Day before yesterday, I got an interesting message from a good real-life friend on Facebook. "Hi, I need a favour," began Sharada.
This was the rest of the message:
Dinesh's school decided to drop Kannada from their curriculum. Dinesh loves his school and generally doesn't like displacement so I offered him two choices, change school or learn with me. He has agreed to learn from me. I don't know how to teach. Do you have any suggestions?
Dinesh is 8. His parents, Sharada and her husband Ramesh (a childhood friend of mine) are Kannadigas. Dinesh's school is the so-called National Academy for Learning, or NAFL, situated somewhere in Bengaluru.
I don't know about you, but the name of this school suggests to me that the educatables aren't exactly kids there. More like adults getting ready for some serious national stuff.
Why did Sharada ask me for this favour?
I think she asked me because I'm pretty serious about education in the mother tongue, have written a book or two in Kannada, and take Indian languages more seriously than most of her friends.
My 9-year-old son attends a world-class school in Mysore, and my 4-year-old daughter will join him there this June. It's a private Kannada-medium school called Arivu.
Arivu's world-class-ness doesn't come from a stately building with a 10-foot compound. It comes from the great teachers, the atmosphere of fun, experiential learning, zero-stress, parents' involvement and total integration with the rest of the world around the school, not to mention the language of instruction.
"If your neighbourhood has seceded from the real India, a good English-medium school can appear to have some of these good qualities."
It's the kind of school which actively and constantly pesters parents to come and visit the campus, sit in the classrooms, make tea, sing, dance, teach children what they know best, and so on.
I know, I know, it sounds a little crazy and I often don't get time to participate as much as I would like. But like any right-thinking parent, I would like to do more of this stuff, not less.
Arivu's advantage over English-medium schools
It's impossible for an English-medium school to have the above qualities in India. Why? Because they make money from exactly the opposite of everything Arivu stands for.
I'm not just throwing this at you. I have had first-hand experience with these schools. I was educated in an English-medium school, and never in a Kannada-medium school. My wife and I also reviewed the best of the best English medium schools in Mysore before deciding on Arivu for our kids.
If your neighbourhood has seceded from the real India, a good English-medium school can appear to have some of these good qualities. Besides, they throw in a lot of other goodies like horse-riding, French, etc., so your idea of what makes a school good is quite blurred to begin with.
"There aren't too many Arivus in Bengaluru. Not anymore. And even if there's one close by, how can you send your kid to the kind of school your housemaid looks down on?"
Sharada's family lives in one of these independent republics, but it's completely land-locked by India. Like many of her friends, however, she feels she doesn't have the choice of returning to India.
Her son's school, NAFL, is perhaps one of the best English-medium schools in Bengaluru. That means Sharada has signed up for 10-foot compounds, closed doors, and a standing instruction to stand outside the compound while the instruction happens inside.
Good English-medium schools make a virtue of these vices, and you're easily sold since you have the picture of your office cubicle in mind. You leave your child to the self-appointed experts and go do what you think your job is.
Besides, people like Sharada in cities like Bengaluru don't have too much choice. There aren't too many Arivus in Bengaluru. Not anymore. And even if there's one close by, how can you send your kid to the kind of school your housemaid looks down on?
That would go completely against the tide of the times... which is to secede from India as completely as possible.
Does Dinesh really need Kannada?
I have to disclose an important fact for you to get the big picture: Dinesh-the-Kannadiga can't speak Kannada.
He has the potential (who doesn't?) but right now he can't speak it. He barely manages to understand his parents when they speak to him in Kannada, but always replies back in English with a superb call-centre accent. I know good English, obviously, but I don't get his accent. I've tried.
"[Dinesh] barely manages to understand his parents when they speak to him in Kannada, but always replies back in English with a superb call-centre accent."
I also think his parents speak more to him in Kannada when I'm around. Oops! Did I just say that? I think she and her husband will kill me for this. They're two of my best friends in the world!
But my point is this. The kid is 8, and he's already schooled like a foreigner in Karnataka. His apartment complex doesn't need him to speak in Kannada. His school doesn't. His republic doesn't. The Indian nation doesn't (it wants him to learn Hindi, which his school is patriotically teaching, anyway).
The auto-rickshaw drivers are a dying tribe; everyone is switching to Ola or TaxiForSure or Meru or whatever, so he won't need Kannada to move around independently in Bengaluru.
Even housemaids are in the line for a visa to Dinesh's republic, so Dinesh won't need Kannada to talk to the help either. In fact, kids don't speak to housemaids so much anyway.
So why does Sharada want her son to read and write Kannada?
However you look at it, there's a good reason why NAFL is kicking Kannada out of its classrooms: it's possible to paint the picture of a Bangalore, an India, and a world in which Kannada is unnecessary.
That it's inferior, and that it's already dead, is already being driven into children's heads, so that makes it easy to convince parents to let go. And the parents have already conceded that the experts on the matter are within the school's compound.
"[T]here's a good reason why NAFL is kicking Kannada out of its classrooms: it's possible to paint the picture of a Bangalore, an India, and a world in which Kannada is unnecessary."
So, why, why, why does she want her son to read and write Kannada?
I've told her a couple of times that Dinesh must first learn to speak Kannada. Reading and writing must come later.
Somehow, she doesn't appreciate this point. She thinks her duty is to teach Dinesh how to read and write Kannada when he can't speak the language. In fact, she thinks he does speak Kannada. But trust me, he cannot.
I broke my head over the question. Why, why, why does she want Dinesh to read and write Kannada?
I'd have loved to ask her directly, but she's not answering my phone. Perhaps I've been too direct in telling her that Dinesh must speak Kannada first. Perhaps that hurt her.
The only answer I have is that she's driven by an irrational urge. The kind of urge that a sandalwood tree has to ensure that its saplings carry its scent.
It's stupid to ask why. That's how the tree is wired. That's how we're wired.
And oh, here's the suggestion you wanted from me, Sharada -- the same one again: don't teach Dinesh to read and write Kannada. Make him speak it first. Do whatever it takes. That's how you grow the Kannada sapling.
As far as NAFL is concerned, I don't expect it to do anything better than kick Kannada out of campus. That's how those trees are wired. The question is whether your Kannada sapling can take nutrients from them and gradually outgrow them -- or not.