Reclaiming old grandeur

Aneet Kanwal Randhawa

One has to break the mundane to enter the realm of the interesting. I recently had the opportunity to meet a heritage conservationist. I had a rudimentary idea about what her field was all about, but it was an eye-opening experience to learn about a wide array of fields it encompasses.

As a nation, we have been a witness to a spectacle of our decaying heritage without doing much about it. A lot of our heritage has been irretrievably lost. A lot of it is in comatose stage, yearning for saviours. And that is where the conservationists come into the picture. The ‘colossal wreck, boundless and bare’ among the ‘lone and level sands’ is made to come alive again with their expertise and is preserved for posterity.

Restoration of ancient monuments is one of the important aspects of the field but it also encompasses archival photographs and document restoration, restoration of clothing of heritage value, restoration of wall paintings and much more. A conservationist has to be a bit of a historian, an architect and a civil engineer. The focus should be on restoring the originality sans any additions or alterations.

A substantial part of our heritage overlaps with faith. So, a sensitive mind is also one of the unstated qualifications of a conservationist. Some items may have sacred value for a particular community, and as a consequence require careful handling. In this context, hearing the experiences about the restoration of wall paintings of Sri Harmandir Sahib and Chola Sahib of Guru Hargobind, which he had adorned when he was freed from the Gwalior prison, were particularly enlightening. The conservationist had to work under the roving eye of people associated with the faith and eventually win over their suspicions.

It may sound alluring to be a heritage conservationist, and yet, like any other field, it has its own pitfalls. A substantial part of our heritage is possessed by the government, and so, a conservationist cannot escape its apathy. There are irrational comparisons when a restoration project is to be allotted. The comparison on the basis of turnover of firms is one such bizarre rationale. The field is about expertise and a monetary base for comparison is unjustifiable. Another lamentable fact is that there is no uniform government policy to decide what is to be restored. Quite often, political considerations decide if it has to be a temple, church or a gurdwara.

But despite the pitfalls and the costs incurred on them, heritage conservationists are doing yeoman service. They have an intangible worth. Much attention should be paid to crumbling edifices, peeling plasters, brittle documents and fading wall paintings before they are written off their mutilated existence. An expert hand of a conservationist can make them come alive again. May his tribe increase.

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Give teachers freedom to mould pupils

Beant Singh

The recent unsavoury incident relating to the humiliation of a District Education Officer at a school function by a minister, in the presence of her subordinates and students, is food for thought, especially for educationists. There was a time when even a schoolteacher teaching in the countryside commanded respect, not only among pupils, but also the general folk, who would turn to him for advice on mundane affairs. Students left under his care would follow all instructions regarding teaching as well as their conduct and deportment without fuming and fretting. A teacher would give his best and help produce good humans endowed with academic excellence. This would enhance his reverence in society and his reformatory approach made the profession a noble one. The respect he earned over the years would continue till he breathed his last, as society and his students in particular would remember him.

When Partap Singh Kairon, the progressive and visionary former Chief Minister of Punjab, established Punjab Public School at Nabha in 1960, he gave required space to its founder principal in terms of choosing the faculty and other things to realise his dream of imparting quality education. Creditably, the scheme of things worked well and yielded the desired results, right from the inception of the school.

Things have changed since. In order to streamline the education system, the modern-day set-up tries to ensure that its day-to-day pedagogic commands are complied with and subsequent information through mails are sent before school hours, leaving school heads and staff in a tizzy. As a result, the real classroom teaching is lost sight of.

At times, a team swoops on a school campus, not to give expert academic inputs to revamp the ailing education sector, but to create a sense of terror in the minds of educators. We want our children to imbibe the qualities of empathy, caring and sharing, but how can we expect a child to be empathetic when they see elders are not so towards their immediate subordinates?

E-touch in the classroom is not a substitute for the human touch of a teacher, and unless a teacher is given the freedom to mould his pupils the way he wants, or is allowed to make use of the methods of his choice — except punishment — and if he is not free of undue hierarchical pressure, not much can be expected of him. Let him be free to relate to students and let him be given free academic space to choose how best he would meet the expectations of the academic administrators. Let people at the academic helm, including school heads and DEOs, be given due respect by our elected leaders and bureaucrats, which will percolate down, if they are really desirous of toning up the ailing education sector in our country.

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Is it the end of humanity?

Vishal Kumar

Although it was a beautiful sunny morning at my native town, I had to cancel my morning walk, as I was supposed to board a train to Delhi. The preceding night, I could not catch a wink of sleep because of the heartrending piece of news from Pulwama. A dastardly and gruesome act by the enemies of humanity spelled doom, snuffing out many innocent lives. My heart was not only shaken, but shattered. My mind was overloaded with a volley of questions which pushed me into the deep ocean of painful contemplation.

Why are people murdering one another with such mindless frenzy? I was reminded of Swami Vivekananda’s words: ‘I wonder why people hate, when life is too short to love!’ Today, unfortunately, the wicked emotion of hatred is spreading its stench in every nook and corner of the world, whereas the kindred emotion of love is getting weaker day by day. Are men morphing into monsters? Another unsettling question raised its ugliest head. My eyes were clouded with forcibly held back tears. Where had compassion, kindness and sympathy vanished? Head heavy, heart bloated, eyes groggy, I reached the railway station.

