A Rev Evolutionary Edu Vacation

Shantiniketan is the home of a unique University Viswa-bharati , India (and Asia)’s first Nobel Laureate , Rabindranath Tagore used the money from the Nobel prize to further his father’s vision of a place of higher learning , one of the instances when the Nobel prize money was actually put to good use as was hoped for, by Alfred Nobel. Einstein actually used it to pay his alimony .

This is an open air school where each classroom has a tree and a podium for the teacher

Rabindranath Tagore as a child hated the traditional concept of a school and played truant on the banks of the river Kopai . I imagine the river looked more scenic in his day. Legend also has it that he wrote Gitanjali on the banks of this river

I found a vendor of date palm jaggery on the banks of the river

This is a date palm tree .

They use coconut shells to shape the jaggery.

The villagers use the dried leaves of the date palm tree as fuel. The sap is tapped and collected into buckets which is then heated on a fire . It reminded me of Maple syrup from Sugar Maple trees in Ohio and Canada. The process is very organic , natural , vastly different from the manufacture of any of our sweeteners . I don’t know but I am willing to bet that the Glycemic Index of this is substantially below industrially manufactured and bleached white sugar.

Viswa-Bharati has several different schools but the one that I could visit was called Kala Bhavan or the art school . Getting around in Shantiniketan is done via Tuk-tuks , an improvised contraption on wheels that runs on natural gas

Our guide told us that we could get to the school after classes were over at 1:30 PM so we ended up visiting a museum nearby which housed cultural artifacts and models of homes in several of the nearby states

The one that fascinated me most was the dwellings of the aborgine people of Andaman and Nicobar islands

These are supposed to be stilts and the house is built on a raised platform

The floor is made of bamboo and incredibly uncomfortable to walk on . I hear that they sleep on this . Mind boggling!!!

This was my first view of Shantiniketan

The grounds are immaculately maintained

These are works of the Sculptor Ramkinkar Baij

What is remarkable about these sculptures is that he created them by putting up a wireframe and then throwing gobs of concrete and plaster from a distance . I could not but draw parallels between this technique and Jackson Pollack

Walking in further lead to more amazing scenes like these murals

 

A painting in stone

Amazingly these murals were made with tiles

 

 

Watching this reminded me of Frank Wright LLoyds Fallingwater. A harmony of architecture with Nature !!!

Watching the Banyan vines made me nostalgic

 

This was an amazing artifact to me , the artist had created a bug with the gas tank of a Yamaha motorcycle , motorcycle mirror holders and other odd artifacts . In fact at the open air market outside the school were a variety of handicrafts , handloom textiles and curiosities as the above made beetle , all made from household materials . The artist had clearly seen regular every day items with a creative eye and produced something all of his own .

I loved the concept of this school , the idea of applying what you know while you are being taught . Unfortunately I could not quite see how the other schools in Viswa-Bharati were conducting their classes . It would be quite interesting to see the science schools

Education as a subject has always fascinated me . The current model of education all over the world which has pupils memorizing and regurgitate for the sake of the exam encourages a behavior where the student is rewarded for memorizing meaningless facts and promptly forgetting after the exam is over .

I have heard numerous arguments for allowing kids to drop subjects that they dislike . Math seems to be a popular choice for dropping . Plato had a quote outside his Academy that anybody ignorant of math should not enter  and if the ancient Greeks thought so highly of a well rounded education in those simpler times, this day and age simply demands it. I believe that not being exposed to the core ideas in all subjects is like going through life with your hands cuffed behind your back. I have learnt from personal experience as well as very interesting reading that exposure is what allows us to recognize patterns and exploit them .

Growing up in India and watching snow in movies made me believe that snow was white fluffy stuff that was good for skiing (which I thought was a risk less sport) and making snow balls and hitting your friends. I moved to Ohio in December and before the winter was out , I had recognized several kinds of snow , the fluffy ones , the heavy slushy ones . the ones that were overly slippery. I read that the Inuit living in the Arctic circle had 17 different words for snow . When your life depends on recognizing whether the snow / ice can handle your weight , I suppose it makes sense to be as specific as possible . It also makes sense to have specific words for it so you can hang your experiences on those words and thereby make it easy for recall.  Another  anecdote is about this tribe living deep in the Amazon rain forests who do not know the color blue . They know the color green and can discern minute difference in shades of green that most women would envy and yet when they were given a color wheel with shades of green and one blue and asked to point out to the color that stood out, none pointed at Blue. It is actually not too outlandish , first time I read Homer , I was baffled at his description of the wine dark sea . I could not imagine a sea that was the color of any wine that I had drunk . It made sense later on after I found out that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue . One could offer countless examples where one starts to recognize patterns only after one is taught to recognize the pattern or at least the principle behind the patterns .

