মুনিয়াকে

এই যে বেঁচে আছি, এর থেকে আজগুবি ব্যাপার আর হয় না। মরে যাওয়া এর থেকে ঢের বেশি স্থায়ী আর বিশ্বাসযোগ্য। সত্যি কথাটা হলো গত একবছরে লাইন দিয়ে মানুষেরা মরে গেছে। এইটা দারুণ সত্যি কথা হলো। তার আগেও পাল পাল লোক রোজ অদৃশ্য হয়েছে, কিন্তু আমি তো কখনওই তাদের পাশে বসে চা আর প্রজাপতি বিস্কুট খাইনি। কখনোও সময় হয়ে ওঠেনি, কখনোও অস্তিত্ব। এই যেমন কোপারনিকাস যেদিন মারা গেল সেদিন আমার অস্তিত্ব হয়ে ওঠেনি, হাতে সময়ও যে অঢেল ছিল এমন নয়। অস্তিত্বের আগেও তো ব্যস্ততা থাকে, ঠিক মত না থাকতে পারা আয়ত্ব করতে হয়। রেওয়াজ করতে হয়। আসল কথাটা হলো আমি সেদিন হেঁইও হেঁইও করে না থাকা প্রাক্টিস করছিলাম। একেবারে আসল কথা হলো এইটুকুই।

গত শতাব্দীর যে মাহেন্দ্রক্ষণে এই চিঠিটা লিখেছিলাম, সেই ক্ষণ কবে লোপাট হয়েছে। আমিও সেদিনের পর থেকে খোলস পাল্টেই চলেছি। স্টেশনে নেমে পড়ার পর ট্রেনটার দিকেও তাকাইনি, আমি তাকাইনা। কোনোও যাত্রার দিকেই বেশিক্ষণ তাকাতে নেই, চোখ লাল হয়ে আসে।

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শতাব্দী পার করে তবু আমাদের এই চলে যেতে থাকা, চলে যেতে যেতে দেখা, লাইন দিয়ে চলে যাচ্ছে মানুষেরা। আমাদের মানুষেরা। এতে কোনও রহস্য নেই। শুধু থেকে গেছে সবুজ ঘাস, ঝাঁকড়া গাছ, ব্রাউন কটেজ, তাতে সাদা সাদা পর্দা লাগানো জানলা, ড্রয়িংখাতার মত নীল আকাশ। অনেক দূরের এই সন্ধ্যেবেলায় আজ মনে হচ্ছে, কি ভীষণ রহস্যময় সেই সব থেকে যাওয়া!

Of Pines, Electronics, and Powerful Ideas: A Season of Hard Fun

It’s been a therapeutic few months in this village of ours. A therapy for all the wounded souls of the difficult times.

And this is, indeed, the darkest of times – the time of extreme capitalism, extreme violence and communalism, and extreme centralization of power. You either come out of it as the oppressor finding refuge in possessions and privilege, only to suffocate yourself in your own power; or you become the oppressed fatalistically accepting your powerlessness. You are a victim of a bigger puzzle either way. But what does an alternative learning space in a far-away village have to do with all of it, one may ask. The answer to that is: everything. This may come as a surprise (although it really really shouldn’t), but the sole purpose of education was to enable learners question the world more politically and more critically than ever. We have been taught to think and act otherwise by the mainstream system of education, because schooling the society in a way it is schooled now helps the oppressors. So, if you are constructing a learning space, and you are calling it an alternative to something you know for certain is disempowering, then the core purpose of the space should be to empower the powerless. And as Paulo Freire puts it, you as an educator in that space have a duty of not being neutral, rather to be deeply political (in the broader sense of the term as having to do with the power relationships).

In Rakkar, in the ecosystem that we have created for the young learners of the village, we have been living just that. We have exponentially evolved as a collective since the time of the last article on this blog. Long story short: I found a house in the middle of the village with a space dedicated to children, moved in, gained a home out of that house, and in the host was found a friend who has been a partner in my adventures ever since. We almost started living together with about fifteen kids from the neighborhood, and the madness followed.

Learnings in Leavings, and the Man who Showed it to Us:

Rakkar has a community of people who were once shepherds and had a transhumant lifestyle: they would go up on the mountains from time to time with the herd of sheep and cattle, and would live on the little houses that they owned higher up, and would come back to their mud houses in the village when the time would come. Some are still the same wanderers, but only a few survived the “choices” globalization and “rural development” forced upon them. From what I gathered from my random conversations with the villagers on local tea shops, last few decades have changed their way of being, and forcefully. Each of the families was gifted some land and was instructed to build a permanent shelter on that land they were provided with, and thus the entire population was legally discouraged to continue with their semi-nomadic life. Desperately looking for alternative sources of survival – some learned their ways to set up small-sized businesses and shops, some picked up farming, some went and joined the army, some drowned their days with alcohol and other chemical means of escape. All those who wander are not lost perhaps, but what happens when a system with too much power starts to design your paths as wanderers? You are forced to lose your way in the middle of a concrete jungle created in the name of rural development. It’s just another policy taken by the powerful –  it does not really care if the fields get horrendously damaged by the concretization of the water canals, or if the common people uprooted from their organic way of living come out of it as refugees in their very own habitat – it’s a scheme that comes with a cost, and it costs the lives of the people it was supposedly created for, because that is apparently how it works.

