Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Preschool Puzzle

I spent the last month visiting schools and preschools, and talking to assorted teachers, parents and school administrators, in order to decide when and where to enrol my little son.  My experience was a mixed bag, as experiences usually are, and very educating!  The result of all this is that I decided we could do away with much of preschool and jump in right at the end, which is where earlier it all used to begin...

Children were not formally taught until the age of about four (and in Norway and some other countries, about seven).  But times have changed; parents are working, families are nuclear and there seems to be tremendous social pressure to get children to learn more and more to ensure their admission to a regular school.  Regular schools meanwhile see tremendous advantage in admitting children at the preschool stage, partly as it makes good business sense and partly because all the children are 'trained' according to the school's requirements and they don't have to begin with an assorted class.

When I visited schools, I found the most harassed looking teachers were those in the beginning class - for each child was at a different level.  This difference I'm sure is retained over classes, but glossed over, as essential boxes are ticked by repeating certain basic course requirements over and over until everyone gets it.  The course requirements are non trivial, when seen from the perspective of a little child.  Reading, writing (painfully holding a pencil and writing between four lines in a cursive hand at the age of four), and to me, what seems even more painful is the fact that they are all confined to classrooms with intermittent periods of play allowed.

Many administrators predict disaster if you don't enrol your child at the age of two in a school.  "Your child will have no social skills," a school psychologist snapped at me, ignoring completely the fact that for the last ten minutes, my son had been patiently offering her little paper cards, waiting silently for her to notice him.  "He will miss his sensitive periods and will not even be able to hold a pencil," a Montessori principal said.  "If he doesn't see other children learning, he will lack the momentum to learn," she added, explaining why we would not be encouraged to skip any day of school.  Little did she know that my son runs to his books as soon as he is done with breakfast, that he quarters and cleans mushrooms for hours with a little toothbrush and every night clambers onto my writing desk, holds a pen and stabs pieces of paper with it, excitedly saying, "I'm writing!  I'm writing!"

"We take into account all kinds of learning," another preschool said, but were amazed to hear him identify a crab, which is what children twice his age were supposed to be doing.  Little do they know that he composes poems ("The red truck, Is stuck."  "Would you like a banana, Vicuna Nayan?" etc.) and asks if he can sweep and mop gravity.

If this is surprising to you, it should not be.  There are many accounts of children learning wisely and well, on their own, in varied environments.  I am currently reading a book called "The Importance of Being Little, What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups", by Erika Christakis.  It is all about preschools in America and how the curriculum needs reforming.  It reads more like a thesis than a piece of literature but gives a very clear picture of preschools and the kinds of pressures that go into designing a curriculum for children.  In America, of course, public money is spent on a large number of schools, which makes the situation different from middle class schools in India.  Though the reasons for cramming little children into schools and compelling them to learn more and more may differ a little between the two countries and the kinds of stress the children go through is very different based on social and cultural expectations, there are nonetheless some similarities.  They occur largely because we try to ape the west, in ways that are not necessarily the most thoughtful or balanced.  Education is an industry and large chains of schools introduce and dictate terms to parents and children.  Within all this, it's good to remember (as Erika Christakis points out) that we have no clear memory of our own preschool experiences, thus cannot really say with any certainty what preschoolers might want.

Preschool requirements have become quite complex as in addition to keeping up with surrounding schools and norms, they also cater to parental expectations and anxieties.  Preschools have to prove that they are training the children in noticeable and measurable ways to keep the parents reassured.  That creativity and individuality get compromised in the process is not anyone's concern.  "Children adapt beautifully," a (very nice) principal told me.  "It's we who cannot adapt to this fact."  That may be, but why should they need to adapt (unless circumstances are compelling) at this stage?  Why not just let them be, and let them learn as they like?