The idea behind letting kids choose their future is an attractive one but to be able to do that , they need to be aware of all the choices and tools at their disposal. Paul Graham had an interesting essay , fair warning it is lengthy .

How to do what you love

In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play and here have I caught sight of him who is formless.
My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes here, let it come—let this be my parting word.

This fragment from Gitanjali seems to refer to god but it could very well refer to that spark of creation that lies within each and every one of us , a spark that needs the tools that schools provide . This school is a testament to that spirit and to the vision of some great men who made it possible.

 

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In praise of the City of Joy

The author  of Geography of Genius  makes a strong case for the fact that Genius tends to be clustered in space and time . Ancient Athens is the first known example when we had brilliant minds like Socrates , Aristotle , Plato , Herodotus , Aristophanes , Sophocles, Euripides,Euclid , Archimedes , Hippocrates  co exist within 200 years of each other . Moving forward , we can see the time of the Renaissance where we have Da Vinci , Michelangelo , Machiavelli live around the same time in Italy , fast forward a hundred years and we have the Enlightenment in Scotland that had Hume , Smith , Paris with Voltaire , Rousseau , Lavoisier, Montesquieu , Kant in Germany and our own Founding fathers in America , similarly between 1840 and 1920  Calcutta (Kolkata) experienced the Bengal Renaissance where we had Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore , Biologists / Physicists such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose . The book is very readable in spite of being only a subset of the different places and times (it skips Paris in 1920s).  So here I am in Kolkata , wondering if I can see what made the city so special in that time .

Kolkata had an interesting mix of populations during the British rule, while on the one hand , the most educated and Anglophilic existed here but co existing with them were the most fervent nationalists who were opposed to the British rule . The Indian national anthem comes from Rabindranath Tagore , there has been some rumblings that we should focus on”Vande Materam ” written by Bankim Chandra Bose (another Bengali) which is a fervently patriotic song that rouses one’s spirits even one such as myself who does not understand the language.

The people are reputed to be extremely friendly and helpful. I got my first taste of that when I was trying to get to the famous Kalighat temple. A rickshaw driver actually took a detour  to guide us through the narrow alleys to get us to Kalighat . I was touched. I had never ever experienced anything like it. Kalighat is an old Kali temple in Kolkata

Early morning street markets getting ready to open

The main temple dome

Inside the temple , I saw a streak of fresh blood across the floor and following the streak led me to the beheaded carcass of a baby goat. I suppose that was the sacrificial offering for the morning . I saw offerings of purple radishes  , I had never seen offerings of vegetables in temples before , asking the priest led to some incomprehensible mutterings in Bengali , after grilling him in Hindi , he responded curtly that I would not understand. I took the hint and moved on

A tram – relic of days bygone was certainly a sight to see . Though I see it routinely in San Francisco and find it mundane , somehow seeing it in Kolkata was different,  watching it amidst the crazy traffic is like watching a thriller .

This is a replica of the Big Ben in London.

These are the pictures of the famous Park street

I found some interesting fruits on Park street , I searched for them everywhere but could not find any

This fruit reminded me of starfruit, the texture is similar and just like starfruit , it is bland and juicy.

While this one was a total mystery

I learnt from Google that it was called a Rose Apple and apparently it is grown in Oregon and California but the ones in North America does not look anything like this. The texture is like a pear and it has a delightful rose fragrance. This particular variety grows in South East Asia

This is the iconic Howrah bridge on the Hoogly river

The Hoogly is a tributary of the Ganges , the holiest river for the Hindus . Hindu myths dictate that a dip in the Ganges washes away all of ones sins . Today the Ganges flows into Bangladesh where it meets the Indian ocean in the Bay of Bengal but every tributary is considered just as sacred so one finds a lot of Hindus bathing in the Hoogly

Kolkata is also the home of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa , an 18th century mystic highly revered in Bengal and also the home of Sri Vivekananda who travelled to America in 1890s and introduced a new spiritual movement in America . Sri Ramakrishna had his divine visions at the Dakshineshwar temple.