 

2016-05-26They all remained wanderers at the core of their hearts. They all still feel inseparable from the nature and its wildness. They did not forget. I don’t think we ever forget the lives we leave, or we ever completely leave for that matter. As Pedagogy of Hope sees it: no one leaves his or her world without being transfixed by its roots, or with a vacuum for a soul; we carry with us the memory of many fabrics, a self soaked in our history, our culture. Our interactions with the kids started with finding life in leavings, in forgotten and abandoned things. It wasn’t a conscious choice of mine, there was no syllabus to follow, but this activity emerged from our interactions in the most organic way possible. We would collect dead roots of trees and random dry twigs we stumbled upon, and would try to see what the branchings looked like in a different world: sometimes it would look like a bird, sometimes a person, sometimes a soul of a tree. Before we could realize, we had an entire wall full of structures made of discarded tree roots and its branches – each of the structures had their own story, and that story would vary from one child to another. 2016-05-26-2Many years ago, Abanindranath Tagore coined a term for this particular form of art he practiced:  Katum Kutum (কাটুম কুটুম), Katum (কাটুম) means structure or form and Kutum (কুটুম) means relatives, and the sculptures which were made from driftwood or discarded and left found tree roots as well as its branches are alike to our relatives. I don’t think the kids saw it as art though, they were just having fun, a kind of fun that had imagination and work involved, but fun nonetheless.
They also worked with two sources of green light situated at a distance from one another, and the structures hanging on the wall would now have two shadows both interacting with other such shadows from the wall full of structures hanging. It would then give birth to a single story that each individual structure was a part of. On the first exhibition that we hosted at our place, an artist friend looked at it and said, “you know, this installation could be in a Morden Art museum of a foreign country and would totally fit in to their sense of abstraction as well”. But that’s the thing, the kids did not see it as abstraction at all, or better put, not as an abstraction that was not real enough to perceive it as it was. When you try to explain them the biology of plants or the laws of light with black and white textbooks in a closed classroom, that right there becomes abstract to them. Because then you’re expecting them to learn things out of nothing, nothing that has a physical existence that they can touch and feel and trust. It’s grossly unfair.
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 It is through these experiences of touch and feel that we landed up at the YouTube channel of Arvind Gupta. I was introduced to Arvind Gupta in my childhood, many years ago, with the book Ten Little Fingers. But childhood was long gone, or maybe it wasn’t after all. Maybe I was also carrying it deep within, like the wandering souls of our shepherds, as a memory, sometimes scattered, sometimes sharp and clear. This was, however, a conscious choice to introduce them to the videos of the toys Gupta Ji makes out of trash. The choice had much to do with my personal fascination with Gupta Ji’s work, of course, but it was also more than just personal. I had a few things in mind while making that choice:  it looked like an activity that they would be able to spontaneously relate to; it was something that would be financially reasonable to go on with for a significant period of time, and not just for us who are the primary operators of the project, but for the kids themselves, because it was also a way of learning that is most easy to go back to even when a kid is back home from our space; it was also very focused and very direct, and it had to be, because otherwise it would have the potential to remain as a hobby just, it takes a larger commitment to make an activity your life. But above everything, this activity serves a bigger purpose, a purpose that strives to fix the continuous damage done to the nature by the mankind. And this is what stirred their young minds the most. These are beings who feel inherently so close to the nature – here was a chance to transform that personal motivation to a bigger cause – and through that transformation was to happen the empowerment of silenced ideas.

 Bachhon Ka Avishkar, and the Power of Emerging Ideas:

 
Three months have passed, and we now have a laboratory of young makers creating everything from water filters to electric generator, all out of trash items. They call this activity of theirs as “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”, meaning the inventions of the children. It never stops at that but, they always look for bigger goals to work for through this activity of theirs. In March, we were climbing trees, and realized it would be far more exciting to live on a tree branch as the land looked kind of boring from up there. DSC_0109So they immediately wanted to build a tree house: and it wasn’t just an epiphany! No, they came back, got divided into teams: teams for design, painting, documentation, collecting materials, and so on. The design team started training themselves with design tutorials from the Internet, the documentation team would update their progress on their GitHub repository, and so on. This is exactly what I meant when on the last article I talked about finding a bridge between computers and their every day lives. Never for a moment they thought learning to use the Internet for this group project was a foreign task, because they knew exactly why they were using the machine. Empowerment often means just that, to be able to choose for yourself what you think is necessary. A computer, in these circumstances, does not remain an alien of a machine that you should learn because someone is instructing you to do so; but becomes a tool you choose to use in order to make your work easier. It becomes a friend who helps, a friend you learn from, and eventually, a friend you are not afraid of challenging.