"We work based on multiple intelligence," many teachers solemnly informed me.  "Each child needs to learn in a different way and so we teach the things in many different formats."  It's fine in theory, but all children may not want to learn the same thing over again just to suit their neighbour's needs.  Children are remarkably unsocial at this age, despite what grownups say (and want).  They are happy to see others around, but when it comes to learning, they would rather do it by themselves, at their own pace.  Montessori methods are better than conventional ones as they recognise this, but even the best child centric programmes often fail because it is not possible for a teacher to cater to the ever changing requirements of ten (at best) or thirty (at worst) children at the same time.  Despite this, they all discourage home learning, which is where a child feels most comfortable, with a parent who knows him better than teachers would (under normal and non-strained home conditions).

"You must break the mother-child bonding now," many educationists said to me.  Why??  I know that many children undergo severe trauma in early years of school due to this, and need counselling to help them.  Little issues like going to the toilet (often dirty!), asking for help to do something and dealing with what appear to be minor issues like hunger, thirst, fatigue and bullies become very big when little children have to face them on a daily basis.  Apart from this there are many other factors which go out of the window when one enters school.  Lately I have been keeping track of which children come out to play, when and for how long, just out of curiosity.  In most places, there is no longer place for children to play, but we have a large campus with a big ground and several sports facilities.  I see only two or three children using the sports facilities, just a handful of others who come out to play around sunset - a tiny game of cricket in the car park, and I don't see most of the other children out at all.  Presumably they have done all they needed to at school or are busy with homework, or are just exhausted.  It's all right but not the optimal approach to a balanced way of life.

The other great loss at this stage is the loss of spontaneity.  Many of my most treasured memories of life at home are those that revolve around spontaneous moments of joy and sharing.  It's raining, you wear a raincoat and splash in the puddles.  It's windy, you sit out and eat hot pakoras.  It's cold, you sit by a fire and look into the glowing coals.  You are tired, someone gives you hot soup and you read a book.  Routines and schedules rule most of our lives, but they don't have to dominate us when we are two and still growing!

These are the most compelling reasons for me to keep my son at home for a little longer - to see him nurtured and secure, learning as and when he wants (and he is an avid learner as most children are), to share a laugh and sigh over a fall.  To develop a routine that suits his needs, not one that is modulated to accommodate the needs of many other parents, children and educators around him.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Memories Of Science And More

I never find it easy to write about people I know well, so this is going to be a brief blog, with a link.

The Indian Academy of Sciences has begun an oral history archive, and as part of this, they have interviewed Dr. S. Varadarajan.  Dr. Varadarajan has been a part of Indian science from pre-Independence times, and still retains vivid and detailed memories of his experiences with industry, academia and administration in the area of science and technology.

The interview was conducted last year (when he was 87).  It was an 8 hour interview that has finally been spliced and presented as a 30 minute video.  It shows glimpses of a changing India and the challenges of building research and industry, post independence.

The editing may not be perfect (there are gaps and jumps) and Dr. Varadarajan is visibly tired by the end of the interview, but I still find myself being moved each time I watch it.  Many things perhaps are left out, due to various constraints and I can only add a few things which may not be evident to a viewer - his strong attachment to the country and its people, his tremendous urge to help when he sees people in need, his distress during national or industrial disasters.  (The Bhopal gas tragedy is one such example.  What he doesn't mention in this interview is that every evening he spent hours sitting by the lake, just to regain his equilibrium in the face of so much suffering).  I'm happy that a small part of his vast repertoire of memories has been recorded and that we can get a glimpse of a country and its changing scientific and industrial environment through this recording.

Here is the link:

Friday, July 8, 2016

Three Favourite Party Recipes

A houseful of hungry students is a great way to test recipes.  After all the crumbs were cleared, I was asked how to make some of the dishes, so I am putting down three recipes which work well for large and small gatherings (they can be scaled up or down with ease).  They can be made in advance or partially made and assembled without too much trouble.  They are adapted from original recipes, which I mention along with each recipe.