This is a view of the bridge from the temple

One has to take a ferry from the temple to get to Belur Math which is where the temples are dedicated to Ramakrishna, his wife  and his disciples and one gets to view where the old co-exists with the new

A fisherman in his canoe getting ready to launch his fishing tackle

As can be expected , the entrance from the water is quite scenic

The main temple

Feast for the eyes for Flora lovers

Dedicated to the wife of Sri Ramakrishna .

Just outside Belur Math was a street vendor selling something that looked like potatoes , and they call “Sweet Potato”, it turned out to be Jicama (Mexican Yam) my sister insisted on tasting it so we had the street vendor cut it up for us . He added some rock salt-spice mixture to the chopped pieces . The texture was more like  a pear and it did not taste at all like a raw potato or even the Jicama that I have eaten before. Just last month , I had encountered a book called the Botany of Desire which deals with 4 plants ; Apple , Potato , Cannabis and Tulip. The author reiterated was that these plants have been artificially moulded by our desires . Apples as sweet as a Red Delicious is an anomaly as is a Russet Burbank . We do not let these plants attain the vast potential that their genes are capable of . In the Andes is a purple potato that I have never heard about.  Kolkata showed me an apple that did not look or taste like any Apple that I had eaten before . A touching incident here was the interaction itself , my sister asked the vendor to add more of the salt spice mixture , he insisted that his concoction was the best but just to satisfy us , he gave us a packet of his precious spice mixture which he said we could add if we wanted but he assured us that we did not need to. I looked at him marveling at his torn clothes , extreme poverty had not affected his pride in his craft . His pride to me was touching and inspiring.

My tryst with history as I expected it did not materialize . There is a lot of history in this place including the Battle of Plassey which led to the first British stronghold on Indian soil in 1757 . Modern Kolkata owes a debt to Job Charnock who not only saved a young Indian woman from Sati , a dreadful practice of burning widows alive with their dead husbands but married her and sired 4 children and adopted Indian ways of smoking cheroots or Indian cigars and drinking arrack , a harsh palm brandy. I saw a hospital named after him and I presume that there are more memorials to the man .

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The Grand Trunk road connects Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul,Afghanistan via Kolkata , Delhi , Amritsar and Lahore. Reading about Sher Shah Suri who ruled India in 1540  , I had discovered the Grand Trunk road .However I was to learn later that Chandragupta Maurya  had built large sections of it.  This was my great opportunity to ride on the section of the Grand Trunk Road west of Kolkata and retracing the steps of those brave travelers so many centuries ago. While thrilling , most of it is slow progress . Like most highways in India , they tend to go through the hearts of small villages so one can expect a small crowd in the middle of the street drinking tea , a herd of buffaloes crossing the road and other interesting sights so dont speed , you never know what will show up in front of you on the road.

I found the culture to be charming and interesting , the city shuts down come 12:30 PM and does not re open until 3:30 – 4 PM . They take their time for lunch and a much needed siesta after the delicious meal . The sweets have been reputed to be the best in India as long as I can remember , I consumed them like a glutton who knows no tomorrow and I have to admit that just about everything that I tried there was delicious . The pale imitations that I had eaten earlier in other cities do not come close . They have an amazing variety of sweets that I did not know existed . On the flight there , several of my co passengers after learning that I had never been to Kolkata heartily recommended several sweetmeat shops and I fortunately took them up and indeed the sweets did not disappoint. The Bengalis love their meat and fish and indeed so much so that I was introduced to an amazing sight , one that I had never seen before . Vegetables , fruits , meat , fish , chicken all sold in the same market place with no separation .

Here one sees the goat carcasses alongside the fresh vegetables and moving further one sees a sea of fish . The Bengalis love their fish and call it the vegetable of the sea .

Bangur road is a tribute to their artistic capabilities

Here one sees a lawn sculpture of the famous Dandi march statue in Delhi

A horde of elephants

Bangur street is covered with street posts that have been created by artists , one finds a lifesize clown loitering around and a roadside snack vendor and only close inspection reveals that these are sculptures . The traffic is horrendous and parking is impossible so I could not get out of the car to take much needed pictures

Turned out that my trip to Kolkata was far shorter than what I should have planned for . Also turned out that there were far more sights to see including the Sunderbans which is the home of the Bengal tiger , Ganga Sagar which is where the Hoogly meets the Indian ocean .Time to plan a return trip!!

