Thursday, June 14, 2018

Now I Know What A Non-Khatai Is !

We were at the end of a long street, waiting to  to touch base with Rajender who was to escort us to the dargah and also take us on a guided tour of Fatehpur Sikri. The charming aspect of roads is that they have crossroads and intersections and we were parked in front of a ramshackle market with odds and ends and hawkers selling fruit and vegetables, small eating joints on either side. There were vendors with the  gazak and chikki and rewadi, winter ware that continues to delight, but the eye was also entranced by what looked like baked rose florets.

 I stepped out of the car and enquired as to what they were, thinking of their resemblance to what we called naun-khatai at New Delhi. The nankhatai is  usually a mix of maida and dalda  that continues to be made in bakeries all over North India. In Chandni Chowk the  dough is  kneaded in a plastic container and set to bake on a hot iron griddle on coals which is covered by a tin plate. The khatai,  warm and fresh from the griddle makes for   delicious morsels that shoppers and shopkeepers snack upon and are available off  cycle thelas that ply in the lanes.

I chose a vanilla flavour made with butter, and eventually  purchased  non-khatais for five rupees per piece. I carried them back to the car and distributed them, at that precise moment on a winter afternoon, when the sun feels a little bleak and the sky begins to  gray in shared anxiety. On contact with the mouth the  khatai  disintegrates into little khatai crumbs  that can be  slowly relished, munched and swallowed to allow ,   a comfortable warmth  to spread through one's being. A  cup of tea would  have  heightened the pleasure, but Rajinder had responded to our phone call and we headed in the direction of the monument.
 On our return  we stopped  on the other side of the road, at a larger stationary outlet and bought boxes of non-khatai to take back home to Delhi. All these years, I had imagined that these delicate biscuits were called nan khatai because they were made of maida in the same way as nans were. Innumerable local bakeries  at  New Delhi  which sell this  delicate biscuit always referred t it as nan -khatai.

 The nickel  finally dropped.  They were  termed non-khatai because no fermenting agent was used to make them, unlike the nan which requires a little bit of   be fermentation   before it can be rolled out and  baked into delicious crisp breads. Non khatai indicates a baked item that needs no fermentation.

 Odd, how language routinely fine tunes and  resets our understanding of both the everyday and the unusual. The non khatais on the road leading to Fatehpur Sikri are the largest  and most aesthetic  khatais I have ever seen.  They are also light, crisp and crumbly and  a great pleasure, both to view and eat. They definitely deserve a GI tag. Take a look and  try them out  if you are in the vicinity!

The GBM and its After-Math?

I attended the DUTA GBM yesterday because  well over a month had elapsed  since we received the  evaluation boycott call from the DUTA executive.  Serious evaluation requires us to examine  a  limited number of answer sheets over a reasonable period of time, and since I for example,  can  optimally  examine around  seventeen honours answer scripts in a day,  I was anxious to participate in a discussion which could review the evaluation blockade. Of course, if we are going to do eleventh hour evaluations, maybe we could formulate a"everyone will pass formula" or a "everyone gets  distinction methodology." Perhaps we could even take an aggregate of the previous two years and give our third year students  permanent provisional certificates, because I don't see how we will be able  to do justice to the evaluation process at this rate.

What is disturbing is that the moment this is voiced as work-related anxiety, one immediately becomes a fake warrior of  a particular political group. This was the response conveyed on my College Whatsapp group with accusations that  teachers who had participated in the evaluation boycott were being thrown to the wolves. This is astounding, because if we must  use such bizarre metaphors, students waiting to receive their  results are the people we are  actually throwing  under the bus. ( The fact of the matter is, wolves are really pretty noble creatures, so please let us stop  crying wolf ) 

I also don't think that because some farmers have trashed their crop and a few milkmen have emptied milk cans  on the streets, it becomes necessary for us to jettison our students. Yes, we mentor students and help them grow, but I don't think students should be equated with perishable goods. Also, I don't see how damaging student interest,  and saying that  harming only one batch  in the hope of  salvaging the futures of  generations of students becomes an  acceptable procedure. "The end justifies the means," is a terrible example to fall back on, especially when vulnerable, young people are involved.