It is interesting to see how they really saw their positions as users of the Internet. And so when they wanted a website of their own they knew exactly why they thought it was necessary, and it was pretty straightforward: हम रक्कड़ के बच्चे कूड़े कचड़े से खिलौने बनाते हैं, हमें जानकारी देना चाहिए (we are the kids of Rakkar, we collect all the trash from the neighborhood, and make toys out of them; we should inform the world about our cause). This is an amazing gift children are born with, they are strangely capable of always articulating complicated things in the most simplest ways possible. They really know their ways to tame the few words they are familiar with. All you have to do is to communicate with them in the most genuine way you know of communication, and they’ll take care of the rest. When Finnu, 13, started to design the website on a whiteboard, we never for a moment questioned his ability to do it. I asked him whether he would be interested in making a website, in the same spontaneous way they ask me if I would like to join them in their work in the fields. It’s really simple, actually: I wouldn’t know how to cut the wheat from the fields, he wouldn’t immediately know how to make an web application, but we believed we could both learn if we helped each other through the process of learning. The task of a learning space is to construct that belief in the participating minds. To make things seem easier than they actually are does not always mean to delude a learner, sometimes it also means that it is now my responsibility as a mentor to make computing seem as easy and as organic to you as gardening.

12905023_933452926773538_1489182403_n The set of wireframes Finnu created in a few hours was pure perfection: he spelled website as “wepside”, but he did create what engineering students don’t learn to create until they are stabbed with a college project. Unlike college students desperately trying to maintain grades, Finnu’s motivation to make it happen was to express his powerful idea of creating a platform that would serve the purpose of the collective he was a part of. He did really think about the requirements of the collective: from keeping a donate button, to storing all the necessary data about the dogs of Rakkar (such as, their birthdays, who all they have bitten, and so on), he had many ideas for his creation to become most useful to a bigger cause he felt very passionately about.

We now have a website and a YouTube channel that all the kids have put much thoughts into: they upload little demonstrations of the toys they create and discuss the science behind those creations. One incident that is totally worth sharing in this context, is how they dealt with maintaining anonymity on their website. They are now kind of aware of the userbase of the Internet, but only kind of. They are aware of a vast set of people out there who are also users of the Internet but their way of using it is different from the way they themselves have been using it. So they wouldn’t trust this world full of strangers just like that. They didn’t want their names to be publicly posted as authors on the website. But it turned out that even if you find a way to hide the author names, it is not too hard to find out the author-page if you really know your way. So, Vicky looked at the error message we ran into, and suggested that we should instead just have a common account that we would all have the access to, and that way we would be able to protect the identities with another layer of anonymity.

Stories We are Made of, and The Pedagogy of Hard Fun

 But young kids from a little village in the mountains, who do not speak English and understand very little of it, discussing anonymity and privacy issues is not magic. It’s not fiction either. It is just as real as our digital reality is becoming everyday. And it has to be, as the crisis also is as “digital” as it gets. When I first arrived here (when there was no legal hint of Aadhar card being mandatory as a proof of identity), all the families from this village were forced (and in all kinds of brutal ways) to enroll for Aadhar cards (the new UID deal that is murdering the right to privacy for Indian citizen), as they were informed by the local authorities that Aadhar was “only” mandatory if they wanted to get a ration card. It does not end there, of course. A village that is a growing victim of forced development is also equally a victim of the skewed politics of the present day Internet.

 

 Having said that, these young children of our village are not learning the digital world just in order to pose as rebels against the threats caused by the digital world itself. Not only the threats are too abstract to fathom but also a computer itself (and Internet more so) is still perceived as a privilege in their everyday reality. Ditto with the schooling system and education. It’s an element of worship in the lives of the parents in this village. Funny how privilege works, but to demand a revolution against the education system from a community like this just because you are aware of the fallacies of it, would be to impose your privileged point of view on a village you were a foreigner to.

