

I am an advocator of free education. A sense of learning and entitlement. But can we really advocate education without protecting it? Malala survived, but how many children are extinguished every day for getting on a school bus, when we complain that our own bus is 10 minutes late? The gulf between the young people of the three worlds is getting wider and it won’t be long before the conflict becomes out of arms reach. We make our placards about education for all, we demonstrate for cuts in fees, but how many of us actually use our learning to help those that really need it? Education is a right that needs to be protected, because when we don’t, it becomes a weapon in a political power play.

Every journalist must feel this...
Credit: Slice of Simplicity

Trafalgar Square was solemn on Wednesday night. I arrived 40 minutes before the candlelit vigil was set to begin, organised by university students, to remind the people of Peshawar that the world was with them. But it wasn’t the people, or the lights, or the pictures that made me think – but it was the signs. The title of this post was written on a placard at the front, “What Can I Write On This To Bring Them Back”, others read simply “Enough. We are tired.” So am I. Tired of walking into a newsroom and seeing the anguish of families carrying their loved ones in rushed, wooden caskets, as the world starts to forget they exist.

“When a wife dies, we call the husband is a widower. When a husband dies, we call the wife is a widow. When parents die, we call the child an orphan. But when a child dies, there is no word to encapsulate the pain that the parents feel – we just cannot begin to imagine this suffering”  – Taken from a speech at the candlelit vigil

There is nothing I can say here that is going to bring them back. There is nothing that, God forbid, will stop tragedies like this occurring tomorrow. However, the thing that will change is the attitude I saw at the vigil. People standing in silence, together, existing as a barrier between the ignorant and the innocent. We will protect them from harm. Condemnation is not enough anymore, and violence is all too much. It’s time we stopped skimming and really started talking about it. Hold hands with the person next to you, hold their hearts and realise that they are all you have, even if you don’t know them.

When we start realising how precious life is – how survival is really all we have – then we can start building the bridges towards each other. Just start by seeing the humanity in others, and it can’t be lost. Not entirely anyway. Because spirit is bulletproof.

Never forgotten in our souls – the 141 that didn’t make it out of school this time. They wait for us by the gates.

#PrayForPeshawar

Miss Al-Qaeda

After writing a post last week celebrating Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birthday and his impact on the US, and getting a very favourable and heart-warming response I must say, it was interesting to see the news yesterday. For those that haven’t had the chance to see it, the Twitter sphere went crazy last night following the results of the Miss America beauty pageant. For the first time, it has been won by an Indian.

Let me be very clear from the beginning here. I am not in any shape or form a supporter of beauty pageants, nor do I agree with the premise within which they operate. To put it simply, I don’t think that you can rank or quantify ‘beauty’. Having said that, I find it strange how such an outdated institution has dredged up a torrent of horrifying abuse, especially since the anniversary of 9/11 passed us by only a week ago. The bitterness is still there.

A lot of the tweets can be seen here, but let me give you the greatest hits. There is a lot of references to an ‘Arab’, a ‘foreigner’ and not ‘Miss America’ but ‘Miss Al-Qaeda’. The thing that struck me the most was the fact that people were adamant that ‘This is America!’ and Nina Davuluri, Miss New York and the newly crowned Miss America, did not fit into this picture. It seems that the image of America held by some Americans harks back to the days of yore, when non-Caucasians were considered to be inferior citizens. That makes sense, right?

Wrong. Let’s wrap this up nicely so that we don’t need to revisit this again. The best way to deal with idiocy is through reason, and so here is my logic. First of all, the indigenous population of the North Pacific region, now occupied by the USA and Canada, were home to the tribes of ‘Red Indians’ who are now more affectionately termed as Native Americans. Non-whites. Therefore the argument that ‘these people’ do not belong in this country is difficult to argue, when historically, they arrived first.

I was really hoping that with the instatement of the first Black President and the movement of higher ethnic immigration to America would stem this tide of racial ignorance. But these are small stepping stones in this fight. The real heavyweight is education and understanding, of which is not sufficient in Western society. There is no time, no commitment and no hunger to understand why people are different and why this should be celebrated. Instead we descend into pitiful, childish name calling and bullying.

When are we going to realise this? I’ll tell you. When it’s too late.

Potential is a Dirty Word

Someone said this to me when I was talking to them at an event recently. I was discussing an opportunity to work with them in the future and I described myself as having “plenty of potential” at which point them stopped me mid-sentence. They said to me that using the word “potential” immediately turned them off from working with me. I asked them why? They replied that having potential is not good enough anymore. Having the potential to achieve and actually achieving are on very different scales. Therefore potential is a dirty word.

It got me thinking about the way that we as people are manufactured to sell ourselves, conditioned to some extent through formal education. We are constantly told by our teachers, peers and parents that we have the potential to do something great, if we put our minds to it. But that gives the impression that we can only do something in the future, as by extension that means that doing anything now could harm that potential. I sometimes think that this is what fuels the amount of inactivity that we can see in this generation. They choose to live off this fake “potential” wave in the hope that they will be able to come through without putting in as much effort as they could be – and in this way, ironically, they could be killing any great qualities that they have in the present.