The system of examinations we have in place is extremely problematic. So also is the system of evaluation and if recent results are anything to go by, we are now on par with CBSE , since  a combination of  the semester evaluation  and internal assessment  systems has succeeded in churning out  batches of outstanding students.

This aspect of our evaluation process, which has been reduced to a mockery, needs to be seriously examined. All of us are unhappy with the semester system, but as an academic body we have been unable to bring back the Annual Mode and put in checks and measures to make internal assessment a gold standard. To our chagrin, Himachal University, the newspapers tell us, has reverted to conducting its examinations in the  Annual Mode. Delhi University, meanwhile continues to shuffle its feet over very clumsily aligned and envisioned  syllabi, and  teaches and evaluates in Semester Mode. None of this is being discussed on platforms that matter.  

Yesterday's GBM was an eyeopener. After a few long drawn out speeches, one member proposed an out of turn closure motion. The President of the DUTA, for reasons best known to him (perhaps it was the excruciating hot weather) put it to mock-vote. This was followed  by considerable mayhem. Many teachers, who did not have any political affiliations never got a chance to speak. The closure motion became real and  absolutely no discussion  was allowed.

I was told by many people that the executive had decided the boycott  and not consulted the staff Associations. The executive had again voted and won 11:8 on the question of continuing the boycott.  When I asked about letters from over 25 Staff Associations  suggesting that the boycott be withdrawn, this was dismissed as not relevant, because had those members been really serious, they would have turned up for the GBM!

So I  understood a  few things from yesterday's GBM which i would like to place  on record: 
Certain procedures are irreversible, for a trade union movement to be successful. 

 I. If the DUTA executive takes a decision, then the decision must never be reviewed. ( trade unions follow the logic that  battles must be fought unto death)

II.  If the executive takes a decision on behalf of Staff Associations and does not consult them in the first place, then the Executive can never  ever  go back to the Staff Associations and ask for a resolution. Clause (1) comes into play.

 III . Students and must be  viewed as collateral damage.(as in the context of war, refer clause I) 

IV. Factoring in adequate time to carry out the evaluation process or drawing attention to it 
 is not a logical thought process. It is evidence of taking the high moral ground and reprehensible  because whenever there is a war zero-time comes into play. In such situations  trade unionists must not behave like educators because to do so is tantamount to  betrayal.( to the situation of war)

V. In a GBM, taking a stand as a teacher is both counterproductive and irrelevant. We must always take a position  that echoes the wishes of  one  political party that we  must compulsorily espouse. Although those who vociferously supported the  the four year program, now support  the evaluation boycott, they've probably got it  right this time.

VI. Speakers must hurl accusations and invective  at others. Without this modus operandi,  obfuscation  will not occur and the issue at hand cannot  be deflected.

 VII If there are other suggestions, like going back to evaluating scripts , and gheraoing the Vice Chancellor,  and garnering public opinion  at the ground level, these do not merit a discussion.

I hesitate to storm into the Exam Centre and begin the evaluation process, although I do sympathize with colleagues who are possibly doing so. It would be in the academic nterests of  the the DU  2018 Calendar, if the DUTA leadership would resolve this  post-haste instead of continuing the stale-mate.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Not to evaluate at all was never part of the boycott program

I am writing today to thank the decision making body of the DUTA for the brief respite granted to college teachers when they successfully implemented the examination boycott. For those, who are not in the know, Delhi University officially bowdlerized the examination system six years ago, when the semester system was brought in for all streams, compelling students to take examinations once in six months. Prior to this we had an annual examination mode, with year round assessment being tabulated through internal assessment, where students were evaluated on the basis of tutorials.