 

Also, I feel it is anyway too volatile (not to mention, selfish) a motivation for learning:  learning should not happen with the sole motivation of defeating an idea that you personally (or even politically) believe is flawed (unless I guess one is living in a reality of such extreme political nightmare where a system plans on murdering you everyday, where learning to function with a pistol then becomes a question of basic survival). That is just not powerful. And if you think about it, it is actually no less institutionalized. From the moment you surrender to the real world – the school system you are a student of, the family structure you belong to, the society you are a part of, and the government you are ruled by (and in that exact sequence) – would want you to see the world selfishly, everyday a little bit more, because a society made of selfish families schooled in favor of a ruling machine helps the authority win. An alternative to that system, should relentlessly work toward rejecting that selfishness (often by identifying one’s own self as a product of the construct itself and then questioning that, to start with) first, and questioning the institution will inevitably follow. But if you start with the motivation to defeat the institution first, not only that is too detached from the reality of a community like this, but also it has this huge risk of turning into its own opposite.

 

Shyam, 14, is slightly older than the other kids at our place, he is also slightly more informed than the others. He knows about ISIS. He also seemed to believe that all Pakistanis were terrorists and hence should all die and disappear. I asked him what made him think so and whether he ever met a Pakistani in his life. He said, no, and then added that he did not even know where Pakistan was in the world map. So we looked at that first, and somehow ended up looking at Pakistani coins. He really liked a coin he found out through google image search, so he wanted to make it. We agreed on making it with cardboard and silver colored paper. This ended up being a strangely powerful exercise, because after he was done, he looked at this little creation of his with genuine contentment and pure appreciation. I jokingly remarked: so you at least like something of the nation that you so passionately hate.

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A page from the graphic novel one of our young friends is creating

His feelings toward it was conflicted, I could sense. So we started looking up more stories, looked at beautiful structures from the land of Pakistan, listened to Ghazals, started reading literature from the time of partition, and so on. It was almost evening when it was time for him to leave. His eyes seemed lost: they were not lost in confusion anymore but it seemed like they were wandering in the streets of a foreign country that suddenly also seemed strangely familiar. Then after a while they were back, he looked straight at me with those eyes which now resembled a person who just discovered something very precious. “दीदी”, he said, “एक भारतीय फ़ौजी का दुःख दर्द, बॉर्डर के उसपार का एक पाकिस्तानी फ़ौजी से अच्छा कौन समझता है, है ना?” (Didi, who knows more about the despair of an Indian soldier, than the Pakistani soldier across the border sharing the same despair as that of his supposed enemy on the other side?) I did not know the answer to it, or maybe I could see that he was not expecting an answer from me at all. He further exclaimed, “मतलब वह दोनों तो soulmates हैं!” (So that means, they are basically soulmates!). Months later, he now really wants to learn Urdu simply because he finds it beautiful.

No, I am not prescribing an overnight cure for Islamophobia. I am not even sure if that is fully cured in his young mind yet. He would be told exactly otherwise in several other situations in his life afterwards, this battle is not an easy one. But more importantly, even this change did not happen overnight. Shyam first came to us as a big bully who used to beat up the younger kids. The first day he entered our place, I asked him to break a wire for us, you know, very casually, because we needed it for something. He couldn’t refuse, because that would hurt his masculinity. He broke one, and looked at me. I asked him to keep breaking. He questioned, why. I said I didn’t know but wires were hard to break and one would need muscles to break it, and so if he would kindly help us with it while he was there. He couldn’t refuse again. He was in the middle of the room breaking wires, while the kids surrounding him were all engrossed in making many different things. There was absolutely no pressure on him to think of anything he would also want to make. There was no assumption but, nor was a rejection to his extreme personality based on false assumptions. And he did, he did start to make things with the wires he broke with his own hands. Months later, he is the only child with whom I was able to read the book “Letter to a Teacher, by the School of Barbaina”, and the whole of it.

Did I see him changing into this wonderfully sensitive child he is today? I don’t remember. I probably did not, because I don’t usually believe in foreseeing things that are not really relevant. However, I do see this inherent potential in disobedient kids – the ones that you casually throw into the label of “problem child”, and then beat the hell out of them to forcefully make them obey your authority as parents, teachers, instructors, and rulers. But they are born fearless and curious, they lack the naivety of obedience perhaps. Why is that necessarily so bad a quality that you immediately want to reject it instead of investing some time to see it through? Shyams are different. They always want to feel the power they hold as individuals. The moment you start beating them up or immediately lecturing them on morality, they react, they react by questioning you and your authority. But you wouldn’t feel the need to answer to a child with such audacity, and that rejection would then push him to the ultimate trap. The trap of finding pleasure and pride in being powerful, and looking for that power in bullying over someone inferior. Shyams are different, and they could be helped in seeing the world in a way where they would feel empowered as critical learners and committed doers; they would know that to feel the power they think they deserve can, and should, come without having to feel the power over someone (or a specific class) in particular. But instead, their differences are pushed to a point of no return, because you were too impatient to see through their quality and too busy in applying your own control.