Khaukswe (Burmese Noodles)

The original recipe, from 'Cook And Entertain The Burmese Way', by Mi Mi Khaing, has chicken in it.  I prefer this version of the broth, which is vegetarian and lighter.  Various cooked meats and vegetables can be used for the topping.  I also prefer this original Burmese recipe to the variants that are generally found in Indian cookbooks.

Ingredients (for 20 cups of soup):

2 coconuts, extract 3 cups coconut milk from each (to extract coconut milk, mix one and a half cups of warm water mixed with one shredded coconut, leave for a few minutes and strain the milk to get the first extract.  Repeat with another one and a half cups of warm water for the second extract.  Keep the first and second extracts separate) OR 6 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk

2/3 cup gram flour (besan) mixed into a smooth paste with 1 cup of water

13 to 14 cups water

1 cup ground or finely grated onion

1/4 cup finely chopped garlic

oil as required (1/4 - 1/3 cup)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric (haldi) powder

salt to taste


Heat the oil in a large pan (25 cup capacity).  When it is hot, add the onions and garlic.  Lightly fry them until the raw smell goes away, but do not let them brown.  Gradually, add the water, gram flour paste and turmeric.  Let it come to boil, stirring well periodically so it does not get lumpy.  Add the thin coconut milk (second extract) and simmer for a few minutes.  Add the thick coconut milk (first extract) and salt to taste.  Bring it to a boil, then remove from heat.


Any of the following (one or more can be kept in little bowls)

a) Finely chopped boiled eggs, prawns, boiled chicken, lightly fried mushrooms.

Finely chopped spring onions, coriander (dhania) leaves, basil leaves, thinly sliced and fried onions, fried chopped garlic, fried and pounded red chillies.

b) Boiled rice noodles or wheat noodles

c) Slivers of lime

To assemble:

Place a helping of noodles in a bowl, ladle the hot soup over them.  Let people choose their toppings.

Note: For the chicken version, use a rich chicken stock instead of water and add 2 tablespoons fish sauce along with the thick coconut milk at the end.

Yakhni (A Kashmiri recipe - mutton cooked in milk)

This is adapted from the book Zaika, by Sonya Atal Sapru


1 kg. mutton (cut in small pieces, I usually use a shoulder along with a part of the back or along with some boneless meat)

Oil as required (I used about 2 tablespoons in a crock pot or slow cooker, but in a regular pan or pressure cooker, you may need more, the original recipes calls for 6 tablespoons)

1 litre of milk

1 and 1/2 teaspoons dry ginger powder

8-10 small green cardamoms

3 teaspoons fennel seeds, powdered

4 bay leaves

8 dry red chillies (I omitted these)

a pinch of saffron

salt to taste


Heat the oil in a large pan.  When it begins to smoke, add the meat and all ingredients except the last three (do not add the chillies, saffron and salt at this stage).  Cook slowly on low heat, stirring periodically, until the meat is tender and there is a thin milk gravy.  (If using a pressure cooker, I would add half the milk, cook until the meat is tender, then add the remaining half of the milk and slowly let it reduce in a regular pan).  The crock pot is ideal for this recipe and I just let the ingredients simmer overnight.  Once the meat is done, add the chillies, saffron and salt.  Cook for another ten minutes.  Serve hot with rice.

Note: I think the quality of milk makes a difference, use whole (preferably full cream) milk in this recipe.

Mango Tart:

An adaptation from 'The Art Of Viennese Pastry', by Marcia Colman Morton

To make the short pastry dough (murbteig), this makes enough for 2 large (9-10 inch) tart shells-


100 grams powdered sugar (I use icing sugar)

200 grams cold butter (traditionally unsalted is used, but we don't get good unsalted butter in India for baking, I just use the regular salted butter)

300 grams flour (maida)

1 egg yolk

grated rind of half a lemon (I never bother with this but it does add a nice flavour!)