As the train chugged forward, I was eyeball to eyeball with pristine nature in all its myriad captivating colours: lush fields, quiescent scarecrows, birds perching on branches of various trees, loth to give up their languidness. Farmers were already up and moving towards their fields. Such a salubrious spectacle tried to soothe my frayed spirits, but my heart remained dipped in the sorrow of the ghastly carnage. Mist hung heavy all around and trees were mere silhouettes, searching for lost identity.

Soon, we were at the next junction. By now, the young couple sitting on the next berth had finished a boxful of sweets and an elderly couple sitting across the aisle was savouring homemade delicacies. But I had lost my appetite. No thought of having breakfast occurred to me; my stomach, like my heart, was sufficiently filled with sorrow.

When the train crossed the dense maze of wild greenery, my ache was relieved to an extent by the sight of fashion-conscious scarecrows. All of them flaunting their multicoloured attires. A momentary diversion that brought a smile to my sombre face, as did the sight of the luxuriously green fields, dotted with white egrets.

As the train headed towards its destination, an image embossed itself on my mind. On the periphery of the fields were some trees, spreading their skeletal branches towards the sky. I imagined this was a picture of lost humanity extending its arms towards the heavens, beseeching and pleading God for peace. Praying for humanity! Was it too difficult to love and be human?

Here’s hoping that humanity regains its lost image before it is too late…. Dilli abhi bhi door hai.

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Years later, the question still haunts

SS Chhina

The bustle of teacher union’s elections at the end of every academic session was an annual feature. About 150 teachers of Khalsa College Amritsar was a significant contingent of the Punjab and Chandigarh College Teachers Union. I was a candidate for the office of president. Every candidate was using all possible ways to muster maximum favour in the elections. My focus was to approach the maximum number of teachers in the college or at their residences in the evening. Prof Mohan Singh of the English Department was known for his neutrality and rapport with everyone, but was of the opinion that there should be no elections. Rather, anybody willing to donate time should be selected amicably. He also held impressive influence, and so, every candidate approached him and pleaded for support. Nobody, however, could change his stance.

I met him a number of times on the college campus, we exchanged pleasantries, but I never talked about the elections because I had planned to visit his house for this most important objective.

Accompanied by a colleague, I went to his house one evening. I saw his pleasant, smiling face while receiving us. After the usual pleasantries, I requested him to bolster my candidature and sought support with the words: ‘Sir, please give me a chance to serve this time.’ He smiled and replied that he would vote for me, but added that I would have to answer a single question. I observed the whimsical change that was paradoxical to his neutral stance, and was curious to know his question. Meanwhile, my colleague enquired if he was willing to extend support, he may give the right answer to the question! He remained mum for a moment, and retorted: ‘No, he can answer the question the next day, or even after the elections.’

Then he went on. Prior to the electrification in rural areas, there was no facility of electric fans. At village congregations on festive occasions, the gurdwara management used to supply huge hand-fans to the audience. Sturdy young men, one for each fan, would hold its flag-like pole in the palm of the left hand and start flagging it in order to generate the constant circulation of air. When one got tired, some other youth would volunteer his services to carry on the arduous task of fanning the audience by hand, providing people cool comfort from the scorching summer heat. Then, he posited the question: ‘My question is: Are you going to provide some similar sewa (service) if elected?’

Really, it was a big puzzle.

The professor cast his vote in my favour and I got elected. It has been long since I have retired. We have met, and continue to meet, on various occasions, but his question still haunts me. And still, I have no answer.

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The feet, a good place to be

JS Raghavan

DURING the halcyon days, when elders commanded respect from youngsters, it was customary to prostate before them when they arrived. It meant unmitigated surrender to their age, experience, erudition and wisdom, even if age might be the only qualifying factor barring others. Nevertheless, since old is gold, and the aged guest had been at the age of the one who prostrated and not the reverse, advancement in years tilted the scales in his favour. If this was not done, the guest with a short fuse may not take it lying down.

In certain sects in Tamil Nadu, the plurality in prostration would be valued more than a singular, athletic drop-and-rise done in a flash, and furthermore, the obeisance had to be repeated and not aborted, till the guest was pleased by the number and condescended to touch and bless the head of the prostrator.

In those days when Alexander Graham’s bell had not begun to ring, people chose to drop in all of a sudden, without any prior notice. It was always Open House. Most youngsters, as a rule, had to undergo this physical exercise, bemoaning their fate, when they would have opted to curl up on the bed, dozing or dipping into the latest James Hadley Chase, unmindful of the elderly guest’s arrival. However, on the flip side, such obeisance served as a push-up exercise for young men who might otherwise be leading a sedentary life.

It was not unusual for a warm-hearted, avuncular elder who was paying a visit after a long gap, to offer on-the-spot cash gift, for the ones who will prostate with palpable enthusiasm. Youngsters in the family would scramble to line up before him for such a windfall, which would make an enjoyable movie-cum-snack outing a dream come true.

