To See Is To Believe?

A circular was read out in the classroom. It had been decided by the school management that students from Std 8th – 10th would be taken on an educational tour to Calcutta. I was in 8th standard then. I was excited enough to convince my parents about the idea. I set my plans straight about the places I had to visit and spent the night taking a virtual tour of the city in my dreams.

For some reason, the trip was cancelled. We were not informed of the reasons, just that the trip wouldn’t happen. All the excitement was watered down and we got back to the monotony of schooling. The trip was important to me at a personal level, I wanted to see each and every thing of the city, everything that I had ever read or heard about the place. My father has an amazing ability of teleporting his audience to the scenes of the stories he tells. The tales of Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji and the likes had painted an enthralling picture of kolkata in my heart and mind. I wanted to walk the streets they had walked upon, see the places they had lived at, and the schools that prepared them. I had been to Kolkata before but never got a chance to explore the length and breadth of the city from a cultural or historical standpoint.  

I visited Kolkata this week for a friend’s wedding. The venue was Dee Empresa hotel in Kyd Street which is connected to Park Street through Mirza Ghalib Street as well as Chowringhee road. The locality is as quaint and as modern as a city neighbourhood can get. Hence, in addition to the wedding, I had set my mind upon exploring the locality. Walking through the streets of pre-Independence significance and roaming across the jarred buildings, I reached the Indian Museum. Now I can talk a lot about the museum but I perhaps won’t be telling anything more than what you will read here.

No matter how stimulating and riveting they are intellectually, the museum is expansive and even a cursory glance at all the artefacts will tire you physically. I sat on a bench to rest before resuming my exploration but no sooner than I had sat down, a group of school kids marched with their Teacher past me. Excitement oozing out of the faces, they had come for an educational tour to the museum. Such scenes as this are common in the cities. I have been to multiple cities and their places of importance and have always been able to spot a group of city students browsing around. The spectacle took me back to the cancelled trip of our school.

I studied at one of the DAV Public Schools, a reasonably well to do school in a small town called Kathara in Jharkhand. I couldn’t help but compare the life and challenges of a student in a rural/semi-urban set-up to those of an urban student. While there are many benefits of studying in a small town, the negatives outweigh the positives by a fair margin. When we were still trying to imagine the fossils, botanical and zoological remains of prehistoric species, the intricate architecture of Ajanta-Ellora, the shades of paintings of Raja Ravi Varma through the black and white images of an NCERT textbook, kids of the urban populace had the option of walking into a museum and see everything in real and in detail. While our lives seesawed between an engineering and a medical career, there were greater avenues to look at for the students in such cities where they could aspire to become a writer, an archaeologist, a filmmaker et al. Just so that you don’t point a finger at me and complain that I am whining, let me tell you I knew exactly what an archaeologist did way back in my primary school and wanted to become one, thanks to the wonderful teachers I had at the school.

How much do the urban students grasp or avail of the available opportunities or do they grasp better than a rural student immersed in his book is a question that can be answered only on individual scale but there is no denying that seeing is learning and in such a case where observation is crucial, urban students are much better placed. While for us, a fossil print is just a hazy impression of a creature that is to be understood as important to read, a city student doesn’t have to rely on his faculty of imagination as they are closer to such places where they can lay their hands on reality. I have friends who have been less fortunate and had not an iota of idea about IITs before std. 12. I point this case out in particular because even in a small town like mine, IIT-JEE preparations started from std. 6th. While a school in town focuses all its energy to churn out IITians and AIIMSians, the education at a village is focused at just getting the student out of the village so that the next generation doesn’t have to go through a similar experience. Things might be improving now but they are far from ideal. My music teacher spent about 10 years with us in school without training us in a single instrument or dance form. The rural schools on an average don’t have a music teacher. Talking of sports, while most of the schools don’t have a playground, that is not even the beginning of the problem. It has been a convention in many of the schools I have seen that the so called good kids study and the so called mediocre kids play. So, if Ram studies all day – he is a good boy and is not supposed to be good at sports. If Shyam plays all the time, he becomes a bad boy and is not supposed to do well at studies. This resulted in a sort of boycott of academically bright students in the sports circles and an implicit isolation of students good at sports in debating and quizzing circles. Contrast this to a school set up in a rural area and you will know how this kind of discussion would sound superfluous and elitist because such schools seldom recruit a sports teacher and the fact that kids are going to school is to be celebrated in itself. During my last visit to Tirunelveli of Tamil Nadu, I spoke with a young girl who studies in Std. 9th. She told me she wanted to play football. Poor her, her school doesn’t have a football team. They don’t have a playground and the teacher in-charge of the sports department teaches some other subject and sports teacher is an additional role he has.

There is one more aspect of the discussion we are having here. It’s not that semi-urban or rural students don’t have a competitive bent of mind, neither can we say that everyone buckles under pressure. There are students who find a way out of hardships. In such a quest to beat all the challenges, television was an important aspect of our education. A cultural show like Surbhi (on DD) was a weekly indulgence to see things and places that we had read about. I got to see the majestic pyramids of Egypt in one of its episodes and was so fascinated by them that when a social sciences exhibition was planned in the school, I took upon myself to construct my favorite of the structures I had read about – The Great Sphinx of Giza. Similarly, a show like Bournvita Quiz Contest was a sort of benchmark to measure ourselves with the urban students when I and my brother routinely sat in front of the TV to blurt out the answers before the real contestants could mutter a syllable. The Discovery channel came to our households just in time to show us a lot of things that we had just read in books. Unfortunately, the rural students can’t even boast of such facilities. The great divide is despairing to put it mildly.

I was happy for these kids who had this opportunity to see things that we had to imagine and believe in our childhood. Recently, a movie was released which won a lot of critical appreciation but couldn’t succeed commercially – Aankhon Dekhi. The protagonist decides one day that he won’t believe things that he had not seen. Some enlightened friends thought he was crazy and mocked him by asking questions like – Does America exist? Truthful to his oath, he used to say ‘Hoga!’ meaning ‘Could be’- he hadn’t seen!’ When a Teacher tells a rural student that ‘Seeing is believing‘ and that science works on the basis of observation, in a way, he empowers the student to say ‘No’ to the existence of many things that actually exist. It’s just that he has not seen them and for that matter even the Teacher might not have seen the things he is teaching a kid about. It’s only a belief that carries such students from their individual starting points to their dreams. For them, believing is seeing to start with. For many unfortunate ones, the story ends there. Some who struggle hard enough and beat all odds get to understand the ‘seeing is believing’ aphorism.

Urban blights are aplenty too. The teacher to these kids in the picture seemed to be in some sort of haste and was just parading the students to and fro inside the museum. Perhaps, the teacher had to complete another checklist of the academic compulsions set by the board or the school. I would be glad to get wrong here. My teachers used to spend more time with us. They took hours and days to go through the architecture of a temple or the evolutionary stages of man. They knew it would be our imagination that would take us further in life. So they helped our imagination grow.

I got a lot many chances to explore Kolkata later in my life and walked many a miles alone in the city to see the places I had always wanted to see but that upset boy of 8th standard who was looking forward to seeing the printed ink of his textbooks come alive in front of him still lives in me somewhere. It was an incredible opportunity that millions of students lose everyday in a country of such great disparity as ours.

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