Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Do I speak your language

"It is difficult getting a bunch of hyperactive seven-year-olds to concentrate on geography. I asked them to name five Indian states and most of them stopped with Delhi, Haryana and U.P.", lamented my aunt. I looked up from the newspaper. She'd been handling the unenviable task of "introducing" the "social sciences" at one of the lower classes in her school, and today had evidently been a bad day.

"The problem with this city is that..", said uncle-the-elder (handlebar moustache, backbrushed hair, stern glare) "…it understands only money. No history, no geography, and absolutely no civics."

I bit back a rude reply as I realised that my falling-asleep-over-the-newspaper plans would be delayed by a culture-vs-money diatribe from uncle-the-elder. So I took a deep breath (it calms the temper) and, looking straight at my aunt (who was now gulping water straight from the fridge – "bad for her throat", I thought immediately), I declared in the most solemn tones that I could muster, "Take the social sciences out of their books and bring it into their lives. If they understand only money, throw a few notes in their faces and they'll learn more about India in a day than you can ever imagine. To teach them geography, show them the colour of money."

For a minute, there was silence - the kind where people try to figure out whether they really heard what they thought they heard. And then uncle-the-younger (has immense faith in my sanity, god bless him) said with exaggerated politeness, "Would you please care to elaborate?"

Whereupon I leaned over and extracted the wallet from aunt's purse (a pot-bellied contraption from Khan Market that carries everything from safety-pins to petro-cards), drew out a 100-rupee note, waved it and asked, "What do you see?" And pre-empting anybody, I continued "The first thing that you see is Gandhi. Which state is he from? Gujarat. Look at the bottom left corner. Do you see the three lions? They are from a pillar near a stupa at Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh." I flipped the note. "See the one-hundred-rupees written in 15 different languages? Which states speak these languages?"

By now I had a captive audience.

"This gets curiouser and curiouser", said uncle-the-younger. "Do I also see the Himalayas?"

It was, however, still difficult to convince uncle-the elder. "So, they now get to know the states. That’s all."

"Nah," I said. "You get the history too. Who was this guy Ashok who built the pillar at Sanchi? Why did he build it? When did he?"

Little cousin picked up the cue (she's all of 23, and even streaks her hair, but I still think of her as "little"). "And then, there are these interesting bits about the elephant and the tiger that are unique to the country (she'd drawn out a 10-rupee note from the wallet). And Ma look, what is this lighthouse thing on the 20-rupee note?"

"I'll get the class to find out", said the aunt.

I looked at uncle-the-elder.

"Hmmph, so what you're saying is that to speak to someone I should know their language?"

"Exactly", I beamed. "Else, they won't understand you."

Lesson learnt: Analyse your audience.