3-4 tablespoons ice cold water

(I make this in a food processor as it stays colder but one can do it by hand, as was traditionally done.  Keep your hands and all working equipment as cool as possible).


Combine the flour and sugar in a bowl.  Cut the butter into small pieces and drop them into the bowl along with the egg yolk, lemon rind.  Pulse in a food processor or mix quickly and lightly with cool fingertips until a dough is formed.  I generally have to add water to get a firm smooth dough - add water 1 tablespoon at a time, and when the dough comes together, half a tablespoon at a time.  When you have a smooth ball, flatten it with the heel of your hand to make a thick pancake (I find it better to divide it into two balls and flatten each.  This makes it easier to roll each pastry shell out rather than cutting them later).  Wrap them in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour (overnight is better).  The dough can be frozen for weeks, to re-use, thaw in a refrigerator and then use.

To bake:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (about 230 degrees C).  Remove the dough from the refrigerator and as soon as it is a little pliable, roll it out, about 1/4 inch thick (I make it just a little thinner).  You will need to sprinkle a little flour on the top and bottom of the dough to prevent it from sticking.  Gently transfer it to the tart pan (you can also make multiple small tartlets).  Press down lightly and prick the bottom and sides gently with a fork.  Place in the hot oven for about 15 minutes or until lightly golden.  (The recipe original states that one should keep the oven door open very slightly during this process but I find it very hard to do, so I just keep it closed).  Remove the tart and cool.

Note: If the weather is cool and dry, the pastry can be stored at room temperature for a few days but not when it is hot or rainy.  This pastry can also be used to make a variety of biscuits, the cooking time is less for those.

To assemble the mango tarts, for two tarts:

About 10 (2 kg.) ripe mangoes, peeled and diced

Spoon the mango filling into the tarts just before serving.  Serve with fresh cream and/or ice cream.

Note: Stewed fruit can be substituted for the mangoes.  I like this version because there is no pastry cream or any other ingredients to detract from the taste of good pastry and good fruit!

(The pictures shown have been taken by Ujjwal Rathore.)

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Another Tiny Tool For World Peace??

As my heart goes out to Istanbul (an incredibly open and friendly city, my most favourite international city) and the airport attack, I sit here reading a novel by Dick Francis.  A crime thriller, intended to entertain every inch of the way.  No highbrow philosophy.  I always read Dick Francis when thinking of difficult moments.  Why??? I am not sure.  Partly because it is British writing (without too much angst or excessive sex angles as some modern writing has become) at its best - describing the outdoors, the magnificent world of horses and the British sporting spirit, combined with amateur (and occasionally professional) sleuthing.  The books are intelligently plotted and well written, but what makes them stand out for me are the very perceptive descriptions of people and what drives them, and in particular, reminders about the danger of rage and the futility of hate.

A good place to begin perhaps is his 'Kit Fielding' series - two books (Break In and Bolt, starring the champion jockey Kit Fielding, who rides for amongst others, a princess, who is always referred to as "The Princess").  I quote from "Break In" (a book based on family feuds) -

"...We finished the elementary alarm system and went yawning indoors to sleep for another couple of hours, and I reflected, as I lay down, about the way a feud could start, as with Graves, and continue through centuries, as with Allardecks and Fieldings, and could expand into politics and religious persecutions on a national scale, permanently persisting as a habit of mind, a destructive hatred stuck in one groove.  I would make a start in my own small corner, I thought sardonically, drifting off, and force my subconscious to love the Allardecks, of which my own sister, God help her, was one..."

Perhaps a bit perplexing if suddenly thrust into a blog, but this passage showed me how easy it was to begin a quarrel and then to continue it endlessly; how much easier than changing one's mind or forgiving or at least forgetting.  So I have decided to begin in my own small corner, to try and forget petty irritations that once arose and that keep niggling me the moment I choose to reopen those memories.  To relinquish (or, let's be realistic - restrain!!) my judgement on things I don't know enough about (like world peace??!).
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