 

Quite recently, Kusum, a young girl of age 12, was being casually (but, not so casually) mocked by a group of three boys of the group. We observed that it was getting uglier, and so we tried to sit and talk with the boys. After trying the same for three times, I decided to tone up a little bit, and very clearly stated: but this is not okay, and you should realize that. Mocking someone, any person who you consider weak just because he/she is different from you, is not just wrong it is sometimes criminal. Of course you wouldn’t know, but it is time you feel ashamed of what just happened. And you should also know that it is perfectly okay to feel ashamed, in fact it is way more powerful an act than catcalling a girl. The conversation got more intense, when one of them slowly uttered with a sad voice almost as if he was talking to himself: “पहले ना मैं बहुत बत्तमीज़ हुआ करता था।” (I used to be more of a brat earlier, you know). I have never heard a confession so powerful.

 

Later that night, Kusum wrote an entire play, which she then directed to the same group of boys the very next day. But, not once there was a careless effort to feel the power back over the group of boys she lost her power to, the day before. Days later they all went and performed the play written by her, and together, in front of a full crowd. Some forgot their lines, some would accidentally end up breaking their costume on stage, but nothing stopped them from conquering the stage like steady performers. Because they didn’t care if they failed, it was enough for them that they did it. And they felt secure enough to fail, and fail better. They knew no matter how much they embarrass themselves up on that stage, they wouldn’t be failing us, their friends and supporters.

And that, right there, is pathetically lacking from our system (social and education). It takes endless empathy to provide security, and legitimate security, to the vulnerable. We all deserve a land where it shall be okay to fail, it shall be a moment of appreciation when someone confesses their weakness, and a hug will be offered to every individual who feels ashamed of a wrong that was committed by oneself.

Ours is not a playhouse for kids, it’s not an easy place. We have been doing this activity, and living this life as a collective for three continuous months without a gap of even a day. It is very, very intense an engagement. It’s also fun. It’s fun in spite of being very very hard. When Seymour Papert coined the term “Hard Fun” he also talked about being devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline.

On that note, ours is also a very focused and very carefully structured participation. But on the other hand, this place is only as hard as the participants would want to make it, only as ordered as the children would want it to be. Because you are choosing it, all of it, even the order with which you are controlling your own chaos. And that’s empowering. A severe engagement of 180 days also means, all of them, also made the same choice of bringing this order in their chaotic little lives everyday. They could have left. Our doors have remained as open to the ones who would want to leave as it was to the ones who wished to come. But they didn’t leave. They never missed a day also. Because unlike everywhere else, here, they had the freedom to choose.

Abstract as a Luxury, and other Learnings

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Poster of the first ever exhibition of “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”

They also always came back because they knew what exactly they were coming back to. Or maybe they never really left the activity for the last few months, and I don’t think they are going to leave anytime soon. They were not coming back to an “alternative learning space”, no, they came back to all the trash they so passionately collected, they came back to the activity of transforming all things discarded into their wonderful inventions. There was not a single chance for any abstraction to take anything away from this simple reality of theirs: we are the kids of Rakkar; we make toys from trash.

Abstract is a kind of reality that we have the privilege to indulge in perhaps. For our villagers, however, it is too much of a luxury; it’s not that they are incapable of perceiving an abstract idea in their own ways, but they would not want to do it at all. Their reality never had a place for luxuries, and it is incredibly unfair to demand one from them. But they have complete rights to know where exactly they are sending their children off to, they all have great potential to participate in that activity themselves – but the parents for whom it is of endless privilege to be able to send their kids to a school, an “alternative learning space” means nothing useful. And then you spend six sentences to explain the meaning and importance of an “alternative learning space” in a language you are comfortable communicating in, but before even knowing, you would be losing a potential collaborator just because you sounded too distant. Not just it’s a loss, it is also terribly unfair. As Ivan Illich puts it, “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”

In fact, the way of functioning in a village you have to some extent invaded with your ideas should be very consciously subtle. My present efforts are to make the activities sufficiently more significant than my own presence in it. One way of approaching it is to subtly transfer the power I hold as a primary operator of this activity to the larger community. And that cannot just happen verbally. If sustaining this activity is a concern then I believe that it also a part of our responsibility to make the villagers feel like an equal participant in this adventure of ours, and the immediate community of villagers would feel empowered enough to sustain it on its own with occasional support from outsiders like us. So every afternoon, we started going to shops, streets, public places, and often to people’s houses – used the trash items they provide us with to make everything that inspires us as makers, from hand puppets to electric generators.