This was not exactly a fool proof system and internal assessment remained a flawed method as it also incorporated marks for attendance, the marking system was never standardized across colleges, and marks were invariably subject to multiple-level moderations. The internal assessment system was never reviewed or fixed for obvious glitches. Instead, it was quickly incorporated into the semester examinations as well. Evaluation work for teachers has doubled, as now they are required to evaluate answer scripts two times a year. Of course it is possible to argue that teachers are paid twelve months of the year, so they should have no problems about evaluating scripts twice a year. Our institutions are now allowed  to  function with little concern for the human condition.

The semester system has ensured that teaching cannot be done in the most productive months of November and December at New Delhi since colleges shut down teaching and move into preparatory leave mode in early November. Evaluating assignments and presentations and feeding in all this data along with student attendance is the mind numbing activity that occupies teachers at this juncture, which is followed up by evaluating a large number of examination scripts. The same process is then repeated in the even semester and in the grueling heat of May when hapless students finish with their papers, teachers are supposed to be a part of   the centralized evaluation of answer scripts.( the fact that extremely hot weather is the least productive for carrying out any kind of activity, is now documented by scientific studies) Science notwithstanding, when does a university teacher find a little space for recharging?

 The answer perhaps is that they don't need to recuperate but should soldier on in the interests of nation-building. Foe me, DUTA's call to boycott evaluation of answer scripts provided a restful interlude, in which one could take a well-deserved break from the relentless drudgery after class-room teaching that the university currently demands.

 As a union of teachers, we have been fighting battles in which our rights as teachers have been repeatedly truncated, by those in charge of previous university administrations. Pental pushed in the semester system by disregarding the considered opinion against it voiced by a majority of colleges affiliated to Delhi University and phasing it out over two years. When Dinesh Singh took office, he pulled off a mathematical coup by turning our decision making bodies such as the Academic Council and the Executive Council into a game of numbers. For the first time in the history of the university, numerical strength began to matter far more than ideas and 24 DUTA teacher representatives were viewed as miniscule, a numerical quantity to be easily quelled.

 Worse, we now battle a behemoth, much larger than all of us, that we can neither see nor address.So let us not delude ourselves into believing that we still possess the strength and power that characterized the DUTA in an earlier period or that conditions at the ground level are the same The University continues to be eroded of all value and stature and as teachers we have to protest, although the modes of struggle seem neither viable nor visible. Perhaps we need to remember that under these awful circumstances, DUTA movements  cannot operate as part of a grand plan.

 So let us participate in the struggles that can be undertaken and not begrudge them the odd photo-op in the June heat. Let us instead attend the GBM and chalk out further strategy. In any case, none of us had targeted for a zero year at Delhi University.  As teachers we are required to  factor in the lives of students who are graduating and those who are moving in and around. We would have eventually returned to the onerous task of correcting examination scripts. It is true that we don't have too much on our plate, but the coming of the monsoons raise hopes of better weather conditions to work in.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Fabled, festive Fatehpur Sikri

“Why don’t you drive down to Fatehpur Sikri , since you are already here in Bharatpur? suggested a Bharatpur resident bird specialist. This seemed a better option than climbing two floors of the slowly being renovated Khas Mahal where we were staying, although it has gorgeous terraces and a bid’s eye view of the city. In any case, what is not to love about an opportunity to visit Fatehpur Sikri? To stand inside Salim Chishti’s dargah and be gripped by the fabulous music at the dargah’s entrance , be carried inside by the sway of the devotees and to be energised by the myriad hopes and prayers that flutter threadlike on the marble-filigreed windows of the dargah? To walk past the expansive sandstone courtyard, after entering through the emperor’s gate and stand awestruck as always at the Bulund Darwaza, looking at the magnificent architecture of the gated entrance and the aerial view it provides of the city and to drink in a world of people, within and without, praying, wandering, visiting, staring, selling odds and ends and fresh fruit and vegetable salads and consuming all of it is momentous. Each visit is always one of encountering wave upon wave of headiness, that stetches all the way to the ibadatkhana at the other end of the dargah. A little way off from the Diwan-e-Aam and close to the Diwan-e-Khas, the ornately carved sandstone pillar that speaks of the craftsmanship and traditions of diverse communities, reiterates that only special people, with access to the diwan-e -khas can visualise a Din-e-Illahi , a composition of multiple faiths. Here, then, is a moment of fruition, of calm and repose, within a beautiful idea. Emperor Akbar believed in this possibility in the seventeenth century. Administrators in power should be able to build entire worlds in the 21st century, were they to draw upon such strong foundations.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bird-Visiting at Bharatpur