Elders, in those days, fell into two extreme categories: the ones who created happiness when they arrived; and the second, when they left. Some who arrived enjoyed vicarious pleasure by posing baffling mental sums like — ‘What will be the price of a three quarter measure of sugar, if the price for one and a quarter measure is four and a half annas?’

Prostration was done only during the arrival of the elderly guest. And not at the time of his departure, which is forbidden, since it is done when one leaves for the ‘maha yatra’. Invariably, the one done at the place before his mortal remains are consigned to the flames will not be without any concomitant gift from the meritorious ones. They would have granted them upfront, in the form of their wisdom, knowledge, and more importantly, even genes.

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Why ‘likes’ shouldn’t really matter

Aditya Mukherjee

Unlike others for whom being on Facebook is a raison d’etre of their social identity, I have never found this democratic platform invigorating. At the risk of being pigeonholed as a Luddite not au fait with the marvels of technology, I find this medium being (mis)used by people to curate their selfhood. It also reeks of a desire to tom-tom one’s achievements, family profiles and geographic movements by announcing their timings of landing at airports, not to mention the incredible degree of self-adulation practitioners of this medium indulge in.

A colleague, driven by a sensory stimulus of a Proustean nature, is in a habit of posting his sepia-tinted photographs of childhood at regular intervals. Imagine the happiness that courses through my friend on seeing the avalanche of ‘likes’ when he logs in.

A young former colleague, who shifted to Hyderabad after her marriage, took it into her head to post photographs ranging from packing belongings to unpacking them in the new house. For many, the temptation to unabashedly leverage their private lives for the consumption of others is irresistible.

Another colleague posts photographs of her reclining in a sofa with an English novel, to publicise her literary interests.

I don’t remember the last time I posted something concerning me or my family. I have never been comfortable posting pictures of my family’s visit to any part of the country. Nor posting pictures of birthday celebrations of my family members is my definition of being ‘social’. My predilection for keeping my personal and social life away from public glare and scrutiny leaves many of my social media friends perplexed. They even find my disinterest bordering on the hypocritical and morbid.

Ten years ago, when I opened my Facebook account and got sucked into its seductive embrace, I went on a friend request ‘send’ and ‘accept’ spree, little realising that I would get to see endless showcasing of family events that I couldn’t relate to. Sending a forced ‘like’ became the sine qua non of Facebook bonding. But I couldn’t string it out for long. I am now left with some journalist friends and a couple of writers whose posts I value for their content.

I also like those posts where people talk about issues concerning animal welfare and visuals showing rescue operations of any accident or tragedy which brings out the Dunkirk spirit. Some years ago, I posted a picture of an uprooted tree in front of my balcony. I was heartbroken as it used to shelter birds. I was just seeking some cathartic relief, but much to my consternation, my post didn’t evoke any heart-felt response, perhaps because the staid visual of a mangled tree was no patch on the sought-after vibrant visuals of riveting family gatherings or a selfie against imposing mountains and sea.

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Pink slip of the other kind

Mohan Singh

Twentieth-century typewriters, their parts like key levers, carriage, roller and tabulator, and their functions were unintelligible to us kids, though my elder brother, who was a steno in the DC’s office in the 1950s, had access to all carriage sizes A to E. Even when we grew up, we were not supposed to touch, much less try to type on his personal machine. Hardly 5 per cent college professors owned a portable model. It was a status symbol among academics those days. So, when we college teachers got some arrears, it was a windfall and the first thing I did was to purchase an American Sears Carriage A professional for Rs 3,000. I was on cloud nine and flaunted my purchase before whoever visited our place, whether they were interested or not. I could be seen tapping and ‘tick-ticking’, making address labels for friends or stickers for school notebooks. I hardly felt any other use, till I had a brainwave. Why not type a bombastic letter to the SP Traffic!

I purchased a ream of special paper, a conspicuous pink shade, a brand-new ink ribbon and a pack of carbon sheets. I typed the flawless draft, slipped it into an envelope and posted it. I had done the most important social duty, I thought.

After a couple of days, I was challaned for ‘wrong parking in Hall Bazaar’, even though I had not even parked my scooter nor had I any intention to. I was sitting on my stationary two-wheeler and conversing with a friend, but the cop would not relent. He said his new boss, who was strict, had just driven past to his office and had gestured to challan me.

I had to surrender my Registration Certificate (RC) and received the ticket for appearing before the DTO. I tried to retrieve the RC through other means, fair or foul, but in vain.
The South Indian IPS officer had earned ‘notoriety’ for being strict about traffic violations. As a last-ditch effort, an influential colleague offered to take me to the SP’s office. The officer was busy with a group of well-dressed young men, who perhaps had been hauled up for some minor infringements and were getting a dressing-down.

On a closer view, I saw that he had a pink paper in his right hand, which I understood was the letter written by me, asking, among other things, to be strict on irresponsible parking.

I had no moral courage left to plead for leniency and meekly chose to appear before the DTO and pay the penalty.

Later, it was discovered that the two-wheeler that the officer had ordered to be challaned was some other number because the officer kept a private record of his orders!

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