 

DSC_0101The idea was never to create a learning space just, but it has been more about constructing an ecosystem for learners. An ecosystem that does not reduce the value of the learners to their immediate identities, and moreover empowers them to question everything including the ecosystem itself. We had an exhibition recently at the community hall in the  village. It was the brightest day I can remember from the recent past – almost fifty children from all over the village came and they all looked like sunshine. I remember looking at their eyes. They were all overflowing with such genuine happiness, that it pained. It pained because it reminded me of millions of other children of this world who deserved no less, but we failed them, we failed them as humans, silenced them before they even learned to speak. What is more concerning is, that we have imposed on them our own authoritarian ways of seeing the world. We teach them history of human struggle as fairytales, making sure that they never feel inspired to live a life of commitment to a cause bigger than their own survival. We teach them Geography as law, so that when the Government decides to redraw the entire geography of our country – with no regards whatsoever to communities, the wildlife, or the farmers concerned – not a word of dissent shall be spoken. We teach them Science as Religion, we teach them always to worship the superior, barring them from questioning the same. We just teach them.

But let’s not. Let’s not be teachers to silenced students anymore. Let’s lose our power as the ultimate authority of knowledge, it would only humanize us. And let’s imagine an ecosystem where – we are all learners, regardless of our age, class, gender, race, and caste – committed to a life with purpose beyond our own selfish survival and a life of questioning the world as we learn from it.

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In Rakkar, that has been our commitment.

 


Names of the characters mentioned in this article are used fictitiously in order to respect the privacy of the people involved.

রাজি?

তাহলে সিদ্ধান্ত করুন আপনার সমস্ত অস্তিত্ব কেবল এবং কেবলমাত্র রাজনৈতিক হবে। দল নয়, একেবারে অস্তিত্বের প্রাথমিক লেভেল থেকেই সেই অভ্যাস শুরু করুন। যেভাবে একদিন সিদ্ধান্ত নেন কাল থেকে ভাজাভুজি কম খাবেন আর রোজ একঘন্টা অন্তত ব্যায়াম করবেন, যেভাবে কোলেস্টেরলের খেয়াল রাখেন, যেভাবে সিগারেট ছেড়েছেন অথবা অভ্যাস ধরে রেখেছেন, ঠিক সেইভাবে আপনার রাজনীতিকে, ক্ষমতার কেন্দ্রীকরণকে প্রশ্ন করার রাজনীতি অভ্যাস করুন। প্রশ্ন করুন। প্রশ্ন করাটাও রেওয়াজ করুন। চব্বিশ ঘন্টার রেওয়াজের দায়িত্ব ঘাড়ে চাপান। অভ্যাস। অভ্যাস করুন। আপনার-আদরের-রঙে-আঘাত-লেগেছে-এই-দুঃখে-ছিলিম-টেনে-রেবেল-রেবেল-মুখ-করে-ভোট-দিইনি-দেখ-কিন্তু-বাস্তারকে-টোকেন-সলিডারিটি-জানিয়ে-ট্যাক্সিওয়ালা-দেখলেই-আপনি-থেকে-তুমিতে-নেমে-আসার রাজনীতি কে বর্জন করুন। তাতে আপনার ছিলিম টানার স্বাধীনতা খর্ব হচ্ছে কিনা কিম্বা যত্রতত্র যাহা খুশি বলিবার স্বাধীনতায় চোট লাগছে কিনা তাই নিয়ে বোকা মিনমিন করবেন না। আপনার শ্রেণিবোধে নিয়ম করে শান দিন। পড়ুন। রেডিমেড কামব্যাক লাইন নয়, বই পড়ুন। গোটা গাবদা বই। পুরোটা পড়া অভ্যাস করুন। পড়তে পড়তে প্রশ্ন করা অভ্যাস করুন। তারপর থিওরি কে নস্যাত করার মত সাহস, স্পর্ধা, এবং সর্বোপরি মুক্ত মগজ নিয়ে কাজ করুন। কাজ করা অভ্যাস করুন। অফিসের পাকা চাকরি ছেড়ে বন্দুক ধরতে হবে না, নিজ নিজ কিউবিকলেই আপাতত রাজনৈতিক হোন। একই অফিসে ঘাম ঝরিয়ে কেন শুধুমাত্র জেন্ডারের দায়ে আপনার সহকর্মীর প্রমোশন হলো না এইটুকুর বিরুদ্ধে গর্জে উঠুন। গর্জে ওঠা অভ্যাস করুন। গর্জে উঠে ক্ষান্ত না থাকাও অভ্যাস করুন। বিকল্প ভাবুন, ভাবা অভ্যাস করুন। ভাবতে গিয়ে অসহায় হয়ে তলিয়ে যান, কিন্তু ফিরে আসুন আপনার রাজনীতিতে। বেসিক এক লাইনের রাজনীতিতে। আপনার রাজনীতিকে কথায় প্রকাশ করা প্র‍্যাকটিস করুন – এক লাইনে বলার চেষ্টা করে দেখুন। সহজ ভাষায়, এক লাইনে গঠন করতে গিয়ে দেখুন আপনি হোঁচট খেলেন কিনা। হোঁচট অর্থে আপনার শব্দ গঠন করার স্কিলের অভাব ধরবেন না, হোঁচট অর্থে থাপ্পর। অর্থাৎ আপনার রাজনীতি আপনি যথেষ্ট বেঁচেছেন কিনা তার সারপ্রাইজ টেস্টে আপনার কিরকম পারফর্মেন্স। প্র‍্যাক্টিস করুন, প্র‍্যাক্টিস। সমর্থন করে-ফরে কম্ফর্ট জোনে গিয়ে ল্যাজ গোটাবেন না। আপনার ল্যাজেরও রাজনৈতিক হয়ে ওঠার দায়িত্ব রয়েছে, ল্যাজ সমেত তৈরী হোন। আর তৈরী করুন। মাধ্যমিকে গুচ্ছ নম্বর পেয়ে গদগদ সুশীল ভাইপোকে লক্ষ্য করুন, করে দেখুন আপনাকে দেখে যেমন তড়িঘড়ি সোফার জায়গা অফার করে, তেমন বাড়ির “কাজের মাসি” কেও করে কিনা। না করলে বলুন লজ্জিত হতে। লজ্জিত হওয়া অভ্যাস করতে বলুন। লজ্জিত হয়ে, অনুধাবন করে, অভ্যাস বদলানোর সিদ্ধান্ত করা পর্যন্ত এই যে লম্বা রাস্তার প্রত্যেকটা মোড় প্রত্যেক মানুষের জন্য যথেষ্ট নিরাপদ করে তোলার দায়িত্ব নিন। দায়িত্ব নেওয়া অভ্যাস করুন। আপনার প্রতিটি অভ্যাস আপনার ব্যক্তিগত সিদ্ধান্ত হোক। আপনার প্রতিটি সিদ্ধান্ত, রাজনৈতিক।