The only way in which this “potential” can be managed and taken forward is if we stop thinking that it is only good in the future. And it shouldn’t be the only thing that fuels our self-confidence enough to put ourselves out there. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves and realise that potential is no good to anyone else if they require our services, even if you are young. Sure, they are looking for you to grow on the job and show enthusiasm, but if you are just a lemon with the potential to be less lemony – don’t be surprised if they tell you that they will keep your CV on file in case something comes up (a polite form of “We are rejecting you”)

So do something about it now. Don’t be under the impression that “potential” is going to take you from where you are to where you want to end up. It is not a selling point. And on the flip side, if you aren’t told you have potential; don’t let it set you back. What will help you is taking the time out to do anything to better yourself and make you a better bet. Don’t rely or be stopped by something that hasn’t happened. Draw on what you have already done and are doing. Potential is a dirty word and a self fulfilling prophecy, because the more you hope to draw on later, the less work you will do now, and the more you will have lost in the process. Don’t get sucked in.

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MAYDAY!

This is not going to be a post about relishing the coming of summer, dancing around maypoles or generally enjoying the bank holiday. Mostly because I can’t do any of those things. This is going to be about the red flashing light that sounds when a submarine is about to be crushed by the pressure of a thousand depths and one sailor screams “MAYDAY!” at the top of his voice. This is going to be about all the students who awkwardly look across their desks in the library to find someone else awkwardly looking across at them. And in that instant they both think the same thought, “Get me the f*** out of here!” The season of examinations has begun.

For those of you that have just seen the word “examinations” and have immediately closed the browser, assuming that this will be another clichéd peppy ‘You can do it!’ post, you have missed out. I am not feeling in the slightest bit peppy. But I have to say if you haven’t already started working, I fear for the contents of your brown envelope in August. The point of this post is to go through the thought processes of a typical student in the months leading up to those two hours in the main hall and what separates the winners from the losers.

The basic concept is that most students are lazy. If they are not lazy, then they are easily distracted. If they are not lazy or easily distracted, then they think they are the mutt’s nuts and leave their preparation far too late. Because our education system is geared towards exams we believe that we can just coast for 6 months and then cram in the final two, to finally deliver in that morning exam. But that logic is flawed, this practice does not work for any other situation. If you are an athlete, you don’t lounge about for a while, do some quick stretches and then try and race – you will injure yourself. If you are hungry, you don’t watch TV for a few hours, then make your food in a rush and gulp it down – you will have a stomach ache. So why the hell do we think that we can feed our brain all of this knowledge in such a short amount of time and expect it to just flood in and nestle there?

I am completely guilty of this. I myself have left it quite late to get everything done this year, due to other personal circumstances. But that isn’t an excuse. Preparation and practice are key. I bet those guys and girls that you took the mick out of for doing revision notes on a Friday night in February, whilst you were on your way out, are feeling a little smug now. Whilst we are all wallowing in self denial and pity, shouting MAYDAY! at our teachers, our tutors and our textbooks, they are casually whipping out their reams of highlighted notes and mind maps, knowing that they are ready for anything that paper has to throw at them.

So this may have been slightly depressing, and also slightly irritating as you envy those acquaintances that are much more prepared than you. But it’s fine. It is on the 2nd of May, and it is going to be a three-day weekend – if there ever was a time to print out that revision timetable and deactivate your Facebook then it is probably today. And if you are lucky, the only time you will be thinking MAYDAY is from remembering this post, rather than sitting in that exam room pondering what might have been. Because by then it will be too late.

The Leavers’ Look

As I sat in my English class this morning, staring down at a paper I had written, I came to the realisation that I’d reached the point of no return. It was littered with comments and critiques in the hope that I could possibly move one more place up in the alphabet. Staring outside at the overcast sky, with one eye on my teacher as he paced around the room, it was clear that all five of us were in a state of trance. He desperately moved from his desk, to our table, to leaning on the back of a chair…just to get us to ‘focus’. The truth was that we were focusing. Just not on English. And most certainly not on him.

Truth be told, I have absolutely no idea what the others were thinking about, but they had that knowing look of stress, tinged with a hint of fatigue. It was the same look that I had been feeling for the past few months. Talking to different people, it was not an uncommon look. It was the look that presides with someone who is frustrated with where they are, stuck in a place where they cannot move on, knowing that where they want to be is just out of their reach. It is commonly associated with young adults, at the precipice of their formal education, looking beyond the pale to see freedom beckoning them in the distance. I call it the leavers’ look.

I think it hits you sometime after you realise you have barely any time left of formal education or ‘school.’ You look at all the people that you have come to recognise over the years and see how much they have changed and how much you have been through. You look at your teachers and realise that they are frustrated by the same system you are frustrated by and irritated by the same younger kids that you are irritated by. You look at your lessons, your textbooks and even your own work and realise the futility of it all. You realise that you have been mesmerized by an institution that has always only been a means to an end.

And everyone can see it. After a certain point, you are less and less obliged to be a part of the school environment, becoming enveloped in your own world of studying and developing yourself for the next steps. You come to the terms with the fact that you will not set foot in those doors again as a student…your relationship with the building, the people and everything will be irrevocably changed. Your friends will move on to new people and you hope to see them once again, possibly more if you are lucky, but it is clear that you are not going to bump into them in the corridor anymore. It is the end of your coming of age, and the start of your new journey into the real world. No more mollycoddling.

And that leads you to look out of the window in a haze of your own contemplation. Looking at your surroundings and knowing that that moment could be, might be, will be one of those moments that you look back on in twenty years, back in your teenage body, and smile boyishly…knowing that these were some of the best years of your life, with memories that will linger in yours and the minds of the other hundred boys that made the journey with you.

Then you catch your breath and stop looking. What a view, ey?