Ham Omelet

The title is not an indicator that I am hungry but just a funny misnomer for Hamlet that one of my online buddies Lily Von Valley had posted . Though it would be totally justified if I was hungry because sadly I am no connoisseur of gourmet airline food ( I was on a 15 hour non stop flight)  gourmet and airline !!! Is that not a contradiction in terms ? . So why am I reading Hamlet instead of sleeping ?? because the question of to be or not to be came to mind . What am I debating ? I was debating TO BE a capital A hole and tell the women that they need to get their babies to shut up !!! because I cannot sleep with at two (or was it twenty ) screaming babies . I planned for my jet lag by skipping sleep on my last night out but I forgot that every time I get on a long distance flight , it is infested with screaming babies . I am personally jinxed that way. Screaming babies (and people who fart a lot) are the kryptonite of my air travel but onto to more important things.

One finds oneself rooting for Hamlet as he grieves for his father , berates his mother for re marrying too soon ,sympathize with him as the son of an unjustly murdered king who is out to avenge his father ,  look on with complete apathy as Hamlet murders Polonius , chastises Ophelia and breaks her heart and almost look on in bemused amazement as Hamlet does not murder Claudius when he is praying , applaud Hamlet for his brilliant trick with the play where he depicts the murder of his father in front of the Claudius ,listen with his impassioned monologue with Yorick’s skull as he recounts the fragility of life and the shortness of mortal pursuits, weep as he is killed by Laertes’s poisoned sword. But that is looking at the proceedings exclusively through Hamlet’s view .

Hamlet’s soliloquy is a complete masterpiece , one has to read it several times because the layers that peel are rich in depth.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,

To be or not to be has been an universal dilemma pertaining to various aspects of life . However in Hamlet , he is dealing with the ultimate dilemma , to exist or not to exist. He is actually contemplating suicide because the torture of contemplating the various options that he perceives are so agonizing that he is actually questioning if it makes any sense for him to even live. In eastern traditions , suicide is not forbidden or even threatened with everlasting doom as much as the western Judeo Christian traditions ( I wonder how much of it is due to Dante) and in fact, in Japan we have the proud Samurai traditions of Seppuku. Without that particular filter in place,  it is harder for somebody from eastern traditions to grasp the mental anguish that he seems to be going through . I am not suggesting that humans are thrilled about the prospect of suicide regardless of culture but in western traditions , an onerous burden is added . About 10 years ago , a friend had committed suicide in Ohio and many people did not think twice before telling his friends and family that he was going to burn in everlasting hell.

The play gets richer as we move our roving eye and look through Polonius eye’s who is being extremely loyal to the king or through the eyes of Ophelia whose tragedy seems to surpass that of Hamlet . Hamlet’s tragedy is a result of his choices , Ophelia’s tragedy is a direct result of her love for her father and Hamlet, she is truly helpless. Laertes’s revenge could be considered the sub plot of revenge that mirrors Hamlet’s own demons . The grave diggers are relatively minor and yet there is a monumental gem that comes down to us from them . When Hamlet queries as to who is being buried , they remark that it is not a man or a woman that they are burying and only after further interrogation that Hamlet finds out that it WAS a woman. It is a reminder that all our differences exist only for the living . The dead have no sex , no color , no religion or beliefs. Gertrude has so few lines that one can mistake her for being inconsequential and yet she tries throughout to reconcile Hamlet with Claudius and eventually she makes the ultimate sacrifice for Hamlet . The only person that seems to show up throughout and yet , I am not sure what the reason or import is the character of Fortenbras .

It is clear that women are second class citizens in this world but why is this important for us? Because Gertrude getting married had little to do with Gertrude’s wishes and yet Hamlet berates her continuously , she is an important figure but she is a puppet for her brother in law who turns into her husband , her son and in one case even Polonius. Marrying a brother in law is hardly incest and yet , Hamlet considers it incestuous and accuses her of incest every opportunity he gets . Poor Ophelia gets the shrift as well , everybody including Hamlet runs her life for her ,while she is torn helplessly between her love for her father and Hamlet.

I have added myself to the long list of Shakespeare admirers who believe that Hamlet is his greatest work. There is a long list of quotes that have made it into the common lingo “Frailty, thy name is woman.” , “This above all: to thine own self be true”,”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”,”Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”,”Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”,”There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”,”One may smile, and smile, and be a villain. “, “Sorrows come not as single spies but in battalions”.

I think it is finally time for me to go get a Ham Omelet !!!