Of Pines, Electronics, and Powerful Ideas: toward a Cybernetic Ecology in the mountains

“I like to think of a cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony, like pure water touching clear sky. I like to think of a cybernetic forest filled with pines and electronics, where deer stroll peacefully past computers as if they were flowers with spinning blossoms.”

There has been a fair amount of discussion around how computing and technology can be used to change the way we think and learn. This too is about that, but not really. The motivation toward creating a Cybernetic Ecology – has been decidedly political  – in the broader sense of the word as having to do with the power relationships inherent in the social structures that shape our lives.  In Rakkar, it has thus been more about constructing an ecosystem for learners, where the participants, regardless of their class, gender, age, race, and aptitude, are aware of their ability and power to question everything, including the ecosystem itself.

For over a month now, in this little village called Rakkar (situated in the laps of Dhauladhar range of Dharamsala, India) – I have been working with the local kids through activities that involve: constructing products that we find meaningful, questioning things that seem unfair, and unlearning all that we find restricting and useless. We named our initiative as: The Village Lab. Here, the village learns through hands-on experiences of Science, Technology, and Education: by doing – by touching, feeling, cutting, sticking — pulling things apart, putting things together.

The Village Lab and the Mountain People

The Village Lab is indeed an alternative platform for education which challenges the power dynamics that define a classroom in a traditional School System. But, let’s not talk of pedagogy just yet; instead, let’s talk about the individuals. Ours are the humans of the mountains with minds organically much closer to pine trees and birds with rainbow feathers than they are to the machines.  So, let’s talk about minds, first; machines can wait.

Maybe it’s the mountains, but the children here are oddly fearless. There’s reticence, too, in their minds – but it is neither a form of cowardice nor of heroism. It is more like a lack of arrogance. They do not speak English, understand very little of it; schools fail them, and even before they get to start exploring their academic interests and abilities, they are already (actively or passively) eliminated from the academic milieu. And, for them to lose faith in (or even drop out from) the traditional system of education is much less of a loss to them, than it is to the larger humanity. It is scary, you know; it is also necessary to realize the kind of power the mainstream has over us, even while challenging it with alternative ways of learning. What concerns me the most in this realization, is the disempowerment of ideas that happens with each child being eliminated from the mainstream of Education. Our immediate responsibility, therefore, as friends of these learners and believers in the power of their ideas, we feel is to re-empower the disempowered ideas. Keeping Papert and Mindstorms in mind, I felt that many of these silenced ideas could be brought back to the lives of the children by introducing them to the world of hands-on science and digital technology: with computers as mediators between children and ideas, there would be new opportunities for them to understand, to love, and to use ideas that had previously been inaccessible to them.

The reality is, however, computers are machines that are way too far from the everyday lives of most of these children. Which does not mean that they would not fit in the fabric of the digital world if they were introduced, nor does it anyway justify the inaccessibility. It however meant that there was a need for a second order mediaton in this case: a familiar and relatable phenomenon that can further act as a mediator between the children and the computers. That is precisely the role nature is playing in this ecosystem.