We drove to Bharatpur over the weekend to see the birds at the Keoladeo National Park.This is a wetland of extraordinary beauty and we spent a December morning here, partly ferried on cycle rickshaws and partly on foot looking at the feathered visitors afoot. At the start of the national park, amidst scrub and dry stretches there were the occasional yellow-green pigeons,the bulbuls and the babblers and the tailor birds, but as we neared the swampland, the landscape became magical and the inhabitants increasingly varied and exotic. The white breasted kingfishers seemed to strike poses as they sat facing visitors or in side profile, ostensibly looking for living food. Large female neelgai grazed in the distance. The water was full of migratory ducks and geese. Saw the whistling geese and the bar headed geese, and an array of Pochard and pin tailed ducks, to say nothing of a small herd of Sambhar poised on watery territory, choosing to munch water soaked greens. There were black and purple moorhens and small and large teams of coots. Many migratory birds could be seen dotting the water, far away from human sight,and clearly far less tolerant of human intrusions into their territory. The birds were a delight. The grey stork and the purple heron stood in all their splendour, shutting us out and focusing on the fish. little mounds of green in the swamps housed a host of birds that amicably shared standing space. I saw the red and black crow pheasant for the first time, and the young ones of the scope owl who had decided that they wanted at least the early morning out. There were a large number of eagles, who flew over head, steering and wheeling in the sky, diving down to annoy the whistling ducks and coots and purple moor hens whenever they saw fit. The geese whistled and flew off, but the moor hens and coots just scuttled away from the eagle's attention.
The trees en route to Bharatpur turn into cormorant rookeries, but the bird that was for me the showstopper on this trip was the oriental darter or the snake bird that dived and swam, looking for fish. The darter tosses up the fish it catches and then grabs it in mid-air before making a meal of it and a generous wildlife photographer showed me pictures to this effect. However, this extraordinary bird, around the size of the cormorant, has a snake like head and looks quite like an eel when it is in the water. Once it has had its share of fun, it surfaces and stands on a mound or atop a low branch, spreading out its wings and allowing them to dry. The cormorants do this too, because apparently unless their wing feathers are completely dry, they cannot really fly. Which is perhaps why the proverb speaks off how effortlessly water slides off a duck’s back. The cormorants and darters have not been similarly equipped with waterproof feathers by nature. Possibly, these are details overlooked from an earlier evolutionary design., but of course, I say this whimsically. Anyway, the darters holding up their wings to the sun and skies were possibly the inspiration for the caped superheroes we have created to save the world we are so busy wrecking. Since, that isn't working after all, watching darters at work and play is a real choice available to all of us.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The last month of 2017

Along with the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution in 2017, the internet assisted in upsetting the apple cart or whatever it is that gets disturbed when status quo is suddenly and unceremoniously disrupted. Women on social media spoke of sexual harassment and intimidation that they had faced in different spheres of their lives, including the workplace. these are links to two pieces I wrote for Hardnews this was the first piece i wrote. I felt compelled to write another piece, which was also carried in the November 2017 print issue of Hardnews. The editors at Hardnews are I confess just brilliant at providing titles for pieces..and I think "hashtag coup" is a very good point of reference.

The beginning of 2017 This link is to a piece I wrote for Hardnews when TamilNadu was being consumed by the Jalikattu controversy, which as the seasons go by and the year comes to an end is likely to rage and cause more deaths this year.