For the first one month in the Village Lab, we did not use computers at all. Instead, we were collecting trash from the neighborhood and turned them into toys, and conversed about the Science and the fun behind our activities. There was never a day when I suggested a project for them to work on, it was always them who came up with ideas that they wanted to work on for the day. We explored origami together, and through origami we visited the very complex world of solid geometry with sheer ease.

Take Anil, for example. Anil, on the twelfth day of our interaction when we were making paper lamps, wanted his lamp to be of a shape of a house. He then further explained, he wanted the house to be constructed of three triangles and three squares. He did make that structure also, and with wires. To think of a solid geometric structure like that, a super unconventional for a house to be structured as, demands the critical thinking process of a professional architect. To explain it so confidently and to make it happen afterall, you need to be one gem of a maker. Anil could not tell me what a diagonal was when we interacted for the first time, and helplessly admitted he fails Mathematics.

How Papert confronted the system in 1983, would therefore be the exact words of these illegitimate students of the school system on the present day: education is much more related to love than to logic; it’s much more related to sex than to abstraction; it’s much more related to how you see yourself fitting into the social and cultural fabric. Education has very little to do with explanation; it has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material.

The Girls of the Lab

It’s time we realized that to talk at all about pedagogy of the others of the system, it is necessary to talk about equality and inclusion of the even less privileged entities of the immediate group of others. The marginalized, also, have their own others. And it’s necessary to consciously prevent an occurrence of role reversal there: the oppressed of one domain, should not become the oppressors of another. So let’s talk about the other genders of our little collective: the girls, in this context.

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Let me get this straight: what all we radically stand against in case of gender stereotyping, also often turns out to be true in the immediate sample space. There lies the fallacy; however, it would be unrealistic and often counter-productive to dismiss the possibility of that being true. What is more reasonable therefore, is to realize that in a solid geometry project that has to do with constructing a house-shaped lamp with three triangles and three squares, the girls of the group would be more inclined toward decorating the house and the boys will choose to bend the wires. But, it is crucial to further realize that this choice is very deeply constructed through several hundred of years of gender domination. So, even with the equal and unbiased access to all, there will remain a series of battle to fight before we establish an equal and fair society of the marginalized.

But, it is more hopeful than I made it sound like. I did not force any of the girls to choose construction of the shapes over painting Rangoli. Rangoli itself is a valuable practice of art, to dismiss their apparent natural inclination toward it would be to dismiss what they see their mothers and their grandmothers practice at homes: it’s confusing for them and also has a severe risk of alienating a mass. Instead, I chose to observe, and the most fascinating thing happened. Anil had to leave the place before he could complete the whole structure, and it was time for someone else to take up the rest of the work. And, it was, Priyanka who volunteered to do so after she was done with her painting. She also made a water syphon out of a plastic bottle the next day, and taught the entire government school to make a rabbit out of a piece of square paper. It’s not just Priyanka, sixty percent of this collective now constitutes girls: and they are talking geometry with paper toys, discussing physics with experiments with trash, and most importantly they are having fun while constructing meaningful products. And this very sense of satisfaction does not discriminate, unlike several other things in life.

The Pedagogy of Emerging Ideas

It is now the children of the lab who want to know the computers and the Internet. I have been recording them as they make and break, and have been infrequently uploading the videos to YouTube. Of course, I had to ask for their consent before I started doing this. This was mostly a way of starting the conversation about the digital world, more specifically about the Internet and privacy. Manish, our friend from the lab and another gem of an inventor, dropped by my place one day: he wanted to know more about computers, and how to create things with it as he is doing now. For the next three months, we thus plan to work on an application with computers and the nature around: after many sessions of brainstorming through ideas throughout the last month, they have now decided on a project to document the birds and map the trees of the locality, and have a simple interface so that everyone interested can find out about the data they collect as the researchers of Rakkar.

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The idea of this initiative is not to make all the children think like computer scientists at all, neither do we aspire to make all of them genius programmers overnight. Not only is that an impossible exercise, it is also very futile an ambition. To bring the silenced and the invisible of traditional school system into the world of digital technology, is not to rectify an inequity just – it means to change the whole conversation. As Papert envisions this programming as communicating with the computer (having a conversation) — and suggests that “learning to communicate with a computer may change the way other learning takes place.” It is thus less about the product that we will end up creating together, and more about the questions that will come up in the course of this project, and as happens always, they will sometimes be ‘solved’, and sometimes, ‘dissolved’.  It is necessary to ask, however; it is also necessary for every individual to feel the power to question at all. And in times of mandatory Adhaar cards and digital surveillance, growing intolerance and industrial invasions – let’s imagine a cybernetic ecology, where we all sit together with our children amidst pine trees and wild flowers, and talk about data privacy and powerful ideas. That’s our commitment.